Music From China balances contemporary, traditional

Ensemble to perform two concerts during residency

Music From China will be on campus Nov. 20-23 to complete their MusicUnitesUS residency.

Contrast. Balance. Yin and yang.

That’s how Susan Cheng, founding member of the ensemble Music From China, describes Chinese music. But it’s just as apt a description of the two concerts they’ll perform at Brandeis this week.

The group, which plays both traditional and contemporary Chinese music, was invited to conduct a two-part MusicUnitesUS residency. The aim of MusicUnitesUS is to foster knowledge and appreciation of diverse cultures through music. Past resident musicians have included the Pablo Ziegler Classical Tango Quartet, Palestinian musician Simon Shaheen and the Navarasa Dance Theater.

Learning about the group’s unfamiliar tools is only the beginning. The members of Music From China began their residency in September by unraveling the mysteries of their instruments, techniques and notation. With the pipa (a pear-shaped lute), erhu (a spiked fiddle), and zheng  (a plucked zither), Music From China helps bridge gaps in cultural understanding for Brandeis students, who partake in workshops, open classes, and informal performances. During the residency, they musicians also work with Waltham Public School students, who come to campus for outreach programs that enrich the social studies curriculum.

Music UnitesUS founder Judith Eissenberg believes that listening to and understanding the music of another is transformative. But she’s not just interested in history of these cultures.

“I am really interested in challenging the notion that tradition must be somehow stuck in the past,” Eissenberg says. “As a performer in Western classical music, I have a stake in music composed in the 21st century, and I believe that’s important for musical traditions across cultures. The residency was really envisioned with that in mind,” and the choice of the ensemble, Music From China, was department chairwoman Yu-Hui Chang’s recommendation.

Music From China performs a wide range of music, including sizhu or “silk and bamboo” music (for the silk strings and bamboo flutes played) of the teahouse. It also will premiere one of Chang’s recent compositions, “Pu Songling’s Bizarre Tales,” during the World Music Concert: Silk and Bamboo program Saturday, Nov. 23. Chang’s piece draws on classical tales of the supernatural. Throughout the program, audiences will experience the lyricism of ancient song-poems, the furious energy of historic battlefields, and meditative calm of flower petals falling.

On Friday, Nov. 22, the musicians will play pieces written for them by graduate composition students, who met with the ensemble this past September.

“We’re looking forward to performing all these new pieces,” Cheng says. “It’s the first experience of this kind that we’ve had. There were no restrictions on their compositions.”

Eissenberg believes the project mirrors processes of globalization that go beyond musical developments.

“I can’t help but think the project is a metaphor for the sorts of interactions and collaborations that are happening more and more as boundaries are blurred, and new relationships are forged,” Eissenberg says. “This new music won’t be Western and it won’t be Chinese, whatever those things are today. The soundscapes of the 21st century merge the local with the global; we are all creatures of multiple identities, and the music reflects that. ”

Both concerts will be held in Slosberg Music Hall. For more information, visit the MusicUnitesUS site. To purchase tickets ($20; $15 for seniors or Brandeis community members; $5 for students) for the World Music Concert, call (781) 736-3400 or visit BrandeisTickets.

Categories: Arts, International Affairs

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