An Introduction to Eli Marshall

For Intro, we speak with the musicians who don’t show up in press releases. We hope to portray a diversity of background and experience in classical music. This is the second interview in an ongoing series.

Occasional contact keeps memories vivid. When I think of Eli Marshall, I remember a crisp, sunny autumn morning and the slightly burnt smell of fresh coffee in his 1980s Tuanjiehu, Beijing apartment like a recurring dream. Over the past 12 years, Eli has been a visiting scholar at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, a composer-in-residence and visiting scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and now a Postdoctoral Associate and Visiting Faculty member at Cornell University. He co-founded the Beijing New Music Ensemble in 2005, but before that we accidentally got to know each other while living in the same neighborhood. We often got together at a small Cantonese restaurant, to talk about Bernstein’s (I still haven’t returned the book) over a casserole of beef brisket and turnip, and reflect on metaphysical matters over bottles of beer.

Five years later, Eli went to Hamburg to study with Manfred Stahnke, one of Ligeti’s students. Later he told me that during this time he was deeply influenced by the microtonal scene in Berlin and Hamburg.

He was recovering from a dose of flu after returning from a 40km cycle ride in Beijing two weeks earlier when we had a long chat on Skype. He was at home in the US, though he says he has a lot of “unfinished business with Asia.” If either Beijing or Hong Kong adopts 100 percent electric cars, he would move back.

Eli Marshall · Photography SUI
Eli Marshall · Photography SUI

VAN: I never asked this question before: how did you start writing music?

Eli Marshall: I grew up listening to my father playing Russian folk music. When I was 18 months old, I fell asleep under the chair of the accordion player during one of his rehearsals. When I was 8—my piano teacher was moving away from Maine—I wrote her a goodbye piece. That was my first musical composition. I was probably copying the action of what my father would do at the dinner table before his rehearsals, writing notes on the stave.

When I was 10, I grew tired of the piano, so I picked up the trumpet. I ended up in a band and a chorus, a standard American experience, for five years. That was my main musical education.

I grew up in the second poorest district of Maine. Our chorus teacher would drive us around to play at most of the 10 elementary schools, separated by some 50 miles. We worked from Renaissance repertoire to popular choral pieces. This propelled me into a strong interest in music that I would never recover from.  

I started officially composing at the age of 17 at Bard College [at Simon’s Rock], in Massachusetts. I had been also improvising, playing a lot of jazz badly on trumpet. I have a secret interest in becoming a jazz musician. Maybe when I start to collect retirement, I’ll start performing.

I have mixed feelings about jazz now though. It’s so standardized, like another kind of classical music—I don’t even think classical music should be classical music! It’s not about jazz being institutionalized; it’s more about the attitude towards what constitutes the creative act and the language.

What are you working on now?

I have been talking a lot about a chamber opera to be commissioned by the Asia Society in Hong Kong. It has been slow in development and has just started picking up some steam. In recent years I have been in Hong Kong more than anywhere else. In some ways I still feel more at home there than in any other city. I’m in my fifth residency there, every few months I have projects and a little personal business there.

I just came back from there last week. I found a way with some logistical support to put together a project based on the work of Harry Partch, the microtonal composer. I’ve been impressed with the amount of interest developing in him around the world, but notice very little of this having happened in Asia yet.

I have been interested in finding a way to capture the spirit of his invention rather than, for example, what the MusikFabrik in Germany has done. They got a huge grant to replicate the instruments to a very high level. It is fantastic—kind of the classical music approach to Partch. But I have been thinking over the course of recent years how these instruments could be replicated in a low-budget fashion. I found a way to use some low-budget construction materials, but also to use some Chinese instruments that could easily replicate the sound and tuning of certain instruments. It was a big experiment.

Next I want to use instruments we already have in Hong Kong to start performing more Partch, and then to consider going around to some universities for potential workshops with some of these instruments. We have put together a couple of excerpts from Partch, demonstrating instruments as well as a couple of his Chinese-influenced works—there’s a whole Chinese aspect to him as well. His parents were missionaries to China, he grew up hearing them speaking Chinese, and he experienced Cantonese operas at an early age.

What’s important is what we can learn by doing more Partch, and that we are not holding on to just the high-level players and instruments or orchestral music. It’s important that there are other things that are more accessible.

Microtonal music can be a beautiful wedge in terms of creativity and individuality, and good for getting away from the institutionalized standard of pitch and instrument and everything else.

Looking back at the Beijing years, what comes up in your mind?

When I look back at it now, there are millions of things I wish I had done. Basically I was a well-trained conservatory kid, even though I hadn’t grown up in classical music or a conservatory, I had been indoctrinated for a few years in my early to mid-20s into that way of thinking. Something of the—can we use the word ‘colonialist’?—perspective. As open minded in some ways as I was, being kind of anti-moving to New York and doing the usual Julliard business.

In some ways I was open minded; in other ways I was rather trapped in the mindset that you write about in your article “Orientalism 2.0”: the idea that these things can be introduced and discovered on unequal levels. I was disabused of that notion relatively quickly, realizing that kind of history was in China already, and the scene there was healthy—in terms of composition in particular. On the other hand, it took me a long time to be fully disabused of the idea of bringing the message of “contemporary music” in with an independent group.

I don’t regret any of this, but at the same time, I developed a taste toward a more experimental side of music, like what Yan Jun did with [the weekly music event] Waterland Kwanyin in Beijing [2005-2010]. There could have been a lot more overlap between the audiences and aesthetics of that experimental scene and contemporary music. It didn’t have to be just violins on the one hand, and crazy improvised electronics on the other hand. The confluence of those groups never happened in Beijing and still hasn’t, where if it would happen it could be a very powerful artistic scene.

Later, when I moved to Germany, I encountered similar feelings in some events in Berlin for example. It is sort of the same model replicated in many cities all over the world. I like it. Usually I like the scene more than the content.

How did your collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai and Ann Hui, the two Hong Kong filmmakers, come about?

A friend in Beijing, Wu Tong, asked if I could help with some orchestral stuff for the score for Wong Kar-Wai’s film “Ashes of Time Redux.” I gave it try and it worked out. The strategy with Wong Kar-Wai is that you need to give him a lot of options, and he will go through it and think about it. For that you need to be able to get the materials out in a short space of time.

The film scene in Hong Kong is a robust one, like Hollywood, and it’s also small like a village, especially when you get into the art film sector. Because of my work with Wong Kar-Wai, I was recommended to Ann Hui.

We met. She needed someone sensitive who could do two jobs at once: to give accurate historical suggestions for “situational music” that was appropriate for 1930s China with a Russian background. She needed someone who was qualified to write this score with an orchestra, someone with knowledge of all the layers of history.   

Will you consider working with films as a major path in your career?

Ann Hui has asked me to read her latest script, and we talked about it over dinner just two weeks ago. Nothing has been formalized but we might be able to work together again.

It would be a fun career. I resisted the idea of going 100 percent in that direction, to be subjected to the whims of the field and the discipline. I would like to do more, and wouldn’t mind being very busy for a period of time, but I also understand some of its limitations. Not all films will be like “The Golden Era” in terms of freedom, interests, and resources.

“The Golden Era” soundtrack.

You might visit the UK in June. Will you visit the Aldeburgh Festival? I love the reeds and the wilderness outside of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Seeing that has inspired me and has made me understand Britten more: he could have had any career he wanted, but he understood the artistic power of self-production, having his own festival and keeping it small. That’s still a constant reminder to me of what I would like to do. That’s one reason I see that electronic musicians in Beijing and Berlin are in tune with what Britten imagined.

What has happened to the Beijing New Ensemble you co-founded?

I’ve been interested in starting something again, but less of a fixed chamber ensemble and more of a small-to-medium-size thing, which might have the moving parts of individuals, between from six to 18 performers, something that really draws on the talent that is most easily found in Beijing: string players, Minyue players and percussionists. I could imagine one with singers, kind of a version of avant-garde chamber opera.

After having lived in a few places, why Beijing?

Beijing is a good place to start. There’s still large number of young people who could be drawn on. Minyue players cannot really go abroad to find work, for example. And there are still so many artists looking for interesting things to go to but not finding them. It’s more about what can happen there rather than bringing Beijing up to a certain standard, blah blah blah.

I don’t feel the mission to bring anything to Beijing, but I have a lot of friends there, and my knowledge of the resources that are there. I see an opening in Beijing. Great artistic things could happen for a low price tag.

Does this have something to do with the notion of China being the future of classical music?

People are still looking to China, in a somewhat misguided way, to be the future of classical music. I don’t know if people in the West are fully reading why it’s not happening: It’s a very much institutionalized approach of investment and goals. There’s still a big wide open gap in terms of the small and medium size things that could exist but just don’t, because there’s not even a scrap of funding for them. ¶