CHINA SPRING for cello & piano (1989) by Derek Strahan
(Duration: 15'32")


The work is in one movement and was provoked into existence by the events in Beijing on June 4th 1989; events at first described as the "Tiananmen Square Massacre". Although it has never been clearly established how many people were killed in the Square itself by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army, and how many were killed in areas surrounding the square, it is known that the pro-Democracy Movement was violently crushed, and that persecution and repression of dissidents has followed.

The work uses five melodic themes, and other shorter rhythmic and melodic motifs, which persist. It opens with a syncopated melody in 12/8 time, which has obvious echoes of jazz and rock. It may be taken as an evocation of international youth: energy, libido, and impulsiveness. A transition passage follows which has a "pressure cooker" character: specifical1y a segment recurs in which the cello "tries to get out" by continually adding a 1/16th note to the time signature: 4/16; 5/16; 6/16 and so on to 10/16.

This leads to a statement of a well-known anthem from the Mao era, "The East Is Red": however, the statement, on piano, is disturbed by subversive comments from the cello, and the anthem now retreats to the bottom line of piano bass during a psychotic episode which culminates in a simultaneous statement of "The East Is Red" (piano right hand), in the key of B, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (piano left hand) in the key of Bb, and the Communist "Internationale" on cello, with chromatic distortion, in the key of E. To bring these three themes together, in conflict, it was necessary to use a compositional technique which turned out to be a cross between musical collage and serial writing, in that the notes of each melody are used unchanged as if a tone row. Enough of the metre is preserved, however, for the tunes to be recognisable, although each note of the cello tune is slurred into from the semi-tone below.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" is used as a musical equivalent of the statue of Lady Liberty which students erected in Tiananmen Square (and which was ultimately toppled by PLA heavy machinery), The equally stirring melody of the Communist "Internationale" was sung by students in the square to maintain their courage during the final hours of confrontation. A Larghetto follows, which may be heard as the calm before the storm. It offers a different treatment of the opening jazz melody. After a transition, this melody is again heard in its original form, alternating with passages of the Internationale - which appears in a rather strange, music box setting. I had in mind here an alternation between day and night in Tiananmen Square, and also the naive faith of the student demonstrators that, in seeking to fulfil the true ideals of a just society, they could come to no harm.

A counter melody is persistently heard with piano statements of the "Internationale". The anthem eventually bursts forth in a confident setting in compound time. Use of triplet figures as accompaniment has always (it seems to me) had a high-energy, festive feeling, whether in the prelude to Act 3 of Wagner's "Lohengrin" or in the early 50s rock'n roll of, for example, Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.

It is during this festive outburst that military manoeuvres around the square begin, as denoted by 12/16 triplet figures in piano bass, set against the 6/8 of the communist anthem.

Now an eerie calm descends, during which a strangely harmonised evocation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is heard, the melody played on high harmonics on cello. The tanks roll again, and the events of June 4th unfold. Some use of piano clusters is made equally for the violence of the effect as to simulate gunfire.

The work concludes with an elegiac statement of the theme first heard as a counter melody to the "Internationale", but now heard entirely alone, epitomising the eternal spring of hope.

"China Spring" is the name of a journal published in the USA by pro-democracy supporters.

Derek Strahan

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