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Chinese music: from folk to fowl

By MARTY ROSEN - Louisville Courier-Journal

            Toward the end of their already impressive World Rhythms concert last night at the Bomhard Theater, the Chinese musical duo Spirit of Nature (representatives of an ensemble that number six members) stepped beyond the normal, formal bounds of "music" into that raw aural region where instrumental sound and nature sound become one and the same.
            The piece called "Birds Among Tree Shadows," found GAO Hong playing a starkly simple ostinato pattern on her pipa (a four-stringed, pear-shape lute) while Chen Tao created a densely raucous choir of caws, squawks, whirs and chips on his dizi (a transverse bamboo flute). It was an extraordinary anything that could reasonably be called "technique," and filled with enough satiric humor to elicit laughs.
By that time, both players had already demonstrated command of a wide range of Chinese folk and courtly of Chinese musical style and its richly pictorial nature. Gao, playing with plectra on the fingers of her right hand, performed a festive pipa solo called "Dragon Boat" that summoned up the riffle of water, the clang of bells and the hoots of massed revelry. Later in a piece called "Dance of the Yi Minority people," she bent notes like a blues guitarist, gracing the predominantly pentatonic scales, eerie microtonal bends and quivers. Her original composition "Flying Dragon" culminated with a gentle, sad upward scrape on the strings.
            In addition to the dizi, Chen employed the xiao and end-blown bamboo flute, and the bawu, a reeded transverse flute that had the rasp of an oboe. For "Melody of Chu" he took up the xun, a clay vessel flute that existed as long as 7,000 years ago, and performed by soft, high-pitched hoots that might have been owls in the night.
            When the two played together, they often began with relaxed unison lines that yielded to staggered entrances, call-and-response interplay and supple countermelodies; invariably, mellow opening passages yielded to sprightly, sometimes torrid passages.


Zhao Jiazhen in the midst of a mini-tour of the Twin Cities

Friday, February 11, 2011 by Danny Sigelman in Music

Despite being the middle of Chinese New Year, or "Spring Festival" as it is known in China, this past Wednesday night was a harsh cold one in downtown Minneapolis. That didn't stop a smattering of music lovers to brave the climate to hear and witness the sounds of the Guqin (or "Chinese Zither") and one of its most famous practitioners, Zhao Jiazhen, in a rare solo performance at the Loring Theater.

Being one of the most famous performers of the ancient instrument, Jiazhen displayed much nuance and mastery, producing a variety of tones, harmonies and melodies on the seven-stringed instrument that finds its roots and traditional songs stretching back some 3,000 years.

Born in Shanghai, Jiazhen is a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, has performed on a handful of soundtracks in Chinese cinema, and has traveled the world several times over having performed at Carnegie Hall and even for Barack Obama at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

On her first stop in a series of performances that will have her performing at Carleton College and the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at Saint Catherine's this weekend, Jiazhen worked through a series of traditional songs that elicit a form of pure expression in Chinese music highlighting the instrument's knack for reflecting the sounds of nature and allowing for quiet meditation.

After her wonderful performance I had a chance to get some impressions from Zhao Jiazhen and what is in store for this weekend's special performance at St. Kate's.

Welcome to Minnesota and Xin Nian Kuai Le!! That was a terrific performance at the Loring Theater.

Thank you!

Have you ever been to our State? What do you think of the cold?

This is the first time I have ever been to Minnesota. It doesn't bother me as I have been to many other much colder places.

At what age did you start learning to play the Guqin?

I started at age 14.

When and where did you get to perform for Barack Obama? Did you get to meet him?

I performed for him last year at People's Hall in Beijing. We took pictures together and he was very nice.

Most people here aren't familiar with the instrument but have probably heard its sound. What can you tell us about the instrument?

The guqin has more than a 3000-year history. It is a seven-string zither with thirteen dots to mark finger placement. There are hundreds of different playing techniques and therefore an enormous amount of different sounds you can manipulate from the instrument. Unlike western music, these different playing techniques have been used throughout the guqin's entire history, and are not just a focus of modern music. In the past, nobility and scholars primarily played the guqin in palaces. Today it is played in concert halls, though a solo guqin concert like the one I performed last night is extremely rare.


These are really old songs and traditional music. What is some of the history of the music you perform?

Most of the pieces I play relay stories, depict scenes in nature, or express emotions of people in the stories. They are mostly ancient pieces dating back to specific dynasties thousands of years old. For example, "Flowing Water", one of the pieces I played last night is attributed to Boya, who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C). It tells a touching story that praises the beauty of nature and also symbolizes the sincerity of true friendship. I also played "The Singing of the Raven at Dusk" which was composed by Prince Liu Yiqing of the Song Dynasty (420-479). This music imitates the sound of birds, and uses harmonics to create a peaceful atmosphere. It is therefore considered an interesting and fresh composition in ancient Qin repertoire.

What type of performance can people expect at the O'Shaughnessy theater with Ba Da Chui?

I will be playing three pieces to open the show. Then the outstanding Chinese percussion quartet, Ba Da Chui (Eight Great Hammers), will do a set of folk percussion pieces where the players use virtuosic percussion techniques to tell simple, entertaining stories with titles such as "Squabbling Ducks," "Tiger Crunching His Teeth," "Rolling Walnuts," and "Ox Fighting Tiger." Then all five of us will join with the members of Speaking in Tongues to perform together. The members of Speaking in Tongues were all born in different countries and grew up speaking different native tongues, but have come together to create some very beautiful and energetic music. It's going to be a very exciting and extremely unique concert! I don't think you will ever have a chance to see this kind of show again.


U.S. debut of the Baoting Li and Miao Autonomous County Song and Dance Troupe Iny Asian Dance Theater performance

The award-winning Baoting Li and Miao Autonomous County Song and Dance Troupe made its U.S. debut on October 16 at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University of Minnesota campus. The troupe played to a house of more than five hundred guests, after an opening act by a local dance group from Iny Asian Dance Theater. The performance drew in a diverse audience young and old, from all across Minnesota, including Duluth and Northfield.

Baoting Li & Miao performance

The colorful, traditional costumes and beautiful dancing enthralled the audience. The song and music selections had the audience clapping along. And despite having the leaves for the Miao leaf blowing performance confiscated at airport customs, the troupe found playable leaves from local trees, and the show was able to go on.

Baoting Li & Miao performance

The Troupe performed traditional music and dance from China's Li and Miao (Hmong) minority groups. Li and Miao folk art is significantly diverse in its styles and expressions, creating a unique culture of Chinese folk art that has received high appraisals since the troupe started over nine years ago. Through these cultural missions, the Troupe has brought the art of the Li and Miao culture to several countries including Russia, Germany, Ireland, Korea and Japan.  

The performance was made possible in part by the generosity of Fred and Jennie Hsiao. This activity is made possible in part by a grant provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State's arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008.