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Hong Kong ensemble infuses ancient cave paintings with musical innovation

By Kou Jie, Liu Ning, Morag Hobbs (People's Daily Online)    14:31, October 08, 2018

Discovered in 1900, the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang impressed the world with countless manuscripts filled with ancient music scores and dance notations. A century later, the lost Chinese melodies have been revived by a group of young musicians from Hong Kong, promoting ancient Chinese culture worldwide.

Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble, a 9-member musical group made up of young players of traditional Chinese instruments including the pipa, sheng, zheng, ruan and percussion, treated the audience to an auditory feast in Dunhuang on Wednesday, Sept. 19. The performance, featuring ancient tunes and modern skills, was inspired by the paintings found in the Mogao Caves.

“Dunhuang is an ancient hub where oriental and western culture coexisted harmoniously. Our music is inspired by the ancient cave paintings… we have also added our understanding of ancient Chinese culture and new elements into the ancient tunes,” said Felissa Chan Wan-in, a 24-year-old pipa player. Known as the Chinese flute, the four-stringed ancient instrument can be found in Mogao cave paintings, created by Buddhist pilgrims between the 4th and 14th century.

Serving as a treasure trove of information on the vibrant music scene in ancient China and other countries along the Silk Road, the Dunhuang Caves contain an archive of ancient musical scores. Half of the 492 caves in the southern Mogao area include depictions of musical instruments, while every musical instrument that has appeared throughout China’s history can be found in the paintings of Dunhuang.

“Growing up in a highly multicultural and multilingual city like Hong Kong, I found myself confused when trying to determine my cultural roots and true self. By practicing Dunhuang music, I have constructed my own identity,” said Chu Kai Yeung, composer-in-residence of the ensemble. He also added that Dunhuang music is also a great demonstration of China’s soft power and cultural influence.

“Our music is not only a formalist copy of the ancient music, but also a modern innovation of Chinese culture. Music is a universal language, by injecting new energy to the old music pieces, I hope our work will strike a chord with foreign audiences along the Belt and Road,” noted Jenny Chan Tin Chi, orchestra manager of the ensemble.

Following the increased cultural exchange along the Belt and Road in recent years, Dunhuang music has once again intrigued scholars and musicians worldwide, who meticulously attempt to decipher the abstract manuscripts, as well as create modern music based on the ancient paintings.

According to Xinhua, six ancient musical instruments depicted in the Dunhuang Caves have been reproduced for a Dunhuang concert scheduled for September, while selected winners from a music contest based on traditional Dunhuang poems and the five most famous murals will perform at the event.

"With the concert, we want to bring Dunhuang culture closer to the younger generations so that they can discover its value," Zhang Xiantang, deputy director of the Dunhuang Academy told Xinhua. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Kou Jie, Bianji)

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