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Guzheng Musician Rocks On
Wang Yong laughingly describes himself as "a hybrid." He is definitely not, but his music might be.

He has been trained in traditional ways, yet he produces his music on a computer.

He teaches electronic music in the China Conservatory of Music, yet his colleagues and students consider him a rock musician, while most of his friends in the rock field say he is a master of guzheng, a zither-like instrument mostly with 21 strings.

No other word than "cross-over" better describes Wang's music and no other title better fits his concert to be held at Century Theatre on January 29 and 30.

Using the "cross-over" theme, Wang and his band will present a conceptual work that goes beyond the scope of West-East relations and traditional and contemporary features.

At the concert, Wang and 17 other musicians will play music of different styles on traditional Chinese instruments such as guzheng, dizi, xiao, sheng, xun, pipa, yangqin and tanggu (a drum hung from a wooden frame).

They will also use pop music instruments such as guitar, bass and keyboard, plus electronic and African drums, gongs and cymbals.

Pop singer Ye Pei will add a vocal angle to some of the works and an improvisation involving all these instruments will turn the concert into a multicultural symphony.

Yet it is Wang himself who will cross most boundaries in the concert. He has composed all the works that will feature in the concert, will play guzheng and keyboard, and will direct the large-scale improvisation.

Wang was weaned on Chinese traditional music. Like most other children who are born into a family engaged in a traditional art, Wang was forced to study guzheng at the age of 9.

His father was Wang Shihuang, one of the most noted guzheng masters.

"My father wanted me to be the best guzheng player in the country," said Wang. So even though he showed little interest in the instrument, he did not let his father down. He received further formal training on guzheng at China Conservatory of Music in Beijing and won many awards on the instrument, including the top prize at the 1987 Shanghai Competition for Traditional Chinese Stringed and Woodwind Instruments, and second place at the 1989 Art Cup International Competition of Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments Performance.

However, Wang never really wanted to devote himself to guzheng. While at university he continued his exploration of rock, a genre which was just emerging in China but one that had fascinated him even before he went to college.

Tired of being torn between his father's wishes and his own passion, he was one day struck by the idea "Why not make use of the guzheng to produce music from my heart?"

And from then on, every day at 5 am when other students were still sleeping, Wang went to the classroom to play the guzheng in his own way instead of the way his father and teachers had taught him.

"Finally one morning I suddenly sensed the magical power of the guzheng and believed that it could be my vocation instead of an obligation," Wang recalled.

Ever since, Wang has found his own, free approach to music.

His work in both fields let him connect the two. The most famous example of his "cross-over" work was his co-operation with the best-known Chinese rock musician, Cui Jian, in "Let Me Be Wild in the Snow."

That was the first time the guzheng was used in rock music. It was its use that made the song distinctive and lent itself to advertising in the 1990s.

In the song, the millennia-old instrument evokes a sense of oppression and foreboding. The sense is then overcome by the wild sounds of electric guitar, drums - and even guzheng itself.

Later, when he felt guzheng was too limited to express all his musical ideas, he ventured into more complicated music.

He applied his keyboard skills to his role in the band "Tumbler," one of the first rock bands in China. And his subsequent experiences proved he has an eclectic and varied musical mind.

After releasing a Buddhist solo album "Samsara" in 1996, Wang devoted most of his time to playing improvisational music.

He opened his own bar, Keep in Touch, in Beijing in late 1996, giving himself a place for regular jam sessions and opportunities to play the guzheng with free style jazz musicians from all over the world.

"At first I knew nothing about what they called 'improvisation,' I just listened to them, seeing them indulge in co-operation," said Wang.

"Sometimes they invited me to join in with my guzheng. I took it as a joke but could not help trying," he said. "Then once or twice, I found the notes from my guzheng would perfectly communicate with their music and I gradually got to know that is a kind of 'inspiration'."

In the three-year history of Keep in Touch, many exciting moments of improvisation and collaboration were born.

Among those he has played with are Austrian violinist Andreas Schreiber, Dutch drummer Han Bennink and American guitarist Steve Blailock. Wang and these musicians toured and performed in jazz festivals held in France, Germany, Britain, Japan and Hong Kong.

At the 1997 Beijing International Jazz Festival, Wang was a member of the Ensemble for New Improvised Music, a temporary group of six musicians from five countries.

"According to my early training and knowledge of traditional Chinese music, Chinese music has a very distinct horizontal structure - a consistent tone and melody - while Western music tends to be multi-dimensional," said Wang. "In my music I try to integrate the horizontal strength of Chinese music with the vertical depth of Western music."

Wang is sad that fewer and fewer Chinese musicians are willing to spend time working to preserve ancient musical knowledge. He tries to inject new blood into Chinese musical tradition and make it richer so that "everyone can find something familiar and something new in each musical experience."

In July 2001, Wang established a band, with members mostly drawn from the conservatories, which performs irregularly with changing members.

Wang said most of these musicians basically have one thing in common - their interest in both traditional Chinese and modern Western music.

"But that is not all. Each of them also has his or her own understanding and interpretation of cross-over music. It is this sensitive individuality that gives me continuous inspiration for new work," said Wang.

In March, Wang and his band will travel to perform a concert called "Chinese Breath" in the Budapest Music Festival in Hungary.

(China Daily January 27, 2003)

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