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China 2006

Recording the Marketplace theme "in Chinese"

Luo Tong Dec 20, 2005

We finished the last bottle of water as the hour hand pointed to five. Five am. Luo Shoucheng had just carried the hand drums, which he’d borrowed from the Traditional Orchestra, out of the recording room and was ready to put them into his car. Chen Dawei sat in front of the mixing table, taking a last sip of his cold green tea. After the recordist, Xiao Xu’s, raucous shout of “Let’s hear it!” we all trooped back into the mixing room to listen to the final mixed version of the complete new music tracks.

Chen Dawei, the composer, had started off this assignment listening to the original theme tunes and writing down each part of the accompaniment. It took him a week to translate and modify them into a version to suit Chinese instruments. Initially, Chen Dawei used a synthesizer to make the sounds of marimba and drums as well as fifteen other instruments because he wanted to make the whole album sound as close as possible to the original, which had all been done by MIDI. Listening to the tracks again after the first session, we weren’t completely satisfied with what we heard. Electronic music started getting trendy in the 80s. But now the trend is to an authentic original sound. A week later he had written the new parts for more pure traditional Chinese instruments without the synthesizer. And the project manager, Luo Shoucheng, had to organize everybody back to the studio once again to record the new parts of all of the tracks.

Luo Shoucheng is a bamboo flute player, who has released albums and has done stage performing and studio recording through out his music career. Now, as the project manager, he had gathered some of his old colleagues from the Film Orchestra, who are also famous traditional Chinese musicians, to work together as a team recording this album. They have been working together for almost 40 years and they have been through so many different times they have become very good friends as well as work associates. A lot of them are retired now. But because of this project, they were back into the studio and excited at having the opportunity of working together again. The idea was to play some new modern rhythm and tunes with traditional Chinese instruments — something they have rarely done before. They were really into it, still smiling and joking even when they heard that they needed to go back to the studio again to record more tracks after spending a whole night recording the first session. Luo Shoucheng said, “We have to make it good. If we have to do it again, we’ll do it.” I really admire the way they work.

I approached Luo Shoucheng with this recording project in early November. It was a part of the job that I have been working on: the APM’s radio programme, Marketplace, which is doing a special China edition early next year. They wanted to have the theme music adapted into Chinese traditional style. I’ve been filming these musicians for the last few years as a part of the documentary that my own production company is making. They are all like close friends to me now. I am so lucky to know them and to get the chance to know their personal life stories, which makes our documentary really lively and vivid. They are the best Chinese traditional musicians in the country.

Xiao Xu was playing with the mixing software on his mac to get ready for compressing the tracks on to a CD. I had met him in the same studio three years ago when we were recording the theme music for our documentary A Farwell Song. He still called the musicians “Teacher…” like he did before. He was their royal studio sound recordist back in the old days. Since the musicians retired, they don’t work together very often. However, much to his delight, the project has brought all of them back working with him again.

When the computer finished playing the last track, the flowing melody with the pure sound of Chinese instruments hung in the air. A smile appeared on everyone’s face. Relief and satisfaction. The music was brilliant. It was 5.30 am. We had finally finished the second session of the theme music recording for Marketplace’s 2006 China special.

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