Their music runneth over

The Jun Tian Yun He Ensemble performs at the Israel Festival

The Jun Tian Yun He Ensemble (photo credit: XUE GUANCHAO)
The Jun Tian Yun He Ensemble
(photo credit: XUE GUANCHAO)
There is something almost mesmerizing about music that gets into a groove and stays there. It grabs you and gets you, well, grooving. The concerts by the Jun Tian Yun He Ensemble of China, which will take place tomorrow and Sunday at the Jerusalem Theater as part of the Israel Festival, aren’t exactly in the Western rock- or even jazzoriented groove. Then again, the program that will be performed by the ensemble’s six instrumentalists and vocalists goes by the name of Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water Guqin Concert, so it appears that there will certainly be some continuum fluidity to the sonic proceedings.
The ensemble’s repertoire is based on one of the most important musical pieces in Chinese culture. According to legend, the work came into being during the “autumn and spring” period (770 BCE to 476 BCE) and was born of an encounter between a musician named Yu Boya and a simple woodcutter who had a rare ability to understand the images transmitted by Boya’s music. This result of that happy confluence is one of the best-known items in the Chinese repertoire, which is seen as a symbol of friendship.
The renditions the Jerusalem audiences will hear over the next couple of days is a more contemporary adaptation that presents the grand Chinese tradition of music, costumes and sets, skillfully interwoven with improvisation and artistic tai chi movements. The lineup includes four guqin players, one of whom doubles as a vocalist; another vocalist; and a cellist, as well as two tai chi performers. The guqin is a plucked seven-string Chines instrument of the zither family.
Musical director and guqin player Wang Peng says that Western instruments have increasingly found their way into Chinese music in recent decades and that the synthesis process gathered pace in particular following the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
“Since the reform and opening up in China, the Eastern-Western musical culture gradually exchanges frequently in the past 30 years,” he notes. “Chinese and Western musical instruments [are] on a continuous collision. In terms of the guqin, since the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony, it [became] gradually understood and welcomed by people, and the cooperation with Western musical instruments is also increasing.”
Peng also notes that the disparate cultural mindsets and the approach to musicianship can produce oxymoronic benefits.
“In cooperation between the guqin and Western musical instrument performance, such as the cooperation of guqin and cello, guitar, piano, flute and so on, guqin is to follow its original characteristics, resulting in contrast and collision of Western musical instrument timbre and rhythm,” says.
But, Peng explains, it isn’t always about diversity.
“There can also be mutual confluence with Western instruments, which requires players of both guqin or Western musical instruments [being able to] understand musical ensemble properties, cooperate with each other and create a harmonious relationship.”
Does, then, the cultural confluence make the ensemble’s music more user-friendly to people from different parts of the world? Artistic director and guqin player Du Dapeng refers to the attractive natural elements in the concert title and says we can all find a common language, regardless of where we come from.
“Music is a universal language, especially the nature of guqin music,” he notes. “Wherever people are from, whatever kind of culture they have, however different their understanding, they can reach a common state and calm themselves down in guqin music, on the imagination of landscape and get into a natural world – this is the charm of the guqin.”
The music the ensemble plays may tug at heartstrings across the globe and may appeal to people with a wide range of musical sensibilities, but instrumentalist and vocal expertise does not come cheaply.
“Learning guqin is a comprehensive study, not only to master the basic skills but also the need to combine with their breath and thought,” says Peng.
“Ancient Chinese thought sound was energy; playing the guqin is designed to make a relationship between music and the body, to create the energy space.”
It is also a highly individual matter.
“Each player has different stages and feelings,” continues Peng. “The players need the Chinese traditional cultural ideas for in-depth understanding: firstly, to understand that the sound is a natural thing and needs to be understood in nature; and secondly, how to combine essence and culture to form a unified body.”
It is very much a matter of keeping yourself on an even keel.
“If a musician thinks lightly about the relationship between space and energy, he may ignore human thought. So balance is indispensable. It is like what is mentioned in the concept of guqin: ‘Be peaceful and clean in your heart,’” he says.
As is often the case with Eastern cultural endeavor, mastering the guqin is not just a matter of having the right teacher and putting in liberal amounts of elbow grease. There is much more to this that initially meets the eye and ear.
“In ancient China, the guqin was an instrument of great subtlety and refinement which has always been associated with scholars and the literati who were meant to be skilled in four major arts or pleasures: Qin, Qi, Shu and Hua,” explains Dapeng.
“Qin is the ability to play this instrument. It is about the flow of nature, the eternal cycles, the Dao (“the way”) and the ability to still the mind.
Qi is the board game Go, or Chinese chess. It involves an understanding of strategy and what we might call pokerfaced scheming. Shu is about books and writing, the transmission of history and the accumulation of knowledge leading to wisdom. Hua is the art of calligraphy, the writing of Han Chinese characters using ink and brush in a way that reflects the artist’s own esthetic values and emotions. From calligraphy flows traditional painting, using ink and brush to represent the natural world,” he explains.
This is clearly a multiskill, multisensory business that should not be taken lightly but which offers abundant added value in a musical and emotional sense. As the program name infers, the audiences at the Jun Tian Yun He Ensemble shows would be well advised to take a deep breath and just go with the flow.
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