A maestro who nurtures 'different voices'

German conductor and composer Robert Zollitsch, better known as Lao Luo in China, has been a prominent figure on the Chinese music scene for years.

Filmed by Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Zhong Youyang and Shen Tianyu. Translated by Shen Tianyu. Polished by Andy Boreham.

At first glance, the musicians rehearsing for a concert at the Shanghai Symphony Hall seemed like any other traditional Chinese orchestra, composed of instruments like the erhu, a two-stringed bowed instrument, the guqin, Chinese zither, and the dizi, or Chinese bamboo flute.

All ordinary until the conductor raised his arm to signal for a pause after hearing something that an unprofessional ear might miss.

“From bar 141,” the German-born conductor said in fluent Chinese to resume the rehearsal.

A soloist at the front of the orchestra began to sing Chinese lyrics in tones that resonated through the music hall.

Meet conductor and composer Robert Zollitsch and his Chinese wife Gong Linna, Shanghai residents who have been prominent figures on the Chinese music scene for years.

They became household names in early 2010, when they introduced an unconventional song called “Tante,” or “Disturbed,” to Chinese audiences. Zollitsch composed the music and Gong sang the lyrics.

It was impossible to pigeon-hole the piece into existing music genres, but it was distinctively Chinese. The song went viral at home and abroad, provoking considerable comment and even copycat versions.

At the time, Gong said “Tante” represented the state of mind of contemporary China.

“The Chinese struggle between money and dreams,” she said. “Values and faiths are challenged. This process is very disturbing, but it also inspires a lot of energy because the country is moving forward all the time.”

In a more recent interview, she summed it up this way: “Music is all about having fun.”

Theirs is a marriage of musical styles and innovation. “I don’t like calling it traditional or ethnic Chinese music because it’s not old or historical,” says Zollitsch, who is perhaps better known by his Chinese name Lao Luo.

“It is Chinese New Art Music,” he says, “and it represents not old traditional historical China, but 21st century China. It is about incorporating what’s traditional and what’s contemporary to create a new and unique voice that is Chinese and can be appreciated by audiences anywhere.”

Ti Gong

Lao Luo conducts a recent concert by the Shanghai Chinese Music Orchestra.

Ti Gong

Appearing on stage with the maestro is his wife, singer Gong Linna.

His most recent passion is to revive the bianzhong, an ancient Chinese instrument composed of a set of bronze bells that requires multiple players. It is not a regular component of traditional Chinese orchestras. In fact, this instrument has largely remained a museum piece, with occasional, rare performances to demonstrate its sound.

Lao Luo and Gong revived it by composing new music for the instrument. Unlike historians, they are not particularly interested in how the bells were performed thousands of years ago.

“That would be impossible and not my purpose,” Lao Luo says. “I want to revive it by proving it can create sound that’s contemporary. It has a unique voice.”

Despite his interest in creating contemporary sounds, he is not particularly fond of mainstream pop music nor the tendency of the Chinese music industry to mimic Western musical styles.

In a somewhat blunt interview with Shanghai Daily three years ago, he blamed musicians and music educators for “lacking confidence in their own culture and music.”

Since then, traditional-style Chinese music has gained more audiences, thanks to government policies promoting traditional culture and the omniscient video games and TV dramas that borrow their themes from ancient Chinese folk tales and myths, set against a backdrop of traditional music.

Yet, for Lao Luo, it’s not enough.

“I have been working on Chinese music for over 25 years now,” he explains, harking back to his arrival in Shanghai in 1993 to study the guqin. “Since then, the music industry and environment in China haven’t made much progress. Why are Chinese musicians today so lost? They have no confidence in their own voices. Western music is still considered better in most music schools and institutions, which is a huge misunderstanding.”

The “New Chinese Art Music” that he and his wife are credited with creating still doesn’t have enough voices, he adds. He took the Indian music as example.

“You listen for three seconds and you know it’s Indian,” he explains. “In China, we rarely have that. If you listen to a song without the lyrics, you will have no idea that it’s from China. This is one of the failures of Chinese pop music. It doesn’t have its own voice. And if it doesn’t have its own voice, it will never become international.”

Ti Gong

Lao Luo plays bianzhong, an ancient Chinese musical instrument consisting of a set of bronze bells.

Through his compositions, including popular songs like “Tante” and more traditional songs like “Bridge” and “Shangui,” Lao Luo aims to develop a Chinese voice. Recently, he held a concert at the Shanghai Symphony Hall with Gong, where they performed chamber music and two of their new pieces.

The concert embodied a mixture of elements from both Western and Eastern music, fluctuating from powerful, rhythmic and traditional Chinese beats to melodies accompanied by instrumental solos. Collectively, the concert told a story recorded in ancient Chinese poems and myths, expressed through the progression of the music.

 “I’m incredibly fascinated whenever I’m singing these compositions of Chinese ancient poems,” says Gong. “When I was singing ‘Shangui’ in rehearsal, I couldn’t hold back tears. But, in reality, it’s not me who is touched, but rather that the energy resonating in my voice, the music and the orchestra that gives me a sense that my music isn’t being sung just for people to hear. This feeling is fundamentally present within the ancient Chinese poems. It’s something that just naturally ensues.”

While traditional Chinese music, including Peking Opera, is authentically representative of Chinese culture, Lao Luo argues that audiences abroad won’t be able to truly enjoy the music without some background knowledge about it. Given that lack, audience sizes abroad have decreased, making it difficult to internationalize the Chinese music industry.

Lao Luo’s solution is to adapt traditional pieces to the style of contemporary society.

“There will be different sorts of voices emerging,” he says. “Maybe in a piece, half is Western and half is Eastern. That’s okay. If it’s very Eastern, that’s also interesting. No matter the type of voice, you will still feel that there is a very prominent and unique Chinese style within the music.”

He adds, “Linna and I have found the same voice, but that one voice is an accumulation of many different contemporary voices.”

Lao Luo admits that his goal of representing 21st-century China while bridging 2,500 years of history will take time. In the end, he believes, this new music “will revitalize history and outshine modern music.”

 (Iris Chen contributed to this article.)

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