Ever since she was a girl, Sara Heng Xi Ying, who plays the guzheng (a traditional Chinese zither), had always been interested in music. However, she could have easily chosen a very different musical path.
When she was in secondary school, Heng had originally wanted to join her school’s marching band. However, her brother asked her to reconsider, telling her that marching for long hours under the sun was very tiring.
“I remember him saying ‘Why not join the Chinese orchestra instead?’ He was a member at the time. And I wasn’t sure at first, but after I joined, I found it very interesting,” recalls Heng, 29, with a smile, during an interview at her home studio in Petaling Jaya.
Heng is the youngest of two siblings, with her father a businessman and mother a housewife.
The Penang-born musician, through family encouragement, found herself drawn to the guzheng. At first, she decided to just to take it on as a hobby, learning how to play it under Penang-based guzheng player/conductor Lai Ah Lai’s tutelage.
But things changed after she joined a competition at the age of 14, and ended up winning.
“At first, I didn’t take it very seriously. I just practised every week and then went to classes. But after the competition, I realised I had some talent with the guzheng. And I thought, maybe I’ll practise more and see where it goes,” she adds.
“I took up the guzheng because I was drawn to the instrument’s beauty. It’s very simple for solos. It can play just like a piano, with both left and right hands, both melody and chord.”
Heng persisted, and later, entered the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China where she also obtained a Masters in Guzheng Music Performance. She was the only Malaysian there to study the guzheng.
Studying in China
While studying in Beijing (from 2008-2016), Heng would practise on her guzheng for up to eight hours a day.
“I wanted to go to that school because a teacher (prominent Chinese guzheng player Yuan Sha) was lecturing there. I later found it was one of the best schools in China. A lot of my classmates were top students. It was a good environment, very competitive, and it helped me to improve really fast,” says Heng, who spent eight years in China, earning two scholarships from the Chinese government.
“In Malaysia, the learning environment for music is quite comfortable. But in China, you really have to push harder, practise a lot to do, and there’s a lot to do other than practising. It’s very competitive so you have no time to be lazy!”
After her postgraduate studies in China, Heng returned to Malaysia, where she has been consistently busy since her first recital at PenangPac in September 2013 (for the show A Nocturnal Bliss).
In the early days, she started off playing at small venues (Dama Asia Productions’ Theatre Lounge Cafe), and also collaborating with diverse individuals (she laid down guzheng tracks for KL-based Canto hip hop group Manhand in 2017 and worked with speed painter Haze Long a few times).
Heng is no stranger to guzheng public programmes with an afternoon outreach show at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas last year, while also performing at festivals, including KL DiverseCity 2018 and the recent DPAC Spring Festival 2019.
She also performed at City Roars! Festival 2019, organised by indie label Soundscape Records in January.
"I do like to listen to post rock, electronica groups and indie folk. I'm open to a lot of music," reveals Heng, who lists Hello Nico and Mouse On The Keys as some of the bands on her playlist at home. She is also fond of singer-songwriters such as Russian Red and Ichiko Aoba.
She was a guest musician with the Malaysia Century Chinese Orchestra at KLPac last year. Heng is also a member of Eight Twelve, an eight-piece KL-based fusion group which recently won the Best Of 2018 Boh Cameronian Arts Award (BCAA) for its self-titled concert (held last June in DPAC).
Outside playing in a group, Heng has been busy pushing her career forward. She admits she spends 85% of her time practising on her guzheng and teaching music (“I get a lot of enquries through social media”).
In the long term, she plans to learn music production and to produce her own music. She is also keen on the idea of forming a guzheng ensemble later this year.
This weekend, she will be performing a guzheng live set at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Petaling Jaya. It features guest artists Jimmy Chong (drums), Sylvester Liew (piano), Lee Jia Xi (dance) and Max Jala (visual design). The recital aims to showcase the modern, eclectic sound of the guzheng accompanied by video projected visuals and dance.
The concert, as Heng reveals, will feature two sessions. The first will see Heng using a transparent electric guzheng on songs such as Dark Lights, a post rock electronica work from Japanese band Mouse On The Keys. She will also be playing Nature, a classic Chinese song.
There are many facets to Heng’s live persona. She can be the demure cheongsam-wearing guzheng player, or she can be a full blown rebel in T-shirt and torn jeans. Heng’s increasingly confident approach to theatre-based shows is a good sign of a maturing artiste.
“A lot of people think guzheng is very soft, and very gentle. But it can also be loud! Full of impact!” says Heng with a laugh.
In the second session, a work called High Mountain Flowing Water, will feature a choreographed piece. The song is traditional in nature, but Heng reveals that Lee, a ballet-loving dancer, will be presenting a dance in a contemporary setting.
Visual designer Max Jala, a multimedia artist, will trigger the abstract projections in a free form live format.
Heng admits that as an independent artiste, it is a challenge to organise guzheng shows. “I planned this concert (series) on my own. I had a lot of good friends helping me out.”
She hopes people who come to her recital will be able to feel the spirit of her music. “It was the energy of a performer that draws the line between a good and bad show,” she notes.
Gradually, with each passing show, Heng wants to see the masses changing their perceptions about guzheng, who most consider as an old fashioned instrument only played during tea ceremonies and classical Chinese shows.
“A lot of shows only cater to those who like traditional music. But I hope to appeal to younger audiences as well, show them that the guzheng can actually be quite cool,” she concludes.
Sara Heng Guzheng Recital is on at DPAC, Empire Damansara, Damansara Perdana in Petaling Jaya in Selangor on May 11 and 12. Showtime: 8pm. Tickets: RM55 (regular), RM45 (student). More info: dpac.com.my. FB: Sara Heng.