From China with love

UMass student group blends traditional Chinese music with contemporary sounds

  • Members of the Chinese Music Association at UMass Amherst rehearse. Fom left, sophomore Ziwei He, junior Liang Wu (on piano), post-doc student Minqi Wang on the pipa and post-doc student Mingyue Song on the cajon drum. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Minqi Wang, who started the Chinese Music Association in 2015, began studying the pipa, also known as the Chinese lute, when she was six. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Liang Wu, a junior and music major at UMass Amherst, rehearses with fellow members of the Chinese Music Association. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Minqi Wang, a post-doc student at UMass Amherst and founder of the Chinese Music Association, plays the pipa alongside Mingyue Song. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Dekang Liang, a junior at UMass Amherst, plays the dizi, a bamboo flute, at a rehearsal of the Chinese Music Association. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Minqi Wang says she sees the Chinese Music Association, which blends traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa with piano and guitar, as a means of bringing greater awareness of Chinese music to the region. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Friday, May 05, 2017

On the left side of the room, the lineup seemed like a familiar one in western music: two acoustic guitarists and a pianist.

But on the right, the group’s other two musicians were playing instruments of a more exotic lineage: the pipa and the dizi, which in China can trace their lineage back as much as 2,000 years.

In a rehearsal room at the Fine Arts Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, five members of the Chinese Music Association were practicing recently for their upcoming performance, which takes place Saturday at the student ballroom.

Since 2015, the student group has been working to bring a mix of traditional and contemporary Chinese music to the area, blending melodies and instruments that have been played for centuries with western instruments, like the guitar and piano, that have also become popular in China.

It’s the same path that some modern Chinese musicians, such as pipa player Wu Man and celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, have taken over the past decade or so, blending Chinese folk and traditional music with western classical music, as Wu Man did at a performance last year at the FAC with the Peking Orchestra.

“We’re interested in introducing students and people in this area to some different sounds,” said Minqi Wang, a post-doctoral student in food science who is also a highly accomplished pipa player and a founder of the CMA. “But we also play pop and jazz” to provide a broad range of music.

Wang says she sees the group as taking part in a broader cultural exchange between Chinese and Western arts.

The CMA, made up of both undergraduate and graduate/doctoral students, has roughly 25 members (including some singers and dancers), though not all of them will appear at Saturday’s performance.

Although some of the students are music majors, most play music on the side, and most are Chinese, though Wang says the group also has American students who play Chinese instruments or are interested in the music.

Wang said she gave a pipa recital at UMass in 2015, after which Ranjanaa Devi, director of the university’s Asian Arts and Culture Program, invited her to apply for grant funding to start the group and hold some concerts.

“We have been building on that ever since,” said Wang, who noted the CMA held two well-attended concerts last year and another one this past April.

Folk, classical and film scores

At the group’s recent rehearsal, Wang was joined by pianist Liang Wu and acoustic guitarists Mingyue Song and Ziwei He; at times, Song also played a cajon drum, a box-like percussion instrument.

As Wu played the old bossa nova jazz standard “The Girl from Ipanema” on an upright piano, the other players tuned up their instruments. Then the group played a traditional Chinese tune, “Rain in Jiang-Nan: Impression,” that had a somewhat melancholy melody and highlighted Wang’s pipa.

The pipa, also known as the Chinese lute, is played upright and requires complex fingering with the left hand and equally complex plucking of the strings with the right hand. Wang, who took up the instrument at age 6 and has performed in several countries, alternated between plucking single notes, rapid sequences of arpeggios and tremolo.

The twangy sound of the pipa blended well with He’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar and the gentle notes Wu played on his piano. “There’s not as much bass in Chinese music [as in western music],” said Wang. “So, the piano and guitar can bring that to our songs.”

Wu then played a quick, bright classical piece, by Franz List, with Wang and He adding textures on pipa and guitar and Song playing the cajon.

Suddenly, a fifth member of the group, Dekang Liang, ran into the room — he’d just come from rehearsing with the UMass Orchestra — and joined the group on his dizi, a bamboo flute.

The CMA’s performances can also include players on the erhu, known as the Chinese violin, a slender instrument with two strings, and the guzheng, known as the Chinese zither, which can have 16 or more strings and also has movable bridges.

Like the pipa and the dizi, the guzheng and the erhu date back centuries, perhaps as much as 2,500 years in the case of the guzheng.

For their next number, the players turned to Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi and the theme song from his score for “Castle in the Sky,” a 1986 anime movie. Built partly around minor chords, the song had a haunting melody and a somewhat slow, classical feel, although the group picked up the tempo partway through the tune, which seemed to brighten the melody.

“We like to play Chinese music, Chinese folk music and more modern sounds,” said Wang. “It’s a way to make connections between East and West.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Members of the Chinese Music Association will perform Saturday at 7 p.m. at the UMass Student Union Ballroom. The show is free, and food is provided.