Gong Linna on her life and music:
When I think of my childhood I know that I have been very lucky. I wanted to be a singer ever since I was a little child, and fate often helped me to pursue this direction.
When I was six I began to attend Music School on Sundays. I liked it, I even spent the holiday periods there – as so many other children did – preparing concert programs and singing folk songs from many different parts of Guizhou. Guizhou is my home province in Southern China, a vast region with lush vegetation and high mountains. It’s situated in China’s wild south, where a great many different people live and many different languages are spoken. But at school we were all like a big family, and it was like a second home to me. The concerts we gave involved touring to many other parts of China, and they offered me a chance to get to know my own country better. And not just China, by the time I was twelve we gave some concerts in France, and stayed there for four whole weeks. It was a unique chance for me to discover something of the outside world. Just think of it: at this time Guiyang, my hometown, was still a fairly remote and underdeveloped place!
When I was sixteen I left home to enter the Chinese Music Conservatory in Beijing on middle-school level. Finally! I had been looking much forward to this. Coming from a very poor region, and speaking a really heavy dialect, I soon noted that my fellow students were laughing at me. But for my part I was still so happy with this opportunity – this chance to be at the Conservatory and to study there every day – that I simply couldn’t be stopped: I got up every morning no later than 5am and walked over to the classroom to start learning!
One morning, on entering the classroom, I observed that it was actually only 2am! On my way back I found that the door to the dormitory had been locked, so I had to sleep in the classroom on some hard chairs. But these were mere trifles to cope with. I loved studying, and I managed to become the best student of my age-group. In 2001, I completed my studies, and got a great job as a solo singer with China’s most important orchestra for traditional music, the National Traditional Chinese Orchestra in Beijing (Zhongyang Yinyuetuan). It was a stroke of luck, and from this point onwards, my career began to sky-rocket. I was awarded the Second Price in a prestigious National Singing Competition, broadcast on TV throughout China, and I became famous almost overnight.
Did it make me happy? The success made me dizzy for a start! I got numerous offers and opportunities for performances, and was only too happy to oblige. And yet… there was something about these performances that was not entirely to my liking, as I came to realize after a while. I had been classically trained, but what people expected me to do on the stage now was rather different. The concerts were in the style of popular revues, mixing up many different musical styles, and all the artists were expected to sing playback. One simply danced to the music and synchronized one’s mouth with the pre-recorded sounds. Admittedly, live was eventful. I found myself travelling to many new places in China again, and this time I appeared in big venues, and sang for audiences of thousands of people. I still became very unhappy with this situation. It all had so little to do with music – with what I considered to be really heartfelt music! I was plainly going through the motions, most of the time. There was no experiencing of any kind of challenge, no sense whatsoever of music as an art. No spirit of innovation, no connection with the contemporary music scene, no heart, no soul to what I was doing.
One day I happened to take part in a huge show. This was during the day time. In contrast to the evening shows, where I was always blinded by floodlights, I could suddenly see my audience, I directly stared into their eyes and look at the expressions on their faces. What did these people hope to get from me? What were their expectations? Facing this question, I suddenly felt deeply ashamed. There I was, not even really singing, just moving my lips! Right there, I promised myself never ever to sing playback again. It was a turning-point, and a fateful decision, because it meant I was going to bar myself from a great deal of fame and money. Yet, after this, I consciously and deliberately rejected many concert offers. They would have brought me payment and fame, perhaps, but no joy.
It was very difficult. But right at this time I met the composer Lao Luo. This meeting was another stroke of luck, an event which put me onto a very different trail. At first, Lao Luo introduced me to many kinds of music from all around the world, music I had never heard or realized existed before! He opened my mind and heart to a great many new perspectives. Then, working together with him, and singing his compositions, I learned to use my vocal technique and sound to serve real musical purposes. Here I was, singing with pleasure again, and bringing forth great music! Since then I have had many wonderful experiences, and numerous chances to perform concerts in outstanding venues, sometimes together with great musicians, both Chinese and foreign.
At present I continue to discover the many possibilities of my own voice. I see a musical future that is like a sound unfolding, and I can cherish the infinite beauty of music.
Catch Gong Linna at the BT River of Music concert Asia Stage on the 21st July