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New Twist On Old Style

An interview with Chinese New Art music pioneers Gong Linna and Lao Luo


Gong Linna (龚琳娜) and her husband Lao Luo (老锣,birth name Robert Zollitsch) are pioneering a new genre of music that merges the many varied folk music traditions of China with modern musical techniques. Her televised performance of the wordless song “Tante” went viral in 2010 due to its impressive vocal range and original twist on traditional Chinese opera. Lao Luo is a German-born composer and an expert in Chinese musical styles.

At what age did you begin singing?

Gong: When I was five years old, in my hometown Guiyang, Guizhou. I was in kindergarten, I spent seven years in a children’s singing group, singing every weekend and singing folk songs on stage. I learned Miao and Dong songs. When I was 12 I went to France to attend the International Children’s Music Festival, where I sang folk and pop with roots from my hometown. There were children from all over the world, from places like Poland and I saw different kinds of music. After I saw that, my dream was to be an international singer.

So what did you do to make that happen?

Gong: I saw Peng Liyuan, the first lady, at a big concert singing on TV. This made me think, ‘I want to come to Beijing’. I came to Beijing to attend the Chinese Conservatory of Music when I was 17.

Was the school what you expected?

Gong: It was as I expected, I learned many musical techniques. I scored the highest marks, was the best student at the school, but after school—this was when my dreams broke.

How so?

Gong: I couldn’t find my voice. My voice was like anybody’s. In school, I was there to study, everyone was the same way. But when I was on the stage singing I saw everyone was in the same clothes, with the same songs. And there was one show, on TV, with just recorded playback and no real singing. I was not happy. It wasn’t real. When I was a child, I liked singing very much. If I am to be a professional singer, I want to sing for real, not as a fake.

Was there any temptation to do things the easy way? To just go with things?

Gong: My mother was very happy with this kind of way, but I was not. In my heart I was very sad.

How did your parents feel when you decided to take a different approach to music?

Lao: It was a ten-year fight.

Gong: Now they agree. Now they understand more, and they love our music. In the beginning, for the first three years, she didn’t even want to listen.

So what was your first step after those early performances?

Gong: I had to find someone to help me make real music. I had to find a composer. So at that time I listened to different music and different concerts. I asked around about who knew good composers.

Lao: It’s worth mentioning that at this time, in 2000, she was already quite famous in China, she had won second prize at the most prestigious TV singing competition, so she was famous.

So what was the first song you and Lao Luo played together?

Lao: At that time I was in Beijing to find musicians for collaboration, because I had been working with Chinese musicians since 1993, in 2002 when we met I spent quite a bit of time looking for musicians.

Gong: I didn’t know him (Lao Luo) or his music then. The first time we played, we were together in a room and there was nobody else. He played the zither and I sang. When he played, it gave me a lot of inspiration. That was the first time I had sung improvised music. We played music for three hours without speaking. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I laughed. When I was a child, I always played for the audience, but this was the first time I played for myself. I didn’t need a show. It was for me. After the three hours, my whole body felt more open. I was so happy.

Lao: She left fame behind and we started collaborating together. We tried to tour, we had concerts in China and in Germany. That was the beginning. It was very hard to get any kind of concert shows here in China.

Gong: The first song was called “Free Bird” and I wrote about how I wanted to be free like a bird. He (Lao Luo) had invited me to Germany, where he lived in a Bavarian forest—I grew up in a Chinese city, where there are always people. For me, this time was beautiful.

So how was the public reception once you decided to go with your own material?

Lao: Whenever we had concerts, the audience was enthusiastic, that remains true today. The difficulty is not convincing the audience, the difficulty is convincing the presenters and getting funding for arts. What we do is not so much in the entertainment sector, it’s not so commercial. A lot of presenters are not sure of what we are doing, it’s new. Her way of singing, combining a lot of singing and classical techniques, didn’t exist before. Everybody had a lot of questions, and there is not a well established concert scene. There are many venues, but not mature programming of concerts.

Do you find that people aren’t sure about how to classify your music?

Lao: A lot of the genre borders are imported, not traditionally Chinese. Rock or jazz, they’re all imported. The borderline between classical and folk music in the past was very different to what we see today. We simply don’t accept the border crossings, for us the space is open. It’s accepted in some music scenes that what we do covers everything, from traditional to pop to rock and classical music. We think this is what China needs—not being need to put into imported cages of genres.

Gong: We decided we wanted to choose the base, the root, as Chinese music. I am interested in that. At the beginning I thought about what was new, many Chinese singers sing opera or pop or jazz, I don’t like that way. I want to find my culture’s new voice.

Do you describe what you do as a genre or reject the concept entirely?

Lao: We need to label what we do somehow. We’ve labeled it Chinese new art (中国新艺术) music. Of course, any label is difficult. For us, this label has three elements—it’s Chinese, it’s music of the 21st century—all too often, when you say something is Chinese people think it’s traditional. This is new. The art part describes our attitude toward music. We don’t want this concept of art to be something far beyond normal people. We don’t like that. But we need to have a more artistic approach in the whole Chinese music scene, we see this as very important, that’s a part of this concept.

What have been some particular performance highlights during your career?

Gong: The most recent concert was called “The Five Elements of Love”. Everything, the lighting, the clothes, the philosophy, the concept, the musicians on the stage, everything was perfect. Another concert, while I was in America, I performed with a New York ensemble, Bang on a Can, the musicians were perfect. I am a Chinese musician, but this was working with American composers who composed things for me about Chinese music, it was really interesting for me as it was in Chinese and English.

Are some singing techniques more difficult to master than others?

Gong: Traditional ways are not so difficult, but singing his (Lao Luo’s) songs is really difficult.

Lao: A really innovative thing she is doing in her music styles is that one singer just sings in one color, but she produces many different vocal colors. In China there exist many different ways of producing vocal sounds, what she is doing, and this is new, she is learning lots of different ways of producing sound. Most folk singers sing music from their home region, and every opera singer has one sort of role: old man, young man, official, girl, this kind of thing. There is one special singing technique for each role. What Linna is doing is studying lots of ways of making sound. She is turning it into an art form.That is what is really exciting. Mixing different opera sounds in one voice, this is something which didn’t exist before.

Gong: I’m very interested in voice techniques—I listened to everything from pop through to traditional singers. I want to learn more, and know more. This is my way.

“New Twist On Old Style” is the cover story from our newest issue, “Agriculture”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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