Transcript of taped interview with Mei Han, 2/24/07
Interesting for her comments on new-&-improvised music’s relationship to traditional Chinese and Western music in her life; for its personal impact on her; for details about China and her instrument, the zheng
MIKE Let me run some names from your CDs by you, and have you briefly describe them. Lan Tung.
MEI Lan Tung is an erhu player based in Vancouver; she’s from Taiwan. She leads a group called the Orchid Ensemble. I used to work with her, for 8 years.
MIKE She was listed as composer/arranger on the CD you did with her. How exactly does that role play out?
MEI In Chinese music melody is public domain; everybody can make arrangements based on what instruments are available to them. In the Orchid Ensemble we had a zheng, an erhu, and a marimba. Of course, no charted arrangement as such already existed for these 3 instruments, so the arrangers just create parts based on the different ranges and idioms of the given instruments, in Western notation.
MIKE Moshe Denburg
MEI He is a Jewish composer in Vancouver who grew up in Montreal. His father was a rabbi. He spent some time in India and Japan, so he has knowledge about certain world music genres. He composed the 3 pieces for the Orchid Ensemble CD. He also was the leader of a group called the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra, which is an amalgamation of Western and non-Western instruments together, to create new music. He brings in other composers to write for this orchestra as well.
MIKE Is it drawing on cultures that are in Vancouver?
RRR Yes, and its influences are from anywhere and everywhere.
MEI Basically, you can find musicians from any culture in Vancouver.
MIKE We’ll get to the Vancouver scene in a minute. Li Zuji?
MEI He is a Chinese composer. He wrote a piece that I played on the Road to Kasgbar CD, called Villagers’ Dance (Shengshou Luogu)...A composition based on a folk tune from Shandong, in Northern China.
MIKE Is he famous in China?
MEI No, not that I am aware of. This piece was composed in 1975. It’s a standard piece for contemporary zheng repertoire.
MIKE Zhou Ji.
MEI One of the 3 composers who composed Maqam: Prelude and Dance, a zheng solo work. I arranged it for the ensemble on the CD.
MIKE How did you come in contact with these composers and their work? Just by being a zheng student at a school?
MEI Yes, these pieces are all in the common zheng teaching books—common repertoire for every zheng player in China.
MIKE Same with Li Mei?
MEI Yes, Li Mei is a scholar at the Chinese Music Research Institute, the school that I graduated from, in Beijing. She was a zheng player too.
MEI I think this is a person from India or Pakistan who composed the original melody of Bengalila, another track on Road to Kasgbar. It is a Bengal folk tune. Again, Orchid arranged it, with Prahsant John Michael...and this person. There’s also a Persian singer, Amir Haghighi.
RRR I produced this CD, and this piece needed something, so I suggested we pull Amir in, and I think it worked well.
MEI There’s a huge Persian community in Vancouver, with many good musicians.
MIKE Qu Yun?
MEI She’s a zheng teacher and player, at the Xi’an Conservatory in Central China. When I started learning this instrument, she was already a teacher. The first track on Outside the Wall, “Xi’an Medley,” is probably her transcript of several old tunes from Xi’an guyue, a regional instrumental genre.
MIKE I’m still curious about the arranger’s role. If a folk tune is in the public domain, does it mean that it’s widely known orally-aurally, but also exists in a lot of written versions that may be very different?
MEI Although in traditional Chinese music practice, teaching was done orally, most traditional Chinese instrumental tunes had written scores in different notations. The scores are skeletons, the musicians would add idiomatic embellishments to make a piece full and musical. If you look at the score while you listen to the music, you can hardly match the two, because there is so much more added to the actual playing than is in the score.
Xi’an Medley was originally written in Chinese gongche notation, a notation with certain Chinese characters. Even though this notation system is still being used in some folk traditions, it has become lesser known to most musicians, especially to the conservatory trained ones. So music arrangers transpose the score to the cipher notation, which has been prominent since the 20th century. Xi’an Medley was not necessarily written for zheng originally. In order to make it as a zheng piece, the arranger added a lot of notes and embellishment to make it idiomatic to the zheng.
MIKE So in a way, it seems like Chinese traditional music sets you up to be involved in improvisation.
MEI I would say “interpretation”.
MIKE Because it’s all traditional music, it’s all always interpreted.
MIKE Or if it’s arranged, the arranger is also a kind of interpreter.
MEI That’s right. But in the 20th century, after the conservatory training was set up in China, music started to be notated. Even if—for instance, my first teacher, Gao Zicheng, who is a folk musician, and who taught in the Conservatory—he himself [incredulous voice] had to learn how to read the pieces that he had been playing for his whole life without reading them. It’s really ridiculous. But when the music is restricted on the page, even though it has more notes and details, such as clear rhythm, students only learn note by note, and lots of embellishments are lost.
MIKE Is that how you learned?
MEI I learned both ways. I learned the traditional pieces by rote from master Gao.
MIKE But you also said that there is more detail in the notation.
MEI Not the nuances in banding or vibratos. The cipher notation codified the melody. But the thing is, you can only write so much information. For instance, you write a bend from 5 to 3, sol to mi; but in what speed? and is the stress on sol, or on mi? and also, in between, halfway, you can go up again, then down, or go straight down...all these nuances...
MIKE Lost... So there is some notation, and interpretation has become restricted to that.
MEI And with staff notation, it gets even worse.
MIKE This reminds me of something from the interview I did with Jin Hi Kim, when she was telling me about a big revival in Korea of the folk music at a certain point, I guess in the ‘70s, when South Korea was feeling more nationalistic pride in its own culture, kind of in reaction against first Japanese then American influence. I recall her saying that there were some national treasures among older folk musicians, whom they installed in the music schools. But nothing like that happened in China?
MEI Similar situation happened in China but, in a sense, it is quite different. China had a very different political situation in the ‘70s. The so called “revival of traditional music” was in fact to repackage the music to suit the political and modern needs. During the Cultural Revolution, traditional music was censured as music of the feudal society and served the royal and elite classes. My teacher and musicians of his generation were at their peak musically from 1950 to 1970. They could have taught so much about the traditional music. But they were very scared and careful politically. The fact that they were allowed to teach was a generous gesture from the government, so they had to be very careful.
The changes of traditional music/culture started from the end of the Opium War, in the late 19th century, when China was defeated by the West. Leading scholars started questioning our own culture, as being the roots of why we were defeated, because of the Confucianism, the Taoism—everything we had believed in our society. So we needed to get rid of it. This ideology has led the overwhelming modernization and contemporization in China in the 20th century, in such a big scale.
MIKE Right. I think a lot of people in the West associate that shift to the Maoist revolution.
MEI Not at all, it was earlier. The same thing happened in Japan, in the Meiji Restoration and around the second world war. China, Japan and Korea basically shared the same concept (Western culture is superior), around the same time.
The older musicians felt inferior, because they couldn’t read, and because their music was folk music, as compared to classical violin, and piano. They felt really embarrassed. In fact, in China, we used to say if you study violin, you go through the front door (of the Conservatory); if you study Chinese bamboo flute, you go in the back door. Even nowadays, many Chinese people still have this concept, that Chinese music is inferior to Western music...
MIKE That’s why I wondered about the comparison with Korea, because I remember Jin Hi Kim explaining to me how she grew up learning to play Western classical music, and that that was the high music and so on. Her point was that when the folk music revival came along, it was because Korea was getting back in touch with its own culture. You’re saying that China doesn’t have that same sort of impulse anywhere, which seems counterintuitive, because when I think of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, I think, well, Communism, the People—maybe they’d want to get away from the West and get back to their roots. So when you talk about the Cultural Revolution that way, it sort of fits in with the rest of my world picture in terms of being ashamed of the old peasant culture—that’s how it was in Communist Russia too, wanting to be modern and all that. But I’m still trying to get my mind around the fact that there would be no similar revival, after the Cultural Revolution, maybe, when people get past that, that there was no similar rediscovery of the Chinese folk...
RRR Often it is either success or other influences of the west that kickstarts the revival of traditional music in a culture. I believe that it was the success of the group Samul Nori, led by Kim Duk Soo, that really helped the younger people in Korea to see that traditional music was cool. It would be interesting to know why Duk Soo started studying traditional music in the first place, when other Korean musicians were only studying western music. He was always a bit of a rebel, so maybe he was rebelling against western influence. I know that many Japanese composers studied in the west, but there was a growing interest in contemporary composition for traditional instruments, often sparked by performers asking for scores. Takemistsu of course was the best known composer, but others like Sawai Tadao, Ichiyanagi, Takehashi also started the ball rolling.
MEI Tradition changes. We all understand it. But it takes a nation, especially the leaders’ awareness of its tradition, to support the rational culture. Chinese has a great tradition to create great culture, but also is infamous for destroying the past. It started from the first emperor two thousand years ago. Every new dynasty would destroy the books, kill scholars, and even melt the bells made in the previous dynasty.
MIKE But for China, it seems like what you’re doing might be something along those lines, just you as a person...
MEI There are people in China campaign for traditional music, music that still exist in outside the conservatory boundary, not supported by the government. I see big progress recently. There are actually folk singers on the national TV shows.
I love Chinese traditional music. I talk about traditional Chinese music in so many institutes and universities. I play traditional works, mostly less popular but stunning pieces.
MIKE You are doing something just as an artist, just as one person, that’s similar to that. Aren’t there others? Over here I see you, Min Xiao-Fen, Wu Man, so I’m interested in what may be happening. And why are they all women? I see no men.
MEI You are talking about my contemporary works. It is a very interesting and somehow controversial topic. First of all, there are men doing contemporary music in the West. Wu Wei in Germany and Wang Zhengting in Australia. In general, you are right, more women then men. In the last 20 years, for some reason, more women are successful than men, in China, in almost every field. If you look at the Olympics, most of the gold medals won by Chinese are won by women.
MIKE Why do you think that is?
MEI I don’t know if in terms of the balance of the population, how many men versus how many women. Also, I think the women’s movement—although there wasn’t a real women’s movement in China, there was talk about being equal and women walk out of their kitchens to become part of working force. On the surface level in China, men and women are more equal than some other Asian countries. So when women are given chances, somehow I think we are more disciplined, and try to reach beyond, to achieve something.
RRR I also think there’s less of a rigidity in the Chinese women than men, that there’s a little more interest in adapting to a new culture, to work with it, rather than move against it.
MEI Also, I don’t know, this is a question...if the Chinese female just looks more appealing to the West. There’s the exotic beauty issue involved there.
MIKE That might be a factor, but then again, I can think of, like, Toshinori Kondo, Shoji Hano, really a lot of men from Japan who are on the improvised music scene. Anyway, a question for the sociologists...
I was interested in the way you altered the zheng’s tunings for your contemporary pieces, both improvised and composed. Without getting into too much detail, can you give me a sense of how that works? a few examples from the different pieces on your CDs where you altered the tunings?...
MEI Traditional zheng tuning is tuned to a pentatonic scale, without semitones (in solfege: do re me so la). That tuning itself has such a Chinese atmosphere, or parameter, which is sweet and sentimental. So if you’re in that tuning, no matter what you try to do, it sounds Chinese. On the CD Distant Winds, the tunings were invented by Randy. He told me he was just so tired of that pentatonic scale, for its lack of intensity,
RRR It was just too pretty.
MEI So he re-tuned his instrument.
MIKE Can you tell me what the tuning was exactly?
RRR Based on a Japanese pentatonic, an Indian pentatonic, and a whole-tone scale—
MEI Zheng has four octaves, each one bordered by a green string. We tried to keep our tuning alterations within each octave, just so you have a reference in your hand. But within these 5 different notes in each set, you can choose different interval in different octave. We used one basic tuning for the whole CD, with one or two alterations here and there. A semitone higher or lower here and there, but basically that was it. The CD with Paul Plimley had different tunings, and I didn’t write down any of them; it was all very spontaneous, in the moment. One day I might want a more minor feeling, another more dissonant.
RRR For Outside the Wall and Bamboo, Silk & Stone we used different tunings—a pentatonic scale that was not culturally specific. I looked at all the pentatonic tunings and saw there was a couple that no one used, so I used it.
MIKE Do you have Yusef Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns? It’s a big book of scales he compiled from around the world.
RRR No, that sounds fascinating.
MIKE I noticed a kind of arc to your musical development over the course of your CDs. The first, Distant Winds, very new-improvisational; the two Orchid Ensembles, very contemporary-classical; and then the Outside the Wall, which was the first solo CD. I got the feeling that by the time you got to it, you were making a kind of a personal statement that maybe the other contexts didn’t really allow you to make. It seemed like you were really relaxing and opening up into the zheng a little bit more.
MEI I think so. That’s a very accurate observation. Distant Winds was recorded 2 years after I started learning to improvise, so I was very nervous and tight inside, very tight. Not to mention, I think I knew very little about music outside China in general. Even though I was trained as an ethnomusicologist inside China, I still was dealing with Chinese music; it was just outside the Han Chinese music. So it didn’t go outside the Chinese parameter. Information in China was very limited when I was at school; I did not have any information about, say, Indian music, Persian music, Mongolian music, Korean music, Japanese music. These are countries surrounding China, and these are countries that have influenced and been influenced by Chinese music over the last 2000 years. But in the Conservatory training, we did not include all these musics. I learned them in Canada, in the West.
MIKE Is that because China is historically the oldest ground of all those other music cultures? and so why would they go out and deal with the branches when they see themselves as the root?
MEI There is that feeling. Also—
MIKE Is that true, by the way? is China that kind of Urgrund source in fact?
MEI It is somewhat true. Lots of Chinese people still think “we are still the center of the world,” at least in terms of ancient culture. Also because in, say, the last 500 years, music became very, let us say, disposable, because of the drama, the narrative singing, all the other genres became popular, since around the 13th Century. Music was not very well documented, and the musician’s social status was very low. In the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolian dynasty, the society was categorized into ten different categories; musicians, beggars, and whores were on the bottom level 10.
RRR But also, music was subversive, as it is still. I mean, this is a Communist country, and our kind of music—anything that’s free, or experimental, or something like that, is not allowed on the radio, or on CDs or anything. So what people are exposed to in the country is extremely small: a little bit of older jazz, Western classical music, some pop music, and then the country just thrives on pop music.
MEI In most conservatory-trained musicians’ mind, there are only two musical universes: Western classical music, and Chinese classical music. That’s it.
MIKE But you’ve studied the music of the Dong people, one of the 55 minority ethnic groups, out of a 90+ per cent Han majority—so that’s what the field of Ethnomusicology is doing in China.
MIKE Back to Outside the Wall—did the title mean outside the (Great) Wall?...
MEI The title means a lot. First, yes, the Wall represents China: the Forbidden City, the Great Wall—the barriers that separate the people on the inside from those on the outside. On one level, it’s a statement of breaking boundaries; I came out of that Wall, I’m not restricted by that Wall any more.
Secondly, there is a saying in Chinese: you plant a plant inside the wall, but the tree reaches out to spaces outside the wall and bloom. I’m not recognized in China, but I’m blooming in the West.
RRR You’re starting to be recognized.
MEI Not to the point of—my acceptance in China is very, very small. The audiences are excited about what I do, but not the authorities.
RRR Right. But what was interesting was when we met another zheng player that we know—one of the top zheng players in China—and they all knew Mei, and knew of what she was doing. They’ve listened to her...
MEI Yes, but that’s not what I mean. If you win an international prize—say, in a Tchaikovsky piano competition—then you will be in the national newspaper, on national TV...you will be everywhere. Why? Because you are recognized by the West, which is the authority on Western instruments.
MIKE But in this case, if suddenly improvised music becomes—well but you are getting more recognized in the West. But still, experimental and improvised music is small, even in the West where it was born. It’s small worldwide, comparatively speaking.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this book—same reason as for my other two, really—is for the chance to look at something that I think is so profound, and therefore should have more influence, and recognition, and understanding...that’s why you want to do that. I think that this is an example of this, because just as a musician, or a music culture...you say, for instance, the authorities in China don’t like it. But they don’t really know it, or understand it, or care. But when you say that, do you mean the music culture authorities?
MIKE Not the political...
RRR But the thing is, the people in the zheng world are aware of what Mei is doing, and that is a big change from before. When she was in China, they wouldn’t know who she is; now that she’s made a name for herself in the West and is going back there, they’re starting to be aware of who she is. They’re on the web, plus we had Distant Wind distributed in China, we did a tour to China for a few weeks, so for the people who are interested, and want to see what the zheng’s doing, here’s someone who is doing something radical with it. They may not all like it...but I think that’s a wonderful start.
MIKE But you’re still waiting to see what else might come of it, eh?
MEI I don’t expect anything from China. I remember I saw an article, an interview with Wu Man in a Chinese newspaper, and she was saying the same thing. She said “I have been invited to play everywhere in the world, but never in China. This is the first time.” That was about 5 years ago.
MIKE It’s strange when you think about it, though, because here you are, people really reviving something traditional, as well as breaking new ground with it; you’d think that would be sort of a source of pride rather than threat...
MEI No, it’s different in reality, unfortunately.
MIKE So on the Outside the Wall CD, did you see it as sort of a new relationship with your instrument and your voice thereon, and maybe with the mastery of improvisation? did you improvise much on it?
MEI Yeah, I did. The title track is improvised. As also Bamboo, Silk, Stone, it’s improvised. I see that CD as a journey from ancient Chinese culture to contemporary Western Chinese culture, and also a personal journey from learning traditional pieces, from interpreting ancient tunes, like the Plum Blossom (many people play that piece, but the way I played it, or the way I feel about that piece is quite different from most people. I really have a connection with that tune, and with the depth of the ancient Chinese culture) to create my own voice. It was a long journey into how far I have gone, to who I am right now.
RRR Part of this traditional piece is that Mei has been de-Westernizing some of these pieces, so a lot of these traditional pieces have been very Westernized, and so she’s trying to focus on the soul of that piece. Mei is rediscovering the essence of these old pieces If you listen to a recording of that piece by somebody else, hers is so much more alive, with so much more nuance: it’s a much deeper piece, rekindling that depth, which was inherent, but lost. Since recording it, there’s now even more depth added to it.
MIKE That’s what it seems to me would have a lot of appeal in China, though...
RRR Well, no. Not possible.
MEI Again, people hear what they know. If they don’t know it, they can’t hear it. Lots of people who listen to music only listen to the melody, because that’s what they’re familiar with—but nothing beyond that.
MIKE So improvisation is something that’s problematic in and of itself for most cultures maybe, huh? Because, like you say, it’s the recognition of the melody, or the pop thing, or whatever...
MEI Exactly. Otherwise, they don’t know what to listen to. During our last tour in China, some students asked us, what are we listening to? So in each concert, throughout the performance I would explain what is free improv, what is jazz, and how to listen to it. And to the very avant-garde piece, when Paul [Plimley] and I do improv, I ask them to imagine they’re actually looking at a contemporary painting. So instead of trying to seek for notes or intervals or melody, listen to the colors.
MIKE As another general subject, I was interested in all the poetics of the titles. We’ve talked a little bit about Outside the Wall. Some of that you explained on the liner notes and the CDs themselves, but I’m most curious about—especially when you do a new, original piece, or an improvised session, after which you call it something...what’s the relationship between the poetry and the meaning of it, and the music?
MEI First, some of the titles are very spontaneous. All of the sudden something comes out of your mind—always after the fact of the music. All of these titles were put on after the editing was done, which was to listen to all the recorded music to choose the ones we like, then balance the sound of the two instruments. I’m talking about the CD with Paul.
MIKE How about with Outside the Wall? Those are traditional tunes that you interpreted.
MEI That’s right. And also new compositions that have titles.
MIKE When you do a new composition with a title—or say even with the Orchid Ensemble pieces, with this concept of the Silk Road—do you actually have some sort of a process in your imagination as a musician, where you musicalize a vision?
MEI Not so much with the Orchid Ensemble, because, again, those are compositions; the composers give their titles. Moshe has very detailed liner notes about the three pieces and their titles, how he got them. But on the subject of the titles, I think what’s most interesting is the titles on Distant Winds. Every title had a certain meaning.
For instance, Tokyo Crows: Randy had been to Tokyo many times before the first time we went to Tokyo. He told me that in Tokyo, crows are really big, and really loud. So, okay, I heard that. Then we went to Tokyo, and stayed at a friend’s house. Early next morning, I was awakened by this loud shouting of crows. At that moment, I understood what Randy really meant. But that’s not the true meaning of the title. The title signals the contrast between the natural and the human cultural societies; space and freedom, in terms of Taoism...you know, Tokyo is a very cramped place, and people are so busy, not noticing or knowing about other people or things. But in contrast, the crows in Tokyo really know how to enjoy themselves. They find a space that humans cannot at this point conquer, which is sky. They just soar...
MIKE That’s a nice image of improvised music!
MIKE The kind of freedom you’re talking about...
MEI And there’s also a story behind Dragon Dogs. Randy is a dragon, under Chinese astrology, and I was born in the year of the dog. In Chinese noetic book, Dragon and Dog are two signs that should never be together. Marriage would be a disaster, the relationship cannot work, and all that.
RRR According to Chinese astrology we are two volcanoes waiting to happen, so all that volcanic energy we put into our music....
MEI Another title on that CD was Clouds in an Empty Sky. You know, how can you have clouds in an empty sky?
MIKE Well, it’s empty except for the clouds.
MEI Exactly [laughs]. And, you know, that immediately sets up a kind of feeling, or mood of music, which is established by the sho, the Japanese mouth organ. And on top of that, I just paint a little cloud.
MIKE And you had these titles before the music, or after the music?
MEI Mostly before, as we were rehearsing and creating pieces for the CD.
MIKE Did this help you get yourself into improvisation?
MEI Absolutely. Two things helped me to start. One is the structure. If I’m thrown into a free improv, with no structure, and no guidance that will be verified: ostinato, a fixed passage, a landing point at that point were all very important and helpful. Also, to set a tone, or a mode for a piece.
MIKE So once you had that much in place, it was easier to move around a bit.
MIKE Then in the Orchid Ensemble, was there any improvisation there at all? I remember what sounded like an improvised solo...
MEI Yes, it was like a jazz solo, with a vamp, and someone improvising over it. [It was in Begalila, the Persian piece.]
MIKE I remember you saying you had a hard time learning the 7/8 rhythm?...
MEI Yes, that was mostly in Moshe’s compositions: 7/8, 5/8, and it changes between 6/8 and 5/8.
MIKE How exactly did you learn them? How did you practice them to work them up?
MIKE The first one I learned was the Road to Kasgbar, which is in 7/8, and quite hard. It’s not hard to count it—1-2-3/1-2/1-2—that’s fine. But in the music, especially when you play parts that are not melody, it is hard. It took me quite a long time to learn that piece.
MIKE So after you count it for a long time, you do start to just feel it.
MEI That’s right; you settle into that rhythm.
MIKE But it was foreign to you. I was curious about that, because you spoke in another interview about the “Chinese duple square rhythm.” It’s kind of a mysterious thing to wonder about: why rhythm makes people insecure in certain ways. In your body, you have certain regular rhythms, like your heartbeat is a duple one...
MEI And you walk like 1-2, you don’t walk 1-2-3. So a duple is more stable, more comfortable, and safe.
MIKE But some of these other cultures that do that, they’ve developed it...
MEI And those cultures that have compound rhythms are mostly ones whose music is related to dance. Chinese music is not related to dance, whatsoever. In Chinese Han culture, we basically did not have dance.
MIKE What about those other entertainment genres you mentioned as competing with music for audience attention?
MEI Well, now we have dance, but not traditionally.
MIKE So the music didn’t really develop with the dance.
MEI No. Chinese music developed in an earlier stage was related to cosmology and mathematics, and philosophy.
MIKE This is what Jin Hi Kim told me about.
MEI Right. These three were the main functions of music; not for entertainment, whatsoever. Later, between the 5th and 10th century, the court music became very popular, and the music included Han Chinese music from ancient times, as well as all the music in the countries that surround China, brought there through the Silk Road. All were included in the Han court music, in 10 sections of the banquet music.
Then in the last few hundred years, folk music has been predominant, because as the court music started to decline, the court musicians lost their jobs; some went back to become farmers, some went to temples and became monks, so the temple could provide the basic living necessities, and they could still play music to make a living. So that created the Taoist and the Buddhist ensembles in contemporary China. They only play in the countryside.
MIKE Is that similar to the Tibetan communities?
MEI No, this is a different branch of the Buddhism, Sinicizised Buddhism, and uses Han music.
MIKE I mean I know it’s different, but it sounds like they’re both rural monks.
MEI Right. You can find information on Buddhist music in Dr. Stephen Jones’ book, Folk Music of China: Living Instrumental Traditions.
MIKE Since the music that you came up with traditionally does have this ancient history with cosmology, mathematics, and so on--and now your own music is in part a project that combines art music, traditional music, and improvised music--do you think that your roots as a traditional Chinese musician are somehow similar to the situation of synthesis between all these things? If your music history and tradition is so cosmic, then now, when you combine improvisation with folk with composed music, it’s like you’re integrating something back into a whole that used to be...as opposed to separate genres.
MEI I think that is a very good point, and it’s one I try to tell people all the time; it’s something I see as a philosophical and practical point of view—you know, the Taoist approach in Chinese music philosophy encourages spontaneity and inclusion of different sounds, and most of all, to find your own way to connect with nature. This is clearly stated in the qin theory, the Chinese 7-string zither. They talk about how the rhythm is like a wind, or like a breath. You don’t breathe like [she breathes in fast, mechanical ins and outs]...no, you have long, you have short...just as in your thoughts: sometimes you have a long sentence, sometimes just one or two characters.
That’s exactly what happens in improvised music. It’s not square. And it’s spontaneous; it’s follow your path, and find your way. It’s not something set, where you’re trying to struggle to change the world according to your wish, or according to what is “right.” What is right is what is natural...and so you just go along with it.
So I think that right now, my way of making music is much closer to traditional Chinese music theory than ever.
MIKE Yeah, that’s what it seems like to me, too.
MEI But most people don’t see it that way.
MIKE It also seems a very—you know, we were talking about women leading the way in it. It seems like a very gender-specific kind of thing, stereotypically...because men are the ones who go out and build things and conquer nature, women are the ones who are closer to nature, and who make things more natural.
MEI Yeah, that could be. [laughter]
MIKE So I’m wondering more about the relationship between the dreaming, poetic mind and the musician. Say, for instance, when you do an improvisation and think of it as breath, nothing but breath...do you consciously think that to yourself? “Since music is an expression of nature, and the cosmos, this rhythm I’m playing now is like breath.” Does that kind of image have any place in your actual playing?
MEI Not when I’m playing. When I’m playing, I don’t think at all.
MIKE You’re just busy making the music.
MEI Yeah, you just feel, and respond. You listen to other things, including other musicians and their instruments, and the environment...and also feel other people’s energy, and respond to their sound. But it’s not just responding in a secondary way; you make your own statement. Lots of it is just very automatic, and you’re used to it, and you just do it. Thinking is done when you’re not playing.
MIKE So you’ve come a long way in these 10 years that you’ve been in the West, in terms of getting away from the restrictions. So now do you feel like you have your own new vocabulary built up as an improviser?
MEI Not-At-All! [laughter] It’s never enough. I feel awkward all the time. I feel I’m just a learner, all the time. Well, now, with students, okay, I know I can do better than they do...but with a first-class, world-class musician, when I play with them, I still feel really insecure. My palette—
MIKE Even with Randy?
MEI With Randy I’m comfortable. I first learned improvisation with Randy.
Later, becoming a couple, the dynamic between us started to change. I felt that I was not in that “student” seat any more. So, I was more relaxed. When you are relaxed, you are more creative, in my opinion. Me being able to create stimulated and challenged him. We don’t play together at home, but on stage, we sure have a strong connection.
MIKE You have explored a lot of improvisation there; and many different aspects of music, right? So is it safe to say you’ve sort of established the new identity of an improviser in that context more than any others?
MEI I think yes, we could say so—but still, I am not that confident to say, yes, I am an improviser.
MIKE So as soon as you go into something with someone like Paul, then everything you know with Randy is...irrelevant?
MEI It’s relevant, but it’s just not enough.
MIKE So then you start out awkward, and you get to interacting with Paul and so on...by the end of your project, all your recording sessions and concerts, do you feel like you’ve gotten past the awkwardness?
MEi Not totally. You know, we have some connection momentarily, especially on the CD—but what people don’t know is when I recorded in those sessions, most of that time I felt really awkward. I did not know if I did okay or not, until I listened to it—“oh, that’s not too bad!”
MIKE Have you had many other experiences like that, with other musicians, playing freely improvised music?
MEI Yes, I’ve played with many. On the West coast Coat Cook, who’s the artistic director of the NOW Orchestra. Actually, he and Paul co-founded this orchestra in 1970. He plays saxophone. He played with me, Randy, and Paul, as the Mei Han Art Ensemble.
From ASZA website:
Paul Plimley - One of Canada’s most innovative pianists, he has performed with many of the world’s top creative jazz artists in Europe and North America, including Henry Kaiser, Barry Guy and Leo Smith.
Randy Raine-Reusch - A virtuoso on numerous unique instruments, he has performed in over twenty-one different countries in the jazz, world music and contemporary classical genres, with many top artists including Pauline Oliveros, Cirque du Soleil and Rock superstars Aerosmith and Yes.
Coat Cooke - One of Canada’s most lyrical and inventive improvisors and composers for the flute and saxophone, and the founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s renowned NOW Orchestra. He has toured internationally, collaboratiing with George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, Marilyn Crispell and Oliver Lake.
MEI Last year we did a concert in Victoriaville. I’ve played with him on many different occasions. Also, in the web concert , with a percussionist in France, Le Quan Ninh; also musicians from Australia and Japan...the interactive web project.
From the Sound Travels website:
Vancouver pianist Paul Plimley and zheng virtuoso Mei Han join improvising musicians in Melbourne, Tokyo, Vienna, New York, Toulouse and San Diego via the internet to explore how music can break the sound barrier. Set against the planetarium's backdrop of stars, the players will connect through live audio streams that mix music and metaphor. The numerous challenges of this ambitious project (line delays, differences in time zones, and disparate access to technological resources) contrast with the utopian aspirations that fuelled early internet hype and mingle with our belief that music can communicate across boundaries of language and culture.
Paul Plimley's concept for the set-up is as follows:
Whilst Paul Plimley and Mei Han in Vancouver function as a kind of constant travelling companions for the 2-day-project, the guest artists in the "satellite" cities join in temporarily via webcast, taking on the roll of selective stations on this sound travel.
MIKE Do you see improvisation as a part of your career that you want to pursue more? do you like it? even though it’s as awkward and insecure as you describe? to collaborate with all these different people?
MEI I do, but not purposelessly, just because I want “to play with more people,” or because this or that person is famous. I choose music, I think. I’d like to know their music first before I make a decision whether to play with them or not. Sometimes different approaches are just too different to work together. What was similar between Paul and me was that both of us are very lyrical, very melodic, so I had no problem playing him. If it’s too angular, I’d probably have a hard time.
MIKE The instrument matters too.
MEI Yes, the music has to fit the instrument.
MIKE I was curious about what you said about John Cage in China—or rather, no John Cage in China. In your interview with John Oliver, you spoke of growing up in the Cultural Revolution and never hearing about John Cage. That was interesting to me, because I grew up on the West Coast hearing from John Cage all about Asia. From our talk, I can understand why John Cage wouldn’t be on the Chinese radar, but for you, as a Chinese musician and woman, did Cage’s music, once you did discover it, make much of an impact?
MEI I think so. One thing I liked mostly is the Taoist approach. You know, we don’t have to go to the extreme of 4 minutes and 33 seconds without any sound (laughs), but just in general—like the piece Randy played in the Vancouver New Music Festival last year. It is called “Two”, a piece for sho and conch...it’s very listenable. It has great harmony and melody; it’s not like a lot of 1960s new music that you can’t grab. Also the feel of the phrasing is familiar. I really like his works for prepared piano. The tone colour is so rich. And his concept of “pure sound”… in his music, “pure sound” is a complex of many sounds, including noise. That is so human, so benevolent and so non-judgmental. I wish all musicians and all listeners could understand this.
MIKE I’m curious about the Vancouver scene. You speak of how multicultural it is there. What kind of a home base is it for you and what you’re doing with your music? The role of the Canadian cultural ministry and more local support groups...I always think of Canada as kind of a little Europe in North America.
MEI Vancouver is very multicultural, as is Toronto, of course. But because Toronto is so large, with each community almost like a tiny city within the bigger one...in comparison, Vancouver is much smaller. So you have more opportunity to mingle, to be connected with other ethnic groups. On the West Coast, because immigrants from Asia came to Canada first on the West Coast, compared to the East and throughout central Canada, it’s much more open to being multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-cultural.
MIKE This is how I always felt growing up on the West Coast, in San Francisco; then I went back East and saw that difference too. I think especially with the Chinese community it’s that way, because it’s part of the Pacific Rim.
MIKE Like you say, they got here first. I always felt that in San Francisco, all the different groups were a little more together and commingling than back East.
MEI Vancouver is the same. You see nowadays so many mixed couples, like Randy and I, on the street everywhere; no one looks on it as an oddity at all. It’s just so natural. And restaurants, from anywhere, any style, you name it. And musicians from around the world who have a way to leave their own country, most will come to Vancouver. So you can find musicians from Africa, Ivory Coast, from Persia, from India—from everywhere, and they’re all very high quality musicians. We even have a recent immigrant from Iraq, an oud master. It’s really quite amazing to have such a variety of musicians from so many places in such a small area.
MIKE Do they all play together much?
MEI Sometimes. Like VICO, the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra, is one of the vehicles that provides opportunities for musicians to play together. Also, we still have an organization called the Vancouver World Music Collective. It’s not very active now, but it does comprise about a dozen world music ensembles, and sometimes it brings diverse people together for projects too.
MIKE When you first arrived and started working outside the traditional Chinese universe, you obviously clicked with some groups and people more than others. It seems it was the contemporary composed and new and improvised music scenes, right?
MEI Yes, that’s right. I don’t play with, say, Indian or Persian musicians in an ongoing kind of way. Part of the reason is that the zheng is so different from their instruments. To make these two work is very challenging.
MIKE Does the zheng work well with a regular piano? is piano one of the better things it works with?
MEI Piano and zheng are long distance relatives. We all got strings! But zheng can be easily overpowered by piano. So, choosing the musician to work with is the key. The pianist has to be sensitive. Wind instruments work well with the zheng. I also like string quartet. The two work so well together. I almost feel string quartet extended my plucked notes, something I want very much on my instrument.
MIKE Are those combinations similar to the ones you have with zheng in China?
MEI Yes there are certain folk genres where you have strings playing together in a chamber group.
MIKE So the CDs you’ve made here are actually kind of similar in that way?
MEI There is some resemblance.
MIKE But you probably didn’t play with all these different world instruments that Randy has.
MEI Right, no. You know, I could see the zheng playing with, say, a tabla, or a doumbek, or other percussion instruments; but in terms of melodic instruments, you have to take into account that, one, the modal concept is so different. Persian maqam, or Indian raga...I can play a quarter-tone by bending the string, and other pitches, but I can’t play fast when I do, simply because of the instrument’s construction. I can’t have consecutive bendings... but I’d love to play with musicians from other cultures, such as sita, kachapi, kora. So much I can learn from them.
MIKE It’s like two different paths.
MEI Yeah. And as I said, I don’t play with musicians if I know it won’t work.
MIKE Do you have any other musicians in your sights?
MEI Yes, I’m currently working with Mark McGregor, a Western flautist. He’s very unique; he’s half Japanese, half Scottish. In his playing there is a very strong Japanese bent, so that sometimes his flute sounds so much like shakuhachi. His extended technique is just stunning. His interpretation of Takemitsu’s compositions is just excellent; I’ve never heard anybody play them so well. I’ve already done one piece with him, and the second piece is being written right now. This is a commission through the Canada Council for the Arts?
MIKE Who’s writing it?
MEI Jin Zhang. He wrote “Lantern Riddles” the first track of “Heartland” He’s from China, now living in Vancouver.
MIKE When will a CD come out?
MEI We’re just starting. We’ll see how far we can go. A lot has to do with how well two musicians can click together on a personal level. I love playing with Paul, but Paul is sometimes far into his own world, when I’m just too much in reality.
Also, I have another piece for zheng with string quartet, written by Dr. David Vayo at Illinois Wesleyan.
In terms of CD projects, I’m doing something called Red Chamber, with a plucked string ensemble, of zheng, pipa, ruan, round moon-faced lute, and sanxian, a fretless, 3-string...a quintet. All Chinese musicians. My vision for this ensemble is, one, to discover old melodies from imperial dynasties—melodies that are now dead, that nobody plays, and very few even know about. I already have two of those pieces realized. That is one side of it.
The other is the plucked side. We want to showcase plucked string music from around the world. For example, we have learned Bluegrass, have been taking lessons from John Reichman, a mandolin player who lives here in Vancouver. We brought a couple of bluegrass musicians into the Red Chamber.
MIKE Is the Red Chamber all women?
MEI Yes, all Chinese women living in Vancouver. You can see them on our website. CBC just played us on February 18, which was a concert we played at the School of Music, UBC in January, and it was very well received. The next thing I want to do is bring in a guitar player to teach us gypsy jazz.
MIKE So it is an ensemble playing obscure ancient Chinese music, and different plucked string music of the world.
MEI Yes—hot plucked string music!
MIKE And you play it as improvisers to the idiom newborn?
MEI Yes. That’s the new thing I’ve been learning with the bluegrass players, to play a melody idiomatic to the instrument, to the genre, and in the chords (laughs)! It’s really hard!
MIKE But you’re playing it on these Chinese instruments, so it’s going to sound like a kind of Chinese bluegrass?
MEI It does...but more like Western bluegrass, because you improvise according to chords, which is quite different from Chinese music. I’ve done two pieces so far, one on the zheng and one on the Chinese lute, which is the equivalent of the mandolin. A small version of pipa, let’s say...high-pitched.
Also, I have contacted John McLaughlin. I want to play one of those pieces off of Shakti.
MIKE So have you listened to a lot of jazz since you’ve been here?
MEI Yes. A lot.
MIKE Is it something you learn from a lot, or relate to as a listener, or as a musician, or what?
MEI I think of it in many ways. As a listener, as a music lover, and from the musician’s point of view. I hear something that’s good, and I try to steal (laughs)—to imitate, and see if it works on my instrument. Also, for inspiration. Like with Shakti, how you play music with energy.
MIKE The whole thing about growing up in Communist China, and being around during Tiananmen Square, that whole experience, is interesting to me in this context, because I’ve interviewed a lot of people who came up in East Germany, and saw the Berlin Wall there come down. They lived in a Communist state, then moved into freedom. The jazz, especially free jazz and new and improvised music there, strongly stood for the spirit of freedom from oppression for them. I’m thinking of how in one of your other interviews you talked about how the music you heard as a child was frightening to you, because it was so harsh and aggressive, and how you went for the softer side of it when you discovered the zheng. So anything you might say between the connection between improvisation, improvised music, and political, social, and psychological freedom, based on your history, is going to be interesting to me.
MEI Yes. Actually, it’s a big thing for me now to understand, at this point, why I did come to improvised music. Although it wasn’t a conscious choice for psychological reasons—it was a musical choice—but now I realize that I also did it to find my own voice, the voice that I was not given in China, growing up in the Cultural Revolution.
I really enjoyed the music back then, but only because I did not know the alternative. That was the only thing we could hear, and we listened to it again and again and again: like ten times a day on the radio, all the same music. I loved the music; I wanted to be a dancer, an actress—I absorbed anything and everything on the radio, I fell in love with it. But it was not a conscious choice. It was the only kind of music we had—until somebody brought me a steel-string zheng, which was much softer than my current zheng, with nylon strings—it’s thinner, very fragile...
MIKE Like a harpsichord?
MEI Yeah, sort of. All of the sudden it was like another window opened, and you know “oh, there’s something else here.” Then my choice was that I would like to learn this, instead of repeating all that I had heard. But in a communist country, individuality is not encouraged. Individual language is not encouraged. In fact, as a musician, you play the same music again and again, 20, 30 years, for your whole career. To create something individual, something that is yourself—it isn’t even a question in anybody’s mind.
So I felt that music I played was not me. That’s part of the reason I went to school, because I felt I wouldn’t go anywhere if I just kept playing the same music. I worked in an army ensemble. There were very few chances for me to play even the traditional zheng music, much less to create anything new. We would accompany singers, choirs, always playing those same iconic tunes created for a certain political event.
So now I think improvised music was a choice I made unconsciously...
MIKE To develop yourself as a person.
MEI Exactly. Improvisation is a type of therapy to me. As a child, I had a bad self-esteem inside. I was a very sensitive kid, but grew up in a harsh family and cultural environment and being criticized a lot. I don’t know I had to close up to protect myself, or I never knew how to remain open. Anyway, I was very closed when I first came to the West. I did not know how to feel, how to connect. Improvisation demands me to feel, to connect. As I started to open up, I cried a LOT. Also, as you are in the healing process, fresh experiences can shift and change your old focus. I am now making my own music, having my voice, no one can tell me what to do any more. To me, it is the ultimate liberation and freedom.
By the way, I still cry a lot. I cry when I listen to Fantasia singing “I am beautiful”; I cry when I watch “The Planet Earth”, and most often, I cry for dogs.