A new musical fusion has emerged in New York, and it’s not the typical kind you might catch at a club in the West Village. For the many Chinese immigrants trying to navigate a new world and for Westerners who have long been interested in understanding Chinese culture but have not found a way in, the answer may lie in music.
Lisa Li is a pipa master, a Chinese lute, and a graduate of the Chinese Conservatory of China. She has composed and performed across Europe, Asia, and the United States, and her playing was featured in the Academy Award-winning movie The Last Emperor.
As one of the lead composers for New Tang Dynasty Television’s Chinese New Year Spectacular, a great performance of traditional Chinese dance and song, Lisa has created a new sound. It is based on ancient Chinese folk and religious music but goes beyond both. “Music is alive because, in the view of the Chinese ancients, every single object has life.
In fact, in Chinese, when we refer to a musical note, we call it a ‘live note,’ ” she explains. However, according to Lisa, the music must be composed and played from the heart, sometimes in ways that may sound foreign to Western ears.
The melodies are far from random. Lisa’s music, like all traditionally composed Chinese music, is based on a series of pentatonic (5-note) scales. This system has its roots in Taoism, which teaches that all matter is formed from the five basic elements of metal, earth, wood, fire, and water. It teaches that for a being to be healthy, it must have all of these elements in balance.
So, from the Chinese perspective, a song or piece of music must also contain a uniquely crafted balance of these elements. There are also eight-note scales that relate to the Taoist symbol called the Bagua, which is most commonly known in the West as part of the practice of feng shui, or geomancy.
An example of Lisa’s work is the piece she wrote for the dance “A Dunhuang Dream.” The dance is set against a backdrop of thousands of caves carved into the sides of cliffs, as they are in the Mogao Grottoes in the Dunhuang region of China.
Seated at the mouth of each cave is a Buddhist or Taoist deity. As the dancers emerge, one can hear the voices of the erhu (Chinese violin) and guzheng (zither) from the orchestra pit, but these are soon joined by the more recognizable resonance of cello, bass, oboe, and brass. The result is strikingly otherworldly yet also solidly familiar.
The specific ya yue used in the score is the same as that found in the ancient pipa music written on scrolls that archeologists discovered in the actual Dunhuang caves years ago.
Lisa believes that music is a heavenly and divine language. “It can uplift people’s hearts and minds. It is good for the soul,” she says.
Music can bridge cultures and bring people together, as Lisa’s fusion of Chinese and Western music demonstrates. It provides an opportunity for people to understand and appreciate each other’s cultures in a way that language sometimes cannot. Lisa’s music is a perfect example of this fusion, blending traditional Chinese music with Western music to create a unique and beautiful sound.
Lisa’s music also highlights the importance of preserving traditional music and the need to share it with the world. As a master of the pipa and a graduate of the Chinese Conservatory of China, she is committed to preserving traditional Chinese music and bringing it to a wider audience. Her work with New Tang Dynasty Television’s Chinese New Year Spectacular is an excellent example of this.
In conclusion, Lisa Li’s new musical fusion is more than just a new kind of sound. It is a bridge between cultures, a way of communicating and connecting with people of different backgrounds. By drawing on ancient Chinese music and Taoist philosophy, and blending it with western classical instruments, she has created a unique blend that is both distinctly Chinese and yet accessible to a western audience. Through her music, Lisa Li is helping to create a more empathetic and understanding world, one note at a time.