New music for Chinese instruments: Redefining public perceptions through performance

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble will perform a public reading at the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum on Oct. 15. Facilitated by Alan Lau and directed by Jirong Huang, the performance will feature pieces from four Canadian composers commissioned for the event, which will be followed by a discussion on the pieces themselves and on perceptions of Chinese music and instrumentation as a whole.

Jirong Huang (centre) and Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble members.| Photo by David Cooper.

Jirong Huang (centre) and Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble members.| Photo by David Cooper.

Founder and director of the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble, Jirong Huang is tasked with directing the selection of the ideas and stories the ensemble shares by way of its performances throughout the year. Whether it’s working with compositions from different countries or different genres, there’s always the goal of experimentation and intercultural collaboration.

The public reading of pieces commissioned for the event is no exception. But even with a director and an ensemble experienced in performances and public readings, the event is not without its obstacles. From negotiating Western tuning with the tuning of some Chinese instrumentation to running the musicians through the piece itself, taking on contemporary compositions can pose challenges and restrictions to both Huang and the ensemble.

“Many composers do not have extensive experience in writing for Chinese instruments,” says Huang. “The result may not always be ‘idiomatic’ for Chinese instruments. The composers may also have certain ideas or concepts about their music which the musicians are not aware of.”

Due to the complexity of some compositions, the ensemble has had some rehearsal for a live audience, but, in addition to not having performed the pieces live, Huang notes that there are different approaches towards a public reading and a typical performance.

“I think, in an ideal sense a reading session provides the opportunity for musicians to ‘try out’ a new piece,” says Huang. “At the same time, [it] allows the composer to interact with the musicians to explore various possibilities with the music, as part of a mutual learning process.”

Public perception of Chinese music and instruments

Huang says that the other main focus of this event is to inform the public about the potential of the Chinese music and instruments. Lau, the facilitator of the event, will lead discussions with the audience about various topics concerning the pieces themselves, as well as perceptions of Chinese music and instrumentation.

While the show is meant to be a provocative and entertaining performance, Lau says that creating a dialogue between pieces where the audience can ask and give feedback about what they’ve heard is central to the event.

“A ‘secondary goal’ would be to make people think about what exactly Chinese music is, what makes Chinese music Chinese, and how is it different from or similar to music from other cultures,” says Lau.

According to Lau, the misconceptions about Chinese music and instrumentation are a thing of the past. He believes that people may think differently about Chinese instruments and music by listening to the instruments in a contemporary setting and by having an open conversation about what they hear.

“In particular, we would like to challenge the notion that Chinese (or any traditional or classical) music is ‘old fashioned’ and ‘boring,’” he says.

Lau also hopes to take the conversation a step further during the discussion, touching on the various musical influences in Chinese music and music written for Chinese instrumentation.

“There is the question of preservation versus innovation: while we are presenting some very exciting and sophisticated new music written for Chinese instruments, it is also true that Westernization and pop music are displacing the niche of many unique traditions and genres both in China and around the world,” says Lau. “How can we strike a balance between the two?”

This is a question that will be discussed in the context of performing contemporary and experimental music for what may otherwise be seen as purely ‘traditional’ Chinese instrumentation, a perception that Lau and Huang hope to alter.


For more information on the VCME and the event, visit