Making Each Day, Each Note Count — Dialogue with Erhu Musician, Guo Gan

Guo Gan Performing
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Born in Shenyang, China in 1968, GUO GAN was first trained by his father, Guo Junming, a renowned erhu (Chinese violin) master. An honors graduate from Shenyang Music Conservatory, he became professor at Liaoning Music Conservatory in 1995. Also a jazz specialist, Guo founded the jazz groups, GYQ and Dragon Jazz, while pursuing his interest in percussion.

Living in France since 2001, he has recorded for numerous French film soundtracks, including L’Idole, (dir. Samantha Lang), Sa Majesté Minor (dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud), Le Premier Cri (dir. Gilles de Maistre), and others. Performing with more than ten orchestras in Europe and Asia, he has regularly collaborated with internationally acclaimed artists such as Lang Lang, Didier Lockwood, Yvan Cassar, and Gabriel Yared. A highly prolific performer, Guo Gan continues to perform worldwide, in all genres varying from classical to contemporary, avant-garde and cross-disciplinary. His newest CD, Une seule prise/In One Take (accompanied by a beautifully illustrated booklet of photographs and poetry), recorded with award-winning guzheng (Chinese zither) concertist, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, was just released in France this October.

Guo now lives in Paris, France, with his wife, pianist Long Long and their daughter. Visit www.guogan.fr

Your father, Guo Junming (1940-2010) played an important role in your life as an erhu artist. Could you share with us more? How did your interest in erhu music begin?

I started playing the erhu at the age of four. Yes, I was trained entirely by my father, Guo Junming, in the family tradition of apprenticeship, from one generation to another. You can say that I inherited the Guo family’s art of erhu. My father taught me the theories and performance of the art, literally from hand to hand, and from scratch. Although he cultivated my upbringing in erhu, he did not specifically expect that I would grow up to be like him, an erhu musician. He was very free and relaxed as far as my personal choices are concerned.

Since I was young, I was interested in many things. I took violin, cello and piano lessons, and was also trained (for four years) in percussion. I also enjoyed sports tremendously, such as table-tennis, football and swimming. I was also a serious stamp-collector, and have a passion for painting. I took formal drawing lessons at the art conservatory for two years. I seriously decided to develop my erhu career because after settling in Europe, I realized how much potential there is for me regarding expanding traditional folk music in another culture. Of course, I took on the path of erhu because there is a passion in me for this instrument.

How do you feel now that your father has passed on, and you are performing with his instrument?

Feelings are very profound, to answer your question. Concertizing with my father’s instrument is like an extension of my dialogues with him. It is at once intimate and deep, not just sentimental. It also feels very real and physical, as if I’m touching my father, and he is touching me. All these feelings last, even after a concert.

Guo Gan with his father,
Guo Junming
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Technically speaking, performing on my father’s erhu facilitates me greatly, in huge part because my father was a skillful musician who had managed to keep the soul of this erhu alive. After twenty-five years or more of performing in public and working in private with this instrument, he had produced in it very beautiful sonorities and tone colors. So playing on such a good instrument can only help me much as far as rendering music alive onstage. It brings me convenience.

Emotionally speaking, however, it is very difficult and complex for me. It is my feelings that are hard to master. I can get emotionally overwhelmed, particularly when the instrument also brings back many memories. My father’s death changed me greatly. But as you know, it is important to keep a healthy distance between oneself and his/her instrument, as well as with the repertoire in question. If one does not manage to control his/her feelings about the instrument, it is even harder to control the music. This can’t happen onstage, because when you perform, you need to be accountable to other players in an orchestra, for example; your emotions affect their interpretation too.

Finally, the instrument contains my father’s voice. Playing on an instrument that was once his translates in some ways to rendering his voice alive. I have my own voice, too, as a performer, and I need to maintain my own voice and style — while using his erhu. Music, like literature, is about the voice. Evidently, there are differences between my style and my father’s approach. My father was much more “open” and “all-embracing” when he performed (even though offstage, he was very much an old, traditional erudite). When I perform, I am more controlled. This has to do with our personalities. So I have to make sure that my own individual style and personality stays intact, now that I have inherited his erhu.


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