Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream


There’s a number of fine recording labels in Minnesota and these days you can count Innova among the most unusual. With their wildly eclectic approach to international music, Innova has a 2010 CD, entitled Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream from Chinese pipa player Gao Hong. For those who don’t know, the pipa is a historic, thousands of years old acoustic instrument from China that is in some ways is viewed as the Chinese version of the Indian sitar, even predating the guitar and mandolin by at least a thousand years! Chinese music itself is also thousands of years old, and one of the true virtuosos of the 21st century World Music scene, Gao Hong celebrates the art of the Chinese pipa, or pear-shaped lute and brings the sound of Chinese music to the fore with the 2010 release of her Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream. Ms. Hong’s first album devoted to her own compositions, Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream is filled with meditative and serene soundscapes that serves as an audio visit to mysterious China. With the pipa as the main instrument, the all instrumental album also blends in the sound of Indian music (a highlight being a duet between Ms. Hong and Shubhendra Rao) with the CD also featuring several other artists adding in various colors from the sounds of exotic eastern and western instruments. That much of the music was inspired by Gao Hong’s daughter undergoing a successful treatment for leukemia, only adds to the suspense and sense of emotional relief the music on this recording evokes. /


{The following interview took place in January 2011} Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream is a very special World Music release. How would you describe the sound were you interested in presenting with the CD?

GAO HONG: Since I came to United States 17 years ago, I have been working with many different musicians from different cultures. I have found that working with them is a very enlightening and inspiring experience, one that has stretched my musical horizons in many great ways. I have composed for sitar, tabla, and bass, and for everything from piano trio, choir to orchestra. I always try to combine the strength of Chinese melodic line with various scales, meters and rhythmical patterns rarely found in Chinese music. The different instrumental combinations I use gives the music a fresh air and enhances the pipa lines. Being a composer is a great way to promote Chinese pipa music to western audiences. I have two styles that I write music in. One is to compose music that uses Chinese methods and techniques to depict a storyline that expresses my deep feelings—as in “Flying Dragon Concerto”—or portrays the serenity and beauty of nature as in "Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream". The other style is a collaborative one with musicians and instruments from other cultures. Here I use methods and improvisation that are not found in Chinese music. Improvisation is not a normal routine for Chinese traditional musicians. In China we learned some folk styles of improvisation, like “Silk and Bamboo Music”, but that style of improvisation only involves the musicians playing variations of the pentatonic melodic lines all at the same time. So for me to improvise with jazz musicians, new music ensembles and instrumentalists from other cultures is extremely challenging. While playing with them, I must listen to their musical styles and compose and adopt my own style to fit with theirs. I must have the composition skills to create a melody or atmosphere while at the same time breaking with my Chinese traditional pentatonic scales and going beyond my traditional training to do so. After several years of doing this type of improvisation I began using it as a second style of composing, giving the other musicians instructions as to structure, scales to use, the mood or atmosphere to create, rhythmical passages to use and other aspects needed to realize my vision. This is the approach I have taken for most of the pieces on the CD, letting highlights of their own cultures shine through in my compositions. How long have you played the Pipa and can you say something about your instrument, where it is made, and can you describe the special sound it makes? Also can you say something about the strings and the special techniques and picks used in playing the pipa?

GH: I have played the pipa for 38 years. The pipa is a Chinese lute with a history going back over 2,000 years. It's shaped like a pear with four strings that are plucked with the fingers. The pipa is held upright with the body of the instrument resting in the player's lap. In Chinese, ‘Pi’ means ‘to play forward’ and ‘Pa’ means ‘to play backward’. The modern pipa has over a three-and-a-half octave range and is tuned A-D-E-A. The pipa player tapes picks (fake fingernails) to all right hand fingers and thumb. The instrument has a wide range of left-hand and right-hand playing techniques. I usually describe the pipa as sort of a mix of guitar, banjo and mandolin. But unlike those instruments, the pipa can imitate a wide array of sounds, creating musical pictures. The pipa can be made to sound like flowing water, blowing wind, wild geese, Chinese percussion instruments, the lapping of water against the shore, or even Chinese people talking or laughing (as in "Mother-in-law Arguing With Daughter In-Law"). In the traditional Pudong style of pipa playing - which I studied with my mentor Lin Shicheng for many years—there are a wide variety of expressive note-bending techniques used to express deep sorrow and emotion. How long have you lived in the U.S. and what has the reaction been to your new CD music among audiences who have heard you here in the U.S.?

GH: I have lived in the U.S. for 17 years now. I have been very pleased with the response to my new CD from the U.S., UK, Canada, China and Belgium. Most reviewers, like yourself, seem to understand well what I am trying to do. My CD has been called "innovative and bold, yet sensitive and delicate..." while my music "seethes with passion and virility even as it typifies delicacy and restraint." Others wrote that I am "one of the true virtuosos of the World Music scene" and offer a "bold vision of how the pipa can be used in novel cross-cultural musical fusions." Another claims that my new CD "builds intercultural links that explore musical extremes with a sense of belonging for everyone" and a reviewer from Belgium wrote, "Gao Hong shows with these projects a renewal of Chinese music tradition, ready for the world to embrace. I have the impression a new territory has been shown as a new way by Gao Hong." Are you living in Minnesota and what do you think of Minnesota? Are you teaching in Minnesota as well as performing and have you been to New York City and would you consider a concert here in NYC?

GH: I have lived in Minnesota the whole time I have been in America. There is a very active and thriving arts scene here, and the arts are very important to most Minnesotans. I am teaching Chinese Musical Instruments and directing a Chinese Music Ensemble at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, about a fifty-minute drive from either Minneapolis or St. Paul. My first NYC performance was for a World Music Institute concert back in 1994, and I have since performed there with the Lincoln Center production of "The Peony Pavilion," and with Fred Ho and the Monkey Orchestra at the Next Wave Festival. I also headlined a concert at Carnegie Hall in 2008. Of course, I would love to return to NYC to perform again! How would you compare the sound of Chinese music and Indian music, especially as you have several Indian musicians including Shubhendra Rao on the Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream CD.

GH: Indian music is far different from Chinese music. The scales are different, and there is great use of irregular meters and complex rhythms throughout. Most Chinese music is in duple meters, with an occasional 3/4. Shubhendra and I had several days of fruitless rehearsals as we tried to find common ground and create meaningful music. One day I decided to retune my pipa and from that point on I have felt that the sitar and pipa have a brother-sister type relationship, very complimentary and supportive despite the different traditions. I like to explore the use of a Chinese-style melody with the complex rhythms of Indian music, as well as the haunting vocal stylings that are so expressive. What are you plans for this coming year?

GH; The Minneapolis Guitar Quartet and the Jerome foundation commissioned me to write music for Guitar Quartet and Pipa. I also am working on a “big” project that will bring top performers of diverse lutes together called "Lutes Around The World". In the concert, I will combine Chinese pipa, guitar, Turkish baglama, banjo, ukulele and Japanese shamisen.

As a composer I will have the world premiere of my newest choir piece performed on February 26, 2011, by the Macalester College Choir, and my "Flying Dragon Concerto" performed by the St. Olaf College Symphony Orchestra on March 6, 2011.

As a performer, my next concert is February 13 at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul with "Speaking In Tongues", guqin (Chinese Zither) master Zhao Jiazhen, and the famous percussion group "Ba Da Chui" from China, followed by a Feb. 19th concert at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC with the Del Sol String Quartet. I am also going to play the world premiere of a pipa concerto by Chinese composer Changjun Xu on March 19 at Heymann Performing Arts Center, Lafayette, LA, with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, and I will also be appearing at the Great Lakes Folk Festival in Michigan this summer. It's a very busy 2011. Thank you Gao.

GH: Thank you so much for talking with me. Thank you very much for all your support! Have a great 2011!

Paul Dice
World Music Professionals
1609 West County Road 42, #229
Burnsville, MN 55306 USA
(952) 210-3628


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