Why I love writing for Chinese Instruments

To date, I have written 45-minutes of music for Chinese instruments. It has changed how I think about music. Creatively, it has unlocked something within me that has allowed me to express myself more deeply.

My first experience writing for Chinese instruments was for solo Pipa. The piece is called Desert Time and was composed for Taiwan-based younger generation Pipa virtuoso Jasmine Chen, whom I had the privilege meeting and seeing perform at 2014 International Thai Music and Dance Festival at Burapha University.

You can hear this work below:

There were so many sources of inspiration for this piece. Somehow writing for the Pipa unleashed a wildfire of creativity. I imagined concentric spirals of energy / musical phrasing that repeatedly circled back to a pregnant pause, full of possibility. I structured the piece as a slow reveal, like walking through a garden and getting glimpses of a temple, which you only see fully when you are right into front of it. I imagined my Chilean guitar teacher, Victor Martinez, and the many avant-garde techniques he taught me (that I can still feel in my body). I watched in awe of Jasmine’s ability to communicate powerful coiled energy in moments of musical stillness, and unleash powerful musical energy. I began to recognise the qualities I describe as silence and dynamism are part of the musical aesthetics of Chinese music traditions, where colour transformation is so important to the unfolding of musical line, and music needs to flow with a variety of speeds and energies. It reminded me of my guitar teacher and his ability to transform a folk song into an epic avant garde exploration in true jazz/post-classical/avant-garde fashion.

Since then I have written many works for Chinese instruments, including Up in the Clouds, where I transformed musical ideas from Desert Time into a work for western sextet. Up in the Clouds was a finalist in APRA AMCOS Australian Art Music Awards Instrumental Work of the Year 2018. 

2024 will see the premiere of two new works written for a combination of Chinese and western instruments at the Chinese Garden of Friendship by Jenny Duck-Chong, Nicholas Ng and James Larsen as part of the 2024 Lunar New Year Festivities. Both works nod to Chinese traditions/aesthetics around phrasing and colouring of notes, whilst expressing my compositional voice which includes a deep love for slow modal harmonic transformations, contrasts of tempo, colour and pacing, and a yearning to nest joyful flowing lines within a deeper silent unity.

Night Song (2023/4) is inspired the lyricism of the Erhu and the humming/buzzing night life of the Australian bush with its active crickets. Big thank you to Ying Liu and Nicholas Ng for inspiration, conversations and workshopping into this work. Also, thank you to Sydney cellist James Larsen for his continuing interest and creativity in combining cello with Erhu and other chinese instruments.

The Silences Inside Me (2024), which was born from a collaboration with Jenny Duck-Chong and Tasnim Hossain that sits with complex relationships with ancestry in the context of 1st and 2nd-generation Australians with migrant roots. Each collaborators has heritage / family in different parts of the world, and it was fascinating to chat and reflect on our shared and different experiences with family stories, cultural rituals, and the absence of these. I love the way that silence in the music is multifaceted evoking the gaps in memory or absence as well as a space of joyful possibility in reimagining/rebuilding and growth.

The Silences Inside Me was created with support from Halcyon, Australian Cultural Fund, and Corrina Bonshek & Collaborators (who are supported by the City of Gold Coast).

Come and hear these new works on Sunday February 11 at 12:30 or 2:30 at the Chinese Garden of Friendship Pier St Cnr of Harbour St in Darling Harbour. Entry to the gardens is $12, and the concert is free.

For directions and advice on travelling to the gardens visit https://www.darlingharbour.com/precincts/chinese-garden