Memories and travels of a composer from Pipa
As innova Recordings celebrates its 40th anniversary, the American Composers Forum’s in-house label will share its history and showcase artists like Gao Hong who have featured on the label over the years.
Before she started composing, Chinese pipa virtuoso Gao Hong was a performer for more than 20 years. A torchbearer of Pudong’s style of pipa playing, she combines a tradition inherited from master Lin Shicheng with a multicultural approach to music-making, collaborating with artists from different cultures and genres.
Whether she’s improvising to an Indian raga, a Muqam melody, or a Hawaiian guitar lick, Gao Hong first learns the idioms and progressions of each genre before bringing her “pipa identity,” she told me. she recently confided via Zoom. “I always take [my collaborators] first, to learn what I don’t have and apply it to my pipa technique, adding Chinese elements to [the performance] become new”.
On her path to becoming a composer, Gao Hong established a long relationship with the American Composers Forum (ACF), which provided multiple forms of support for her career. His first composition, flying dragon, for pipa solo (1997), planted the seeds of a dual career as composer and performer. The piece is a structured meditation, with a rich tremolo and climactic outpouring on the highest frets, expressing memories of leaving her parents in her native Luoyang when she was just 12 to become a professional musician.
Spurred by an ACF JFund (now ACF|create) award in 1997, Gao Hong planned to expand flying dragon into a trio for pipa, flute and harp, but when the flautist moved to Hong Kong, the project became the Flying Dragon Concerto, created in 2005 by the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra. The original solo version and a reduced concerto for pipa and piano feature on Gao Hong’s first two releases on ACF’s innova recordings: Flying Dragonand Calm forest, flowing stream.
“It was like a springboard for me. It helped me gain confidence,” says Gao Hong. The project made her realize that she could compose not only for pipa, but also for orchestra and choir, which which led to commissions from the Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Sinfonia, the Kenwood Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis.Additional support from ACF – an Encore scholarship and three Subito awards – allowed him to perform in China and in Europe.
Describing his four innovative releases, Gao Hong charts a natural progression from the outstanding solo features of flying dragon (2003), to the cross-cultural explorations of Calm forest, flowing stream (2010), experiments with slack-key guitar and banjo by Pipa Potluck (2015), to the free improvisation of life as it is (2018), with Issam Rafea on oud. She credits the label with releasing the records worldwide and securing distribution.
It was not easy to learn to play the pipa; when Gao Hong grew up in Luoyang, she his mother, a music teacher, encourages him to choose a particularly demanding instrument. After trying instruments that were more popular among other musicians, such as the guzheng (a plucked zither) and the erhu (a pointed violin)she sat down on the pipa, a four-string pear-shaped Chinese lute played straight. His mother would make him practice eight hours a day to master the left hand vibrato and right hand pinch technique. Years after leaving her hometown for Hebei Province to perform in the Handan Dance and Singing Troupe, she traveled to Beijing and then to Japan for a year. She moved permanently to the United States in 1994, at the age of 30.
A career celebration concert on April 3, 2022 at Saint Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts featured both Gao Hong the pipa virtuoso and Gao Hong the composer. The program included Memories of my hometown, a concerto for pipa, bassoon and orchestra in which she takes a nostalgic look at her past life while pondering the possibilities of this improbable pairing. The low, angular bassoon represents memories of life in China, while the pipa represents the present. “No one had written for pipa and bassoon before,” Gao Hong told me. “If there’s something no one has done, I want to try it.”
His flagship composition to date is the overture Party. The first version of the piece appears on the quiet forest album, followed by an arrangement for orchestra without soloist, and more recently reimagined as a concerto for pipa with mixed Chinese and Western orchestra, premiered during the concert. In the new version, the middle section combines the dizi (flute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), guzheng and erhu with western flute, cello and oboe.
Although Gao Hong mixes different musical traditions as a performer, she initially had reluctance – being a musician of Chinese descent – to compose in the concert opening genre, a staple of Western music. But Party, an intercultural celebration for the Covid-19 vaccine, has been carried out five times in less than a year. A performance by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra is scheduled for October.
The Ordway Center concert also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lin Shicheng (1922 – 2005). Gao Hong first met the sixth generation Pudong style master when he was 18 years old. “I had heard his name but never dreamed of becoming his student,” she says. Pudong tradition is only passed down from master to master, Gao Hong told me. Scores only show the main part of the piece; the magic happens in the vibrato of the left hand. “It’s a very narrative instrument,” she says. Despite its wispy, nasal sound, the pipa can mimic the sounds of geese, running water, Chinese drumming, and even laughter
Gao Hong first had an hour-long session with Shicheng, the only Pudong-style pipa player of his generation. Impressed by her skills, he chose her as a model student for his pipa master classes. At 22, he signed her up to audition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where only one or two pipa players are admitted each year. Gao Hong studied there with Shicheng from 1986 to 1990. Eventually, he became something of a father figure to her; she was his only student, other than her own son, to record and tour with him.
Gao Hong is now a teacher herself, having joined the faculty of Carlton College in 2001. Besides pipa, she teaches zhongruan, guqin, guzheng (all plucked string instruments) and erhu – some of the instruments that , like a little 7-year-old girl in distant Luoyang, her mother once tried her.
She also hopes to foster the growth of up-and-coming musicians as a board member of ACF, where she works to promote diversity and fair representation. “Early in my career in the States, the Grants panelists didn’t know much about the style I was playing,” she says. “When I was asked to serve on an artist support committee, I encouraged my colleagues to select a diverse panel of artists with knowledge of a wide variety of music, rather than classical.
“What I’m trying to do is open up compositional opportunities, not only for classical and chamber, but also for free improvisation and cross-cultural and global musical collaboration,” she adds. . “This is my approach – to open up more diversity in the community – so that students can understand different cultures through music and composers can write new music in different styles or for instruments from global cultures and traditions. disparate.”
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