5 Questions to Gong Linna and Lao Luo about Cloud River Mountain

On July 14-15, 2017, Bang on a Can, Gong Linna, and Lao Luo bring you Cloud River Mountain as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. The original commissioning project premiered at the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon as a 30-minute set of songs, but has since been expanded to an evening-length work. Cloud River Mountain blends influences from Chinese and Western art music, with Chinese vocalist Gong Linna using her versatile talents to bring life to a work co-composed by Lao Luo and Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. With the work delving into Chinese mythology and ancient poetry, the collaboration between musicians of different cultures brings a unique quality to the piece. We asked five questions to Gong Linna and her partner Lao Luo to learn more about the process of putting together a work with such diverse background.

Lao Luo: what was it like co-composing a work that uses a blend of eastern and western cultural elements when not all the composers share the same experiences with the individual cultures?

I think this is not at first a cross-cultural problem. All communication is a challenge–it can work, it can fail. With many Germans, I can talk for hours but not get on any common ground. With my Chinese wife Gong Linna, from the very first minute, very first word we spoke, we had no borders in mutual understanding. Now creating something together is always a challenge: different ideas, working concepts, rhythms. To have a point to start from, we four composers agreed that first the Chinese and Western parts (mainly meaning composed by the BoaC composers and for the Chinese part by me) should be about equal length, thus leading to me writing about half of the whole program. So quite naturally, I took the lead in this collaboration and presented a concept based on Chinese myths and ancient lyrics. But even the best concept will fail if the partners do not fit. Of course it was a risk. I listened to so many shallow cross-cultural collaborations, so many musical misunderstandings. So how would our music finally sound together? It worked, even much better than I expected.

Gong Linna: you have said you are passionate about creating a new “Chinese Art Music.” How does your role in the performance of Cloud River Mountain help achieve that goal?

The last years, I have been almost exclusively working with Lao Luo, performing the works he composed for me. Now in this project, I am also performing works by three American composers, and for the very first time, I am singing in English. It might seem that it has little to do with Chinese Art Music, but my vocal technique adds this aspect to the music. The number of vocal colours in Chinese music is enormous, mainly the sounds from all Chinese opera styles where every character has a specific sound. By using these sounds in new compositions an essential element of Chinese music can live on.

Gong Linna performs excerpts from Cloud River Mountain at the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon

Gong Linna performs excerpts from Cloud River Mountain at the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon

How has your marriage affected your collaborations as composer and performer?

We have been living and working together for 15 years now, and we are not tired of it. Our musical collaboration is still fruitful and new projects bring new challenges. And our marriage is also still very much alive. We love working with other musicians, sometimes taking a break from each other (Ey, this does not apply to our marriage!). But at the end, we always have to realize that we just fit too well and this is quite a challenge for any other collaborator.

Cloud River Mountain’s story and inspiration stems from Chinese myths and ancient poetry. What challenges are highlighted in performance by infusing western techniques into eastern concepts?

If a composer works his/her way into a theme, it does not really matter in which culture this idea is rooted. It is the composers challenge to integrate this idea into music. How much will the music reflect this idea? Western composing can tell an Asian story and vice versa. Now from Chinese musical perspective, the main challenge in creating new music is not to get lost in Western musical concepts, but to integrate Western musical elements supporting a music based in Chinese tradition. From a Western perspective, this might sound like cultural protectionism, but that is a not well-reflected view. Chinese music is in a big transition, quite close to losing any of its own identity. This project is wonderful for us, because the collaboration with BoaC gives plenty of room for the Chinese musical elements, and the Western techniques are merging very well with it, always respecting the other.

Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Gong Linna, Lao Luo, and David Lang

Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, Gong Linna, Lao Luo, and David Lang

Can you tell us more about the experience of collaborating with Bang on a Can, not only from different cultural standpoints, but also from half way around the world?

We will just now only have our second time on stage together, even so it feels very different, like a long shared performance history. But things are not that easy, mainly if you live half way around the world. Honestly, we’d love to do some serious touring with Bang on a Can All Stars, in China and in the World. I think we created a wonderful program together, very unique, beyond all genre borders, and as far as our experiences go, the audience loves it. But again, we also share another aspect in our work: we are a few steps ahead of what is mainstream in the music scene (including the art scene). Such pioneering work brings lot of joy, but it is also very tiring, a constant challenge to convince presenters, to convince the audience to go to see the concert. But if the audience is there, listening, it is just wonderful, seeing that our music works around the globe.