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Two weeks ago, Tony (my friend and tenant) and I went to Lincoln Center to listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Tony is a foreign student from mainland China. He completed his PhD program in chemistry at a midwestern university and is now working as a chemist at a major pharmaceutical company. He had heard so much about this orchestra and was very excited to see its live performance.

The performance was decent. On our way driving home, Tony and I discussed the difference between traditional Chinese music and Western symphony music. I told Tony that through art and music, one can see a lot of difference in cultural and aesthetic values between Chinese people and Western people. I love all kinds of music, but very frankly I didn’t find that night’s music particularly beautiful or touching. It was way too loud for me in the first place. American radio host and humorist, Garrison Keillor, once did a wonderful piece called A Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra. Noting the loudness of the brass section, he joked that “the rest of the orchestra wishes the brass were playing in another room, and so does the conductor.”

On June 24, 2001, Time magazine published an article titled “Is the symphony orchestra dying?” A ticket for a New York Philharmonic Orchestra costs somewhere between $166 and $200. How many Americans can afford to go? It seems that the symphony orchestras are dying due to a combination of skyrocketing ticket prices and rapidly changing demographics. What prompts people to spend so much money to attend such concerts? Don’t the high ticket prices ensure that only affluent people can go? I suspect that, aside from the symphony orchestra’s appeal as a symbol of high culture and affluence, people also attend these concerts for the atmosphere. Western symphony orchestra has an atmosphere of grandeur which is unmatched by its Chinese counterpart. The former is literally earthshaking, due to the blasting music. There is clearly a militaristic air to Western symphony orchestras. Garrison Keillor quipped that a young Lutheran may think of the trumpet as a Christian instrument, thinking of Gideon. But he joked, “the real trumpet players want to wear capes and swords, and they want to play as loudly as they possibly can.” A thought flashed across my mind when I talked about this with Tony. The Western symphony orchestra did not get fully developed until the late 19th century. That was the time when the European nations were busy with colonization and empire building. I see a link between symphony music and militarism.

Western symphony music tends to have a lot of “stuff” in it — in terms of the number of players, instruments and complexity of the music. The Wikipedia’s article on “Orchestra” says that “the typical orchestra grew in size throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, reaching a peak with the large orchestras (of as many as 120 players) called for in the works of Richard Wagner ….” Traditionally, the Chinese have no orchestra to speak of. The modern Chinese orchestras are based on the Western model. Before the modern age, Chinese musicians did play occasionally in groups. But such groups were small in size and the instruments were few. I haven’t seen traditional Chinese music ensembles with a size more than a dozen people. Organizing and conducting an orchestra with over a hundred people require much complexity. Such complexity is seldom seen in Chinese music. The Chinese mind favors simplicity.

Similar East-West difference can be found in the visual arts. I was in the Louvre Museum in Paris in the year 2000. The first impression I got while walking in was how gigantic those portraits were and how the artists made the individual the main theme. In Chinese paintings, human beings are often represented as tiny dots in a landscape. It is as if the humans were just an insignificant part of nature. Also, Western oil paintings are typically packed completely with figures and colors. Chinese paintings, on the other hand, are often monochrome (black and white) and there is plenty of empty space in the picture. When it comes to music, Western orchestral music tends to jam the air waves with many different sounds, and do that at high volume. Traditional Chinese music, on the other hand, is often soft and it typically features only one instrument is at a time. Attention is also put on the silence between sounds, as if the silence is part of the music. Perhaps we can call this an aesthetics and/or spirituality of silence.

We can learn much about a culture’s soul and core philosophy by looking at its artistic expressions. Western art and music are reflective of Western people’s materialistic worldview. Traditional Chinese art and music, on the contrary, are more reflective of idealism and “emptiness” — much meaning is conveyed by the silence or what is not spoken. We can also gauge each culture’s relationship with nature by listening to its music. Traditional Chinese art and music are heavily influenced by Taoist philosophy. As such, Chinese music often mimic nature’s sounds and has a meditative quality. When I listen to a piece of Chinese flute music, for example, I often have images of a remote mountain or a murmuring stream. Celtic music is similar to traditional Chinese music in that way — music and nature easily blend together. The Western symphony orchestra, however, is very different. It is more reflective of the experience of modernity. It emphasizes man over nature. In Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, we can actually hear the sound of cannons. Time and again, we see this major difference, the Western world stresses the conquest of nature; the traditional Chinese world stresses harmony with nature.

There is, however, one Western orchestra instrument which is more consistent with the Chinese spirituality of emptiness — the humble triangle. Garrison Keillor described the triangle as the “most Christian instrument there is.” A percussion player has to wait patiently for his very rare chance to play. If there is an orchestra instrument which is good for training a young person to manage his ego, this is it! Most of the time, the triangle is silent. Yet, when it is sounded, the effect is amazing. The Britannica brilliantly captures the soul of the triangle when it says “a single stroke on the triangle clearly penetrates the full force of an orchestra, and it is perhaps most effective when used sparingly.” There is no question in my mind that the triangle teaches the Taoist and Zen philosophy of “less is more.”

A friend of mine who is a musician read the first draft of this article and she said that it reminded her of the difference between Yin and Yang. Chinese music is more “yin” and feminine. Western symphony music is more “yang” and masculine. It should be noted that yin and yang are complementary to each other. Both are integral parts of nature. The interaction of the two makes the world goes around. Good music, and the art of living, depends on the balance between these two polarities.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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