Published: 16:59, April 2, 2024 | Updated: 10:06, April 3, 2024
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Composer's memories help shape the future
By Chen Nan

Having studied music through pictures as a child, renowned musician still 'sees' his work, Chen Nan reports.

Dance production, See, with inspiration from the rugged beauty of the Inner Mongolian autonomous region, is performed in Beijing in March 2024. Composer Xue Tingzhe (below) wrote 21 works capturing the region's natural scenery, animals and people. (ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY)

Xue Tingzhe can still recall his first piano lesson with his Japanese teacher when he was 6, after he had moved to Japan with his parents, who were pursuing medical degrees. The teacher, Osmi Emi, in Tokyo, had Xue listen to three pieces of music and asked him to choose his favorite. Then, she gave him a piece of paper and a pencil, and asked him to draw the pictures he saw after listening to it.

"I remember that I drew some birds, clouds and a street. We colored them together," Xue says. "It was so much fun when the piano lessons became art class. It wasn't boring at all."

It is a rewarding experience working with dancers because they visualize my music on the stage through their movements.

Xue Tingzhe, composer

Xue, who was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, started learning to play the piano when he was 5, and says that his Japanese teacher asked him to put the score and the painting side by side when he practiced.

"For the first time, I felt that I was connected to the music I played, because I'd chosen the piece and my painting was inspired by it," says the 34-year-old.

Xue returned to China when he was 12 and studied with veteran music educator and pianist Dan Zhaoyi at the Shenzhen Arts School. Xue went on to win a number of international music competitions, including first prize in the youth section of the third Isidor Bajic Piano Memorial Competition in Serbia in 2006, which led him to perform 12 concerts in Europe in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart later that year.

The experience in Japan was like a seed planted in Xue's heart. From then on, music evoked not only an emotional response but also a visual one closely linked with those emotions.

Now a composer, he continues to picture his music in his head. His latest album, See, released by the Chinese division of Universal Music Group on March 22, features 21 compositions for a dance production (also titled See) that was co-directed and performed by leading dancer Tang Shiyi. On March 22, Xue took on the role of conductor when the production was staged at Tsinghua University.

See is performed at Tsinghua University in Beijing, on March 22, 2024. (ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY)

He says that after Tang and her co-director Zheng Zihao approached him in the summer of 2022, he was intrigued by the project, which was inspired by the grasslands of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Xue drove to Hohhot, the capital of the autonomous region, and out to the grasslands, where he recorded Mongolian folk music, including khoomei, an ancient throat-singing technique, and performances of the horse-headed fiddle, a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument.

In addition to the music, he was also impressed by the natural scenery.

"When I walked on the grasslands, I was attracted by their vastness. When I looked up into the blue sky, the clouds seemed so low that I could catch them with my hands," Xue says. He then turned those feelings and the beautiful scenery into music.

This is not the first time Xue has composed music for a dance drama. Since 2021, he has been music director for the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater.

"It is a rewarding experience working with dancers because they visualize my music on the stage through their movements," Xue says, adding that he had also worked with Tang before.

The 33-year-old dancer-choreographer, trained to become a traditional Chinese dancer and graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy, is now the principal dancer at the China National Opera &Dance Drama Theater. She has won many major awards, including the Taoli Cup, the most prestigious honor for young professional dancers in China, and has a large fan base among dance lovers in the country.

Xue Tingzhe, composer. (ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY)

In 2016, Tang made her debut as a choreographer in The Flowing Dance From Tang Poetry, a dance production that combined traditional Chinese dance movements with ancient Tang Dynasty (618-907) poems. See, the first dance she has directed, premiered at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing in February 2023.

"I tried to express something by using a whole variety of theatrical elements. We let the composer write the music first and then arranged the choreography based on his music," she says. "It's not like a traditional dance drama that tells a story. With See, we moved away from stories and allowed our bodies to follow the inspiration floating in the back of our minds, a word, a sound or an idea."

Asked why See was inspired by the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, she says that the idea came from her performance in the dance drama, Lady Zhaojun, in 2016. Tang played the lead role of Princess Wang Zhaojun, a beautiful woman from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), who was married to the leader of the Xiongnu, a nomadic ethnic group to the north, and who helped establish peace between them.

The drama allowed her to explore the beautiful landscapes of Inner Mongolia, she says.

"Like the dance See, the music for it is also contemporary," Xue says, describing the 90-minute soundtrack as romantic, poetic and cinematic.

"Although we used some Mongolian folk music elements, we merged them with a symphony orchestra, giving the music a different twist," he adds.

Xue was signed up by the Universal Music Group's Chinese division in 2010 at the age of 21, then the youngest classical artist signed by the division.

He has released five albums, including his debut, Magic Finger, and Silent Song, on which he interprets classical music and performs his own compositions for the first time.

In 2013, he worked with renowned conductor Li Xincao and the China National Symphony Orchestra to release the live performance album, The Concerto, and finally in 2023, he became artist-in-residence at the China National Symphony Orchestra.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn