When Eric Hung, an associate professor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, recently invited the community to join the Chinese music ensemble he co-founded in 2011, he was shocked by the number of people who showed up and had to turn some away.
The group, which is formally called the Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble, performs traditional and modern songs and dances from various parts of China and the Chinese diaspora.
Part of Westminster’s non-western music curriculum for the last few years, the ensemble has been an opportunity for students to expand their education and learn about diverse Chinese musical traditions and traditional instruments, and also gain insight into Chinese culture and history.
However, Hung, who is the ensemble’s assistant instructor, thought it might be fun to open things up to the community outside of the college, thinking that maybe a dozen people might show for the group’s first meeting in September.
“We were expecting maybe 10 people — and thought five would quit — but 30 people showed up for our first rehearsal,” Hung says. “We had to turn some down because we didn’t have enough instruments.”
“Altogether with percussion, there will be about six students and 24 community members, some of whom are recent Westminster graduates,” he says. “One of the alums is Jason Rand, who graduated in 2015. Jason played in the ensemble for about three years, and he’s been bringing his mother and sister to play.”
“We have a diversity of community members, including some members of the Rider faculty, but people from many other professions as well,” Hung says. “The ethnicity is mixed, too. Just half are Asian, mostly Chinese and one South Asian, and then the others are from all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities.”
The Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble will give a free concert titled “Songs and Dances” at Hillman Performance Hall, on the campus of Westminster Choir College, on Sunday, December 11, at 3 p.m. The group is conducted by world-renowned New York-based Chinese music performer and composer Wang Guowei, with assistance from Susan Cheng, executive director of Music from China, a New York-based ensemble.
Hung says Cheng will announce the selections from the stage, perhaps giving some background on each, and answering questions the audience members might have. There will also be a brief demonstration of the various traditional instruments in the ensemble.
The invitation to join the Chinese Music Ensemble came in late summer and was extended to community members over the age of 18. Participants could choose to learn the erhu (Chinese fiddle), the liuqin (mandolin), the ruan (round lute), dizi (flute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), or guzheng (zither).
This instrumentation is traditional for “indoor” Chinese music ensembles, whereas an “outdoor” orchestra would have more wind and percussion instruments.
“Chinese wind instruments tend to be loud, so they’re used more in outdoor orchestras,” Hung says. “A large (Chinese) ensemble or orchestra is a 20th-century invention that started in Shanghai in the 1930s and was standardized in the 1950s. Now when you learn a Chinese instrument you will play in this kind of ensemble, but it’s relatively new and based on Western (classical) orchestras.”
In addition to conducting and choosing the music for the concert, Guowei — who is an erhu virtuoso — instructed many of the ensemble’s participants.
As part of his life’s work promoting Chinese music, Guowei co-founded the Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble, as well as the Wesleyan University Chinese Music Ensemble, which he conducted for eight years. A similar program was established at New York University for two years. In 2014 Guowei was appointed artist-in-residence in Chinese music performance and director of the Williams College Chinese Ensemble.
“Susan Cheng teaches plucked strings, I teach erhu, and Wang Guowei teaches the rest,” Hung says. “He’s really one of the great players (of Chinese music) in the world, and he is the main director of the ensemble.”
Community participants were invited to join even if they had no instrumental experience of any kind, though an ability to read Western musical notation was a requirement.
“We need to play together, so we need people to know what the different note values are, as well as basic pitch notation,” Hung says. “But the ensemble uses cipher notation, so the notation is in numbers: it’s basically solfeggio (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do) where ‘do’ equals ‘one,’ for example. If you know Western music notation, it will take about 30 minutes to learn cipher notation, but then you should be able to read it just as well as Western music.”
“It’s a large ensemble, so it has to be structured,” Hung says. “In a traditional Chinese orchestra, you would have one player per instrument, so you could play in a more free way. But with multiple people on the (same) instruments it would be too chaotic.”
The December 11 concert program was still being finalized at the time of this interview, but Hung says five pieces have definitely been selected to be in the concert. The rest of the afternoon of music will likely comprise songs, solos, or small group performances.
“We’ll have arrangements of folk songs, some of which were composed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, when the Chinese music industry opened up to Western music,” Hung says. “One is considered a traditional Chinese song, but it’s actually a tango that was written in the 1930s. The other pieces are a mixture of traditional folk songs and early-20th century Chinese music.”
The concert will also include the premier performance of “Romance,” a new work written by Caeleb Tee, a graduate composition student at Westminster.
“It’s a beautiful piece, and ‘romance’ is a good description, as it sounds like a mid-20th century film music love song, really lush,” Hung says. “There’s a very European feel to it: imagine a love song in a Fellini film. It’s been difficult for the ensemble, though, because there are a lot of solos in the piece, and it’s in a Western music ‘language,’ which the ensemble is not used to playing.”
Composer Tee, a Malaysian Chinese musician, reflects on “Romance,” noting that his music education has almost exclusively followed on the path of Western music.
“I was never truly trained in traditional Chinese music, but instead, Chinese popular music was the genre that planted the passion for music in my heart, and the form and harmonic language of Chinese popular music has deeply influenced my composition, especially my earlier works,” Tee says. “On the other hand, traditional Chinese music was comparatively foreign to me. My first time joining a Chinese music ensemble was, ironically, at Westminster Choir College.”
“When Dr. Hung has asked me to compose a piece to be performed by the Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble, I debated over whether to write something that has a traditional sound, or something that is more personal to me, and eventually, ‘Romance’ was composed to be a voice from my very own heart,” he says. “It is a combination of all that I loved, from Western to Chinese, from classical to popular.”
“To describe it humorously, it’s like the stylized Chinese food you can get from an Americanized Chinese restaurant — we know it isn’t authentic, but we love and enjoy it,” he adds. “In the same way, ‘Romance’ is a piece that reflects my love in popular music, my fascination with traditional Chinese music, all using a very Westernized sound.”
Tee notes that the generic title of his composition not only suggests the mood of the piece, but also describes a feeling he had growing up, raised in an environment that was becoming more and more oblivious to its Chinese heritage.
“Like many others, I had assumed Western culture to be more elite or, simply put, more ‘awesome,’” Tee says. “As a result, many of us have given up on our own traditions, chasing after Western culture, arts, and ideologies — in my case, embracing Western music, while for so long, neglecting traditional Chinese music. It is a type of romance!”
“I see myself as a young lover, pursuing a very different someone, and leaving my family behind while doing that — not to mention the American name I’ve given myself to be more memorable,” he adds, noting that his real name is Lien Chen. “This is a romance between Western culture and myself.”
Tee says he wanted the piece to speak of the beauty of love, and feels that cultural diversity shouldn’t diversify people, but bring them closer together.”
“A romance should be sweet and pure,” Tee says. “A song about love should transcend its genre and style.”
It was Guowei who selected and bought the instruments that the Westminster ensemble uses, which was rather difficult five years ago but has become easier thanks to the Internet, Hung says.
“We got a donation to buy the instruments,” Hung says. “Wang was our broker and had them brought here from China. Things have changed, though, and now you can get good instruments online, although they might be more expensive.”
Born in Hong Kong, Hung was raised in Toronto, Ontario, where his father worked in the family’s land redevelopment business, and his mother was an educator who left teaching to raise her family. He jokes that he was forced to take piano lessons and didn’t like playing and practicing until he was about 15.
“Then I found out I could play well, and I started to enjoy it,” he says. “However, I made the decision to not go to performance school because I was not a ‘practice rat.’ Not that I hated practicing, but I didn’t want to do it four or five hours a day. I also didn’t find performing that meaningful; I prefer the process versus the performance, although I have had some very memorable piano performances.”
Nevertheless, Hung received an Associate of the Royal Conservatory diploma in piano performance from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and then went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to combine his love of music and political science, earning a bachelor of arts with high honors in music and social studies.
While at Wesleyan he was principal conductor of the wind ensemble, and assistant conductor of the orchestra there. “I went to Wesleyan to be a political science major, but did enough music (courses) to get a music major, as well,” Hung says. “Then I decided to pursue musicology, went to Stanford, and got my Ph.D.”
Hung taught musicology and piano at Minnesota State University Moorhead and at the University of Montana, arriving at Westminster in 2004, where he is currently associate professor of music history and Chinese Studies.
As an ethnomusicologist, Hung focuses on Asian-American music, recent Chinese music, music and new media, and contemporary music inspired by Balinese gamelan — the traditional music ensemble of Bali and Java, mostly made up of metallic percussion instruments.
Hung is also a film aficionado; in fact, he is coordinator of the Philadelphia Asian-American Film Festival, which just ran in mid-November.
An active pianist, erhu player and Balinese gamelan musician, Hung was the executive director of New York’s Gamelan Dharma Swara, the Balinese music-and-dance ensemble based at the Indonesian Consulate in NYC.
He started playing with the gamelan group in 2005, and although he plays down his skills and involvement the group is distinguished enough to have played at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, numerous universities in the New York City area, as well as being part of the Princeton Festival in 2012.
Gamelan Dharma Swara also traveled to Bali, where Hung and his colleagues were impressed and humbled by the musicianship there.
“Those groups play so much better than we do, but we’re good for Americans; we play at a fairly high level,” he says. “We do about eight concerts a year.”
Hung lives in Burlington Township with his wife, Mandi Magnuson-Hung, who is the curator at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Philadelphia. Hung says they chose to settle in Burlington Township since it is located right in the middle between his work in Princeton and hers in Philadelphia.
The Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble has been meeting every Monday night for about two hours, and with almost a dozen rehearsals under their belt, Hung says they are ready for the stage — even the folks who had never touched an instrument before.
“One person is an excellent guitarist, so switching to ruan was easy — the tuning is different, but the technique is the same,” he says. “We have a very good cellist, a good flutist, and many others who have been able to switch from Western instruments and play well within a couple of weeks.”
“We also have others who started from scratch,” Hung says, noting that interest was so high this year, he is planning to add a second ensemble. “In the future, we’ll have an audition group: people will have to try out for it, and then this will be the group that performs regularly. We’ll also have a beginners’ class that won’t run all the time, but will bring the participants up to the level of the performance ensemble.”
“Yes, at the beginning we were shocked, even overwhelmed, but things are going well, and certain players are very, very good,” Hung says.
Songs and Dances, Westminster Chinese Music Ensemble, Hillman Performance Hall, Westminster Choir College, Rider University, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Sunday, December 11, 3 p.m. Free. 609-921-7100 or www.rider.edu/events/westminster-chinese-music-ensemble-songs-and-dances.