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Excerpt from You Have No Choice by Liu Sola

Two years after graduating from the Central Conservatory of Music, composer Liu Sola chronicled her experiences in You Have No Choice (1985), a best-selling book which later won the 1988 China National Novella Award, marking the arrival of a fresh voice in contemporary Chinese fiction.

Although thousands of readers have pored over her prose looking for candid sketches of her classmates, several of whom had become intellectual celebrities by that time, the author has strongly discouraged this. Though based in fact, characters and events have been compressed, conflated, and fictionalized, defying a literal reading. What remains true, however, is spirit of the times, when a handful of creative youths, newly empowered by China's re-opening, first had to figure out how music fit in the bigger picture.

This excerpt, from an English translation by Nicolas Groffman, concerns the announcement of an International Composers Competition and its effects on both the students and the faculty.

Professor Ya was a scrupulous worker, the kind who never gives up. All his life he'd been painstakingly researching music without ever creating something new. This was why he had a special hatred for all those crude, self-opinionated "innovators." And because he hadn't found himself a young wife until he was 40 years old, he had a special hatred for all those young reprobates who had already started canoodling at 20. He looked like the classic don: too erudite to bother himself about his appearance and other such petty matters. On the inside, however, he was often so angry about other people's minor mistakes or idle gossip that he would almost burst. This left him constantly tense and irritable. He saw Professor Jin as an ignoramus who was capable only of composing, a shallow-minded man. It didn't matter that Professor Jin was frequently invited to both national and international composers' conferences; these occasions were even shallower. Professor Ya had still been young when 20th-century composing techniques began their assault on classical music, and before he had time to form his own reaction to this, someone had told him it was rubbish, not worth bothering about. He had spent most of his life like a mummy in his own pyramid, never doubting for a moment that any academic whose views differed from his own was degenerate. He rejoiced in the knowledge that no one had refuted him, no one had defeated him, no one had doubted him, and no one had ever posed a serious threat to him. That included Professor Jin. However, he was getting old, and when students like these cropped up, he was often caught off guard by the innumerable antagonistic questions they insisted on asking during lessons; they violated centuries-old rules and went off to work on outmoded 20th-century techniques that he had demonstrated as false, indeed which he had unreservedly scorned. This made him not only anxious for the security of his own pyramid, but also fearful for the inevitable degeneration of the whole country, the whole world!

When he received notice announcing a forthcoming International Young Composers Competition taking place in some foreign country, he scowled and went to discuss it with Professor Jin, full of misgivings.

"What exactly are your views?" He pointed at the announcement.

"I say it's up to the students. Those who want to can sign up, and we'll send off those compositions we consider to be outstanding."

"And how do you propose to determine which compositions are outstanding?"

"Obviously we'll have to look at all aspects of each piece."

"And do you really think we should allow the hysterical shrieks of a gang of tasteless banshees to take part in an international competition?"

"You shouldn't bandy the word 'hysterical' around. Hysteria is a serious gynaecological complaint."

"Why can't they write something polished, something with a clear melody and proper voice-leading, something with an integrated conception, something which fully reflects what we've been teaching them all these years? If they want to write something full of passion, we can encourage them to learn from Berlioz. But they must not be allowed to imitate modernism, on any account."

"Berlioz? OK, we'll get them to write eleven Berlioz symphonies. That would be quite a heroic feat."

"You have problems with Berlioz?"

"No, no."

"You really think they should be allowed to compose as they wish?"


"Can you take responsibility for the future of music?"


"Can you take responsibility for the deviation of music?"

"If we take part in this competition, we can let the world hear them."

"Nonsense. Listen to yourself. Your ideas are absurd." Professor Ya got up to leave.

The competition was announced formally at the class meeting. Professor Ya gave clear and unhurried spoken notice of the dates, the procedure, the requirements. The whole class held its breath, no one even blinked. When Ya's speech had finally ground to a halt, the whole room reverberated with babble, as if a swarm of blowflies had suddenly descended….

To Professor Ya, this display confirmed what he already believed. None of them were capable of anything positive; these students were incorrigible.

The door opened and in came Dong Ke.

"Am I disturbing you?"

"No." Li Ming gave him a seat. "What are you up to?"

"What are you implying?"

"You're thinking of entering the competition, aren't you?"

"Destiny calls."


"I've prepared a classical piece for Professor Ya, and asked Professor Jin to look over some serial music I've written, and I've already prepared a piece for the chairman of the appraisal committee, who likes impressionism, and I know the orchestra wants emotional expression so I've written them a romantic piece."

"So which piece is representative of your individuality?"

"My individuality isn't worth a penny."

"Then what is it you want?"

"To win."

"But it's not going to be the people here who give out the prizes."

"Yes, but the people here decide who goes to the competition."

"Are you going to send off your compositions in all different styles?"

"I may well. Why don't you write something?"

"It's of no interest to me." …

"To win a prize is to win everything, even if life becomes oppressive …"

"Stop it. I couldn't care less."

That threw Dong Ke. He finished his sentence lamely: "… no, in fact it isn't everything; it's only half."

After the announcement about the competition, Sensen had been floundering endlessly within his music. He was not satisfied with his recent search for harmony, but could not figure out how to improve. He could hardly bear to hear his own music.

Sensen was indifferent to everything except music, including nourishment and everyday concerns. If his hair looked rather long, that was because he'd forgotten to have a haircut. He frequently forgot mealtimes, and his cheeks were sunken. His clothing was irregular, but his manner was free and easy; the black eyes in his pale face combined with his clear wide forehead to make for a very confident appearance. He had just one regret: his fingers were a little too short.

What he needed was a sound much more far-reaching, much more mysterious, a sound which flew above common conventions, a sound much wilder and more natural. He was searching for this sound. He had dug out all the modernist works he could find, but all he seemed to be able to create were reproductions of the music of those schools.

This exploration was constant torture for him. Was there not a sound which genuinely belonged to him? What was he searching for? Where could he find his power? From concordant to discordant and back, what was it that musicians had been fussing about for centuries? Where was the God of Music? Bartok had grasped the Hungarian soul, but according to Professor Ya, Bartok was never going to surpass Beethoven. Bartok had found his people, but Hungarians knew Beethoven better. This was Sensen's biggest distress. He wanted to find the soul of his people, but his own people would still say he wasn't as good as Beethoven. Beethoven, Beethoven. His musical power had conquered the world; it had built up an awesome mountain that supported itself with its obstinacy and age, blocking the radiance of those who came after him.

That day Meng Ye was in Sensen's practice room, humming a drawn-out version of a simple old tune. Sensen asked Meng Ye: "Do you feel the power here?" By way of answer, Meng Ye carried in his cello and began bowing it in great sweeps, and this simple old tune suddenly turned into one of incomparable melancholy. Sensen felt his breathing become hurried. He picked up his violin and played out some ear-splitting chords, then added rhythms from folk percussion. He wanted to ally with Meng Ye; together they could experience the mystery of primeval forces. He was aware that he and Meng Ye were on the same path, but they were looking for different things. He emphasized power more than Meng Ye, while Meng Ye was held down in this kind of primitive melancholy. Meng Ye was like a phantom caught in the earth. Although he could throw his spirit up to the high heavens, he was still entangled in the limitless sorrow of the earth. But Sensen wanted to represent human existence. What aspects of human existence? In fact, that was something he himself could not articulate. Perhaps certain muscular spasms?

The composers who were going to compete were to have their works performed in the auditorium, to be appraised by experts who would judge which works should be submitted. … The concert went on in the normal way: some pieces were full of emotion but somewhat disorderly, others were orderly but deeply dull. It was Dong Ke's varying styles of music that attracted everyone's attention, but he had been unable to pay enough attention to any one style, and each composition revealed a talented composer in a frantic muddle.

Next was Sensen's quintet. The music gave the audience a feeling of remote simplicity and mystery, and of the unlimited vitality and strength manifested by Nature itself. These bare, rugged melodies seemed to be swelling, twisting and cutting through range upon range of mountain peaks. As Li Ming listened he was seized with a desire to get up and grab hold of the violin strings. It made his muscles tense. He bared his teeth in a fierce, silent laugh.

When Sensen's music was over, none of those present even clapped. No one wanted to speak. They would rather grab hold of something and smash it into pieces. Sensen was surrounded and would have been physically assaulted had it not been for Meng Ye's cello concerto, which began just then.

Like spectres pushing in from a dark world, the strings moaned incoherently. The cello suddenly took up an ancient ballad, singing it mournfully over and over. This was a ballad of unparalleled humility, as sad as tearful accusations, and it turned the excitement stirred up by Sensen's music into a shapeless and twisted pain. This fiend of a cello seemed to grab hold of the very soil, on which it rolled back and forth, leaving the audience spiritually unsettled. Li Ming wanted to cry but could not, so he kept opening his mouth wide, gasping great gulps of air. Sensen went over to where Meng Ye was sitting and got him in a headlock. Meng Ye saved himself by grabbing Sensen's arm.

The mood in the orchestra swelled. The brass enveloped the whole world, overturning each towering rocky peak, every soaring ancient tree, crumbling them at once. That fiendish cello ceaselessly struggled amid the very destruction of the planet, singing this simple, ancient tune for all creation.

The performance was over. In the audience, on the stage, the students let out a roar. Some lifted Sensen onto the stage, then decided to fling him back down again. Someone wanted to spear Meng Ye with a bow. Abandoned score sheets flew through the air. …

That evening, there was no sign of Meng Ye.

The concert had shaken up Professor Ya. Dong Ke had really gone off track by being too clever for his own good, but at least one of his compositions had approached Haydn. As for Meng Ye and Sensen, they had been shocking. They had created unadulterated musical havoc; they were the Destroyers of the musical world.

Sensen and Meng Ye. Their names were hazards, pollutants in a sacred world. Professor Ya boiled with rage every time he thought of their music. What a ruckus! And in a dignified seat of music learning!

What were they trying to express?

Professor Jin intended to address the department on this subject at the next assembly. It was imperative to let the whole nation know about this. The appearance of this kind of music was no trivial matter.

What words could describe it? Fascism, murder … even these words were not enough. Professor Ya racked his brains for a fitting criticism of these two works.

Nicolas Groffman graduated from Cambridge University where he majored in Chinese and eventually specialized in modern Chinese literature. He worked for China's Southeast Television in the mid 1990s, but later became a commercial lawyer, practicing in Beijing.

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