Relevant Tones was recently invited to cover the Shanghai New Music Week, a sprawling international contemporary music festival with world class ambitions. Unfortunately for me though, the dates coincided with another trip I had planned and I was not able to go, so my producer Jesse McQuarters went without me and I’m only now getting a chance to listen to the music and interviews that he brought back.
Not surprisingly the festival is extremely ambitious and well funded and the performances are of a uniformly high quality. The organizers of the festival are justifiably proud of what they’ve put together and they seem to be connecting with audiences in Shanghai, (nearly every concert was sold out and overall attendance rose this year to more than 8,000.)
In many ways this is something that could only happen in China. Artistic Director Wen Deqing is absolutely right when he says that audiences for contemporary classical music in the U.S. and Europe by and large are smaller than what you see in China. And yet the festival is a little too carefully cultivated and the programming is, in my opinion, a little too heavy on European and American composers.
Shanghai New Music Week is indicative of modern China in general, a country that is self consciously emerging as a world player after hundreds of years of swinging between regional influence and total isolation. Now that in recent years it’s stepping onto the world stage for the first time, China is very much like the awkward debutante coming out at the ball.
And again this is most evident in the music that they’ve chosen to program. There is no music by South American or Scandinavian composers because China doesn’t think those composers are important. On the international front they’re mainly programming American and European composers because that’s who they want to impress. If that sounds familiar it’s because that’s exactly how the U.S. was during its debutante phase a couple of hundred years ago; obsessed with Europe, lacking a national cultural identity and awkwardly stepping into a cultural leadership role.
China has the resources and the intent to dominate the world classical music scene but in order to do this they need to move away from American and European models, find their national cultural identity irrespective of western trends and, most importantly, they need to take the muzzle of their artists and give them absolute creative freedom.