2021 China Colloquium

Guangchen Chen, Assistant Professor, REALC, Emory University

In What Language does the Nightingale Sing? Sounding China in Stravinsky’s The Nightingale

Feb 9, 7:30–8:30 pm EST via Zoom Meeting

Register Here

Is music really a universal language, or is it culturally specific? In the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s Andersen-inspired opera The Nightingale, the soundscape of China runs into conflict with that of nature, culminating in the singing contest between a real nightingale and a mechanical one at the court of the Chinese emperor. 

This scenario entails two sets of questions: first, how do we represent nature musically? Second, and more fundamentally, what is nature? Is it benign, harmonious, and orderly, or indifferent, illegible, and even chaotic? Contrary to common expectations, Stravinsky uses the more conventional tonal music to represent the artificial bird, and the less "appealing" (at least for some) twelve-tone music for the natural bird. This talk will analyze the ostensibly counterintuitive choices Stravinsky makes by situating his modernist experiment with tonal languages in the broader historical perspective of how Europe imagined China both sonically and philosophically.