When the Global Meets the Local in Cantonese Choral Works: Toward a Model of Text-Tone-Music Relationships
Hedy Law University of British Columbia
Since the Cantonese linguistic tones are critical components of the Cantonese language, how do composers write a composition that consists of multiple vocal parts while making sure that all the melodic parts sufficiently correlate to linguistic tones? In this paper, I answer this question by analyzing a Cantonese choral song, “No Woundless World” (2018). With lyrics by Chris Shum and music by composer Alex Tam, this song demonstrates meticulously constructed three-part vocal writing, featuring various degrees of correspondence between linguistic tones and melody that result in an ever-shifting musical texture. Instead of the text-and-music relationships that are usually used in musical analysis, I develop a new model—of text-tone-music relationships—that explain unusual musical features that could not be adequately explained without taking linguistic tones as an analytical parameter. Importantly, a new wave of established composers—Yin Ng, Leon Ko, Jason Liu, Cynthia Wong—meet the same musical-linguistic challenge by composing Cantonese multivocal compositions. Their works—performed at international music festivals by prominent ensembles such as the Hong Kong Children’s Chorus—illustrate Cantonese choral music as a genre suitable for the global music stage. But the significance of these songs goes beyond tokenism. Their musical-linguistic properties raise epistemological questions about research on vocal music, which takes non-tonal languages exclusively as its analytical premise. The text-tone-melody properties present a compositional challenge for Hong Kong composers who use a “local” language to expand their “global” compositional training. Their Cantonese choral compositions provide examples for reconceptualizing language, the sound of language, and music.