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Beijing's central axis offers core inspiration for composition

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2020-06-15 09:10
Conductor Zhang Guoyong (left) and composer Ye Xiaogang during a rehearsal with Beijing Chinese Orchestra.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Since he was enrolled to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1978, Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang has been living in the capital for over 40 years.

When he visited iconic sites, such as the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, and Gulou (Drum Tower), which are connected by the capital's north-south central axis, or zhongzhouxian, in May, Ye gained a fresh perspective on the way he saw the capital.

"The city of Beijing has gone through lots of changes. It has transformed into an international hub. When I visited those cultural heritage sites, they reminded me of the old Beijing and the hardworking people here," says Ye, who toured the city to prepare, and find inspiration, for an original music piece, titled Zhong Zhou, or Central Axis. The song premiered online as part of a livestreamed performance by the Beijing Chinese Orchestra on Saturday.

The 70-minute-long music piece was written by a team of eight Chinese composers headed by Ye. Each of them wrote one piece to portray and reflect upon the culture and history of Beijing along the central axis.

"The unique beauty of Beijing is due to the central axis, which has great cultural value. It's the most representative and important section of the old city of Beijing. It is also the core of the city and showcases its magnificent spatial order," says Li Jianping, who is also the director of Beijing History Research Association.

With a history of about 800 years, the central axis during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) stretched 3.7 kilometers. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, its length increased to 7.8 kilometers, from Yongdingmen in the south to the Drum and Bell towers in the north. The central axis was extended again in 2003 when the city was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games.

The Beijing Municipal government officially kicked off its campaign to have the main historical sites along the city's central south-north axis included as part of the world's cultural heritage in 2011.

Ye adds that the Beijing Chinese Orchestra is known for playing music with traditional Chinese musical instruments, which represents the central axis and the local culture well.

The opening chapter is composed by Li Shaosheng, who employs folk music elements to depict Yongdingmen, translated as "the gate of eternal stability". Composer Wu Yan was inspired by the court music of the Qing Dynasty and portrays the daily lives of ordinary people. Composer Zhao Xi combines the image of a swallow, a commonly seen bird in Beijing, and the capital's old gates, while Ye interprets the capital's solemn atmosphere. The music piece ends with composer Zou Hang's portrayal of the capital's Drum Tower.

Percussionists, sheng (a traditional Chinese wind instrument), pipa, erhu players, as well as sopranos and tenors, performed with the orchestra under the baton of conductor Zhang Guoyong.

"If you want to explore the city, the central axis is a great choice. You can enjoy different colors and scenes along it. With music, we present the city's different sides, from royalty to daily life, from its architecture to its natural scenery," says composer Yang Yibo, who grew up in Beijing and wrote the seventh chapter of the music piece.

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