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Meet Duke’s New Chinese Music Ensemble

Published By Robert Zimmerman / published on: March 5, 2019

A new music department ensemble opens the vast world of Chinese music to the Duke community. “We mix both Western and Eastern music together,” explains Elizabeth Zhang (Class of 2022). Discover the story behind the music before their performance on Sun, Mar 31.

About a dozen musicians gathered in a downstairs classroom in the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building late one recent Friday afternoon. Several are plucking the strings of guzheng, a kind of tabletop harp. A few stand at red wooden drums. A couple are seated with long, lacquered flutes, and another has something like a squat, moon-faced banjo—a ruan—on her lap. Presiding over the ensemble is Jennifer Chang, a compact, energetic woman with a frequently furrowed brow. She counts them off, grabs a pair of sticks to lead the drum section for a while, then sings at one of the guzheng players—“re re RE-E-E, mi so DO-O-O”—only to stop the music so she can lay hands on the instrument and show how the part is supposed to go.

All photos by Robert Zimmerman.
Elizabeth Zhang

Meet Duke’s new Chinese Music Ensemble, which began rehearsing last fall.  The ensemble is the brainchild of Hsiao-mei Ku, a faculty member in Duke’s music department and violinist in the Ciompi Quartet. Ku is one of the most tireless energizers and facilitators of arts engagement on Duke’s campus. She is a longtime faculty-in-residence at Pegram, the arts-focused freshman dorm. For ten years, she has also presided over the Duke Engage-Zhuhai program, accompanying group after group of Duke students to China to teach in Zhuhai No.9 Middle School. The program is designed for students who would like to share their passion for the arts and open the hearts and minds of the Chinese middle schoolers.

Although Ku’s early musical training was in China, it was focused strictly on the violin and Western music. After she moved to the U.S., though, her ears perked up whenever she heard Chinese music, and over time it became a part of her musical practice. She has recorded compositions for violin by Chinese composers and arranged for collaborations between Chinese musicians and the Ciompi quartet.

Although it’s been nice to bring Chinese music to campus, Ku has long wished that she could give students a direct experience of playing the music. A year ago, she met incoming freshman Elizabeth Zhang at a Blue Devil Days event. Daughter of Changlu Wu, an accomplished Chinese musician based in Houston, Zhang grew up playing violin in school orchestras and playing ruan in the North American Youth Chinese Orchestra, a group her mother founded. Knowing she would have one experienced Chinese musician for four years, Ku decided that the time was ripe to start an official Chinese ensemble. Grants from the Dean of Academic Affairs and Office of Undergraduate Education allowed her to purchase of a few essential instruments.

Jennifer Chang and Hsiao-mei Ku play "Sounds. Distant." with Orchestra New England, a composition by Mark Kuss that beautifully demonstrates how compatible the worlds of Chinese and European music are.
Chang's teaching is often hands-on.

As leader of the ensemble, Ku tapped Jennifer Chang, a Chinese music virtuoso who has long lived in the Triangle. Chang has performed as guzheng soloist with the North Carolina Symphony and led her own ensembles. Ku and Chang first worked together about a decade ago, when Ku commission a concerto for violin and guzheng with symphony orchestra from Mark Kuss, an alumnus of Duke’s graduate composition program. They premiered the piece—titled “Sounds. Distant.”—in 2011.

In most of the music department ensembles the director can pass out a written-out part for each student to play. It’s not so simple for Chang.

“Many of the students who grew up in this country can only read Western staff notation,” Ku says, “but many of the ones from China can only read the Chinese style of notation”—a system that shows the notes on each beat using the numbers 1 through 7 for the pitches of the scale—“so Jennifer has tons of work to do, not only to translate each piece into something that both musicians can read, but also the instrumentation.”

Chang can’t count on having the combination of players that would usually perform a given piece, so she has to adapt the music for the instruments and players available to her. The ensemble is not restricted to Duke undergraduates, though. It includes graduate students and even students from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chang has brought guest performers from the local community, and has also combined forces with an ensemble she directs at Wake Forest University.

No matter what form of notation the musicians are reading, the actual music—all the details of phrasing and inflection—is mostly in Chang’s head, so she teaches it by singing and demonstrating.

“I think it’s helpful to know that you can join even if you don’t know how to play a Chinese instrument, because Jennifer will teach you,” explains Zhang, who helped recruit musicians last fall. “We also have people who play piano or violin, because we mix both Western and Eastern music together.”

The mix of East and West is an important aspect of the ensemble’s mission. Chinese music and European music sound very different, and there are some pretty fundamental conceptual differences, too, but as the piece Kuss wrote for Chang and Ku demonstrates so beautifully, the two worlds are quite compatible. One of Chang’s first questions to a composer who happened to drop by a recent rehearsal was whether he would be interested in writing a piece for the group, although he had little experience with Chinese music.

The ensemble is currently preparing for a concert on March 31. It will be a mix of pieces, old and new, some for just two or three players, some for the whole group, some purely Chinese, and some with Western instruments.