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Zulan modernizes ancient Mongolian musical traditions

Adelheid Feilcke / rfSeptember 23, 2015

In her music, Mongolian composer Zulan combines horse-head violins with overtone singing and Western music traditions. "Amila," her new composition, symbolizes new life and premiered at the Beethovenfest in Germany.

Mongolian composer Zulan, Copyright: DW/A. Feilcke
Image: DW/A. Feilcke

Her avant-garde style is both hip and exotic, and she draws artsy crowds in Beijing, New York and Paris. Zulan is an artist, musician and composer who fashions her own sound cosmos out of Western, Chinese and Mongolian music traditions. Direct but abstract, it combines archaic roughness with the most delicate shades of tonal color.

As the music, so the artist: Zulan's piercings and her short pants are upbeat and modern, her shiny blue platform shoes stylish.

Zulan's full Mongolian name is Munk Zulan, which can translate as "the eternally burning butter lamp." That lamp, a candle of yak butter, symbolizes the state of enlightenment in Buddhism. The name and its connotations fit the artist perfectly, who constantly exudes energy yet has an almost meditatively calm air about her. Everything in the small, 34-year-old woman - and in her music - seems to express strength and decisiveness.

Rehearsing with her band, Mongolism, in Beijing, she seats herself at the piano, tosses back her wild mane of black, curly hair and exchanges a couple of ideas with the musicians. Seconds later, Zulan's universe of sound unfolds. With her strangely rough but gentle voice, she intones a melody and accompanies herself at the piano. The band members chime in.

Mongolian composer Zulan, Copyright: DW/A. Feilcke
Zulan worked closely with members of the National Youth OrchestraImage: DW/A. Feilcke

The sonorous cello blends with the equally full-bodied strings of the Mongolian horse-head violin and Western percussion instruments with Mongolian rattles made of sheep vertebrae. Bamboo and plastic flutes blend with a mouth harp. Then, soaring high above the deep, throaty singing of the male band members, flute-like, is the mildly irritating alchemy of Mongolian overtone vocals.

Music imitates life

Zulan's world is one of contrasts. Her family comes from Inner Mongolia, but she grew up in Beijing. She speaks Chinese and only a few phrases of the Mongolian language of her forefathers. Studying composition under well-known professors from China and Europe, she slowly began to amalgamate her cultural roots - Chinese and Mongolian music - with what she learned of Western music.

Mongolian composer Zulan, Copyright: DW/A. Feilcke
Mongolia, China, Germany - Zulan links cultures in her musicImage: DW/A. Feilcke

She penned chamber music and highly successful film scores. In one instance, her music features in a highly successful Chinese fantasy film produced by her husband, director Wu Ershan. Like such films, Zulan's music plays to a longing in today's China for bygone traditions and heroic cultures in violently beautiful natural settings. Contemporary Chinese are fond of all things Mongolian, considering them a part of their history.

Zulan's music is one of ruptures and bridges. Traditional instruments, overtone singing and Mongolian harmonies are the ingredients of her band Mongolism, mostly made up of Mongolian musicians. The choice of name was deliberately provocative, connoting both "Mongolian" and the derogatory term "Mongoloid" - and the product is not folklore, but rather a musical mutation of traditional elements.

Zulan's Beethoven project

For the Beethovenfest 2015, Zulan was commissioned by Deutsche Welle to write a work for Germany's National Youth Orchestra in the spirit of Beethoven. Visiting the house in Bonn where the composer was born in 1770, she let her impressions of the place flow into the composition. She called it "Amila" - Mongolian for "give life" and the name of her son. While the birth of her son was a turning point in her own identity, her collaboration with the German festival likewise symbolizes a new chapter in her creativity, Zulan told DW.

In the new work, Mongolism's sound environment is extended to a full symphony orchestra while retaining native techniques and instruments. Power and spirit were necessary for the survival of her nomadic ancestors, says Zulan - and remain characteristics of modern culture in her land.

Feeling that energy also in the music of Beethoven, she wants to bring it to life with the young musicians of Germany's National Youth Orchestra.