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Yunnan-infused music inspiring North American audiences

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From Western-style weddings to foreign foods to hiphop and Bollywood, it is difficult to overstate how much the outside world has changed Yunnan over the last three decades. But globalization is a two-way street, and different elements of Yunnan culture such as pu'er tea or Yunnan cuisine are generating increasing interest beyond China's borders.

The musical work "Yunnan Folk Songs" by Canadian composer Vivian Fung that premiered in Chicago in March, is the latest example of the outside world's continuing discovery of Yunnan culture.

A well-regarded composer with a doctorate from The Juilliard School in New York, Fung has adapted the music of several Yunnan minorities for a Western chamber orchestra with soprano and baritone singers.

She first discovered the source material for "Yunnan Folk Songs" through recordings of Yi, Hani, Lisu and Jingpo music made by Zhang Xingrong (张兴荣), a professor at the Yunnan Art Institute. Zhang has been making field recordings and transcriptions of music by these ethnic groups since the 1980s.

"When I first heard the recordings, which I ordered directly from Professor Zhang, my heart skipped a beat," says Feng, who has integrated elements of other Asian music, including that of the Uighur ethnic group in northwest China, into earlier compositions.

"The singing immediately made a deep and profound impact. I was in awe of the singers' raw voices, representing the uninhibited qualities of people expressing their genuine feelings through their melodies.

"I was also struck by the fact that most of the songs are harmonically and rhythmically complex, including contrapuntal textures unusual in East Asian music, with as many as eight independent vocal parts."

Fung adapted components of the recordings into "Yunnan Folk Songs", a seven-song cycle. The work includes titles such as "Love Song While Planting Rice Fields," based on a traditional Hani minority song and the "Youth Dance Song" from the Ahsi, a subset of the Yi people.

The composition opened to positive reviews on March 22 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago. According to the Chicago Classical Review, Yunnan Folk Songs was the "clear audience favorite" of the three pieces presented that night.

More information and sample recordings from Yunnan Folk Songs are available at Fung's website.

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