The Hsu-nami: an Asian American performance of Chinese Experimental Music

 

Electric Erhu/ Erhu metal http://taiwaneseamerican.org/ta/2008/01/22/the-hsu-nami-erhu-rock/

 



I. Introduction

Under an increasingly global social network of human interactions, the emergence of experimental music reveals the possibility of merging dissonant and/or unrelated sounds to achieve compatible coexistence while preserving their fundamental differences. It is arguable that this evolving musical form reflects cultural dynamics through its incorporation of the complexity of ethnical, racial and cultural contact, negotiation, mimicry, and transformation in the music composition and performance itself. This concept of performing ethno-nationalism creates a framework that “[envisions] ethnicity as expressing a state of balance between constraints and opportunities arising out of multiple nations”[i]. Specifically, this research paper will focus on Erhu rock, a musical performance that infuses elements of the Chinese two-string instrument in Western rock music. Through the case study on The Hsu-nami, a New Jersey based progressive rock band fronted by Asian American Jack Hsu, the research paper aims to answer, “How does experimental music reshape the way ethnic identity is performed?” The paper will examine the limitations that a rigid definition of an individual’s ethnic identity imposes, as well as define and present pragmatic multiculturalism as the preferable approach to interpret and reshape Chinese ethno-nationality.

To contextualize the argument in this paper, it is essential to understand the musical background of Erhu, also known as the Chinese violin, and the role it plays in Erhu rock. Erhu, a two stringed fiddle, is traditionally performed in Chinese operatic ensembles. This is a highly technical musical genre in the sense that Erhu players display precise “posture, articulation, finger technique, and tuning” in pieces that often “[imitate] short decorative passages” inspired by Chinese folklore[ii]. While the rigorous motor requirements may result in patterned performance, Hsu incorporates its colossal sliding gestures and dimensions of tempo with rock guitar virtuosity. “The Erhu sound [takes] up the space conventionally reserved for the lead vocal or instrumental track”, thereby emphasizes the presence of the instrument itself while adding excessive tempo fluctuations to rock music’s speed and strength[iii]. Through this fusion, Hsu introduces the foreign Erhu to an American audience without overemphasizing its ethnic otherness.

With Hsu fronting an all white American rock band, The Hsu-nami’s ethnic makeup immediately represents an imagined cultural union to many Taiwanese Americans and designates foreignness to the Westerners in the audience. Arguably, this immediate association with Jack Hsu based on his presumed ethnicity leads many to overlook his personal multi-ethnic background, thereby narrowing the in-between social and cultural space of trans-nationality that defines him as an artist. Born to Taiwanese parents in the United States, Jack Hsu’s unique musical identity is a result of early exposures to violin in New Jersey and Erhu in Nanjing throughout his childhood years[iv]. As Jonathan P.J. Stock suggests in An Ethnomusicological Perspective on Musical Style, Jack “[formed his] own, possibly quite contradictory, definitions of musical style according to [his] own preconceptions, experiences and need” to understand and express his multi-ethnic identity[v]. While he originally infused Erhu into rock in an attempt to merge his two musical interests, his experimental move has since developed into Erhu rock, a musical genre that challenges both the aesthetic boundaries of Erhu and rock, while simultaneously problematizing the strong ethnic prototypes of each that the audience perceive.

As a result, Hsu and his band have assumed the role of leveraging a transnational musical diplomacy by blurring the boundaries on both musical elements and cultural heritage in its Erhu-rock compositions. Specifically, the paper will analyze The Hsu-nami’s two notable pieces, Rising to the Sun and Passport to Taiwan, to document the band’s message on ethno-nationalism. Selected to represent PRC’s basketball team in the Beijing Olympics, Rising to the Sun propelled The Hsu-nami’s ethnic ambiguity to the foreground. Its musical fusion and members’ ethnic composition, both described earlier, invoked racially infused language from the press. While some Chinese listeners struggled with Hsu’s Taiwanese heritage, the Western press categorized him and the band as “not American”[vi]. Reactions from both parties indicate an incorrect assumption that ethnicity is equivalent to and bounded by nationality, an issue that will be further addressed in the analysis section. In response, Hsu and his band mates produced Passport to Taiwan, a track that utilizes Taiwanese traditional folk tunes in addition to Erhu’s technical elements. This is an effort to not just display technical combination of Erhu and rock, but to challenge “the notions of ethnic purity and essentialism”[vii]. By including cultural appropriation in addition to musical technicality, The Hsu-nami negotiates and expands its musical style within the wider context of social interaction to promote cross-ethnic dialogue.

II. Analysis

In Hsu’s own words, The Hsu-nami has identified its mission as expressing “the love of two cultures coming together” through their Erhu-rock music to contest the binary between ‘Asian’ and ‘American’[viii]. In particular, Hsu addresses the cultural stigma of ethnic foreignness by focusing on the tunes over their origins. His work embodies the concept of pragmatic multiculturalism, an approach that “foregrounds the marginal position of the Asian American minority that moves back and forth between voicing its minority status and harvesting the benefits of being a transnationally situated agent”[ix]. Hsu and The Hsu-nami work to maintain the emphasis on ethnical flexibility by deploying strategic ambiguity in their political and national positioning. By avoiding association with a specific nation, Hsu asserts that ethnic and cultural heritage transcends nationalism. Through Erhu rock, The Hsu-nami creates a contact zone in which individuals reimagine their ethnic identities through the process of alienating, resisting, reconciling, and exploring how ethno-nationality could be performed.

Erhu rock evolved from a pure musical experiment to a conscious ethno-national conversation. As exemplified by The Hus-nami’s Rising to the Sun, Erhu rock emerged as a means to “suggest new possibilities prompting a partial or general realignment of the others”[x]. By adapting the musical structure of both Erhu and rock, The Hsu-nami employed corresponding changes in performance technique. While Hsu originally drew on his musical heritage from both violin and Erhu to hybridize his own musical style, the strong associations with both Erhu and his identity as an Asian American are perceived as indicators of foreignness that prompted reflexive stigmatizations from both Chinese and Western audiences. The discussions on whether Hsu is Chinese, in terms of his ethnic and national identities, by both parties reflects an intrinsic need for a definite ethno-national categorization. As Wendy F. Hsu implies however, “conflating ethnicity, national origin, and nationality allows no room for ethnic multiplicity within a nation or an individual’s heritage and culture”[xi]. The concept of ethno-nationalism is inherently problematized as societies simply attribute the complexity of cultural inheritance and identity to an individual’s ethnicity by appearance rather than by experiences.

To recapture the understanding of ethno-nationalism and ethnic identity that have been fragmented by overgeneralization, The Hsu-nami complements its Erhu rock music by incorporating Asian cultural content in an attempt to promote multiculturalist thinking. In Passport to Taiwan, Hsu combines melodies from three Taiwanese folk and pop songs with Erhu rock elements. In technical representation, the Erhu and rock medleys are each presented at the forefront and in unison in the three choruses[xii]. By providing cultural context in support of the musical fusion, Hsu creates a space where “cultural mixing [is] a way of life, non-threatening as alienated cultural form and pleasing to the ear”[xiii]. This refutes the downplaying of complex ethnical imbrications and exchange that shape ethnic identities. Instead, Hsu maximizes the impact of Erhu rock by uniting both Chinese and Western audiences in an unfiltered experience of ethnically diverse, yet synchronized sounds. Moreover, Passport to Taiwan is positioned as a cultural visa to Taiwan, as implied by the song’s title. This in itself defies the common assumption that Taiwanese Americans like Hsu primarily identify themselves as Taiwanese as opposed to Americans. Thus, the musical and ethnic unison “[exemplify] the in between social and political space of transnationality”, thereby overcomes the stigmatized and rigid conception of “ethnicized individuals”[xiv]. Through works like Passport to Taiwan, The Hsu-nami reshapes how ethnic identities can be performed and interpreted through a pragmatic multiculturalist approach of highlighting cross-ethnicity compatibility without allowing the Erhu sound to both dominate and be dominant over the Western rock. This reshapes dialogical space between ethnic relations and suggests that ethnical confluence is integral, not destructive, to a more complete representation of individual ethnic identities.

Erhu rock embodies the hybridization of musical forms and cross-ethnic understanding as part of a movement to reshape how ethnic identities are performed, perceived and reimagined. Through the musical fusion, The Hsu-nami fuels a musically and racially interconnected understanding of multi-ethnicity, its implications, and its significance. Stock’s argument that “ musical style must be defined flexibly enough to incorporate all perspectives and the different abstractions which arise from them” encapsulates Erhu rock both as a musical genre and as platform to reimagine Chinese and Western ethnic identities, unique to each individual[xv]. By incorporating the Taiwanese, Chinese, and American musical and cultural influences equally, Hsu and The Hsu-nami pragmatically demonstrates the complex relationship between multiple ethnicities that can play into shaping an individual’s multiculturalist ethnic identity. The understanding that ethnic identities include but are not solely determined by nationalism is essential The Hsu-nami and Erhu rock in general to retain the complexity of world music and consciously acknowledge the presence of the real people who appropriate music to their own experiences.

III. Synthesis

In an effort to analyze and synthesize how experimental music could reshape the way ethnicities are performed, the research paper proposes that Sinosphere sociality extends beyond a single, rigid tie to Chinese biological heritage. Its implication that ethnic identity an individualized, not national, concept both aligns with themes in the unit studies on Chinese pop advant-garde and Chinese performance of interculturalism and offers another perspective to the debate on Chinese ethnic minority representation.

The nature of experimental music, and specifically Erhu rock, is highly similar to Chinese pop avant-garde theatre: both are a constantly evolving quest for original ways to reconcile ideology and reality in order to contribute to and engage people in socially relevant discussions. Meng Jinghui, the representative figure in Chinese experiemental theatre, suggests that he explores alternative strategies for social confrontation by not focusing on resistance but on communication by “doing whatever constitutes the opposite of non-experimental drama”[xvi]. His approach redefines instead of not negating pop in response to political and social restraints mirrors Hsu and The Hsu-nami’s effort to draw equal influences from Erhu and rock as well as Chinese and Western culture to enhance its musical outreach. As a result of this artistic reformation, both pop advant-garde and Erhu rock challenge preconceived understanding of what Chinese is or is not, and suggest that Chinese-ness cannot be subject to a single definition. Instead, both embody the dynamicity of Chinese identity to reflect the existing cultural contradictions and seek alternative strategies for independent self-expression Thus, both Meng and Hsu have broadened their respective artistic fields while contributing to the establishment of ethnic and personal identities within changing contexts.

Through conscious mixing of performance traditions, Erhu rock is a fusion of Chinese traditional tunes and Western rock that can be related to the adaptation of Western plays to Chinese traditional opera as ways of performing interculturalism. Each reflects the hybridization of musical and theatre performance, thereby proves that cultures are artificially created by the codification and convention in which they are used. Thus, both create an effective platform to reinvent Chinese culture and identity, while in the process re-conceptualizing the dynamics between Chinese and Western artistic projects. While Chinese traditional opera is revitalized and reinvented to become a “strong means of rendering certain new stories, including those from the West”, Erhu rock creates a synchronized sound that disrupts the audience’s tendency to independently distinguish to influences of Erhu and rock.[xvii] The case study of Xin Bi Tian Gao exemplifies a successful adaptation of Western drama to Chinese traditional theatre in which parts of the original work is conformed to prompt a discussion on Chinese feminine roles, thereby adapting the Western framework to present modern, socially relevant concerns in China. On the other hand, Erhu rock utilizing pragmatic multiculturalism to suggest that ethnical and cultural exchange is more of a dialogue to enhance mutual understanding than a re-interpretation to sinicize ethno-nationalism in a nation’s own terms. Despite the ambiguity as to which, if any, approach should be favored, both artistic movements empower individuals to reinvent and represent their ethnical identity on their own accord.

Erhu rock showcases Hsu’s belief that each individual’s experienced multiculturalism is vital to maintain the complexity of world music and refine the scope to understand ethnic identity. This argument is a leap from the “Ethnic Classification Project”, the identification and categorization of [Chinese] ethnic minority groups based on the respective groups’ perceived ethnic potential[xviii]. Though intended to give these protected cultural initiatives an opportunity to take a life of their own, systematic categorization has inevitably resulted in compression of ethnic diversity. This reflects the paradoxical needs to promote Chinese ethnic minorities in an economically sustainable way without damaging each ethnic minority’s visions for its role in China. Arguably, The Hsu-nami’s effective implementation of pragmatic multiculturalism in music could potentially offer an alternative solution to the paradox. Perhaps the merging ethnic minority elements and style with other Chinese performance forms, such as traditional opera, would offer an experimental artistic mix of cultural components unique to the diverse Chinese culture itself. In essence, the idea is to reimagine Chinese ethnic minority identities not as part of an overarching Chinese identity but as its integral equal that would further the dynamicity of individualized ethnic and Chinese identities.

Understanding and defining Chinese identity have been one of the focal discussions throughout the course. Based off of this complex question, the research paper has proposed the impracticality of generalizing ethnic identity in terms of national boundaries. Instead, it has investigated alternative strategies to resolve the coexisting needs to obtain a sense of belongingness while maintaining individuality through a close analysis on The Hsu-nami’s work in Erhu rock. Its integration and promotion of multi-ethnicity is similar to Advant-garde and intercultural performances that other artists produced in their respective attempts to reconcile the paradox of ethnic identity. Overall, the paper has come to a conclusion that ethnic identity results from each individual’s personal reinvention based on a synthesis of his or her experiences, a complexity that pragmatic multiculturalism has merely begun to highlight.

 

http://denverlibrary.org/blog/erhoopla

http://denverlibrary.org/blog/erhoopla

 

Notes


[i] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 92.

[ii] Stock, Jonathan P.J. “An Ethnomusicological Perspective on Musical Style, with Reference to Music for Chinese Two-Stringed Fiddles.” Journal of the Royal Music Association. Asian American Studies. 118. 297. Print.

[iii] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 101.

[iv] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 96.

[v] Ethnomusicological perspective on musical style, 298

[vi] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 99.

[vii] Rao, Nancy Yunwha. The Color of Music Heritage: Chinese American in American Ultra-Modern Music. The John Hopkins University Press, 2009. 108. Print.

[viii] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 98.

[ix] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 105.

[x] Rao, Nancy Yunwha. The Color of Music Heritage: Chinese American in American Ultra-Modern Music. The John Hopkins University Press, 2009. 86. Print.

[xi] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 96.

[xii] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 103.

[xiii] Rao, Nancy Yunwha. The Color of Music Heritage: Chinese American in American Ultra-Modern Music. The John Hopkins University Press, 2009. 108. Print.

[xiv] Wendy F. Hsu (2013). Troubling genre, ethnicity and geopolitics in Taiwanese American independent rock music. Popular Music, 32, pp 93.

[xv] Stock, Jonathan P.J. “An Ethnomusicological Perspective on Musical Style, with Reference to Music for Chinese Two-Stringed Fiddles.” Journal of the Royal Music Association. Asian American Studies. 118. 99. Print.

[xvi] Barden, Christopher. “Experimental Drama Comes of Age: Meng Jinghui’s new production plays to packed houses .” n. page. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://www.beijingscene.com/V05I017/feature/feature.htm>.

[xvii] Sun, Huizhu (William Sun). 2009. “Performing Arts and Cultural Identity in the Era of Interculturalism.” TDR: The Drama Review 53, 2(Summer): 10.

[xviii] Mullaney, Thomas. 2010. “Introduction.” In Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, pp. 10.