Building cultural ties, note by note

Photo by Christopher Huang.

Anthony De Ritis, chair of Northeastern’s music department, is spending the next four months as a Fulbright Scholar in Beijing, where he is developing an interactive multimedia database on traditional Chinese instruments for Western composers.

De Ritis left Monday for China, where he will study at the Central Conservatory of Music, considered to be China’s equivalent of the Julliard School in New York City. He has already begun work on a prototype of the web-based resource that will provide composers with video, historical context, analysis of construction and the acoustics of Chinese instruments.

“Western composers tend to compose in a certain way — there are certain things they traditionally look for (and) there is really no resource in the English language for them to do that with traditional Chinese instruments,” said De Ritis, who explained his work could open up a new field of instrumentation for composers unfamiliar with instruments developed and played half a world away.

De Ritis has been traveling to and from China since the late ’90s, when he composed a piece called “Plum Blossoms” for a digital music conference held in Beijing. Those experiences have led him to establish himself as a composer who relies heavily on traditional Eastern instruments for his new works.

“I started developing all these opportunities for writing around Chinese musical instruments, and I started learning the language, and suddenly I developed a bit of a reputation as a composer of music with Chinese and non-Western instruments,” De Ritis said.

De Ritis considers his work to be a type of “cultural diplomacy,” in which members of different cultures work together toward a common goal, building relationships that can carry over into other fields. He has worked with UNESCO and the U.S. State Department, and is a founding board member of a group that is building an orchestra for young musicians from Haiti and the Dominican Republic — neighboring countries with stark cultural differences — to practice and perform together.

“There’s this notion that music is a sort of ‘universal language.’ It’s not,” De Ritis said.

“What is universal is the fact that we all have ears and we are cultures that attempt to organize frequencies in some meaningful way. So music is a means of bringing people together. Any great music needs to be a dialogue. There are ways we can leverage our dialogue through music and learn what it means to communicate through music so that lessons can be learned and applied to other fields, like politics.”

De Ritis hopes his research this fall in Beijing will help bridge the long-standing gap between two musical worlds that have remained largely separate through much of history.

“There’s this desire, want and need to work together,” De Ritis said. “And if that’s not cultural diplomacy, what is?”