When we think of online viral sensations, a chamber choir might not exactly be our first guess. Yet Shanghai-based choir Rainbow Chamber Singers have amassed millions of views on Chinese streaming platforms thanks to the very relatable topics they sing about. From going back home for the holidays just to be overwhelmed by your parents with questions about your job, weight and love life, to staying late at the office and feeling exhausted ("Who needs to eat when you have Powerpoint?" – they sing), they speak to a younger generations of Chinese professionals, who are now filling the concert halls.

The choir was founded in 2010 by a group of students from the Conducting Department of the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “It gradually attracted choral music lovers from all walks of life,” conductor Jin Chengzhi told us. “Currently, there are around 70 singers in the choir, ranging from 16 to 35 years old. They all have a background in musical studies, but among them there are post-doctoral scholars in anthropology, teachers, office workers, programmers, designers, accountants, food bloggers, and so on.”

Chengzhi is not only the choir's director. He is also the composer of many of the choirs' pieces, which he writes taking inspiration from his own life. His work is lighthearted while talking about the struggles with work and family, but many pieces also have a distinct poetic quality to them, when talking about love, the relationship with the past and the passing of time. The fact that the choir has thousands of views also on Youtube, a platform which is not available in mainland China, shows how younger generations around the world are connecting to this music regardless of the language barrier. “Choral music to me is what prose is for writers. I love to express my life experiences and emotions through music, be it happiness or sadness,” Chengzhi says.

Jin Chengzhi
© Rainbow Chamber Singers

For Chengzi and his ensemble, however, it is important to be taken seriously as a chamber choir. “Most of the works taught at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music are classical ones,” he explains, “so in the first half of our concerts we usually perform pieces from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods, and also contemporary ones. We sing choral works in various languages including German, English, French, Italian, and Japanese. The audience will listen to these songs before the more humorous ones, which are usually performed at the end of the concerts.”

“We are using music to express our feelings about life. Since our members come from various social backgrounds, singing is very rewarding to us and we cherish every three-hour rehearsal and every performance. Some people say that we are "singing nonsense with a straight face", but actually we are very serious in everything we do – singing the humorous as well as the serious pieces. Our dedication is reflected in the rehearsals, the performances and in other details, like the design of our programme. Every performance is precious to us, so we always make sure to give our best each time.”

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, choral music was used as a political tool, but these choral pieces are not as popular today, especially with the younger generations. The Chinese vocal tradition has also deep roots in folk music and opera, which has always been very important to the country's culture, as proved by the vast array of regional forms.

Although he is speaking to the younger generations, Chengzhi never forgets to reference the past. “I adopted many elements from traditional Chinese music in my own choral works.” he says. “These elements of folklore and traditional opera are included in the lyrics, or presented through the music. Recently an American choir sang one of my works, A trip to the white horse village, which was written in the most difficult Chinese dialect, the Wenzhou dialect. I was touched to see them trying to learn this dialect in order to sing this piece: it made me feel that music has no boundaries.”

The Rainbow Chamber Singers
© Rainbow Chamber Singers
During the most lighthearted parts of the concert, the chorus might be wearing dog ears (for a piece about being "tired like a dog") or other props – all in an effort to connect with the audience and make concert halls less intimidating. “When concert halls were born,” says Chengzhi, “it was not necessary for everyone to dress up, sit still and watch the performance as it is now. These rules, which were probably put in place in the past century, actually further isolate the concert hall from public life. We use props to eliminate the gravitas brought by the [idea of a] concert hall, which should not feel so distant from the audience. I hope that our audiences can then listen to music in a more comfortable way.”

“Imagine a concert hall a hundred years ago where the audience would cheer during the performance,” continues Chengzhi. “That is what I want to do: break the restrictions brought about by the venues and let the audience have a direct connection with the music. A choir is a way for a group of singers to express their emotions together, which is more powerful than singing alone. When a group of 60 or 70 people are singing together, the emotion they convey is amplified, and it is also more entertaining to watch. So choral music, in its nature, is a great art form to deliver shared feelings.”

The Rainbow Chamber Singers would like to perform outside of China in the future, but due to the fact that they are not full-time singers, they have to work around their other commitments. Their hope, however, is that more people around the world will find out about their work and be willing to discover more of their repertoire, not just the humorous side of it. “Many people may have seen only one side of us, thinking that we only sing funny pieces,” concludes Chengzhi. “But those only account for a tiny fraction of our work. Most of the time we perform serious pieces of work. So I hope that people can see different sides of us and I hope there will be more people that will support us.”

Jin Chengzhi's answers were translated from Chinese by Hong Zhu.