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Chinese music and CUCOS

In 2002 a Chinese visiting scholar who was returning to China gave me a CD called "The Essence of Traditional Chinese Music (中國民樂大全) vol.3". I wrote down the tunes from tracks 12, 8 and 2 (高山青, 趕牲靈 and 刮地風) and made a flute duet so I could perform with a CUCCS committee member in their 2007 concert (which was before CCS decided to turn their concert into a pop singing contest).

I was also due to play my version as a solo at a 2006 charity concert which some students had arranged in aid of a blind school in Vietnam, but the concert ran overtime and they had to cut my item. I did however talk with the other performers, who were mostly Chinese, and I suggested they start a Chinese orchestra but I didn't expect to be taken seriously.

In 2007 they arranged a second concert at which I premiered a couple of my father's flute solos, and they did start a Chinese orchestra, calling it Cambridge University Chinese Orchestra Society (CUCOS), which I've supported since 2008.

CUCOS also collaborated with students from the University of Warwick at Coventry, who set up a small Chinese-instrument ensemble called WCOS from 2011 onwards.

Joint Chinese-Western ensemble

At its inception, CUCOS was divided into a Western Instrument Division and a Chinese Instrument Division (called WID and CID---I suppose not having seen A Touch of Frost in the 1990s they won't have been thinking of Denton CID). The division was made mainly because not many Chinese-music scores are available that include both Chinese instruments and Western instruments---most of the available arrangements are either for a Chinese-instrument ensemble or for a Western-instrument ensemble, not a mixture of the two---so it made sense to have two separate series of rehearsals and separate items on the programme at concerts---a couple of WID pieces, some CID pieces and some solo items and small groups. There have also been CID-only concerts, usually by invitation from other organisations who'd like to have Chinese instruments at an event (most notably the British Museum in 2016). Rehearsals were often scheduled at different times to give multi-talented players the option of playing in both groups, although only a few players did this.
A CID item at the 2017 West Road concert
 is shown in this photograph.

There is no funda­mental reason why Western and Chinese instru­ments cannot play in the same ensemble, as long as the composer/arranger is aware of differences in volume etc (think of Bach including both recorder and trumpet in his Brandenburg Concerto No.2)---so some works have been written to include CUCOS players from both ensembles.

CUCOS is an "all-comers" amateur orchestra with no auditions---its attraction to Westerners lies in the novelty of the music (and, in the case of CID, the instruments) rather than a professional standard---and it has to cope with the unpredictability of which instruments will be available in which terms. So when my father wrote a piece to unify the two ensembles in 2008/09, he made the instrumentation quite flexible and said feel free to rearrange as necessary. (His piece quoted the Chinese melodies from my earlier arrangement and expanded the textures.)

My father's piece was not played, but it did result in others being more inclined to the idea of performing a joint piece, and:

The post-lockdown activities of CUCOS have also been all-joint so far: the 2023 and 2024 concerts each had 1 composition and 5 full-group arrangements plus smaller arrangements.

As for my father's piece, in 2014 he suggested it be reworked and submitted to a Singapore Chinese Orchestra competition he'd seen advertised in a music magazine, but he changed his mind when he heard Singapore is one of the very few countries in the world that still imprisons conscientious objectors---he wasn't religious but he was anti-war. Shortly before his death in 2016 he suggested reworking for a Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra competition, which had published over 2 hours of video explaining their instruments, but we weren't able to process all that information in time.

Other WID music

As far as flute parts go, the non-joint arrangements that CUCOS WID obtained from Chinese publishers do tend to have the minor annoyances of treating us as extra piccolos (I had to find fingerings above top C), rarely using the nicer-sounding lower register (perhaps because this isn't available on the Chinese dízi flute), and sometimes being printed a bit sloppily and with dozens of ledger lines (usually fused together) when any 'sensible' arranger should have used ottavation (8va). If I can't quickly sort it out with The GIMP then I tend to re-do my part in Lilypond---usually by hammering out the notes in mwr2ly and editing the result, catching any copying mistakes in rehearsal.
The view from my desk at the 2016 West Road rehearsal
 is shown in this photograph.
You might notice this Lilypond printout of Taiwanese composer Teng Yu-hsien's 1934 song Rainy-night Flower says ``oboe+flute'' on it. They lacked an oboe for the concert so asked me to play passages from both parts, thankfully in time to typeset the combination.

CID usually uses Jianpu notation, although they usually prefer to handwrite it rather than use my Jianpu in Lilypond script.

Some of the music CUCOS has played has been political etc, and I try to avoid participating in those pieces, but it's not always obvious and I have occasionally been caught out by playing something that I didn't realise had such connections until receiving programme notes after the concert. It's better to remember to 'look up' each piece yourself. (I've also been known to drop out if they give the whole concert a title that feels uncomfortable---thankfully this isn't every time.)

Part of the 2023 joint orchestra with graduate composer Jingyu Chen
 is shown in this photograph.

Concert pattern

CUCOS is mostly active in the winter and spring terms, shutting down for the examination term. In their first years they performed at least two concerts per year in different colleges, then in spring 2010 obtained an annual slot at West Road concert hall, and the ensemble as a whole focused on that one concert until a second one was restored in winter 2012. After that they fell into a pattern of two concerts per academic year, the first being a free one in a college (usually Robinson) and the second being ticketed at West Road, which helps raise funds for club instruments (not everyone can bring their own, especially larger instruments). The West Road concert is usually videotaped for players to show to their families in China or wherever---the club is open to everyone, but most players tend to be international students from China, Singapore etc and very few have families living near enough to come to a concert, so they appreciate being able to take home the video file. Sometimes the club is invited to give an additional performance at a large Chinese New Year party (I avoid those).

CUCOS end-of-year concerts have sometimes featured soloists from outside Cambridge, either playing separate items (e.g. guzheng player Lin Li from London in 2016 and 2017), or playing a concerto with the orchestra (e.g. harmonicist Jia-Yi He from America in 2009). In 2015 WCOS visited Cambridge as a group and played an item in the CUCOS concert. Most items however have been produced by CUCOS's own members.


In 2012 a Chinese student on a summer English language programme had brought her large guzheng, and she had too much luggage to take back so she wanted to sell the guzheng and buy another back in China. We arranged to buy it for the club, and I stored it in my flat until they returned to Cambridge in the autumn. Before selling it to us, the student had tried a city centre music shop that displayed a sign saying ``if it's musical, it's here!'' They didn't want it. I do like that music shop (they once lent me a piccolo for a concert at the 11th hour), but I had to resist the temptation to walk in and say ``how about a Chinese guzheng---it's musical, why isn't it here?'' They removed that sign shortly afterwards.
All material © Silas S. Brown unless otherwise stated.