Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ancient Instruments, Timeless Sounds

St. Donats Arts Centre, Llantwit Major, Wales, May 9, 2012
Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music

I’ve not learned to drive on the “wrong” side of the road.  That meant cadging a lift to Llantwit Major for my first Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music concert.  Thank goodness for Festival staff member Cathy Morris, who did the driving, for the evening was rainy, and Llantwit Major is about an hour’s drive from Cardiff on small and yet smaller roads.

We were headed to St. Donats Arts Centre, on the grounds of St. Donats Castle, now home to Atlantic College.  The Centre is housed in a 14th century tithe barn, where produce of local farmers tithed to the church was kept.

The tithe barn has been converted for use as performance and exhibition space that’s comfortable and welcoming, including a good bar and spacious seating in its Glass Room, which looks out over the Bristol Channel to the Exmoor Hills beyond.

Once inside the Centre, I turned toward the door, and in walked John Metcalf, in the company of composer Qigang Chen.  Though we’ve exchanged e-mails from time to time, I hadn’t seen Metcalf since our first meeting almost two years before.  “So you’re here!” he said.  And so I was.  He introduced me to Chen, and we were soon absorbed into the lively group gathering for the concert.  

The concert that night, Soloists for Traditional Chinese Instruments, included a pre-concert conversation with Chen.  Chen, who lives in Paris, recounted his musical journey from China to France, where he became the last student of Olivier Messiaen.  Messiaen’s greatest lessons to Chen were simple ones:  Be sincere, and be yourself.   He encouraged Chen to “find what’s in your culture and develop that.”

Chen grew up with the sound of his father playing the erhu (two-stringed violin) and decided to incorporate the sounds of traditional Chinese culture into his music.  For the concert at St. Donats Arts Centre, Chen stressed that the emphasis was not on his compositions (though his Three Bursts of Laughter was included in the program).  “My piece is not important,” he said.  “It is the traditional music and other composers you’ll hear.”

Most of all, he wished to introduce us to “amazing Chinese musicians, some number one for their instrument in China.”  Chen had chosen the musicians who attended personally.  “I am honored,” he said, “for them to come to the Festival.”  Chen explained that, today in China, “Western pop culture is pervasive.  Because of that, traditional Chinese music is squashed even further.”  It was, therefore, all the more important to be able to present “these outstanding young performers, very rare and special.”

Nan Wang (erhu), Jia Li (pipa), Zhongyuan Shang (sanxian), Li He (yangqin), Jing Chang (guzheng), Yunying Chen (di)

The six instrumentalists—all women—took to the stage for the first piece, Shao II, a contemporary composition by Weijie Gao for ancient Chinese instruments and percussion.  The piece was a marvel to see as well as hear.  The instruments were works of art, both visually and in sound, and redolent with history.

To take but one example, the pipa (fretted lute) goes back two thousand years.  Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi captured its sound in words in the poem Pipa Xing (The Song of the Pipa):
The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.
Jia Li, in her twenties, began playing the pipa when she was six.  She played pipa at the premiere of Qigang Chen’s Iris Dévoilée and would play it for us at the Festival’s closing concert.  On this evening, her solo piece was Tragedy of the King, a traditional piece arranged by pipa master Dehai Liu.  Jia Li’s playing was both balletic and exact.  She moved with fluidity and grace, even when the notes she played came fast and fierce.  Her concentration was total, and the music she drew from the pipa brought Bai Juyi’s words to life before our ears and eyes.

One after another, these fine musicians played solos and duets with elegance and towering technique.  Yunying Chen, on di (bamboo flute), with Flight of the Chinese Partridge, sent us floating into the landscape of an ancient Chinese scroll.   Zhongyuan Shang played Dance Fantasy, by contemporary Chinese composer Xiaoling Xu.  Her instrument was the sanxian, a three-stringed fretless lute, its body covered with snakeskin, its sound akin to a banjo.  The first half of the concert ended with Jing Chang, on guzheng (Chinese zither), playing her own composition, Shadow of the Sky.  Jing Chang has contributed a number of new pieces to the guzheng repertoire, both classical and popular.

At the interval (as they call it in Britain), Dolly Metcalf (photo right, with Chen and John Metcalf), who lights up any room she’s in, told me about workshops the musicians held in schools in Lampeter the day before.  The students were asked to propose ideas against which one of the musicians would make up music on the spot.  The first suggestion, to play something random, was rejected as “too easy,” so the students tried again.
A student then came up with “a dragon breathing.” On the heels of hearing the musician’s expert musical response, the students called out one idea after another, clamoring for more.  I was sorry not to have been able to witness that.

After the interval, Li He, on yangqin (hammered dulcimer), played contemporary composer Qing Yang’s Seeking.  Jing Chang, on guzheng, followed, in a duet with Jia Li on pipa, with an elegant rendition of the traditional Night on the Spring River under the Moonlight.  Li He and Nan Wang, on erhu, were next with contemporary composer Tan Dun’s Shuang Que.  Shuang Que ranged inventively among the plaintive, percussive, lyrical, and dissonant, closing on a passage I experienced as bluegrass refracted through an Eastern prism.  The piece displayed in full what these instruments can do in the right hands, which Li He’s and Nan Wang’s clearly were.

The final piece on the program, for di, sanxian, pipa, and guzheng, was San Xiao (Three Bursts of Laughter) by Qigang Chen, and it was a fitting close.  Now, with our ears beginning to recognize the sound palette of each instrument, we had a second chance to hear a musical conversation, among four of them, in ensemble form.

The di opened on a breath, followed by a brief melodic line.  By fits and starts, the sanxian, pipa, and guzheng joined in.  Short-lived lyrical passages gave way to pointillist and percussive bursts.  Toward the end of the piece, the di floated out on a current of gentle song, the guzheng rippling beneath. The pipa and sanxian followed suit, though unable to repress a last burst of laughter before the music faded to a close.

To get to the Festival, I’d traveled from one continent to another, and now, by means of a single concert, I'd arrived at a third.  I knew I’d been given not only an extraordinary introduction to centuries of Chinese music on traditional instruments, but also heaven-sent preparation for the two pieces by Qigang Chen I would hear on the Festival’s closing night.

Standing, left to right:  Li He, Zhongyuan Shang, Qigang Chen, Yunying Chen, Jia Li
Seated, left to right: Nan Wang, Jing Chang


This is the second in a three-part series.  The first part, Crossing a Bridge of Dreams, can be found here.  The third part, Worlds Entwined, can be found here.

Listening List

A Spotify listening list can be found at Ancient Instruments, Timeless Sounds.

Finding samples of music was difficult, particularly of the contemporary compositions.  (Spotify appeared to have more to offer than Youtube in this case.)  Two of the traditional pieces played in the concert are listed below, along with a composition by Tan Dun:

Flight of the Chinese Partridge

Night on the Spring River under the Moonlight (traditional orchestra version)

Tan Dun's Ghost Opera (excerpt)

And here are two examples of music for traditional instruments that have found their way into new genres:

Jing Chang's the breath

Cold Fairyland jam with pipa, drum, and didjeridu

Credits and Links:  A link to the May 9th program can be found here (though there were some changes not indicated in the program).  The photograph of the pipa can be found here.  The quotation from Pipa Xing can be found here. The quotations from the conversation with Chen are from my notes.  Any errors in accuracy of the transcription are wholly mine.


Rubye Jack said...

This is definitely a whole other world to me Susan. You lead such an exciting life compared to my mundane existence here in the Plains, but I'm lucky because I get to hear about it through you. St. Donats Arts Centre looks like a grand place with that castle and all. :) And, I'm sure the music was wonderful and the people ever so charming and witty. You can just tell. :)

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
We should have definitely thought that we were part of history in the making if we had attended this concert. And, how we wish that we had!!!

So amazing that you had travelled from another continent into deepest Wales in order to hear the music of centuries old China. That surely will take some beating.

It is rather sad to think of the merciless onslaught of Western pop music pushing out these traditional instrumentalists. But how uplifting to see these young women keeping the customs of centuries and playing with such talent.

We have never been to St. Donat's but it looks to be a truly inspirational place. How cleverly the old buildings have been converted for their new role as a cultural centre.

Scott said...

Susan- I just finished listening to some Cold Fairyland that I went on to. The post and your selections have been a trip in themselves.

What I'm liking is a progressive sound with respect for traditional ways. Probably technically competent but expressing the music differently. Possibly like what Boyd did with"Bridges"?

I liked the traditional pieces. "Partridge" and "Spring River" seemed like careful,contemplative observation.
Tan Duns Ghost was pretty wild but totally engaging. Jing Chang and the guzheng are most beautiful. Cold Fairyland's jam could have been Page and Bonham. Some of Fairylands other stuff is good too. From classic to jazz sounding.

Suze said...

'Now, with our ears beginning to recognize the sound palette of each instrument, we had a second chance to hear a musical conversation,'

This captures so much.

I find it interesting that a tithe barn was converted for this excellent purpose. A place of 'first fruits' has flowered into such bounty. This should come as no surprise, there is such beauty in that bit of information!

I love Bai Juyi's ode to the Pipa -- though I immediately wondered at what was mitigated in the translation! -- and felt the words most deeply at

'pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.'

You are educating us, Susan. You are bringing so much to our community and enriching the lives, every single time, of each of your devoted followers.

Thank you for these well-considered, artfully-executed posts.

As Metcalf exclaimed, 'So, you're here!'

And so you are. For this, I am grateful.

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Sue,
that was a very interesting post, thank you! I listened to 'Night on the Spring River under the Moonlight" and was totally surprised: beautiful, calm, timeless, structured. It might be a silly remark, but to/on me it has the same effect as Baroque Music. Soothing. Fresh. Aloof.
Ah - driving in England -- a very interesting chapter in the quizz: "Will you look left or right this time, dear?" (At the moment I am a bit confused and look like a wild-eyed hare to both sides -- in Germany! Hehe) I always drive by bus, train, tube or are driven by others in England - though husband manages wonderful (but he is a wizzard also in Italy and Paris).

Mark Kerstetter said...

First of all, I'm jealous because you got to see those Chinese musicians and they're Gorgeous. Second, you got to see those beautiful and unique instruments being played.

Today I listened to your spotify playlist and really enjoyed it. Know I'll be returning to it.

The Chang Jing video is really nice. I can hear her playing her instrument in a western jazz context.

P.S. on linking in new windows: when I go to the create a link box I have the option to select "open in a new window". Since you are on Blogger, it should be the same for you (but perhaps there are differences. For example, your blog does not allow a reply to individual comments).

klahanie said...

Hey Susan,
What an amazing time for you and I couldn't possibly come up with suitable adjectives to express my delight in all of your thoughtfully written article. I truly wish I'd been there.
And now a brief interval...ah yes, I've mastered both sides of the road:)
Much respect and admiration, your way, Gary

Steve Schwartzman said...

Your comment about Western music invading and pervading the rest of the world reminds me of the way most garden nurseries in the United States sell a familiar but limited set of plants from Eurasia rather than promoting the plants that are native to our own regions.

Closer to the topic of human culture rather than botanical cultivation, I remember that when I lived in Honduras in 1968 and 1969 I was annoyed that many of the American movies shown in that country were among the worst produced here; it was hard to find the more refined and thoughtful types of American films there.

Friko said...

Glorious music indeed. There cannot be many people around who know about the music and performers, and to have them perform in deepest, rural Wales is almost a miracle. John Metcalf should be widely known, but those who labour in semi-obscurity never get to share the full glare of the easy limelight.

I should have joined you. I didn't even have to cross the ocean, just get on a train.

David said...

Well. we're finding mixed blessings in the plethora of Chinese exports, but this group sounds like the real thing - thanks again for bringing the VoGF experience vividly to life. I'm ashamed not to have been to St Donat's.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. what a wonderful post - I am definitely going to come back and listen to the music and take my time to savour it.

I'm delighted for personal reasons to find out more about Llanivet Major .. and that barn being converted to the Arts Centre.

What a gathering .. and it must have been so interesting hearing how Chen came to Paris - and his obvious influence on Chinese musicians back home.

And how lucky you were to see such those wonderful traditional instruments - actually being played ... thankfully the musicians were allowed out of China.

Horrible to think pop culture is invading China - still maybe there will be some benefits .. as the Chinese find there's more to life beyond the restrictions of China.

I wonder if the BBC World Service have picked up these musicians - I'm sure they have. There are musician-researchers-radio-presenters who travel to distant parts recording and registering these ancient sounds. I've heard the odd programme from Eastern Europe-Asia boundaries ...

Now I really want to travel to Wales and see the Centre, visit Lampeter ... I will email Richard this weekend to see if he was there ... or knew about the concert.

Wonderful post - just delightful .. will make me wonder for many a long day ...

Thanks for documenting so much for us - and all the music you direct us too ..

Fantastic post - cheers Hilary

Andrew said...

Apologies for being so late to comment on your trip to Wales Susan.
It sounds like you had a fantastic visit.
Hugs Drew xx

shoreacres said...

Like Suze, my attention first was caught by "The Song of the Pipa", and especially "as pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall". That is such luscious language all I can do is smile and smile. I can hear that pattering.

I was so surprised by the appearance of Chinese instruments. After all, you were in Wales, and I thought.. Well, you know what I thought. But the music is wonderful, and strangely evocative of some I heard in West Africa.

Whether the meeting of traditional and "pop" music is a confluence or a collision depends in some part on the people involved in the meeting. One of my favorite African instruments is the finger (or thumb) piano, and one of the most marvelous collaborations took place when Béla Fleck journeyed to Africa for the film, "Throw Down Your Heart". There was a screening in Syracuse in January - you can see a clip from that here.

I'm anxious to compare the saxian with a similar African instrument. It's amazing to me to see the similarities in so many traditional instruments.

Lovely, lovely post. I know I would have enjoyed this program.

Susan Scheid said...

Rubye Jack: And definitely a whole other world to me, matter of fact. I had heard some traditional Chinese music here and there, but not in any kind of focused way, and, until recently, had heard almost nothing written by contemporary Chinese composers (even though there are many opportunities for this in New York City). I felt very lucky to be able to make this trip—and, if I had to name one quality that stood out throughout, it was how friendly and welcoming everyone was. Just happy to be there, and happy to welcome in anyone else who came too.

Jane and Lance: The Arts Centre is the most appealing blend of strikingly contemporary and centuries old, and then to have such a concert in that particular place! As for the traditional vs. pop music, I had an interesting exchange (through translation) with Jia Li—we were passengers in the same car going back to Cardiff, part of what made this such an extraordinary experience. I ventured some sympathy on this issue, and she came forth with a wonderfully impassioned defense of pop music. Each has its place, a rough sum of her view. Later, when I discovered that Jing Chang seems to have made a name for herself in several genres, I saw how much this might be like the ethos of young composers in the US. They just don’t see the divide. It’s all their music. It’s not quite that simple, of course, but I loved having the chance to get Jia Li’s take on it.

Scott: What a great comparison, to Boyd/Bridges. I simply love the way you make these connections. You hear everything with such fresh, clear ears. If you ever venture into Spotify, do try out Tan Dun’s Shuang Que and Qigang Chen’s Three Bursts of Laughter. I’d characterize them both as pretty wild but totally engaging, too, and they’re played entirely on traditional instruments. I was amazed there was so much of Jing Chang’s music available—that was great to discover. And finding Cold Fairyland was definitely a trip. Talk about cross cultural, with a didgeridoo, too!

Suze: And speaking of second chances, I wish I could go to St. Donats and hear that concert all over again, knowing now what I’ve since learned about the location, the musicians, and the pieces—not to mention wanting to dig into my books of Classic Chinese poetry to find every single reference to these beautiful instruments. I did since find one other translation the Bai Juyi poem, but I’m on the look-out for more. As you note, something is always mitigated in the translation, and I’m curious about that, too. As for a second chance on the ensemble pieces, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to find Shuang Que and Three Bursts of Laughter for another listen. (I’m still on the look-out for Shao II.)

Britta: I don’t like your comparison to Baroque music quite a lot. The two musics may arrive at the effect through different means, but I see very well what you mean by your description. As for driving in the UK, I laughed at your quiz, for it is exactly what confronts me at every intersection. My brain is by now so hard-wired in one set of habits that it’s hard to see how I can shake it loose. Except for airplanes, which are now so exceedingly uncomfortable, I prefer public transportation, particularly the train, anyway, though it did put certain places out of reach this trip.

Mark: It was a phenomenal experience in every respect, no question about that. I’m really pleased I was able to find a good playlist on Spotify, for myself as well. I agree, too, I can definitely hear Jing Chang (though you’ve actually put it properly, as the Chinese would do) playing in a western jazz context. I had a flash at one point of seeing these musicians paired with a small western instrument ensemble and jamming away together. I do think these young women can probably play anything they set their minds to. PS: Thanks for the links tip! I’ve enacted it in the Wales posts, the pages, and a few other recent posts, and will do this going forward. You definitely solved a mystery for me there.

Susan Scheid said...

Gary: I think anyone would have enjoyed this concert—and just being in the Arts Centre was fun in itself. As for mastering both sides of the road, I live in hope.

Steve: It can be surprising what any country takes from another country’s culture. Even between the UK and the US, I’m often amused to find UK friends hooked on things like Dallas (which I never did see), while we over here are lapping up every period costume drama the UK put outs. On the plant front—sensitized by the beautiful photos on your blog, I’ve been trying to find the tiger lily that is native to this area to plant, without a drop of success. So frustrating!

Friko: It would have been fun to share this with you, no question about that! It did feel like a miracle—not to mention a miracle that I was there to take part. As for John Metcalf, you may enjoy learning that he and Dolly Metcalf will be attending the Queen’s Garden Party, where he will receive his MBE. I suspect Metcalf would just as soon not have the full glare of the easy limelight, but this bit he is about to have (for his services to music in Britain).

David: It would certainly have been fun to have you there, along with Friko, and exchange thoughts. I don’t have your basis for comparison, as I’ve hardly been exposed to Chinese music at all, but I do feel this was the “real thing.” I sensed no hype, slickness, or pandering, but rather a straightforward offering of carefully chosen selections of Chinese music, both traditional and contemporary classical, beautifully played.

Hilary: My one regret in not having the ability to drive was the possibility of getting back to the Llantwit Major area, revisiting the Arts Centre, seeing the Castle, and, also, getting out on the coastal walk, a beautiful stretch of which is nearby, I believe. As for the musicians, I felt truly privileged to get an opportunity to hear them, and to do so in this setting was just splendid. So many wonderful avenues for further exploration, from just this one event!

Andrew: I did, indeed. Thank you!

Jayne: Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the post (only sorry, as I wrote to you, that I managed to delete it in removing some spam).

shoreacres: As I noted to Suze, above, I am on the lookout now, not only for other translations of this poem, but also other poems that refer to the instruments I’ve now heard. Bai Juyi did seem to me to capture the pipa’s sound in a lovely way. I enjoyed the way you put this, that “whether the meeting of traditional and ‘pop’ music is a confluence or a collision depends in some part on the people involved in the meeting.” (And on to the Netflix list goes the documentary you mention, BTW.) This is every bit as true, I think, about use of traditional/indigenous instruments in contemporary classical music. In this case, though, sorry to say, it’s only on the Spotify listening list that you’d be able to hear this, the right people definitely met. In my post on the last concert, coming up soon, I’ll write more particularly on the pieces by Qigang Chen we heard that final night. His ability to move between east and west musically is astonishing, and the results ravishing, at least to my ears.

cybersr said...

Can't tell you how much I am enjoying this post. I watched/listened to the Moonlit Night on the Spring River, full screen so I could see the musician's fingers on the frets of the pipa, and am amazed at his mastery of the instrument. Francie watched, too, and had a good time trying to catch his fingers!

The Breath reached me in so many ways as I relived the boat ride down the Li River from Quilin. The bamboo raft with the fisherman's cormorants and the karst hills accompanied by the yangqin music is just exactly how I remember the scene. Lovely!

My souvenir from that boat trip is a miniature replica of the raft complete with fisherman and birds. I smile at the recollection of that day.

I have admired the ancient instruments from the first time I saw them in China. The music took some getting used to but the total picture with the musicians in traditional dress and the setting in the village was a rare treat.

Looking forward to the next post.

Susan Scheid said...

cybersr: Your memories of your visit to China add a rich new dimension to the post. Thank you--and very glad to hear Francie the cat enjoyed the music, too!

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