Young musicians offer new take on Chinese instruments

Chinese-born, New York-based artists exploring new musical frontiers, Pipa player Jiaju Shen (L), composer and pianist Li Zong (C) and huqin player Feifei Yang (R) (AFP Photo/Shaun Tandon) (AFP)

If jazz is about free-flowing expression, do the instruments have to be Western?

In a cross-cultural experiment, a group of young Chinese musicians based in New York is testing the possibilities of fusion by bringing jazz and other Western forms to performances on traditional instruments.

With a concert at Carnegie Hall last week timed for the Chinese New Year, the artists delved into quintessentially Chinese subject matter but through a markedly modern lens.

On "Vermilion Bird," a composition named for the creature of Chinese mythology that represents fire, composer Li Zong offered jazzy progressions building into fierce glissandi.

Feifei Yang added a more Chinese touch on the huqin, the two-stringed bowed fiddle, while also complementing the jazz feel by playing pizzicato.

The music turned bleaker on "1966," also composed by Zong, a reference to the start of the Cultural Revolution.

With Zong on piano and Jiaju Shen on the pipa, a plucked lute, "1966" opens minimally but advances with a sense of dread.

Incorporating a musical allusion to a tune from the era, "1966" crescendos into violent territory as Shen hits the body of the pipa.

Zong, a 27-year-old graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, said he was driven to write "1966" after moving to New York and learning about the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, the bloody 10-year campaign by Mao Zedong to transform China from its roots.

"I was shocked when I first saw the images and videos, so I wanted to express that feeling to the audience," he said.

"Most of the audience my age didn't see these images and videos. We hardly get this information in detail. So I hope the music can express that emotion and that mood," he said.

- 'Out of their comfort zone' -

Fusion is hardly rare for jazz, with legendary saxophonist John Coltrane experimenting with Indian ragas.

For the Carnegie Hall show, the artists played different genres while building off Chinese musical scales. Other compositions incorporated the yangqin, a form of dulcimer, and guzheng, which is a zither, as well as an array of Western instruments and the human voice.

Zong again showed the influence of jazz on "Potalaka," a reference to the mountain protected by the Buddha, as Yang and Shen jammed on huqin and pipa, alternating between senses of darkness and light.

Yang, who was also the artistic director of the concert, said that the music reflected the dual education of Chinese artists living in the cultural melting pot of New York.

"We thought, why don't we do something fusion, to let Westerners understand more about Chinese instruments. Then they might become interested in the culture and traditional stuff instead of us just saying that we will never change," she said.

"Now is the time for Chinese instruments to get out of their comfort zone," she said.

Yet she acknowledged that her two-stringed instrument was unlikely to become commonplace in Western music.

"I think Chinese instruments like this one have their limitations. You only have two strings and you have to play four or five octaves. But the thinking has no limitations," she said.

Shen, who was the producer of the show, hoped to put on more concerts to test musical possibilities.

"Lots of people think that with Chinese instruments you can just play Chinese music," she said.

"Right now this is a niche market, but we want to see what we can do."