Chemistry prof crosses cultures in his music

Hai-Lung Dai, Ph.D., hesitated a moment, remembering his age. He's 43. "In Chinese calculation, I'm 44," he explained. "The moment you're born, you're one year old."

Dai is a product of the chemical reaction between both cultures.

Hai-Lung Dai directed a chorus for the Year of the Tiger

He chairs the Department of Chemistry. And he's the conductor of a choral group, Chinese Music Voices of the Delaware Valley, which performed at Saturday's Year of the Tiger celebration at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Dai, a native of Taiwan, at one time considered music as a career path, but chose it as an avocation instead. Conducting, however, chose him. When he was an undergraduate, the students in the university choir at the National Taiwan University chose him to be their assistant conductor.

"They probably saw in the future I would be someone who leads people, that I would be a professor," he joked. The job of a conductor, he said, is "getting people to follow you and get them to produce the kind of effect out of the music you're performing."

When Dai came to United States 21 years ago for graduate school at Berkeley and then post-doctoral work at MIT, he sought out the local Chinese choir.

Singing for a social life

"The chorus has a special function for the Chinese student community," he said. "It's a social group. Almost every campus has a community or student choir." At Berkeley, he led the Chinese student choir, and at MIT he led the Chinese community choir.

When he arrived at Penn 13 years ago, however, there was no Chinese choir. When a community group in New Jersey decided to form a group about 10 years ago, they asked Dai if he would be the conductor. The group of 30 ethnic Chinese performs mostly for festivals and other ethnic community affairs, and has performed with the Mendelssohn Club, a non-ethnic local choral group.The group also gives an annual concert in Cherry Hill. To prepare for the performances, the group rehearses every two weeks.

Alchemy of musical cultures

The music that Chinese Music Voices performed at the Museum is classical Chinese, but like Dai, it has Western elements.

The music is produced on a five-note scale -- do-re-mi-sol-la -- in which the half notes, fa and ti, of the seven-note scale have been dropped.

The pieces are based on Chinese folk songs, stories and poems. A story about a Buddhist nun, for example, has a Buddhist tempo based on the prayer recitation style.

"These are ethnic or nationalistic kinds of music, all composed using Western music techniques like harmony. But the melody and the subject are Chinese," Dai said.

Originally published on January 28, 1998