Paul SanGregory‘s seven-song cycle Songs of Distance combines Chinese lyrics with Western-style music.
The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music alumnus created the songs by integrating his Western training with Chinese musical ideas—such as melodies based on pentatonic scales.
“But even more than that, there’s ornamentation that comes from Chinese melodies, from grace note usages or even little pitch blends,” SanGregory says.
“In some places I even asked the singer to speak in a way that almost imitates the way people would speak dramatically in a Beijing Opera. Which is really hard for Western-trained singers to do. So it ends up being an approximation of that style.”
SanGregory received a doctorate in music IU, where he focused on composition and studied with Frederick Fox and Claude Baker.
Both he and his wife, Sansan Chien, teach music theory and composition at the university level—SanGregory at the National Pingtung University of Education in Pingtung, Taiwan. The couple live in Kaohsiung.
The lyrics of the songs in Songs of Distance come from a book of Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty.
SanGregory, who speaks and reads Chinese, read the poems in English translations, referring to the original Chinese when necessary.
“Some of the Chinese was a little tricky. [The poems are written in] an ancient Chinese writing style, so my wife would help me clarify some of the meanings and get the right intonation of some of the words that I wasn’t sure about.”
He found that composing songs using Chinese texts required special attention be paid to the intonation of the words.
“Every Chinese character has an intonation that goes up or down; there are different intonations. That can affect your melody, or your melody—if you’re not careful—could destroy the natural inflection of the word. So I try to pay attention to that when I write from Chinese, and that can be tricky. Some of the songs in Chinese might not be easy to sing either, so that’s another thing to be careful about.”
SanGregory believes himself to be one of only a handful of composers who write Chinese art songs. He observes that composing as we think about it in the West was not part of the Chinese music tradition.
“Even in Chinese opera, as far as I know, they didn’t have a Puccini or a composer who wrote in opera. They have a lot of traditions about the way stories are told, and this all comes together on stage, the way the musicians and the actors work together.”
“So when you say ‘a Chinese art song,’ it has to be a pretty new thing, probably within the last century.”
The song cycle Songs of Distance are on the CD that accompanies Volume I of The Anthology of Chinese Songs, Volumes I and II. The songs are performed by voice professor Mei Zhong with piano accompaniment. The books and the accompanying CDs are available through the Web site of the publisher, Leyerle Publications.