Two bright red Chinese dragon figures, rescued from dumpsters by a staff member, will come to life Tuesday night in a performance by the Music of China Ensemble.
The performance in the Jan Popper Theater will celebrate the ensemble’s 60th anniversary and will feature ancient Chinese instruments, a traditional fan dance, a dragon dance and Kun opera. Chi Li, the director of the Music of China Ensemble, said the performance will reflect China’s musical diversity, featuring traditional songs and instruments from the Han culture.
“They say America is like a melting pot, and I think Chinese music is the same thing,” Li said. “There is constant change to include all of the music’s different elements.”
Li said the ensemble’s 60th anniversary is worthy of celebration since, according to the Chinese stem-branch calendar system, 60 years represents a full span of life. The performance is a musical commemoration ushering in a new era or cycle, she said.
Sixty years ago, professor Tsun-Yuen Lui established the ensemble at UCLA with a small group of 10 to 15 students. Over the years, the ensemble has grown to include more than 100 students, Li said. The upcoming performance will pay tribute to Lui, who founded the ensemble with a limited number of traditional Chinese instruments such as the dizi, a type of bamboo flute, and the pipa, a pear-shaped plucked lute with four strings.
Li said the ensemble’s steadily increasing access to instruments has allowed the group to incorporate more styles of music into the program, such as Kun opera – one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera – and the traditional dragon and fan dances. The ensemble now also has enough guqins to form a performance group specifically designated for the instrument. The guqin, a 3000-year-old creation, is a seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family.
Because China is a large nation composed of 56 different ethnic groups with more than 3000 years of history, Li said the country’s various forms of traditional music reflect the nation’s diversity. Tuesday’s performance will focus on the music of the Han people, which form the ethnic majority in China.
Li said Han music is easily identifiable because most songs use a pentatonic scale, composed of five notes per octave, and quarter notes, musical notes with the time value of one quarter of a whole note. She said Han music also distinguishes itself through its embrace of silk and bamboo instruments.
As a Chinese-American, Mei Blundell said participating in the ensemble has instilled a sense of familiarity in her new university environment. Since she was 7 years old, the first-year biology student has been playing the yangqin, which originally came to southern China from Persia about 400 years ago. The wooden, trapezoidal instrument uses 138 strings that musicians strike with bamboo sticks.
Blundell said her favorite piece to play in the performance is “A Song in the Rice Field,” a popular folk song from the Jiangsu province. The song features a cheerful melody and used to be sung by peasants as they worked in the rice fields to distract themselves from the repetitive labor. The song features an energetic and syncopated rhythm that lags between beats or skips over beats entirely, she said.
Wan Yeung, a doctoral student in ethnomusicology, has used the ensemble to forge a new musical experience in college. Although he has been playing the pipa for 18 years, he is currently learning to play the guzheng, a plucked instrument with 21 strings. He said some of songs the ensemble will perform, such as “Open the Window,” depict natural scenery, while others, such as “The Moon over the Guan Pass” tell historical narratives.
The way Chinese music plays with the contrast between tone, timbre and rhythm rather than with a preset tempo is a practice that can be traced back to Confucian or Taoist philosophies, Yeung said.
“By listening to Chinese music and seeing how it evolved, a lot of the times you can trace it back to a society or the philosophy behind it,” he said.
A group of guqin players will perform “The Moon over the Guan Pass,” which combines its score from a 1931 musical manuscript with lyrics from a famous Tang dynasty poet, Li said. “The Moon over the Guan Pass” explores the feelings of internal conflict ancient Chinese soldiers felt as they embarked on a lifelong military commitment, parting with loved ones for the sake of a greater cause, she said.
Yan Zhou, a doctoral candidate in East Asian linguistics, is also trained in pipa and will play the instrument alongside other musicians at the concert. They will present “Pristine Scenery,” a piece of folk music from Shanbei that depicts a young girl sitting amid the beautiful scenery of a mountain, waiting to meet with her lover. She said while the pipa’s slow and gentle sound is particularly conducive to portraying love, sorrow and natural scenery, the performer can also portray excitement or intense battle scenes by playing in a faster, more vigorous style.
Looking toward Tuesday’s performance, Li said showcasing the spectrum of Chinese music can help bridge cultural gaps. Li said she experienced music’s ability to unite people across cultural gaps firsthand when she moved to the U.S. – and now she aims to share this experience with others.
“When I came here, I didn’t speak the language but I played music, so it was easy to make friends,” Li said. “Music has saved my life, absolutely.”