The time-honoured pipa

Photo courtesy of VCME

An instrument from China… and Persia? The Tale of Pipa concert will highlight the pipa, a traditional Chinese four-string lute, exploring some of its roots in different cultures. The concert, which marks the first collaboration between the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble and the Vashaan Persian Music Ensemble, will be held on Dec. 7 at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

The pipa has an interesting origin. Despite its role as a lead instrument in traditional Chinese music, the pipa was actually introduced to China from Central Asia/the Middle East in the 2nd century AD. Instrumental counterparts can be found along the ancient Silk Road, from the Kazakh dombra and the Persian and Turkish oud to the European mandolin.

This varied history can be seen in the concert.

“Loosely based on a story by local writer Sophi Liang about a Chinese princess travelling with a group of tea merchants along the Silk Road, Tale of Pipa will not only showcase the musical capacity of this elegant and virtuosic instrument but will also explore the intricate, and sometimes surprising, relationship between Chinese and Persian music through the pipa as a cultural ambassador,” says Alan Lau, composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble (VCME) and coordinator of the Tale of Pipa concert. “It will bring the audience on a journey through space, time, and culture.”

Refreshments will be present from both key cultures, which make up the pipa story. The audience will have the opportunity to enjoy Chinese and Persian teas under the tranquil environment of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.

The ensemble

The concert follows in the tradition of the VCME, which has made a habit of culturally diverse concerts. Thirty years ago, in 1989, Jirong Huang established the VCME as the first professional Chinese music ensemble in Canada. “Versatility and innovation are key to the VCME, as the group not only embraces the classical traditions of China but also actively explores new sonic possibilities of Chinese music and instruments,” says Lau. For instance, the VCME has done work with electronic music (Sino-Electric Explorations, 2015), shadow puppetry (Autumn Flight, 2014), and fusion opera (The Reunion, 2019). The ensemble has also collaborated with and commissioned many Canadian composers, such as Mark Armanini, John Oliver, and Rui Shi Zhuo, in addition to working with renowned musicians and artists, including bassist Jodi Proznick (Jasmine Jazz series), storyteller Gerardo Avila (Monkey King series), and Hiroshi Yamaguchi, who plays the Japanese stringed instrument the shamisen. Community outreach and engagement are also essential to the VCME’s programming, which includes public and school presentations, instrument petting zoo sessions for children, and various tours. In fact, the ensemble will be embarking on a trip to Haida Gwaii next spring.

A musical community

Lau has quite the history with the VCME.

“Back when I was studying music composition at UBC, I applied and was chosen by the VCME as one of 10 composers across Canada to create short compositions as part of the ensemble’s first group commission project,” Lau recalls. “I then started volunteering for VCME and became more and more involved by researching and presenting seminars on Chinese music history, writing larger pieces for the ensemble, and organizing two full concerts (Autumn Flight, 2014 and Future in Past, 2017). These were the years when I was living and working in Fort St. John – a time when I was supposed to be both physically and spiritually farthest away from China.”

Through the VMCE, he realized that many others like him care about Chinese music. “I am also very grateful for the freedom and trust Jirong, and manager Diane Kadota have given me to fully pursue my projects, to navigate the future of Chinese music,” he says.

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