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The Peak article

“Orchid Ensemble mixes East and West “ – Sarah Caufield, The Peak, January 26, 2004

There”s a new form of music that”s steadily gaining popularity all around the world. Due to a number of factors – geography, demographics, and cultural attitudes to name a few – Vancouver and Singapore are the two main sources of this sort of music. It”s a mixture of Eastern and Western sounds and practices, with a sound so strange that the music itself seems to defy any absolute name. It”s no surprise that out of the mixture of cultures present in Vancouver (and in many other places around the world) a new fusion of sounds and styles has developed. Some people call it World Fusion, others just lump it into the “new classical” section.

It”s hard to define precisely, and even bands within this genre shy away from giving it an exact title. This past week, Vancouver”s own Orchid Ensemble lead a round table discussion at the Vancouver Public Library to discuss this new music genre that is flourishing in Vancouver – whether most people realise it or not. What came out of the evening was an intriguing discussion of both the thought and skill involved in combining sounds, styles, and instruments from both the East and the West, but also an examination of the mentality and culture that nurtures and inspires such a genre.

Because Vancouver is a young city with an established culture, new experimentation is more than simply encouraged. With so many cultures meeting and mixing in the Lower Mainland, it can only be expected – collaborations between cultures soon become collaborations between musical styles. Jonathan Bernard, one third of the Orchid Ensemble, points to an “organic growth of cross-cultural activity.” He explains that people from different cultures have maintained their own cultural background while living in Vancouver, but at the same time have contributed to a general form of multiculturalism. Now, however, because they feel so secure in their own identity, that they are stepping outside to collaborate with others.

Mei Han, also a member of the Orchid Ensemble, was quick to point out, however, that this new style of music depends greatly on the sort of closer community one lives in. “If a community is big enough for musicians to stay within that community and survive, they will – it”s comfortable.” She pointed out that recently, the Chinese music community in Vancouver has become more self-sustained – hosting concerts that are barely mentioned outside of the community. Lan Tung agrees and points out that ten years ago, soon after she arrived to Canada, she felt that more people stepped outside than they do today. Smaller communities were unable to sustain musicians and people had to move outside of their cultural areas, unlike now.
Instead, there now seems to be an active interest in the combination of sounds. Every panel member had been involved with a melding of Eastern and Western music before. But rather than this being a surprising combination, it almost seems inevitable after learning about musical training in China and Taiwan. Ya-Wen Viwenna Wang is a composer and pianist originally from Taiwan, which she says is a culturally hybrid place, where the melding of styles isn”t a foreign idea. When she was studied in the “music department” in Taiwan, she was actually being trained in Western music – there is actually a separate department for Asian music. When people talk about returning to your roots. There is no “root” when everything is a hybrid.

Tung added that Western music is much more popular in Asia than Eastern music. “When you”re learning an instrument, you have far better chances if you learn the violin than learning erhu [a small, stringed Chinese instrument].” Even when studying an Asian instrument in Asia, you must learn another Western instrument (piano, violin, etc.), along with Western theory and composition. “It changes the way you play Chinese instruments.”

It also changes the way pieces are composed for Asian instruments. Moshe Denburg has a great interest in Indian music and pointed out the differences in how instruments are tuned, as well as the difficulty in combining the melodic and harmonic traditions. The melodic tradition, he explained, is based on nuances, while in harmonies “all the intervals are out of tune the same amount.” While both styles have their merits, Denburg went on to say that “what we lose with harmony is both intellectual and pitch acuity. We must understand that with each choice, something is lost.” But then, if the shift to Western music is happening all around us, are we losing certain cultural styles? “A lot of people are very protective of their music, but intercultural music is about breaking down barriers,” says Denburg. “People ask if too much is lost in the creation of a hybrid, but this is another aesthetic.”

“Music is a reflection of the culture,” DB Boyko, from the Western Front New Music, continued. “Music is lost constantly, like language.” After a certain point, one has to let it go, let it change and continue to develop into something new.

The discussions continued on and on, but unfortunately the discussions were curtailed by the library”s need to lock the doors. “No more to say, just to play!” Mei Han poignantly summed up.