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.


Un seule prise
BY Guo Gan AND Fiona Sze
(Vif éditions, 2010)

From the publisher:

“La rencontre poétique unique de deux musiciens, Guo Gan et Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Une seule prise offre un choix exquis de musique classique et contemporaine, représentative de la tradition chinoise du violon erhu et de la harpe zheng.”

Tracklist :

  • In the Mood for Love (erhu et zheng)
  • Un vautour attrape une grue (zheng solo)
  • Reflets de lune sur l’Er Quan (erhu solo)
  • Mélodie d’un pêcheur ramant au crépuscule (zheng et erhu)
  • Course des chevaux (erhu solo)
  • Valse du peuple Yao (zheng et erhu)
  • Floraisons au clair de lune sur la rivière de printemps (erhu et zheng)

“An exquisite musical encounter with two international award-winning concertists, Guo Gan and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, In One Take offers a lyrical choice that blends both classical and contemporary music in the tradition of two ancient Chinese music instruments.”

Tracklist :

  • In the Mood for Love (erhu and zheng)
  • The Vulture Captures a Grange (zheng solo)
  • Moon Reflected on Er Quan (erhu solo)
  • Tune of a Fisherman Rowing at Dusk (zheng and erhu)
  • Horse Racing (erhu solo)
  • Waltz of the Yao (zheng and erhu)
  • Flower Blossoms of the Moonlit Spring River (erhu and zheng)

Your present and upcoming projects — could you give us snapshot into your various works-in-progress?

I am now composing. Concerts continue. I am releasing a new CD, In One Take this summer/fall in Paris. It is a CD that highlights classical erhu and guzheng (Chinese zither) duos. I’ll begin working on my next CD as of fall, this time also as an erhu-guzheng duo.

In addition, I am working with different Baroque and jazz groups, working on Bach, Vivaldi…

Tell us about the development of erhu music in the contemporary Chinese society, and our world.

Generally speaking, the development of erhu music in China over the past twenty years has been growing fast and steadily. More and more children are learning to play erhu, and of course more amateurs. The problem is that many contemporary erhu performers, i.e. the newer post-Cultural Revolution generation, are “nowhere — neither East nor West.” At the same time that they try to imitate performers from the West, they fail to master what is most Orientally attractive and original about their own culture and tradition. There is a fashion of blindly worshipping the Occident among the young generation, to the extent that they are better at imitating or learning Western artistic expressions than mastering, fine-tuning or learning what belongs to themselves. Piano is a good example.

Erhu music in contemporary Chinese society is threatened by the fact that erhu concerts do not sell in the mainstream culture. Like guzheng (Chinese zither), for instance, it is considered an elite art. Art tastes in the contemporary Chinese society are pretty commercialized. What sells most is popular music by television singers or pop stars.

Guo Gan performing with Fiona Sze-Lorrain at UNESCO
(Paris, France, June 2010)
COURTESY OF REGARDS AILLEURS

In the world at large, there are now, of course, more professional erhu players spread across the globe. But not all of them persevere in their erhu careers. Many of them, after having led professional careers as musicians in China, opt to do something else once they move abroad. There are many reasons why. Some of them want to earn money, have family obligations, marry and have children, etc. There are at five or six erhu professional players in Paris, for example. Most of them play once in a while for festive celebrations in the Chinese community, just for fun, but they do not venture beyond that. They have their day-jobs, or other careers. Overall, there are now more opportunities for Westerners to appreciate erhu music, but erhu solo concerts are still relatively limited, and real, good erhu players at the concert level with a good understanding of world cultures and sensibilities are hard to come by. While more Chinese are learning to play the erhu, it is not the case for Westerners, who maintain their enthusiasm for this instrument at the level of appreciation. Unlike the Chinese, the Westerners resist imitating others. Therefore, it is still rather rare that Westerners pick up the instrument and play it, let alone perform it. Besides, audiences do not wish to see a non-Chinese playing a Chinese instrument. There is a stigma somehow. They want the “complete image” of a Chinese playing a Chinese instrument. Everyone easily knows who Beethoven or Schubert is, but no one knows in the Western society (or the Chinese society, for that matters) who the erhu masters are, for example. Perhaps even less than 1% really know who they really are, after all.


You moved from Shenyang, China to Paris, France, and now perform worldwide, collaborating with all genres of musicians and artists. What are your thoughts on cultural differences and their impact upon public reception towards erhu music?

Cultural differences is a vast subject. The fact that I live in France, in another culture other than my native one, opens me up. I’m willing to accept and confront differences, rather than looking for only similarities. To confess, I do not face discrimination problems in the music circle when it comes to erhu music. My colleagues do not just treat it as a Chinese music; it is music. Beyond that, public-wise, erhu music is part of the world music conversation. Yes, there is still the resistance in perceiving erhu music as Chinese music, rather than music free of social or national labels.

How would describe the evolution of your musical life?

Before the age of twenty-five, life seemed to be rather “pure” and carefree, though it was very rich — I met people from all walks of life, organized different music ensembles that performed both jazz and classical erhu, fell in love, etc. There wasn’t any career ambition when speaking of music. I enjoyed playing fast and technically invigorating music, and wasn’t quite inclined towards slow music, for example. Now that I am past forty, things are definitely different. Other than pragmatic concerns in life like raising a child, my music has matured. I look for profondity, meaning… and am able to invest myself in meditative or slow music. I am developing myself as a well-rounded erhu artist.

Experimenting with Jazz and New (Laser) Technology
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Now, I have three specific aims. First, to inherit and preserve my father’s erhu legacy; second, to shape and forge a performance style that is unique to me; lastly, to compose. Composing is new to me. I have started doing so in recent years.

As a genre, erhu music is only a small part of world music. You must remember that beyond Asia, classical European music dominates, next to pop music, rock-n-roll, jazz, new age, avant-garde, etc. World music is just one of these genres, and it consists further of Indian, Arabic, African, and Asian music. Asian music is then subcategorized into Japanese, Korean and Chinese music, among others. In France, Arabic and African dominates as far as world music is concerned, and next, Indian music. So as you can see, it is not easy, if not possible, to just play erhu as a soloist. I put aside the bias of playing erhu only as a soloist, which I feel is a problem often encountered by Chinese and Indian musicians wanting only to play solo because they are considered traditionally as maîtres (i.e. masters). I personally do not find this healthy, somehow a little too individualistic. This is why I venture vastly into other performing possibilities, like playing with different ensembles and groups of all sorts. It is much more meaningful to be able to dialogue with other musical voices. This is a dialogue beyond the one you typically foster between yourself and the instrument. To me, playing alone on the stage can be boring. I prefer a collaborative working process.

It is much more meaningful to be able to dialogue with other musical voices. This is a dialogue beyond the one you typically foster between yourself and the instrument.

When playing with classical chamber music groups, for example, I often take the part of the second violin. In chamber music, every voice is equal and crucial. I do not mind not playing solo. I learn a lot from different musicians of different cultures that way. There is a process of “give-and-take,” all in the spirit of mutual sharing. It is very humbling. Because of such enriching experiences, I am able to build up “moments” and vocabulary for improvisation. Obviously, all these didn’t just happen overnight. I took a long time too to find my way, by trial and error, and to getting used to playing with different people or in groups. It isn’t easy or straightforward to be able to fuse erhu with other music in a group, beyond the straightforward phase of other players liking erhu as an instrument, and their willingness to embrace it. It isn’t just collaboration right away. You need to be able to offer them something else beyond the initial “liking.”

Since 2001, I have performed in more than 1000 concerts of all kinds, big and small. I am proud of this, because I also worked hard at finding work for myself. I have also played with orchestras on thirty different occasions.

What does the erhu symbolize personally for you?

It is my support in life. It is my work, the center of my career. It is my one and only means of breadwinning, for me and my family.

What is your approach towards interpretation?

My approach? It is very intuitive and natural. I also make a point to improvise wherever I feel that there is an opportunity to do so.

What kind of repertoire and sonority attract you most?

After almost ten years of actively performing in Europe, China and elsewhere, I pretty much have dabbled in all sorts of music, be it jazz, contemporary, new age or classical. As a performer, I am open to all kinds of music. What appeals most to me is completely new music, original compositions by composers of our age.

During a rehearsal with the National Orchestra of France
(conducted by Yvan Casar) in July 2010
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

How do you practice?

Frankly, I have not much time to practice on my own, virtually none. Life has changed a great deal since marriage and the arrival of my baby daughter. I no longer have much personal time. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, I am now trying to spend more time on composing music.

When it comes to difficult pieces with performance techniques that I am not used to employing, I would make an effort to practice intensively on them, in segments, one or two days prior to rehearsals or performances. If they are pieces that I am familiar with, I prefer to revise them directly during rehearsals with others. I am quick at sightreading.

As far as concertos, orchestral or duo work, as you know, rehearsals last from one to two months.

What are some of the qualities of great folk musicians?

To be honest, I don’t like the label “folk musician.” Sometimes, I am amused by how certain musicians in China go by the description “the greatest folk musician” or the “greatest folk music performer.” I don’t quite like the term “musician,” either. I like the word “artist.” It is all-encompassing. I would like to be an artist, and say that I am an artist. By that, I mean that I use art to live and lead a life. In my case, it is the expression of erhu.

Any “ambition”?

I am a man with a humble virtue — that is, I don’t think of the future, or make big plans for the future. I like to live day by day, work hard at perfecting what I need to do today, and making today a good day. If I can keep more time to myself, I would very much like to spend it with my wife and daughter. They are my priority now.

TRANSLATED AND TRANSCRIBED FROM AN INTERVIEW IN CHINESE AND FRENCH
CONDUCTED IN PARIS, FRANCE (JULY 2010)

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