Experimental compositions of Dunhuang music by CCA student and graduate

Known as the “museum on wall’, Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes contains hundreds of caves or cave temples. Walls of these caves are decorated with murals in Buddhist motifs. Story about “Sumagadhi girl” (須摩提女) is painted on the wall of the Cave 257. Photo credit: Dunhuang Academy

A total of seven musical pieces are performed at the concert held by the HKGDE. After the performance, Isabel Lam Ching-ki, a CCA graduate, first from left, Wong Chi-san, a PhD student at CCA, fourth from left, join other participating composers to share experience about creating their pieces.

It has always been one of the visions of the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts (CCA) to expand our students’ musical horizon. To achieve this, we encourage our students to expose themselves to different musical genres in composing or performing. Recently, two of our students made a foray into the world of Dunhuang music and composed two pieces of music for a concert held by the Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble (HKGDE) at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts on 15 November. A total of seven musical pieces composed by students and graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts and CCA, and members of HKGCE were performed at the concert.

While many of the murals found in Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes (敦煌莫高窟) are painted with different kinds of musical instruments, playing music to worship Buddha is one of the popular themes of these murals. Isabel Lam Ching-ki, a 2023 graduate of the co-terminal double degree in Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Creative Arts and Culture, and Bachelor of Education (Honours) (Music), composed the piece “The Sumagadhi girl being distanced from the Buddha” (提女遠佛) which was performed by a duo of Sheng and clarinet players at the concert. Isabel’s work is based on a Buddhist story about “Sumagadhi girl” (須摩提女) which is painted on the wall of the Cave 257 of the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes.

According to the sutra, the Sumagadhi girl is a very beautiful Buddhist believer who asked the Buddha on how to deal with a marriage proposal from a non-believer. The Buddha suggested that she should marry him so as to convert and relieve his family from sufferings. Sumagadhi girl, however, felt that marrying into a non-believer family distanced her from the Buddha. Even though she followed Buddha’s advice to marry the non-believer, she felt disheartened in her new family and eventually didn’t want to entertain any guests.

 

The Sumagadhi girl prays for Buddha’s guidance

The story about “Sumagadhi girl” (須摩提女) is painted on the wall of Cave 257 of the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes. Photo credit: Dunhuang Academy

Isabel’s work “The Sumagadhi girl being distanced from the Buddha” (提女遠佛) is being performed by a duo of Sheng and clarinet players at the HKGDE concert.

Isabel Lam Ching-ki, fourth from right, joins the composer training programme of the Modern music ensemble during her undergraduate studies at EdUHK. Dr Michael Leung Chi-hin, far right, director of the ensemble, stimulates his students’ musical creativity by encouraging them to listen to different kinds of contemporary and classical music.

When her father-in-law told his friend about her sorrows, the friend was surprised to learn that his daughter-in-law is Sumagadhi girl and he also didn’t know that she is a disciple of Buddha. The father then asked his daughter-in-law to burn incense to pray for Buddha’s guidance. Finally, the husband of Sumagadhi girl and his family were touched by her actions and converted to Buddhism.

 

When I looked upon the painting about the story of Sumagadhi girl, I felt the sorrow of a Buddhist follower marrying into a family that is not of Buddhist faith.

 

One of the Dunhuang Grottoes murals tells the story of Sumagadhi girl. When Isabel Lam looked upon the painting about the story of Sumagadhi girl, she felt the sorrow of a Buddhist follower marrying into a family that is not of Budhhist faith. “The first part of my composition is about the melancholy of the Sumagadhi girl who united with a non-believer family. The second part is about how she pleaded for Buddha’s mercy and guidance,” she said.

“I composed my piece in the form of Dunhuang Quzi Opera. The clarinet and the Sheng that performed my work at the concert replicated the sounds of a human voice, similar to an aria or a recitative in western music. I noticed that Buddhist music often uses repetition to mimic the repetitious chanting of the names of Buddha and bodhisattva. The audience can find that there are repeated patterns in my piece that mimic reciting mantras to Buddha,” she said.

“Banquet Tunes” is the work Wong Chi-san, a PhD candidate at CCA, composed for the recent HKGDE concert and is the second piece of composition he wrote for the HKGDE. “The first one I wrote for them is called Loess, which is a Dunhuang-style music played by a quintet of Xun, Sheng, Ruan, Pipa and Konghou. This time, instead of writing a Dunhuang-style song, I adopted elements of folk songs known as “salty water songs” (鹹水歌) from the Pearl River Delta region to compose a new piece for the concert,” Chi-san said.

Salty water songs are equivalent of barcarolle in western culture. “Banquet Tunes plays on the idea of cultural contrasts which is the theme of the HKGDE concert. While Dunhuang music comes from the northern part of China and was performed throughout history for members of high society, salty water songs sung by fishermen are folk music of southern China,” he explained.

 

A popular style of music among the fishermen community in Zhongshan

At the concert held by the Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble (HKGDE), Wong Chi-san explains how his work “Banquet Tunes” incorporated elements of “salty water songs”, a type of folk song popular among the fishermen community in Zhongshan.

People in Zhongshan hire singers to sing “salty water songs” at a birthday banquet.

In salty water songs (鹹水歌), there are twisted pitches between the twelve semitones of the chromatic musical scale. That’s why singers of salty water songs always seem to sing out of tune.

 

“Salty water songs do not follow the well-temperament tuning system commonly used by western composers. In salty water songs, there are twisted pitches between the twelve semitones of the chromatic musical scale. That’s why singers of salty water songs always seem to sing out of tune,” said Chi-san, who is writing a doctoral thesis about different types of folk music in Guangdong Province. Zhongshan is one of the four field-sites for his studies and salty water songs are popular among the local fishermen community. “People in Zhongshan hire singers of salty water songs to perform during joyous events like wedding and birthday banquets as well as funerals,” the PhD candidate said.

He admits that his piece — “Banquet Tunes”— is an experimental work that laymen in music might find hard to appreciate. “Modern culture is diverse. It embraces different cultural forms from different ethnicities, geographical regions, and times. I do not think that high music should be reconstructed to incorporate elements of “salty water songs”, nor do I think that the latter should be deformed to make it look like high music. I just try to find commonalities between them. These shared elements are the base of modern culture,” Chi-san said.

After obtaining his Bachelor of Education (Honours) in Music in 2017 and Master of Arts in Music Education in 2020 at EdUHK, Chi-san started his PhD programme under supervision of Dr Michael Leung Chi-hin, Assistant Professor from CCA, in 2021. Apart from salty water songs from Zhongshan (中山鹹水歌), his research also studies Shifan from Foshan (佛山十番), a kind of traditional percussion music played by an ensemble of gongs and drums, Hakka’s clapper songs (客家竹板歌及山歌), a Hakka-style music that uses pairs of bamboo clappers to play, and Teochew Xianshi music (潮州弦絲), a style of music that is performed by a string-ensemble originated from the tradition of poem recitation from the Song dynasty. By studying different types of folk music, his research aims to apply elements of folk music in modern music creation, enriching modern culture with characteristics of folk music from the Guangdong Province.

Dr Leung said the pieces that Wong Chi-san and Isabel Lam Ching-ki composed for the HKGDE concert are pretty experimental, which ordinary people might find difficult to understand. That said, Dr Leung still appreciates their boldness in making such attempts. He said, “To stimulate my students’ musical imagination, I always encourage them to listen to different kinds of contemporary and classical music. Artistic creation is a continual process of making experiments and discovery. Through making their own compositions, they know more about the art of composition and explore their own musical voices.”