Interview with composer Xiaogang Ye

Ye's voice is brilliant, individual, his works perfectly crafted ...

Interview with composer Xiaogang Ye

Previously on Classical Explorer, we examined five different versions of Mah;er's Das Lied von der Erde in one post. Well, here's another one: but with a difference. Played by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under Long Yu and with Michelle DeYoung and Brian Jagde as soloists, it shares twofer space with a mordern response to  ancient Chinese poetry: Xiaogang Ye's The Song of the Earth, Op. 46, for soprano, baritone and orchestra. It is a brilliant idea, and works phenomenally well.

That release is one of three of the music of Xiaogang Ye to be released almost concurrently: on Naxos, the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and the RSNO offer a group of orchestral pieces, while on BIS Noriko Ogawa on piano and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra present a programme of mixed orchestral music, indluding Ye's most famous work, Starry Sky, originally written for Lang Lang at the launch of the Beijung Olympics.

The Mahler Das Lied boasts Michelle DeYoung in resplendent voice, and an hoeroic Brian Jagde. As the focus today is on Xiaogang Ye, but here is the second movement of teh Mahler, "Der Einsame in Herbst," with it's glorious outburst on "Sonne der Liebe ...":

Long Yu finds much detail in the score; this is a fine performance. But it is Xiaoging Ye's response that we're mainly interested in today. The poetry both composers set has Nature at its roots, often an idealised Nature.

I interview Professor Xiaogang Ye with myself in London, while he is in an Asian temple complex ("the poet Li Po studied in a place like this," he says); I ask him what he thinks it is about Nature – and specifically an idealised vision of Nature - that has had this fascination for poets, writers, composers from the Orient since time immemorial? I mention also that on the Naxos disc mountains (Mount E'mei and Mount Minshan) and fruit (The Scent of Green Mango) and on the BIS disc the sky (of course, Starry Sky) and flowers (December Chrysanthemum) and even seasons (Winter) all offer differing views on Nature herself.

Regardless of the era, Chinese poets have always taken inspiration from Nature. No matter how hard their life is, for example they were always very civilised people. they wanted to serve the people, as court officials and so on. Most of them failed - when they cannot do what they wanted, they alwasy used poetry to express their feeling. But they don't say "me life is hard" they just say, "the rivers still flow, it's still dark" ... they were expressing how hard life is. They used words very subtly, very beautifully, to express these deeper meanings. People in China understand this. When they say "the cloud is wide, the moon is rising high," they know their lives are not good. Like Chinese painting, they leave so much space, white. It gives space for your own imagination. That's the way it's done.

Here, as a prime example of this response to Nature,  is Scent of Green Mango, Op. 42 from the most recent Naxos disc of Ye's music, performed by Xiaotang Tau (piano) with the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Stefan Malzew:

Professor Ye also touches on the technique required for composing in Chinese, something which did not affect Mahler, of course: one has to set the words so carefully as there subtle changes actually change the meaning. Secondly, Ye wanted to understand those deeper meanings: references to beautiful things or people can denote happiness, for example. "I have to express  the same as the poem's meaning," says Ye. I mention in Mahler there's subtlety, too, in "Von der Schönheit," when the young girl portagonist looks yearningly after the macho horse riders and a breeze subtly ruffles her sleeve:

In terms of texts, Mahler's poems came via Hans Bethge's translations. Ye tried to figure out what might be the original, or equivalent poems - and he obviously sets these in Chinese, in a language that is detectably Oriental but with a real acknowledgement fo Western praxis, including even the odd harmonic nod to Messiaen in the first movement, "Tale of Sorrowful Song" (words Li Bai):

Xiaoging Ye is convinced he has the right poems - the translators changed so much, and some of the abstractions are lost. "For me, the translation to German looks like too much reality," he says. The obliqueness is vital: Chinese poets never say "I am .." such and such. There is always a prism of some sort.

One can hear in this first movement some of the vocal techniques Ye asks from his singers also: as the piece progresses one encounters swoops, glissandos, and so on - even  (and possibley most memorably) laughing. Mixing pentatonicism with Romantic gestures - how difficult is it to merge the two, and how does he manage the proportions of Eastern to Western modes of expression? In the event, Ye is very sensitive to the audience he writes for, and whether the music would be too aggressive for a target group of people (for example, a Chinese orchestra on tour in Europe). The needs of the musicians is of paramount important to Ye, too ("it needs to ne playable"), and he foloows a kind of Neo-Romanticism. "I don't want the people to hate me, especially the orchestra people". He mentions Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich and Schumann as a baseline for the Neo-Romanticism. Beauty is clearly important. Listen to this movement, the third, "Imitation of Old Poem: Long Autumn Night" (words Qian Qi):

.. or even the swoony strings just prior to the baritone's entrance in the fourth movement, "Lotus-Picking Song" (poet Le Bai):

Of course the pentatonic scale is important in this music ("it makes this music possible," in Ye's words). An interesting reference Ye makes though is to the music of Alban Berg, the most approachable of the so-called "Second Viennese School" of composers; specifically, Ye references the Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) and says that for Chinese, Vietnamese audiences and so on it is already a little far. "So I have to make sounds that people feel it has the Orient in it; I use my own way, still some aggressive paths in the orchestation. I try to make a combination of everything." Ye does include some Chinese instruments, including some Chinese gongs from Szechuan (where he is from). "They are large, and they are effective".

Ye has two brilliant soloists on this DG recording. We've already met Michelle DeYoung above, but the other is the baritone Shenyang, known in the West for his success in the Cardiff Singer of the World. He is simply superb in Ye's Song of the Earth. You can hear the beauty of his voice in the fifth song, "Feelings upon awakening from drunkenness on a Spring day":

Ye's piece is only 40 minutes long as opposed to Mahler's hour - the final movement is not as extended. Formally, too there are differences: Mahler alternates his singers, Ye has them sing groups of songs.  I had to ask which was recorded first, as that could influence how the players perform in terms of the East/West balance in the pieces. "My piece was recorded first, because of the singers' schedules. It was recorded during the pandemic - singers got stuck in airports. You could write a novel". But Ye sees Mahler as ingrained in the players - they have performed Das Lied many times; and in concert, it has been Ye in the first half and Mahler second (which makes sense in terms of the works' durations). The orchestra spent around three days on each piece - a long time in curent recording terms.

But to go to those Berg references fully (and to enjoy more of Shenyang) we have to skip over to the BIS disc and Ye's The Song of Sorrow and Gratification (Op. 47, to a text by Li Shutong; the RSNO is here conducted by Gilbert Varga):

"As a composer I have to express my own way, but I have to think also of the singer," says Ye. "I wrote The Song of Sorrow and Graitfication for Shenyang. It is different from The Song of the Earth". In fact the stylistic diversity within Ye's own works is remarkable. Let's remind ourselves of Starry Sky, with Noriko Ogawa and teh RSNO under José Serebrier this time:

Thsi is "official Chinese welcome people music" that "makes people feel warm, feel beautiful, in the Chinese way." The path to commission of Starry Sky was an interesting one - many compsoers were rejected prior, but when Ye suggested his piece it was accepted quickly. "It's not for real art, it's how to deal with authority; they are critical, they don't understand art. Beautiful means different things to different people. But this has given me more fame in China - I got a lot of commissions. Cometimes a copmoser's life is very difficult." Ye mentions the American composer John Corigliano and how he, too, has different aspects (referencing Corigliano's famous music for the film The Red Violin).

We close with reflections on memory. Mahler's score has a reflective element through the very distancing of the texts; but of course Ye's audiences have a different relationship with the poery, which links in perhaps to a collective memory, a specifically oriental collective consciousness. Ye's version feels more authentic and real in an emotional sense. "In each individual Chinese character, there are so many meanings. I can feel the background behind those characters, the history. During the last movementts, I ask the soprano to laugh. It's really disappointing if it doesn't work. The music is still pentatonic, it's still beautiful." But the laughing goes beyond that. That sort of laughing in Chinese traditional opera is really strongly ingrained: and when it happens, something really serious is always happening. I try to link that to Shostakovich's macabre use of laughter in his Fourtheenth Symphony perhaps. When Ye's Song of the Earth was performed in New York, the laughing was so impactful it shocked the entire concert hall. The piece received a standing ovation; "they really understood, immediately".

I ask about performances of Song of the Earth in the UK, but not yet. Certainly Ye hopes so (as do I); it has been performed around Europe, including Munich and Bamberg, but never England.

Ye's voice is brilliant, individual, his works perfectly crafted. All three of these discs are recommended; but the Mahler/Ye combo seems particularly fruitful.