Chinese Music Ensemble explores instrumental diversity

On May 3, the Chinese Music Ensemble gave a rare performance in Brooks Rogers Recital Hall. The ensemble was formed two years ago by Wang Guowei, a professional erhu player and music director from New York City. Wang and his teaching partner, Susan Cheng, have been teaching students interested in learning traditional Chinese instruments at the College for three years now. The instruments that make up the Chinese Music Ensemble include: the erhu, played by Fi van Wingerden ’20 and Ting Da Wang ’20; the zhongruan, played by Gef Fisher ’18; the pipa, played by Angela Chan ’19; the dizi and the hulusi, played by Ziqi Lu ’18.

The group played a wide variety of traditional folksongs from various regions of China. In addition, Chan played a solo on the pipa and Fisher played a solo on the traditional Chinese instrument of the qin, which is a seven-stringed plucked zither more than 3000 years old, and Chan and Fisher collaborated on a pipa/zhongruan duet.

These songs were played on a variety of instruments.The erhu is a 2-stringed fiddle with a hexagonal shaped body. The erhu has a very dynamic character to it, at times very somber and at times very lively, its execution is perhaps the most difficult amongst all traditional Chinese instruments. If the position of the left hand fingers is not precisely where it should be, the instrument can fluctuate in and out of tune very quickly. The zhongruan is a round, mandolin-like, four-stringed plucked instrument.

With a medium-deep timbre, the zhongruan provides a smooth, surreal quality to the music. The pipa is another four-stringed instrument that is plucked outwardly instead of inwardly, like the guitar. Sometimes called the “Chinese lute,” it is held vertically when played and produces a higher pitched sound than most other plucked instruments in the ensemble. For this reason, many melodies of the songs were played on the pipa. The dizi is the traditional Chinese wooden flute. The finger holes are carved right into the instrument and have no raised keys on top, unlike the Western flute. The dizi uses a lot of breath to play and has an airy, wind-like quality to it, as if it can appear and disappear any second. The hulusi is another wind instrument; it has three bamboo pipes and requires a lot of air support but sounds less airy than the dizi. The sound of the hulusi stands out against all the other stringed instruments – the closest comparison to a Western instrument is perhaps the oboe.

Finally, the zheng is a traditional Chinese zither with sixteen or more strings held by movable bridges. The right hand plucks the zheng strings, while the left hand embellishes the notes by pressing the strings in different fashions. The zheng has very versatile sounds, and its range is large. Sometimes it can sound like water, sometimes like bass guitar or cello, and its high notes resemble the timbre of the pipa.

At the concert, together these instruments formed a fluid entity that executed music in a way perhaps unfamiliar to ears trained to listen to Western classical music. Traditional Chinese music uses the major pentatonic scale (if you look at the strings of the zheng, you can see how there are only 5 strings per octave; the fourth and seventh notes of the heptatonic scale are skipped). Traditional Chinese folk music is something to be experienced personally, so be sure to catch the Chinese Music Ensemble’s performance next fall.

The Chinese Music Ensemble’s spring show, ‘Starry Night,’ was performed in Brooks Rogers. Photo courtesy of the Chinese Music Ensemble. 

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