Breaking Chinese music stereotypes with the Sound of the Dragon Music Festival

The inaugural Sound of the Dragon Music Festival is set to redefine Chinese music, and showcase Vancouver’s musical culture identity. Co-presented by the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra (VICO), a group composed of musicians who play instruments from different cultures around the world. The VICO enjoys experimenting with musical styles, and people get the chance to hear the santur (hammered string instrument) and the oud (pear shaped string instrument) played in harmony with its cousins the violin and erhu (two stringed bowed instrument).

Changing perceptions

Lan Tung, artistic director of the festival and a member of VICO, says Vancouver’s Chinese music community is one of the most active outside of Asia. With Vancouver’s vast Chinese community in mind, her goal is to showcase Chinese music and change the way it is perceived.

“Many people have one singular idea of Chinese music based on what they’ve seen in movies, or heard in restaurants,” says Tung, a Taiwanese native. “The idea is to reach different audiences and encourage people to try other types of Chinese music.”

In an effort to break away from traditional stereotypes, there will be music ranging from classic Chinese pieces mixed with pieces that incorporate jazz, vocal and contemporary musical elements. With these new innovations in Chinese music, Tung points out few people know about the different possibilities Chinese music can achieve.

“In the past 15-20 years, more Chinese musicians have been experimenting with different elements from other genres of music into their pieces,” says Tung.

As a result, Chinese music has been gradually evolving as this fusion occurred.

As a composer and performer herself, Tung also finds ways to incorporate new elements into her works and performances. For example, she has even created some of her own musical notations and mini drawings to help her fellow musicians interpret her music better such as when and how she needs them to improvise.

According to Mark Armanini, composer, producer and co-artistic director of VICO, breaking the rules of traditional music is easier in Vancouver – since there is less of a defined musical identity here. Hence musicians can take more risks without endangering any traditional techniques and styles.

Festival highlights

Lan Tung performing with her erhu. | Photo by Nenad Stevanovic.

Lan Tung performing with her erhu. | Photo by Nenad Stevanovic.

Cecilia Chueh, CEO of the Taiwanese Canadian Cultural Society, is also helping to organize the festival. Chueh and Tung have invited Taiwanese guest musicians from the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra to perform at the festival. The orchestra is well established in Taiwan, and strives to bring a new generation of Chinese music to audiences.

Tung says one highlight of the music festival is the “Instrument Petting Zoo”. The petting zoo will allow audience members to interact with the different instruments under the guidance of the musicians so they can test the different sounds and materials of each instrument. Tung says each day of the festival will have three to four different concerts, and ticket holders will be able to attend all of them or choose to attend the ones they wish to see most. The festival will feature over 20 concerts over the course of four days.

“The price cap is low so people can try different types of music even if they think they won’t like it,” says Tung.

Another feature of the festival is workshops that juxtapose different instruments from the same family such as the erhu vs. the violin, or the zheng (Chinese zither) vs. the harp. Tung says the audience will be able to witness the musicians playing the instruments together, and explore the similarities and differences of each instrument.

“The music is a way of bridging cultures because the instruments are versatile,” says Armanini.

He hopes this festival will showcase Vancouver’s intercultural music scene and help establish Vancouver’s musical identity around the world.

The Sound of the Dragon Music Festival will host two major concerts on May 5 and May 9. Two smaller “Beyond The Wall” concerts, featuring music from BC composers, will happen on May 6 and May 1.

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