Saturday 8 August 2020

2000 years of history: guitarist Xuefei Yang on exploring the music of her homeland on her new disc Sketches of China, on DECCA

Xufei Yang
Xuefei Yang
The guitarist Xuefei Yang has a new disc out, Sketches of China which has a digital release on Decca this month. This not standard repertoire but an exploration of the music of her homeland, China, ranging from traditional tunes to contemporary pieces. Now based in the UK, Xuefei trained first at the Beijing Conservatoire before studying at the Royal Academy of Music, and she was something of a ground-breaker in China, the first guitarist to graduate from Beijing Conservatoire.

A disc of music from China has long been a dream, and she describes the disc as the result of a 20-year journey. She spent 10 years studying in Beijing, and where colleagues would play all sort of music including that from China, but she found that there was no repertoire for the guitar. This is how she came to make her first arrangement of a Chinese traditional tune, which was originally performed on the Pipa a traditional instrument which is sometimes known as the Chinese lute. And the arrangement proved to be popular.

In concert, she plays a lot of different music, but she also wants to include the music from her homeland. She tends to feel more Chinese when she is abroad, and she wants to present Chinese music, so she has been performing traditional Chinese melodies, and new commissions from composers. At first, she commissioned Western composers who used Chinese elements in the music, and then she was able to have works written by contemporary Chinese composers.
Her new disc includes a mix of traditional music, which is a big part of Chinese culture, arranged for guitar, and the more modern pieces written specially for the instrument, as well as pieces for guitar and orchestra. There are also chamber works where Xuefei plays with Chinese traditional instruments. Amongst the traditional music on the disc is a melody original from the Han Dynasty, which means that it is 2000 years old. The music and the story told by the text are both well known in China, and by including it on the disc Xuefei feels that she is acknowledging China's role as the world's oldest civilisation.

Xuefei Yang with Guzheng player Sha Yuan during recording session at NCPA
Xuefei Yang with Guzheng player Sha Yuan during recording session at NCPA
The disc includes two new works for guitar and orchestra, both by Renchang Fu (born 1970). She comments that as a guitarist playing with orchestra, she nearly always gets asked to play Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, and in fact if someone wanted a Chinese work for guitar and orchestra the repertoire was zero. But now she has two pieces. Lovely Rose was issued as a single the day that I chatted to Xuefei; in China people are familiar with the melody and Renchang Fu has created a substantial work for guitar and orchestra. Both Xuefei and orchestral players enjoyed recording it, and she particularly liked the way the composer has created a dialogue between the guitar and the orchestra.

One instrument that she always enjoys collaborating with is the flute, so performing on the disc with the Xiao, a form of Chinese flute was a particular pleasure. With these works with traditional instruments, Xuefei runs up against the problem that Chinese music uses a different scale to Western classical music. But most Chinese traditional instruments are melodic, and good players are able to control their intonation so that they can bend notes and blend with a Western instrument like guitar or piano. And Xuefei points out that she also has plenty of ways of colouring a note on the guitar as well, and she feels that the guitar is well suited to Chinese music.

With the guzheng, a form of Chinese harp or zither which combines melody and harmony, it is rather trickier to combine with a Western instrument like a guitar. But on the disc, Xuefei was playing with a top player, Sha Yuan, who is also a friend of hers. As there was no existing repertoire for the combination of instruments it was a great opportunity, and she finds the combination of the two plucked instruments rather pleasing,

Xuefei Yang with Xiao player Weiliang Zhang during recording session at NCPA
Xuefei Yang with Xiao player Weiliang Zhang during recording session at NCPA
The disc has works by a number of contemporary Chinese composers, including the late Wen-Chung Chou (1923-2019) who influenced many of the younger Chinese composers, and Tan Dun (born 1957), who is perhaps the best known Chinese contemporary composer.

Flower Drum by Wei Qu (1917-2002) is based on a traditional art form which even in China is getting lost. In the old days, people would go to a tea house and be entertained with a person telling a story, singing, speaking and playing a drum, and it is this that he recreates in his piece. But the younger generation of Chinese are not familiar with the teahouse, preferring to use the internet. And in fact, Xuefei had to go on-line herself, to check on the style of the piece.

Tan Dun's piece on the disc, Desires, comes from a larger work, his guitar concerto and the piece for solo guitar is taken from it and Xuefei talks of it combining the qualities of the Chinese Pipa with the Spanish flamenco. Whilst she was studying in Beijing Conservatoire, Xuefei heard the Pipa a lot, and she found that she understood Tan Dun's piece, and what he was trying to do, and she calls Tan Dun a master of exploring sounds. In the piece, the guitarist is supposed to stamp their foot but the logistics of the recording studio meant that this had to be added later by an assistant.

Xuefei has performed quite a few contemporary works, both by Western and Chinese composers, and when I ask her about writing idiomatically for the guitar she comments that if you don't play the guitar you don't understand how to write for it and points out that even Rodrigo, who did not play the guitar, had help when writing his guitar concertos. For Xuefei there are two types of composers, guitarist composers who write very guitaristic works with lots of effects but which are musically simple, and composers who don't play the guitar and whose piece can be musically more considered, but lack guitaristic charm and do not always show what the guitar can do.

Xuefei has played the guitar since the age of seven, when she did not even know what a guitar was, and she feels that the instrument chose her. The initial idea was for her to play the accordion, but this was too expensive for her parents. A music teacher was an amateur guitarist and had a guitar choir, and Xuefei started with her, and then studied with a guitarist who, though not conservatoire trained, gave her a good technique. And after that, she started studying in London, at the Royal Academy of Music. Xuefei has somewhat mixed feelings about her training, whilst she learned her musicianship in Beijing and has good feelings about her time there, there was a lack of intellectual support and it was this which she learned in London, and here she feels she learned the most from her collaborations with other musicians.

When she first started the guitar it was a novelty in China and seen as a street instrument and not serious. China had just opened up and capitalism was not seen as a good thing, and the guitar as linked to the Beatles and such, and was seen as quite bad as an instrument. But the country has now changed a lot, and if you have a guitar festival you get 100s of children (though if you talk to a Chinese promoter they would regard the guitar as quite niche, compared to the piano, so everything is relative).  Whilst the guitar is quite popular in China today, the classical guitar is still quite niche. But if Xuefei was the first guitar major at the conservatoire, now there is proper training. Xuefei is hoping to be a role model; when she wanted to go to music college to study the guitar her parents were against it just because there were no role models. Now, China is big and there is a new market, so that graduates find they can make a living, playing, teaching and more.

Xuefei gave her first performance when she was 10, she was only a child and felt overwhelmed, with no idea what it meant. By the time she was a teenager, she was performing abroad, and at 17 or 18 became more practical, thinking after college what would she do, who was she going to be able to study abroad? She was a sort of prodigy, but when she passed that period people were no longer impressed with her age, from the age of 17 to 20, she had a lot of doubt about her music and started to feel confused, and it was only when she came to London that the world opened up.

She plays a wide range of music using a classical technique, and she feels that the versatility of the guitar is an advantage; good music is good music. And Chinese music is a big world which can be dived into, and she feels it should be more familiar in the West, and Xuefei sees it as a different way of looking at China.

When I ask about heroes, the first name she mentioned is the guitarist John Williams; her father used to record cassettes from the radio, and she had one of Williams performing Spanish music.

Xufei Yang - Sketches of China - DECCA
She had a tour planned in China for later this year, and this might still go ahead for a few concerts in August and September. In China, her concerts are usually in theatres seating over 100, and classical concerts get a lot of young people at the concerts and whilst this is encouraging, she feels that audience is important whatever their age.

Culture is a big part of any country, and China has 5000 years of history. Xuefei wants to talk about Chinese culture, and feels that it is her responsibility as a Chinese artist. Though she admits that she does not know how well the disc will go.

Sketches of China

A Lovely Rose (可爱的⼀朵玫瑰花) - arr. Renchang Fu (1970 -) [with orchestra]
Flower Drum (花⿎) - Wei Qu (1917 – 2002), arr. Xuefei Yang
A Moonlit Night on the Spring River (春江花⽉夜) - Chinese traditional, arr. Xuefei Yang
Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon (彩云追⽉) - Guang Ren (1900 – 1941), arr. Xuefei Yang
Hujia (胡笳) - arr. Weiliang Zhang (1957 -) [duet with xiao]
White Snow in the Spring Sunlight (阳春⽩雪) - Chinese traditional, arr. Xuefei Yang
Yao Dance (瑶族舞曲) - Tieshan Liu (1923 -) and Yuan Mao (1926 - ), arr. Xuefei Yang
Everlasting Longing (⻓相思) - arr. Sha Yuan (1977 -) [duet with guzheng]
Three Variations on Plum Blossom (梅花三弄) - Chinese traditional, arr. Xuefei Yang
Fisherman’s Song by Moonlight (新渔⾈唱晚) - arr. Sha Yuan and Xuefei Yang [duet with guzheng]
Sword Dance (剑器) - Changjun Xu (1957 - ), arr. Xuefei Yang
Camel Bells Along The Silk Road (丝路驼铃) - Yong Ning (1949 - ), arr. Xuefei Yang
Shuo Chang (说唱) - Yi Chen (1953 - )
Three Folk Songs (三⾸⺠谣) - Wen-Chung Chou (1923-2019), arr. Kenneth Kwan and Xuefei Yang
Dreams of Gulangyu Island (梦中的⿎浪屿) - Renchang Fu [with orchestra]
Seven Desires (七个愿望) - Tan Dun (1957 - )
The Moon Represents My Heart (⽉亮代表我的⼼) - Qingxi Weng (1936 – 2013), arr. Roland Dyens (1953 – 2016)
Xuefei Yang guitar
Weiliang Zhang xiao
Sha Yuan guzheng
Renchang Fu conductor
Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra

Sketches of China is available on Amazon.

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