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When Gong Linna, founder of new Chinese art music, sang Tan Te at London's iconic Battersea Park last month, hundreds of attentive listeners cheered and sang along.

The audience, Chinese and Western alike, did not know the words of Tan Te of course, as the wordless song was only an exhibit of the vast range of Chinese vocal techniques and a celebration of the limits of the human voice.

"I'm so glad to be a Chinese, because there is such a variety of sounds and techniques I can work with, and I want to teach you," Gong, 37, told her audience.

Her lessons worked, and the delightful evening transformed many people's impression of Chinese music – they were introduced to its diversity, spirituality and changeability for the first time.

Chinese singer Gong Linna stars Cultural Olympiad

Gong's performance is a part of BT River of Music, a festival that invites one musician from each of the 204 countries competing in the Olympics to perform along the Thames.

The festival is a part of Britain's Cultural Olympiad - a four-year program of Olympic- and Paralympic-related arts events Britain spent more than 97 million pounds ($144 million) to stage since 2008.

BT River of Music's director David Jones became an admirer of Gong's voice and artistic creativity after hearing her sing a few years ago, and when Jones started working on this program, Gong was the natural choice for China.

While it is almost impossible for any musician to fully represent the music of a country, Gong believes that her voice well represents "China's creative contemporary music".

Synthesizing the best elements of Chinese folk traditions, ancient Chinese poetry and Peking Opera with Western harmonies, her music is characterized by a powerful voice and dramatic facial expressions.

Although some songs contain words, the words are delivered like decorative notes to the main melody, rendering her tunes more relatable to an international audience. "When I sing, I have human feelings and sincerity, and that's how I connect with my listeners," she said.

Gong's path to stardom did not run smooth. Not only did she experience struggle, confusion and a lot of hard work, she also demonstrated tremendous courage by abandoning the conventional success of her early career in search for a true voice.

With a natural gift for singing, Gong grew up as a young star in Guizhou province, southwest China, and made her debut international performance in France at the age of 13.

She later became a star pupil at the Chinese Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and in 2000 won second place in the folk tradition division of Chinese Youth Singing Competition.

This achievement connected Gong with many opportunities to perform at galas, often with handsome pays.

But she was unhappy. Not only was she denied the freedom to choose her own songs at such galas, she was forced by the gala organizers to lip-synching for "better" sound quality.

"What they asked me to do was not hard, but I was constantly tired, because I was unhappy," she said.

She recalled one performance when the audience sat particularly close to the stage and she saw their wide eyes in blind admiration of her. "Their sincerity broke my heart like arrows, and it was from that moment on I decided to say 'no' to lip-synching. I have to be honest," she said.

At Gong's moment of desperation, she met Robert Zollitsch (whose Chinese name is Lao Luo), a German musician who later became her husband.

On their second meeting, Gong sang for three hours to Lao Luo's playing of the zither, a classical Bavarian folk music instrument. As Lao Luo changed his tunes, Gong improvised to create new melodies.

"We didn't speak, we communicated through music. I was so happy to have my freedom again, after having all those feelings bottled inside me," Gong said.

And hence new Chinese art music was born. Gong explains: "It has roots in the Chinese folk tradition, but many Chinese folk songs are too local to their regions, so we've added artistic value to make them universal. Then we realized it's something no one has done before, so we gave it a name."

But new Chinese art music did not attract much interest amongst Chinese audience initially. In search of a new stage, Gong moved with Lao Luo to Germany in 2004 and started performing at many small-scale concerts.

"I wanted to stay in China and sing for a Chinese audience so much, but I had to go wherever my stage is," she said.

Sometimes these concerts would only have 50 people, and sometimes 20. "The less audience I had the more effort I put into my singing, because I can easily feel any negative response from my audience in such a small room," she said.

Her songs are composed by Lao Luo, who went to study Chinese music in 1992, and has since become a fluent Mandarin speaker.

Many of the songs Lao Luo composed were adaptations of famous poems like Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai's Jing Ye Si, or Thoughts on a Still Night and Bai Juyi's Ye Xue, or Night Snows.

Thanks to Lao Luo's composition, Gong continued to sing in Chinese on the western stage, which she felt was important. "I realized that the whole world's understandings about love and sadness are the same, so I can connect with my audience if I communicate these feelings through music. I don't need to sing in a different language" Gong said.

She slowly accumulated experience through frequent performances in Germany, Switzerland, Finland and France.

At the same time, raising two boys, born in 2005 and 2008, in a small town between Salzburg and Munich also taught Gong how music functions to serve life.

"If I'm putting my child to sleep, I sing a cradle song. If I drink, I have to sing a drinking song. I suddenly understood what music is all about," she said.

Just as Gong's new style of music is maturing, an unexpected incidence gave her fame in China.

In 2010, the influential Chinese singer Faye Wong, micro-blogged about Gong's song Tan Te, admitting it was too difficult to imitate. Cross-talk comedian Guo Degang subsequently did a hilarious imitation of Gong on his show.

Suddenly, Tan Te became an internet sensation, attracting countless reviews and imitations, although more for fun than serious.

Gong's new fame gave her opportunities to perform live all over China, even at rock concerts, which is rare for a folk singer. She has been invited to many TV galas, but this time it is live singing with her own band.

Gong says that she does not mind the parody versions of Tan Te. "I think it's fantastic that the song allowed so many people to unleash their own creativity," she said.

Neither does she see herself as a star or celebrity. "I'm only a leader of a group of innovative Chinese musicians, I walk in front to build a path for them," she said, adding that Jason Leung and Wang Tzu-Wen, who performed with her in Battersea Park, are two such young musicians.

Looking forward, Gong said that she wants to work on transforming more Chinese poems into music, either in the format of a dedicated concert or a new album. A second goal she sat herself is to communicate more with international artists from all over the world.

But most importantly, she hopes that her family will stay happy and coherent, "and that Lao Luo and I will be in love throughout our lives," she said sincerely. Perhaps this is how music serves life for Gong, the wheel has come full circle.


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