Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on September 30, 1998. All rights reserved.
From China, Old & New
Monitoring the music of China is a daunting task.
The output covers a period of two millennia, extends from the formal
pieces admired by the royal court to the ditties of daily life in
remote villages, and encompasses contemporary works that include
styles and western instruments. All this is the province of Susan
Cheng, founder of Music from China, which appears at Richardson
in two concerts on Saturday, October 3. At 10:30 a.m. the ensemble
presents a free, hour-long program on the instruments and forms of
Chinese music for children and families. At 8 p.m. the ensemble
a full-length program devoted to traditional Chinese music and
($10 adults; $2 students). Both concerts are presented by Princeton
University Concerts World Music Series and the Princeton University
Program in East Asian Studies.
For Cheng, who has been executive director of Music from China since
she founded the organization in 1984, running the group has been
because of her exceptional dual commitments. Captivated by Chinese
music in all its variety, she nevertheless put her college training
to use by working at Rockefeller University in biomedical research
for almost 30 years.
"Being a biologist was good while it lasted," says Cheng from
her home in New York. Her position in Rockefeller’s Neurophysiology
Department "had a guaranteed income, benefits, and security. But
the department closed, and I decided to work full-time on Music from
China. Now that I’m a full-time administrator, we can present more
educational programs, more workshops, and more performances. We can
go out of state. I’m devoting all my time and energy to promoting
the organization. —
Back in 1984, when she started Music from China, "the idea was
to have an intimate group of musicians who would play one person on
a part." The first year, the ensemble had less than 20
Now, counting workshops and school appearances, the number of
has grown to about 150. The original core group of five musicians
has grown, but Cheng works with no more than eight, usually performing
as a group of five or six. She says the organization finds its
by word of mouth.
A Cantonese, Cheng was born in 1947. Her parents, with their four
children, moved to Hong Kong in 1949, at the time of the Communist
takeover of China. "Because there were so many children in the
family, my grandmother took me back to her fishing village in China
for a year and a half. But I started school in Hong Kong," she
says. The family emigrated to the United States in 1956, when Cheng
was nine. She grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, and graduated
from Barnard College with a degree in biology. "I have the best
of both worlds," says Cheng, who reads, writes, and speaks
"I have retained my Chinese culture, but I was brought up as an
In addition to her biomedical career at Rockefeller,
Cheng has also worked briefly in newspaper publishing. Regardless
of her professional activities, however, a determining force in her
life has been Chinese music. The interest originated with the radio
broadcasts and Chinese movies of her childhood, where she became
with the sounds of China’s traditional instruments. After a chance
meeting with a noted Hong Kong musician on a U.S. tour, she learned
her first instrument, the zheng, a 21-string zither with movable
Since 1971 Cheng has been an orchestral player of the zheng and other
plucked string instruments.
Cheng readily provides a capsule account of the principal Chinese
traditional instruments, as well as a short summary of the
of traditional Chinese music. The harp-like zheng, she explains, is
an ancient instrument. "You can run your fingers through it, and
the bridges are repositioned to change pitch or key. The performer
touches the strings with his left hand to make the pitches bend."
To bend a pitch is to induce a wobble in the sound. Though generally
shunned in western music, a wobble in pitch enhances the beauty of
sound in Chinese music and other non-western musical traditions.
Chinese music you try to create different textures in sound. The sound
is very important. There is no western-type harmony in Chinese music,
so the timbral qualities of each instrument are important. The timbre
depends on the material of which the instrument is made. Although
traditional Chinese music is unison, because of the different sound
qualities of different instruments, the effect is one of great variety
The broad division in sound in traditional Chinese music is between
wind instruments and stringed instruments, The wind instruments are
traditionally made of bamboo. The dizi, a transverse flute, and the
xiao, a vertical flute, appear on the Princeton programs.
Stringed instruments may be either plucked or bowed. Traditionally,
their strings have been made of silk, Cheng says. As the need for
increased volume has been felt in recent years, gut, and other
have come to replace silk. "Today everything is stainless steel
on the inside, and nylon on the outside," she says. "Silk
is too delicate." Among the stringed instruments appearing at
Richardson are the pipa, a Chinese lute; the zheng; and the erhu,
which is often described as a two-stringed Chinese violin.
By Cheng’s account, erhu and violin are distant relatives.
constructed differently," she says, "and played differently.
The erhu sits vertically on the player’s lap and the bow goes left
and right. The resonator for the erhu is a six-sided box, covered
with python skin, not the wooden box used for the violin. With the
erhu, the left hand fingers press on the strings, and there is no
fingerboard to stop the sound. Because there is no fingerboard, the
left hand can create all kinds of vibratos and note bending. It can
produce dramatic vibratos that sound like a human voice. Generally,
it has a melancholy sound," she adds.
Cheng plays the daruan in these concerts, a large guitar-like
that furnishes the bass line. "Da," she explains, means
in Chinese; "ruan" is the name of the instrument, a
instrument with frets, strummed with a pick, and played in a seated
position. It has a round body, which is flat on both sides. "I’m
a relatively small person and the daruan covers my whole body. Only
my head is visible," she says.
Featured solos, played without accompaniment, will be performed on
the zheng, the 21-stringed zither, by Yang Yi; the dizi, the
bamboo flute, by Chen Tao; and the erhu, the two-stringed Chinese
violin, by Wang Guowei. Wang plays an original solo in a contemporary
style on his erhu.
The earliest piece on the Richardson program is the
dizi (transverse bamboo flute) solo, "Plum Flower Variations,"
which dates from the Jin dynasty (317-420 A.D.). The piece has been
preserved in an ancient notation system developed by Confucian
all of whom were required to learn music as part of their training.
Cheng hums the piece. It is pentatonic, in other words, made up of
the intervals that occur when one uses only the black keys on the
piano, and easy to sing back. Cheng points out that most ancient
music is pentatonic, and adds that the intervals corresponding to
the white keys on the piano are also used in traditional Chinese
"There are very few sharps and flats in traditional Chinese
How should a concert-goer accustomed to western music approach the
performance? "The audience will be surprised that a lot of the
music is very approachable," Cheng says. "It will be very
melodic and very beautiful. Melody is typical of traditional Chinese
music. Often the melody is peaceful and quiet. Chinese melody is
introspective, and relaxing. Do not expect heavily rhythmic
An exception comes from the people’s music. "A lot of folk music
is rhythmic," she adds. "`On the Prairie’ catches the feeling
of the Mongolian grass lands and captures the rhythmic beating of
horses as they run across the prairie."
Musical meter, also, distinguishes the Chinese tradition from the
music of ethnic minorities. Chinese music most commonly uses duple
meter, the beat of a march, and infrequently uses triple meter, the
beat of a waltz. In ethnic music, triple meters are relatively
Cheng sees a parallel between traditional Chinese music and its art.
"Traditional music is evocative," she says. "There’s
a balance between opposites, between yin and yang, light and dark,
concrete and ephemeral. Sometimes there are rich tone colors, and
suddenly there’s something light and airy," she says. "Think
in terms of a balance of spaces. In traditional Chinese painting there
are empty spaces on the scroll. When there’s no sound that’s also
part of the music. The thing together becomes one complete unit,"
she says, pointing out the importance of negative space in the Chinese
A sample of the traditional Jiangnan Sizhu style is included in the
program. Known as "silk and bamboo" music because of its
of strings and winds, folk ensembles of this structure were most
south of the Yangtze River.
Although the Princeton programs consist almost completely of
Chinese music, Music from China also seeks out the contemporary. Since
1986 the group has performed over 70 new works by 35 composers,
innovative works that incorporate western instruments. The ensemble
performs its annual concert of new works at New York’s Merkin Hall
on October 25, and for the 75th anniversary celebration of the Freer
Gallery in Washington, D.C., in November. The traditional and the
new are all within the scope of Music from China.
— Elaine Strauss
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. The 10 a.m performance is free.
Evening concert $10 adults; $2 students. Saturday, October 3, 10:30
a.m. and 8 p.m.
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