By Daniel Shao
7 June 2020
So, for this very first post for our blog Puzzle Pieces, I had the chance to catch up with our co-directors Alex and Reylon, on Tangram’s beginnings and mission.
Alex and Reylon met in 2017 in Boston through a mutual friend while Alex was on a choir tour, and as Reylon was coming to the UK to do a master’s at SOAS, they decided to stay in touch and collaborate in London in 2018. To me, the transnational nature of their meeting is already interesting, as that is also at the core of what Tangram promote as a movement. Both shared thoughts about what it could mean to exist and make music at the intersection of Chinese and Western culture.
At this time, Reylon was making new friends before his big move to London, but also he and Alex were both on the cusp of a new phase in their own musical trajectories. The same month that they met, Reylon had been speaking to Wu Man, a virtuoso Pipa player from the Silk Road ensemble (who Reylon also plays with), about how the Yangqin could work in contemporary music. She said to him he should do new things with the Yangqin as there’s not enough new music for the instrument, and he sits in a unique position as someone trained in the Chinese tradition but also having grown up in Western institutions. Reylon remembers her tone was almost one of frustration, as if she were decrying the fact that the instrument had been held back from reaching its full potential for too long.
From our time studying Music at Oxford, Alex and I glimpsed the Eurocentric focus of the UK’s curriculums, something which holds particularly true in composition courses. Against this background, in the words of Unsuk Chin talking about her concerto for Sheng, when using non-western material ‘the dangers of musical exoticism seem [very] great’. If an Asian composer living in the West directly uses musical stimuli from their own culture, they can easily be stereotyped as just ‘doing the whole Eastern thing’, which is regarded in the Western classical music mindset as somehow less rich than the likes of Boulezian modernism. It is true that by pointing this out we admit that we are victims of Eurocentrism and reductive narratives in some way, but both Alex and Reylon are keen to emphasise Tangram as an example of thriving being a form of resistance through the celebration of Chinese cultures. By creating new trajectories and seeking to disrupt colonial narratives, we aim to spread positivity and place new possibility onto the global image of the Chinese subject.
Alex’s first piece stimulated by his heritage was ‘Vanishing Point’ for erhu and symphony orchestra, premiered by the Shanghai Philharmonic in 2016, with Sun Yaoqi as soloist under conductor Liang Zhang, and it was from this point on that he realised how fruitful it could be to explore transnational culture and identity, and to question the supposed dichotomy of his London home and parental background of Hong Kong. For Reylon, a core idea of Tangram as a movement is that the West and China are not mutually exclusive entities, or even just entities (static, bounded) for that matter. We as artists are a testament to the existence of cultural cross-pollination, and are living examples of the multiplicity and diversity of the Chinese diaspora, facts which we aim to showcase consistently.
Reylon’s musical upbringing was very different to that of Alex and myself; he studied the Yangqin and Chinese traditional music in San Francisco. Yet even this ‘traditional’ education bore elements which questioned any idea of nationalist musical absolutism; he studied lots of contemporary Chinese music which was influenced by Western art music, for example the beautiful Spirit of the Yellow Earth. The development of Tangram helped him to stop thinking in the binary way of ‘East vs. West’.
Reylon: It’s more about opening up the liminal space that we already inhabit, and trying to discover and create from where we are rather trying to fit ourselves into the Western Music tradition or the Chinese Music tradition. By creating something new and authentically ours, we’re naturally synthesising all of our influences, and this is an elegant way to transcend these boundaries.
Alex: It’s not so much a case of categories, but maybe more about opening up new spaces. There’s significance in the way we frame it, as the East meets West thing is dead and stale. We’re not necessarily looking to even create a new form, it is exploratory and organic. The concept of China does not have to mean anything narrow or singular, it can be all about heterogeneity and plurality, and there being loads of different ways in which ‘Chineseness’ can manifest.”
Especially in recent times, Chinese identity has often been flattened into a two-dimensional idea, which is then easier to stereotype in a negative way, affecting common perception i.e. #Chinavirus. But Reylon has also been counteracting this with a hashtag project of his own, #ChineseViralBlank on instagram, which aims to showcase the broad and diverse reality of Chinese people and artists. For him:
Reylon: A big part of Tangram is challenging those stereotypes and creating a safe space where we can explore. Tangram is a safe space for all of these artists to be themselves and explore identities in our own way. We hope that each artist interprets our mission for themselves, exploring it through the prism of their own experience, embracing and accepting what they find. Self-acceptance is a wonderful part of the Tangram process, because we are embracing our whole selves as transnational Chinese individuals, not just asking people to categorise themselves into assimilated white Western creators or purely Chinese creators, we are embracing all of those aspects, which can be very freeing.”
This concludes part 1 of the 'reflective interview' : stay tuned for part 2 in which we discuss how these ideas intersect with musical process, plans for the future, and more!
Tangram stands in solidarity with the Black community around the world in protesting against racial injustice and police brutality. We are actively engaged in conversations about how we can combat anti-Black racism in our own communities and use our platform to better amplify and support our Black friends and family. Black lives matter.
We as transnational Asians would not be where we are, empowered to create and live the way we do, without the leadership of Black intellectuals, artists, and activists who have done the brave, dangerous work of revealing the violence of white supremacy. We acknowledge the privileges that we have as transnational Asians, and the extent to which we owe these to the Black community.
The vision of the future we work toward as a new music collective—a future in which Chinese and Western cultures are no longer assumed to be mutually exclusive, in which geopolitical tensions give way to a culture of listening and human connection—would not, and will not, be possible without the movement for Black lives. They have created an invaluable impact by calling for justice in our systems, and creating a culture that reckons with the past.
We feel the deepest gratitude and indebtedness for this legacy, and have a responsibility to do everything we can to honor and support that legacy through our work.