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July 27, 2011 2:25 AM   Subscribe

The Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing musical training to inner-city youth. One particular student in the program, Tyler Thompson, has been getting some press lately for his renditions of traditional Chinese opera (Vimeo link). (Chinese opera, previously on the blue)
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike (17 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
(an aside: I really don't understand the framing of the AP news item that Tyler is black, and that he has a special talent for Chinese opera. As a classically-trained singer in the Western tradition, I strongly suspect that 1) his race has nothing to do with it and 2) the skills required for Chinese music are similar to the skills required for Western music.)
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:30 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


While the emphasis on race is odd (it may be the paper's way of pointing out that he's pursued this on his own initiative, absent a family connection to this type of music, but it's still weird), I can see how this type of performance would require special skills. There's some implication in the article that he's learned the tonal pronounciation of Mandarin well (don't speak it, can't tell on my own initiative, but he's apparently gotten some praise from native speakers), and that he's also mastered some genre-specific musical skills. Impressive kid!
posted by Wylla at 3:25 AM on July 27, 2011


Mm, the emphasis on race isn't really that odd. This story probably wouldn't have been written if he were a Chinese-american kid.
That being said, sounds good. Singing in mandarin isn't the easiest thing in the world.
posted by majonesing at 5:37 AM on July 27, 2011


Philosopher Dirtbike writes: I strongly suspect that 1) his race has nothing to do with it

Concerning that, I would basically agree with what majonesing said directly above. Clearly, this is a story because he is a non-Chinese who has become deeply involved in the realm of traditional Chinese culture. Very rare indeed. I mean, that's exactly why you posted this here, right?

Now, one might argue then that rather than "black" teenager, perhaps "non-Chinese" might have been less "odd" or "weird" (as Wylla characterized it above). But the young man is an African-American, and why shouldn't that be mentioned? Are we supposed to not know that he's black or something? I mean, just not write that? I just don't really see the problem with the article mentioning that he's black. I reckon that, as the 70s saying went, he's black and he's proud. Anyway, this kind of thing often reminds me of what an old friend of mine (a clarinet player who initially made a name for himself playing Jewish klezmer music) once said (and he might've been quoting or paraphrasing someone else, I'm not sure): "the total avoidance of discussing or mentioning race, ever, is in itself a form of racism".

and 2) the skills required for Chinese music are similar to the skills required for Western music.

Hmm. Well, when you listen to something like this or this it becomes pretty clear that the system of tonal organization and pitch are rather more complex than what we find in the Western classical tradition. We're certainly not talking about equal temperament here, dividing the octave into twelve tones. I strongly suspect that a thorough training in Western operatic vocal techniques could indeed be a hindrance, rather than a help, in mastering the style.

That said, what young Tyler Thompson is doing in the linked clip sounds to me much more "Western" than my linked examples, in terms of pitch relationships in the melody. Whether that's because he's just not especially adept yet at Chinese traditional singing (which, hey, would be more than understandable) or whether this "Chinese opera" is a very different tradition than the opera examples I've linked to in this comment is something that i wouldn't be qualified to answer with confidence.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:17 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Clearly, this is a story because he is a non-Chinese who has become deeply involved in the realm of traditional Chinese culture.

Yes, I agree. But that's not what was said. The fact that culturally, he is American is the big deal. This has nothing to do with race. I think race is an important topic in this story: after all, it is interesting and heartening that a Chinese tradition is being taught in an American school. But the student's blackness is not the racially interesting thing here, and that's why I found it odd.

it becomes pretty clear that the system of tonal organization and pitch are rather more complex than what we find in the Western classical tradition.

And you think that general musical aptitude wouldn't generalize? I believe it is more appropriate to say Tyler has a talent for music, not a talent for Chinese music. He has training in Chinese music.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:08 AM on July 27, 2011


But the student's blackness is not the racially interesting thing here, and that's why I found it odd.

Let me rephrase that: "But I think that the student's blackness is not the racially interesting thing here, and that's why I found it odd." -FTFM.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:12 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the Vimeo link: Bao Zheng (999–1062) was a much-praised judge from Song, China. Because of his renowned fairness, he was popularly glorified as "Blue-Sky Bao"/"Unclouded-Sky Bao" or "Lord Bao." In Chinese opera or drama, he is often portrayed with a black face and a white crescent shaped birthmark on his forehead

An example of this.

Although I don't suspect that the use of a blackened face in Chinese opera is the same as the more controversial usage in the United States' past, I can't help but wonder if Tyler's choice of this character was a conscious attempt to redefine blackface and take it back. I didn't see any reference to this in the links provided.
posted by hanoixan at 7:26 AM on July 27, 2011


I strongly suspect that a thorough training in Western operatic vocal techniques could indeed be a hindrance, rather than a help, in mastering the style.

Your point can apply to appreciating styles of Chinese traditional singing too, flapjax.

We joyfully trot along to the Met when we can, for bog standard mainstream opera (when friends with a subscription sell us the tickets they can't use). But I haven't figured out a way, yet, to listen happily to Chinese opera -to be somehow unhindered by what I'm used to.

This is a real shame. We go to Suzhou (about 60 miles west of Shanghai), home of the "renowned Suzhou Kunqu Opera Theater" at least once every year (science conferences).
Almost every trip, we are treated at some point to various styles of Chinese opera -Kunqu, Suqu, Pingtan - under the most optimal conditions (in ancient gardens, night boat cruises, private "sampler" performances).

I am still waiting to feel transported by the tone/pitch of the performers.
(Or at least not to do the secret checking-my-watch, squirming thing.)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:51 AM on July 27, 2011


I think "a general aptitude for music" is about as meaningful as "manual dexterity". It exists but overshadowed in any specific case by the specific training. Western art music has pretense to universalism ("learn to play from sheet music using our technique and you can play anything!"), but in practice this applies exactly to the degree that the music you are playing aspires to be classical music in the European tradition.

And I would say, along with Jody Tresidder here, that music appreciation is also much more particular than the classical chauvinists would have you believe.
posted by idiopath at 10:18 AM on July 27, 2011


But I haven't figured out a way, yet, to listen happily to Chinese opera -to be somehow unhindered by what I'm used to.

Let me then commend to you the Shaw Brothers film versions of Chinese opera, mostly made in the early 60's.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:46 AM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


that music appreciation is also much more particular than the classical chauvinists would have you believe.

That's definitely true. In fact, this applies to all art - to appreciate any art on more than a superficial level, you have to understand it. The "language" of different genres are all different, and if you don't invest the time and energy to appreciate a particular genre, you'll never understand it. For me, my default was western classical music, so it took me a while to really understand western popular music, and differentiate the bad stuff from the good stuff ("it's all crap" is an easy thing for a classical musician to ignorantly say about pop music...).

The same goes for music of other cultures.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:59 AM on July 27, 2011


I don't think this is traditional Chinese opera as much as a rendition of the theme song from the 1993 TV show for Judge Bao. It was a super popular show. Tyler's pronunciation is quite good, although there's some hesitation in his voice that doesn't lend itself to the content of the song. Judge Bao is supposed to be a hardass.

Although I don't suspect that the use of a blackened face in Chinese opera is the same as the more controversial usage in the United States' past, I can't help but wonder if Tyler's choice of this character was a conscious attempt to redefine blackface and take it back.

For what it's worth, Judge Bao's black face is part of his 'iron face' (鐡面) persona, i.e. iron fist of the law.

A more traditional example of a non-Chinese singing Chinese opera to the same effect would be Uwechue Emmanuel, also playing Judge Bao in the video. To my amateur ears, he is very good.
posted by jyorraku at 11:58 AM on July 27, 2011


I second everything that jyorraku just said -- not opera; his pronunciation is good but not perfect; he's singing it like he would sing a normal song (yes, he's young, but one could put a little more effort into the role); a dark face is part of Bao Zheng's legend.

I think the Chinese community finds him interesting mostly because it's a non-Chinese person singing in Chinese (just like how many other "foreigners" get attention for singing Chinese pop/propaganda songs) and maybe because he's black and therefore doesn't need makeup for the role.

If he can actually sing proper opera, I'd be interested in seeing that.
posted by bread-eater at 12:10 PM on July 27, 2011


Jody Tressider: I normally download 'em from bittorrent sites where they usually come with English subtitles. Having a handle on the story (despite the dubious quality of 1960 HK eng subs) helps a lot.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:11 PM on July 27, 2011


Having a handle on the story (despite the dubious quality of 1960 HK eng subs) helps a lot.

Peter,
I am honestly a bit astonished that has never struck me before, about being stuck in a hopeless lazy fog about the narrative of Chinese operas too.
That's a fixable problem...big thanks. (Also, great link...)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:45 PM on July 27, 2011


They changed the headline; now it is: Teen crosses cultural lines, sings Chinese opera (same article, same byline) instead of "Black teen's unusual talent: Singing Chinese opera". The new headline is much better...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:51 PM on July 27, 2011


Here's one of my favourite bits. Peng Peng's legendary portrayal of Pigsy from one of the Shaw Brothers telling of the Journey of the East story.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:29 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


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