Charles Yang integrates the violin into modern music

Updated: 2014-03-26 06:13

By AMY HE in New York (China Daily USA)

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Charles Yang integrates the violin into modern music

Texas-born violinist Charles Yang is currently performing on the Rumi Untold Tour and will be playing at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on March 29. Provided to China Daily


In a YouTube video, two musicians play the violin and the bass in Brooklyn, New York, and placed in front of them are a few glass jars. One is labeled "slow down", one "fast forward", another says "Lady Gaga", "Bach" and even "Michael Jackson".

As the two play, people on the streets of Brooklyn drop change into the jars to indicate what they want to hear. The players zig zag between Lady Gaga and Bach, slowing down, speeding up.

Charles Yang is the violin player zipping away with Michael Jackson tunes. He is a Texas-born violinist involved in a music collective called CDZA, which is a "musical video experiment" group, as per its official website. The group has posted dozens of videos, many of them garnering millions of views on YouTube. Yang said that the project is exciting because it draws young people to classical music.

This is the playful style that interests Yang about the violin, and why as a student at the Juilliard School, he sat in on jazz lessons, even though his curriculum as a violin major didn't require it.

"Everyone's really tied to seeing a violinist as a really traditional instrument," he told China Daily. "That's fine, to see it in a traditional light, but to see what the violin can do is my goal."

Jazz, he said, had an element of improvisation that allows him and his fellow musicians "be more creative" with classical music.

"We usually play a work that was maybe written a hundred years ago, so many people are playing very treasured historic works, whereas we found a way to bring modern music into the classical spotlight," he said.

But Yang was never this enthusiastic about the instrument. He had even hated playing it from the day his violinist mother gave him one at the age of 3.

"She made me play, I had no choice. I can't remember when I didn't play," he said. "As a kid, for the longest time I wouldn't want to play violin at all. I hated it."

Before he started performing in middle school, "it was just me and a violin and a practice room," Yang said. He was making improvements in his playing, but he didn't know if he had that spark, he said.

"It wasn't until I could prove myself on stage and prove myself to these world-renown teachers at these festivals that I realized, ‘Wow, this is something that I have. I'm good at this, and people want to come hear me,'" he said.

It took performing on stage to help Yang understand more about the music he was playing. Yang made his China stage debut at the age of 10, after he won the concerto competition held at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, located in Michigan. He ended up performing in a recital in Shenzhen.

"I was fearless; I didn't care. I just walked on stage and I played," Yang recalled. "There were no nerves, no nothing. It was great, I wish I was the same way today. Back there, there was no adrenaline. I just walked into a room and I played my violin."

Now that he's older, there's a little bit more fear, as he plays for crowds in halls like the Eisemann Center in Dallas, Texas, and for an upcoming performance at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, California.

"As my career is budding, I have something to prove to myself. I have to back up some of the reputation," he said.

Yang is currently on tour with other classical musicians, playing music composed by Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri, son of Shahram Nazeri, one of Iran's biggest stars. The performances, part of the Rumi Symphony Project, are inspired by Persian poet Rumi and combine his thoughts and words with the "harmonic structure of Western symphonic music," according to the younger Nazeri's official website.

"This is a tour that's something I've wanted to do and as a musician I'm constantly learning," Yang said. "I had gotten the music a week before the tour began, which was kind of a last minute call, but I wanted to challenge myself and I did it."