Xuefei Yang on Sketches of China
Trailblazing Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang is widely known for almost single-handedly bringing the classical guitar to audiences in her native country; a succession of acclaimed recordings, both as soloist and collaborating with musicians such as Ian Bostridge and the Elias String Quartet, have cemented her reputation as one of the finest guitarists of our time.
Xuefei's latest album showcases the musical traditions of her native country via a collection of arrangements, transcriptions and new commissions. I spoke to her about this fascinating album, and the enormous musical diversity that it represents.
You’re known to many people as the first professional guitarist to come out of China. How did you end up learning this instrument – and why do you think it hadn’t previously caught on in China, the way some other Western instruments have?
Well, the violin and the piano have had a head-start relative to the guitar, but that’s equally true in the West – at least in terms of the modern classical guitar, which I think really became established in Segovia’s time. The instrument was first introduced to China in the 1920s in Shanghai, which at the time was a very international city. There were foreign teachers who went to China to teach wealthy families, who were learning musical instruments simply for fun. That was the first time the guitar entered China, so its history is quite short. Then there was the Cultural Revolution, which led to all Western music being banned for about ten years. Everything revived afterwards, but the guitar was starting from square one while other instruments were able to pick up where they left off.
In terms of how I personally came across it – it was really destiny! I didn’t even know what a guitar was. I knew about the piano and the violin, but not the guitar. When I was young I was very energetic, so my parents wanted me to learn an instrument to make me more cultivated! To make me focus on my studies and help me concentrate. It was also trendy at that time to have your children learn an instrument.
They initially considered the accordion – this was a popular choice, because it was like a cheap and portable version of the piano. You could use it to accompany choirs, which there were a lot of. They spoke to a music teacher about this but decided that it would be too heavy, and too loud to practise in an apartment. This teacher loved the guitar – she owned one, and she had a choir which she used to accompany on the guitar. She took me on, and that’s how it started. At that time very few people were playing the guitar, and it wasn’t really considered a “proper” instrument.
Now that you’ve shown that it’s a possible option to pursue, is the guitar becoming more popular in China today?
Definitely. It’s been maybe thirty years, and more and more people are coming to know about the guitar. Obviously pop music is a big part of that, and that’s the most popular use of the guitar around the world, but all the styles are becoming more known.
It’s all relative; if you are talking to music promoters and they’re comparing it to a piano or a cello, the classical guitar is considered very niche, which I think is the same everywhere. But then if you consider the actual number of people playing in China, and you compare it to say Australia or Canada, then it’s a huge number simply because our population is so big. So Australian guitarists might think that the classical guitar has a massive following in China, while a pianist might view it differently.
For listeners who aren’t familiar with Chinese music and are maybe listening with “Western” ears and accompanying musical expectations, some of these pieces may seem quite opaque. What’s the best way for new listeners to get into the music?
When you listen to it, you’ll definitely know it’s Chinese music. It’s very normal in China for Western instruments and orchestral sounds to be used to accompany Chinese melodies, as is the case on some of the tracks on this album, but the traditional Chinese instruments themselves have a different sound – it’s un-tempered so the pitches are slightly different, which immediately tells the listener that it’s from the Orient.
The idea of using Western instruments to play traditional pieces and melodies is something people are very used to in China; that’s why some of these transcriptions might sound a little more “Westernised” than others. For some of them, I’ve transcribed straight from the original Chinese instrumentation, but for others I’ve used the orchestra or even transcribed from piano works. Regardless, they’re all based on the same Chinese material, with the addition of harmony and counterpoint. It’s the addition of those elements that can give it a more Western sound.
I’d also say that the pentatonic scale is generally one of the signatures; you hear it and it instantly sounds Chinese. The combination of that and the un-tempered sound is key – even when we’re using orchestral textures and Western instruments, we’ll try to imitate that un-tempered sound.
That’s the technical side of what gives Chinese music its unique sound; from the more musical perspective, it’s usually very lyrical, and very poetic. Compared to Western music it’s generally much less contrapuntal, and the harmony is relatively minimal. But many pieces work very well when you add harmony to them – for instance the Yao Dance. It works so well with orchestra but doesn’t lose its inherent Chinese nature – which I think might be why it’s become such a classic. Likewise Flower Drum - it’s a classic piano piece based on the traditional folk tune, but the piano version itself works so well that when I came to adapt it for the guitar the only problem I had was the technical one of making it playable on my instrument.
When listening, it’s often helpful to bear in mind that Chinese music is often closely related to other art-forms – paintings or poems. There’s often a story being told (as in Hujia), so knowing that background helps.
In Hujia and elsewhere, you take on the accompanying role that would presumably normally go to a qin [seven-stringed zither]. You open with a fairly qin-like soundworld – scattered sounds, whispering noises on the strings and portamenti. How hard was it to recreate these on the guitar?
Yes and no! In that piece I’m definitely imitating the sound of the qin, and in other pieces I’m imitating the pipa [Chinese lute] or the liuqin [small mandolin]. Because there so many plucked instruments in China, and the guitar is the same type of instrument, in a way I could do a lot of imitation quite easily and adapt certain ways of playing that wouldn’t normally feature in classical guitar writing.
I was struck by the versatility of the sound the guitar can produce. I can’t replicate the sounds of other instruments 100% - the qin doesn’t have frets, for example, and they’re all un-tempered instruments – but you don’t have to achieve that level of exact imitation. In fact I wouldn’t want to – if I could sound exactly like those other instruments, there would be no need to hear me! So I was really trying to create a sound that was different – different from the guitar, but also different from the Chinese instruments, a new sound-world. At the beginning of Hujia, it’s quite exotic – it’s the sound of the wind from the Central Asian steppes, where the story is set. It’s a question of imagination, and it’s really a case of getting the sound into your head first – then making that sound happen with the fingers and the instrument is easier.
On the track Everlasting Longing, where I’m collaborating with guzheng [large fretless zither] player Sha Yuan, I was initially nervous about how it would work, precisely because the two instruments are so similar. Both the guzheng and the guitar are plucked instruments that have traditionally combined the melodic and accompanying roles; I was worried that we would end up clashing. We found a way to make it work, but it’s undeniable that the instruments sound very similar. Similar, but certainly not identical; they merge together well. It was important to me to play together with the guzheng, as I do elsewhere with the xiao [end-blown flute].
Much of the music on this album is inspired by folksongs and ancient traditional music. How and when were these traditional pieces noted down for posterity? Were there others like Liu Tieshan who went out into the countryside to record them, as happened in Europe?
One of the problems that have contributed to this music not being heard so much until now is that there was no formalised system of notation like the Western system. In the past most of the traditions were simply passed on orally. The qin has the most written repertoire remaining, but even there, the notation system is very difficult to read; it’s in a very old version of Chinese and it requires a lot of scholarship to decipher.
Of course, with this oral tradition the pieces change and develop. When I say that there are pieces on this album that are two thousand years old, clearly they don’t sound the same now as they would have done then!
As with some of the Western folk-song collectors – Vaughan Williams, Bartók – there was an element of preservation. People wanted to record all these songs before they were lost as society changed. There were a huge number of different schools of performance which the collectors were trying to preserve – in the past, communication was much slower and more difficult, so it was very easy for different areas to develop their own distinct style.
There are also the different ethnic groups within China, for whom the same kind of thing is true – for example the opening track of the album is a Kazakh folk-song. A man called Wang Luobin went to the north-western area of the country and wrote these songs down, and popularised them around China. Because of him, the sounds of the Xinjiang area and the Kazakh people are fairly well-known among Chinese people. I think if it hadn’t been for him, maybe this music wouldn’t be as widely-known as it is.
There are a number of musicians who travel to the relatively remote areas of China which are populated by particular ethnic groups, with the aim of writing down their music – I think in some cases there are government-supported initiatives for doing this. The Yao Dance is an example of this; Liu Tieshan went to the southern region and wrote down the songs of the Yao people, and then Mao Yuan developed it into the orchestral piece.
You incorporate pieces from China’s Kazakh, Yao and Uyghur communities into this album; are these traditions well-known and familiar within China itself, or do they have a feeling of exoticness even for listeners from other parts of the country?
Both! It’s definitely exotic for us. If we hear this kind of music from the north-western areas we can immediately tell that it’s from Xinjiang or the Kazakh autonomous areas. But at the same time it’s very well-established; there are plenty of sounds and styles that everyone in China knows about – and instruments, and even food! It’s very popular but yes, it does have that exotic sound.
An album like this, even a double-length one, can hardly begin to scratch the surface of what’s out there to be performed and explored – do you anticipate recording further albums in this style?
I don’t have specific plans for more volumes to make this album into a series, but I definitely want to do more. We have five thousand years of history and a huge musical world to draw on. It’s a journey that I really want to continue. What I want to do in particular is more collaborations with Chinese musicians, and also importantly I want to have more original works. These are really important – I’d like there to be more awareness of the instrument among Chinese people, and then we can have more new works from Chinese composers.
I’m particularly happy with Fu Renchang’s A Lovely Rose; there was almost zero Chinese repertoire for guitar and orchestra before this, so this was written for me and I think it’s quite substantial. When I’ve played it in China audiences have enjoyed it.