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

in sound."

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

traditional arts.

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

Music from China, Princeton University Concerts,

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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