Chinese Musicians Spread Heritage through Performance

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photos by Brendan Work

Melody of China, an ensemble of musicians based in San Francisco, performed a concert of traditional Chinese music in LPAC on Friday evening. The concert followed a lecture and musical demonstration of Chinese instruments. The group, which is focused on bringing Chinese music to the United States, was also accompanied by Chen Tao, an acclaimed Chinese flutist living in New York.

Melody of China was conceived in 1993 with hopes to both “provide rich musical entertainment through the synergy of ancient Chinese tradition with the youthful, diverse American culture” and to “promote classical and modern Chinese music.”

The concert featured traditional music from both the North and South regions of China played on five instruments: the yangqin (hammered dulcimer), the guzheng (zither), the erhu (two-stringed fiddle), the sheng (mouth organ), and the dizi (bamboo flute).

During the demonstration and the lecture preceding the concert, members of Melody of China described the histories of the instruments and music. Many of the instruments used during the performance were either brought to or created in China over 500 years ago and were the predecessors for Western instruments. The sheng (mouth organ), for example, served as the basis for the Western reed organ.

Chen Tao, an acclaimed Chinese flutist, accompanied the group.

The group also used different instruments to replicate the music from different Chinese regions. Chen Tao, for example, used a long bamboo flute to create the smoother melodic lines common in Southern China and a shorter, smaller flute for the “robust” and “energetic” music from the North. Tao suggested that Southern music is “like water” while Northern music is more “like mountains,” concluding that the music from the North was influenced by its mountainous landscape while the Southern composers were inspired by the rivers of the South.

Yangqin Zhao, who plays the yangqin in Melody of China, briefly explained the history of Chinese musical notation, saying that music used to be written in Chinese characters but has since moved to the modern “number system.” She also described the differences between Chinese music and most Western music by saying that Chinese music is based around the pentatonic or five-note scale, whereas Western music was historically based on the diatonic or seven-note scale.

To achieve a greater awareness of Chinese music in America and abroad, Melody of China has organized various musical events in the past. Since the group began, it has “commissioned and/or premiered over forty new works by twenty contemporary composers.” The group has also provided music for Chinese ballets, asked young composers to write music for the group, and runs workshops and classes in San Francisco.

Chen Tao, who moved to the United States in 1993, has helped bring Chinese music to America. Along with composing new music for the bamboo flute, Tao co-founded Melody of Dragon, Inc. in 1998. The group is a non-profit that, according to their website, works to “build a bridge of musical and cultural exchange between China and the United States.”

In the future, Melody of China hopes to work further towards their goals by promoting the composition of new Chinese music and by continuing lecture-demonstrations and music programs in schools around the Bay Area. The group is also planning a world premier dance piece for December that will be choreographed by Lily Cai and will feature music by Gang Situ.