Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chinese Modulations at Brandeis University

Last night I attended a lecture and concert of Chinese and Chinese-American music at Brandeis. The theme of Long Yingtai’s lecture was that it is in the nature of the Chinese culture to have change. Thus, the Chinese will adopt an instrument such as the erhu, originally from Central Asia, and then they will modify it again and again. It was finally in 1930 that the design of the instrument was frozen. Confucianism states that only the root, or chi, remains unchanging. Another example that he mentioned after I asked my question was that the Mainland Chinese leadership is changing. So hearing this notion of change, I asked how the Chinese therefore see Western elementary particle physics, which has morphed from the quantum mechanics of Bohr and Heisenberg, to quantum electrodynamics, to the standard model, for example SU(3), and now to string theory. The answer was that all of this is considered to be the changeable part, not the root.

There was a series of works for erhu and yangqin, then for yangqin, then for erhu, yangqin, viola, cello, and percussion, then again for erhu and yangqin. All so outstanding that the audience gave the performers a standing ovation. The man next to me had tracked Jiebing Chen since 1997, and had seized the opportunity to come to the concert when he was up from New York City anyhow. He told me that Chen is the worlds best erhu player. I will not pretend to know very much about this music, which was extraordinary. Instead I will write about other matters.

There were three people on the stage at one time with perfect pitch. You could tell with Yangqin Zhao, because she tuned her 150 yangqin strings straight off with no reference to a tuning fork or any other notes. You would seem to be able to tell with Jiebing Chen because she walked in with an independently tuned instrument, and merely verified that it was still in tune with the yangqin, which it always was. Then she played this instrument with no frets or other reference points for notes, which it is all but inconceivable that a person could play well without having perfect pitch. But I am told that she does not have perfect pitch. Of course cellist Josh Gordon also has perfect pitch. It turned out, when I asked her about it, that the Chinese-American composer/conductor also has perfect pitch. This was actually likely because, as I was explaining to her when she admitted her gift, a very high percentage of Chinese have perfect pitch because they grow up from a very early age listening to pitch in their tonal language. So they use and develop that part of their brains as children, and don’t lose it.

I had a chance to talk with Jiebing Chen after the concert. Vibrato is standard for the Erfu (pronounced “air-foo”). A difference between the traditional playing of the vibrato and Jiebing Chen’s playing is that the traditional way is to create the vibrato by pressing in and out on the string, while she also does vibrato by rolling the finger up and down on the string.

The approach uses a lot of trills. Chen even would trill notes as she rapidly descended the scale, moving up the string.

She said that the early tradition involved not sliding very far up and down on the string, but rather playing notes within the span of the hand. I commented that this would make sense, since the early flute was somewhat similar to an ocharina, and likewise played only a handful of notes. She did not disagree.

She did not have much at all for calluses on her left hand. She attributed this to the lack of a fingerboard on the instrument, explaining that the fingerboard does not give like a string does, and therefore introduces a lot of pressure on the fingers. When I described the large, ugly callus that “serious” cellists develop on their left thumbs, and that she could probably verify this by looking at Josh Gordon’s thumb, she seemed not to have realized this before, and spontaneously turned to where she thought Josh was, almost as if to check his thumb right away.

She is the teacher for the husband of theYu-Hui Chang, who composed the last work before intermission. A cross cultural piece for erhu, yangqin, cello, viola, and percussion, what was extraordinary was that it actually worked and was beautiful, not just modern music. I urged Chang to continue to compose such works when we spoke after the concert. She had already composed a concerto for the erhu, and indicated that she would compose more, for the repertoire is too limited for the erhu.

The evening was altogether an outstanding experience.

No comments: