Two talented China-based homegrown musicians take a new path through the Chinese classical landscape.
BACK in 2012, German-born British composer Max Richter tore apart the script and put a completely refreshingly avant garde twist to baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi’s evergreen work The Four Seasons. If anything, Richter’s album Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons proved that through sheer imagination and innovation, the world’s overfamiliar classical concerto could now be seen in a vastly different light. As a thought-provoking project, Richter’s Vivaldi recomposition won over purists as well as made classical fans fall in love with the piece again. In a similar – yet overtly pop-centred – fashion, Singaporean-British violinist Vanessa-Mae did spark a buzz in 1995 when her debut album The Violin Player, which featured a techno pop/classical transcription of Bach’s Toccata & Fugue In D Minor, brought the “classical pop” mainstream crossover bug to these parts.
These days, the classical pop phenomenon – especially in Malaysia – has left many music fans wary of a project’s artistic vision and musical sincerity. Arguably, it’s hard not to be cynical about such “crossovers”. However, there is a school of young musicians working to blur the boundaries (between traditional and modern) while making thoughtful music to talk about.
Homegrown musicians Neil Chua and Heng Xi Ying have also taken a similar approach, giving a modern twist on ancient Chinese compositions in their upcoming performance, Les Melodies 4+21, at the newly set-up Theatre Lounge Cafe (TLC) in Kuala Lumpur. For the show, they are adding personal touches to famous classical pieces such as Morning Mist, Mountain Stream and Water Lily for the guzheng (Chinese harp) and ruan (Chinese banjo/guitar).
Chua, who plays the ruan, said the pieces would strike a chord with Chinese classical music lovers. But if you are unfamiliar with the genre, don’t fret as the repertoire could serve as a good introduction to the world of Chinese classical music.
“As music evolves with time, the style of playing and rhythm evolve too. To give a contemporary feel, we have reinterpreted some tunes by varying the tempo and adding in modern elements. We hope the rearrangement will further enhance the audience’s appreciation towards this music genre,” said Chua, 32, in a recent e-mail interview from Shanghai, China, where he is based.
Traditionally, the guzheng is a solo instrument whereas the ruan often graced the palaces of royalty in the olden days.
Heng said the idea to fuse the instruments came about after a successful experimental performance in Miri, Sarawak last year. This served as a catalyst to further popularise fusion sounds between traditional Chinese instruments.
“We discovered that the combination of the mellow sweet sounds of the ruan with rippling sounds of the guzheng were beautiful and enchanting. When played together, it produces a musical chemistry. As both instruments are given equal footing, we have been practising tirelessly to ensure the audience will enjoy the sound from these classical instruments,” said Heng, 24, who is pursuing her Masters Degree in Guzheng at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Although the musicians are stationed in different cities, they continue to exchange ideas and share practice sessions thanks to the wonders of channels such as Skype, Facetime and YouTube. “The world is now a much smaller place. For this performance, we rehearse, arrange and practise our pieces through these channels to strive for the sound and effect we want,” said Heng, who is also a guzheng performer and teacher.
Regarding the show’s French sounding title, Chua said it was inspired by the four strings of ruan and 21 strings of guzheng.
“We are relatively young and want to show that Chinese classical instruments are suited for everyone, regardless of age and culture. Some of the works have a contemporary touch to suit listeners who prefer songs with a modern touch,” said Chua, who is the only homegrown musician to be conferred a Master’s Degree from the prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music.
Heng chipped in: “An interesting component of Chinese classical music is it tends to inspire people to think, imagine and envision, especially the message behind a particular piece. Yet on the other hand, it also helps to de-stress and relax.”
While Chinese classical instruments have had a relatively low profile compared to mainstream favourites like guitar, keyboards and drums, Heng notices that people are beginning to appreciate traditional instruments too.
“To further promote these instruments, we need more encouragement and support from policy makers and the public to enable musicians like us to grow, develop and perform. The appreciation and awareness of traditional Chinese instruments can be further fostered through performances,” explained Heng, who also plays the liuqin (Chinese mandolin), pipa (Chinese harp) and ukulele.
Platform for artistes
TLC is the latest venture by Pun Kai Loon and Khor Seng Chew, whose names are synonymous with multiple award-winning theatre company Dama Orchestra.
The setup is aimed at providing an additional avenue for artistes and technicians to supplement their income in between theatre projects.
The cafe, which opened its doors to theatre enthusiasts on Jan 10, has comfortable seating space for 60, which enables guests to enjoy performances in a cosy ambience.
“The shows – open to all artistes – presented are mostly established works, though there would be some experimental works. Our programme includes Chinese & Western Oldies Series, Chinese & Western Play Series, Chinese and Western instrumental series, Music Theatre Series, Western Opera Series as well as Chinese Opera Series. We have in the pipeline highly entertaining shows by both international and local artistes,” said Pun, who serves as TLC’s co-curator and programme director.
For Pun, TLC serves as a perfect platform for young Malaysian talents such as Heng and Chua to showcase theircraft. He said the Les Melodies 4+21 performance provides the audience with an opportunity to have a foretaste of a new generation of Malaysian instrumentalists specialising in Chinese musical instruments.
“It is important to give young Malaysian talents the opportunity to showcase their artistry.
“We have known Heng for a number of years and had wanted her to perform guzheng with us. But the timing is always an issue as she has been studying in Beijing. With Theatre Lounge Café, it is now so much easier to fit the musician’s hectic schedule’s and provide a platform to showcase their skills,” explained Pun.
When asked what the audience could expect from the show, Pun revealed: “The audience, including Kai Loon and I, are looking forward to this very exciting experience. Unlike my time, when I started playing pipa (Chinese lute) in the 1970s and 1980s, most of us musicians were self-taught, but now we are seeing the emergence of a new batch of musicians, schooled in leading Chinese music conservatories and taught by great masters in China.”
With TLC serving as a perfect platform, talented musicians such as Heng and Chua now have an avenue to showcase more classical Chinese instruments with a modern twist.
Les Melodies 4+21 takes centre stage from Feb 7-9 at Intimate Encounters @ Theatre Lounge Café, Plaza Damas, Kuala Lumpur. Showtime is 9pm. Cover charge is RM65. For more details, call 012-2369100 or browse theatreloungecafe.com.