China Magpie takes Silk Road journey, stopping in Hyde Park to give concertBy Josh Schonwald
Wu Tong, a rock star as famous in his native China as U2’s Bono is in the U.S., will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23, in the International House Assembly Hall. But Wu Tong will not be singing the rock songs “Spring Comes and Goes,” “Don’t Let Those Cry Who Love You,” or “One Loves,” or any of the monster hits that made his band, Lonhui, a Chinese super-group with millions of fans.
Instead, the 30-something rock pioneer, who has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and whose band has been compared to the 1970s heavy metal rockers The Scorpions, will be playing in his new four-member band of traditional Chinese instruments, China Magpie.
Wu Tong will display his virtuosity on the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, as his band mates Liu Lin, a master of the zhongruan, a moon-shaped round guitar; Li Hui, one of the world’s masters of the pipa, a short-necked wooden lute; and Chinese violinist Xiang Gao join him in creating the unique sounds of their Chinese folk instruments. The China Magpie performance is part of “Silk Road Chicago,” a yearlong partnership among the Silk Road Project, an international music ensemble founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the Art Institute of Chicago; and other cultural and educational institutions in the city. Several members of the Silk Road Project will accompany China Magpie during the I-House performance.
“Last Fall, it was music from Azerbaijan,” said Theodore Foss, Associate Director of the Center for East Asian Studies, which is co-sponsoring the event along with the Division of the Humanities and International House. “Now we’ll get a chance to see and hear some traditional East Asian instruments.” But, Foss warned, “Don’t think this is just Chinese folk music. This is a mixture of cultures and styles and instruments. There could be violas and violins and clarinets mixed with Chinese folk. You could hear rock and jazz. It’s really a jam session.”
Silk Road Chicago offers a rare opportunity to see and hear traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa (a lute-like instrument which sounds vaguely like an acoustic guitar) and the sheng (a Chinese mouth organ which has a clear metallic sound).
Founded in 1998, Ma’s Silk Road Project has sought to bring the music and culture of the Silk Road—the historic trade routes that linked the people and traditions of Europe to Asia—to an international audience. The Silk Road Ensemble, a collection of more than 60 musicians, has played all over the world, but last June the group began a unique yearlong residency in Chicago. “I’ve never seen such a rainbow of organizations get involved,” said Foss, who recalls the planning event for the Silk Road Project at the Chicago Cultural Center a year and a half ago. “Arts groups from all over the city were excited to participate.”
Already the Silk Road Chicago concerts have brought Himalayan, Middle Eastern and Central Asian music to venues across the city, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Chicago Children’s Museum. Last month, two masters of Iranian instruments, the santur and ney, performed with the Silk Road Ensemble.
Now, though, the Silk Road Chicago will shift to Hyde Park, and East Asian instruments will take center stage. “We’re thrilled to have them,” said Mary Beth DeStefano, Associate Director of Programs & External Relations for I-House, which is a popular residence with music students because of its many performance and rehearsal spaces. DeStefano added that DaXun Zhang, a double bass player who has toured with the Silk Road Ensemble, performed a mini-preview of a new duet, JUN, written by I-House resident and student composer, Yao Chen, during the Spring Candlelight Supper conference last year at I-House. “It was a wonderful performance.”
During the past two years, the China Magpie musicians have played throughout Asia and at North American venues, including Carnegie Hall, the Tanglewood Music Center, the Hollywood Bowl and Harvard University. The group has received critical praise for its innovative mix. After a Silk Road performance last fall, Boston Globe music critic Jeremy Eichler wrote that the night was “almost stolen” by China Magpie. He singled out the group for its unusual rendering of folk material with a “rhythmic energy borrowed from rock. This is a group with something to say,” wrote Eichler.
Prior to the I-House concert, several of the Silk Road Ensemble musicians will participate in a two-hour workshop beginning at 4 p.m. at I-House, in which they will present a work-in-progress titled “Blue and White,” followed by a question-and-answer session. “Blue and White” is based on a multimedia piece being written by Silk Road Ensemble musicians, which is inspired by blue and white porcelain pieces from around the world. With the aid of translators from the University, the musicians will discuss this creative process.
The Silk Road Ensemble musicians also will participate in two private events during their daylong visit to campus: a “Composer’s Forum,” specifically for graduate students in music composition, and a lunch with students at the Center for East Asian Studies.
Martin Stokes, Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Associate Professor in Music and the College, said the earlier Silk Road Chicago residency, with Azeri vocalist Alim Qasimov and the University’s Middle East Music Ensemble, exposed Hyde Park audiences to important Central Asian musical traditions and new composition. “These residences permit conversation between world music performers, academic ethnomusicologists and composers,” he said. “We have much to learn from one another.”
Foss added that at least one Music Composition student inspired by the Silk Road Ensemble has written parts for traditional Chinese instruments in his compositions. He also noted that the Silk Road Ensemble concert occurs on the same weekend that a conference of graduate students in musical composition will gather on campus. “It’s exciting to see a greater interaction between Asian and European music,” he said.
But Foss believes the Silk Road Chicago events can encourage even more than musical innovation. “At a time when there’s so much focus on the differences between Europe and Asia,” he said, “we can highlight the striking similarities.
“There really wasn’t this great separation between Europe and Asia,” he explained, “there was so much communication within Eurasia.” This continental distinction is overplayed, he said. “And when you see the Chinese pipa next to the Renaissance lute, you’ll immediately see how they share a common ancestry. And this isn’t just in music. For instance you sometimes look at some pieces of Buddhist art, compared with the Greek art of the time of Alexander. It’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s Greek or Indian.”