Blending cultures through the 'wires'
Award-winning violinist and composer Gao Xiang (left), professor of music and the founding artistic director of the Master Players Festival & Concert Series at the University of Delaware, plays with erhu (Chinese two-stringed violin) virtuoso Cathy Yang at the Music in Mind series at the University of Maryland on Feb 15 in College Park. Piano professor Rita Sloan provided accompaniment. Gao and Yang are the founding members of a crossover duet called 6ixwire, creating and performing pieces in multiple styles, from Chinese folk to Western classical and rock. Provided To China Daily
WASHINGTON - After 26 years in the US, Chinese-American violinist and composer Gao Xiang has stayed true to his mission as a translator and messenger for both cultures and peoples.
"With the natural gratitude for the love and care China has provided me since childhood, I call China my mother country that will always stay in a very gentle place of my heart, while America is regarded as my father country where I was given wonderful opportunities to build up my career and family," Gao said.
Gao is the trustees' distinguished professor of music and founding artistic director of the Master Players Festival & Concert Series at the University of Delaware. He gets his creative inspirations mostly from the blending of the two cultures inside him.
In its third year, Master Players Festival, a rare English and Chinese bilingual music festival that produces world-class concerts, exhibitions and interdisciplinary training for musicians and visual artists age 14 and above, will be held on the Delaware campus from July 25 to Aug 6 this year.
A special Little Masters Camp will be offered to students younger than 14.
"It's not only a summer music festival designed for musicians with a Chinese background, but also a gathering in which Chinese and American young players learn about and from each other," Gao said.
Gao said his devotion to introduce high-quality music and create opportunities for both countries to communicate came from an aspiration similar to "a child wishing that his parents have a good relationship."
The realization of the mission to bridge both countries did not stem from a single event.
Born in Beijing, Gao Xiang is the only grandson of Gao Mingkai, a well-known theoretical linguist, grammarian and literary translator. Gao Mingkai worked hard to introduce Western linguistic theories by translating books, including Course in General Linguistics by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure.
With both parents playing violin, Gao Xiang began playing piano at 6 and violin at 9. He entered the Central Conservatory of Music Middle School in Beijing before naturally turning to the West to further his violin study. In 1991, he was accepted into the University of Michigan.
"The cultural gap was huge. But at a young age, it wasn't hard for me to accept new ideas or even a new culture," Gao said.
As his link with the American people grew stronger, both from visiting the families of his college friends and getting to know the audiences of his performances, he found himself obsessed with promoting a better relationship between China and the US through music.
As a master student, he signed with Columbia Artists Management Inc and began his professional solo career. In 2004, he created the Butterfly Lovers Multimedia Violin Concerto, a recreation of a popular ancient Chinese fairytale similar to Romeo and Juliet, which later was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2010, he composed the Earth Day 40th anniversary theme song Sleep now, O Earth for children's choir, erhu, Indian drums and chamber orchestra, according to his website.
He also directed Encounters - the Qing and the West, a theatrical concert he created to transport the audience on a musical journey of interactions between the Chinese Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and the West.
"In the US, Chinese music remains relatively understudied and poorly understood. Therefore, based on my experience in the US, I tried to create music with Chinese elements that fits the taste and appreciative level of American audiences so they can be engaged easily," Gao said.
For him, knowledge of both cultures is essential to his composition.
"And I'm glad that after watching our performances and sharing their thoughts with us, more and more Americans are attracted to learning about Chinese culture - that's exactly my goal," Gao said.
Of all the roads one can take in music, Gao's path was chosen based on his personal background and experiences.
"I often remind myself of the ultimate goal of all my works, which is to benefit both Chinese and American people, especially the younger generations, to get to know more about each other," he said.
Gao is a member of the China Magpie ensemble established by Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, which has sought to bring the music and culture of the Silk Road - an ancient network of trade routes that for centuries were central to cultural interaction connecting the East and West - to an international audience.
The experience with China Magpie led to his founding of the 6ixwire Project, a crossover duet he and erhu soloist Cathy Yang formed five years ago.
"When a community concert in Maryland invited Yang and me, respectively, to perform the first and second half of the concert, we decided to try playing ensemble for one song," Gao said. "The audience went crazy. Their extremely enthusiastic responses really set the stage for the launch of 6ixwire within that same week."
Both crossover ensembles combine multiple styles, from Chinese folk to Western classical and rock music.
Erhu, the Chinese two-stringed violin, is an essential instrument in the East, as violin is in the West. Both instruments are traceable to Persia, the birthplace of stringed instruments, and were introduced respectively into Asia and Europe. The name "6ixwire" came from the two-stringed erhu plus the four-stringed violin.
6ixwire ensembles include not only the 6ixwire duet with Gao and Yang, but also a crossover chamber ensemble, a 6ixwire funk jazz band (violin, erhu, zither, saxophone, bass, piano, guitar, percussion and drums) and an eight-member 6ixwire World Music Ensemble.
6ixwire recently joined the California Artists Management and will go on tour nationwide for the first time this fall.
Before the tour in February, audience members at the Music in Mind series at the University of Maryland got a taste of 6ixwire's mixed stew of violin and erhu.
"Amazing concert, both performers were incredible. I've never heard the erhu before, and I couldn't believe that was only two strings. Together, it was incredible, so beautiful," said Wendy Hoffman, a frequent attendee at the Music in Mind series.
"He (Gao) was one of the most expressive musicians I've ever heard and ever seen perform, and it was one of the biggest treats of my life to see him and hear him," she said.
When Gao plays violin, he doesn't just stand still. Instead, he moves as if he is fox-trotting at a ballroom with the music. All the body and facial movements express the enjoyment he wants to share with the audience.
It's clear that he believes in the positive impact that music as the universal language has on people of all walks of life.
Having done solo performances with more than 100 orchestras worldwide, he is also working on creating other forms of world music.
Last month, 6ixwire and other invited guest artists, some from regions with a history of conflict, Israel and Syria for instance, presented a Conflict Music concert to create new works of music and art that break down barriers.
The original music compositions and new arrangements featured in the performance were inspired by the musical cultures of Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Ireland, Syria, the US and China, among others.
Besides the idea of celebrating diversity and promoting cultural exchange, Gao is also figuring out ways to combine classical music with pop music, which will potentially draw a larger audience.
"The instability created by the new president actually motivates our artists, especially artists with overseas backgrounds, to work harder to keep our voices heard by the public," he said.
"I feel obligated to keep communicating with the general public through music in the hope of more steady progress in the China-US relationship."
Yuan Yuan in Washington contributed to the story.