Musician and composer Mindy Meng Wang has been studying the Guzheng, one of China’s oldest instrument, since the age of seven.
A versatile and experimental performer, Mindy’s cross-cultural life experiences have now led her to combine this traditional instrument with the contemporary sounds of electronic music. Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Mindy to talk about her innovative work ahead of the sixth series of Play On (22 March).
Q: Audiences at Play On will get to experience you playing the Guzheng – also known as the Chinese zither. Can you tell us about the instrument and the history behind it?
A: Guzheng is one of the oldest musical instruments from China. The oldest specimen yet held 13 strings and was dated back to 500 BCE around the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) which has more than 2500 years history. The Guzheng is ancestral to several other Asian zithers such as the Japanese koto and the Korean gayageum.
The history and development of Guzheng and its music reflect ancient Chinese ideology and philosophy. Ancient scholars believe music is an important practice to lift one’s spirits. Some of those poets about Guzheng refer its sound touches the heavens above and the spirits below.
Many believe Guzheng originally had 5 strings and was made of bamboo, it became very popular during the Tang dynasty (618 AD – 907 AD). It then developed to 13 strings with a wooden body. In the mid-1900s, the Guzheng formed 21 strings with S-shaped end and became what is commonly used today.
Q: What is your bond with the instrument and how has that evolved over the years?
A: Many people would say the traditional major pentatonic tunning limited the Guzheng. Instead of having 12 notes in an octave, there are only 5 on Guzheng. Certainly, it is hard to adapt other types of music on Guzheng apart from traditional music that is specially composed for it.
In modern days, especially in the last 20 years, many composers have brought western compositions to the Guzheng. They introduce some western forms, chords, structure and styles to Guzheng music by experimenting with the tunning system. This is definitely a modernization but the majority of those works are still only classical dominated, showing its cultural background. The mentality behind the Guzheng also sets some limitations.
Q: Does playing an instrument with the cultural and historical significance of the Guzheng come with added pressure or responsibility?
A: It’s very difficult to give a straight answer, I guess it’s a yes and no at the same time. As a musician and composer, my career is driven by the love of pure art, the passion of expressing myself and to connect with the world by music. I keep challenging myself because I am a curious person, and Guzheng is my tool to gain a deeper understanding of myself and the world around me. I didn’t start Guzheng because of a responsibility to propagate such an instrument with cultural and historical significance.
Lately, I’ve tried some “first ever” works on Guzheng, such as the first ever Guzheng and chamber orchestral piece about the ancient silk road, and the first ever Guzheng and neuron synthesiser collaboration. Strangely those works woke up a new part of me and made me feel my responsibility to experiment with Guzheng music and break the barriers of tradition and modernism. Tradition is very important and it is the foundation, but innovation and creativity are also important because that’s how we can demonstrate the real freedom of the human mind.
Q: At Play On, you will blend this 2500 year old instrument with electronic music. Is it special for you to be able to bridge the gap between classical Eastern and contemporary Western music?
A: I feel privileged to have the opportunity to receive classical Chinese training from a young age and a western music education aboard after. Those life experiences have enabled me to blend this 2500 years old instrument with modern music styles. I still remember when I first started working with electronic music, it was a journey to find the fine balance of keeping the essence of Guzheng and finding the melting point with electronic elements.
It is now much easier after many years of playing and developing my skills, that I am constantly filled with happiness nailing this distinct style when I play.
Q: When did you first start experimenting with the Guzheng and contemporary music?
A: I first started experimenting on Guzheng in 2005 when I was in university. I started just by playing western tunes on Guzheng, but now I write my own music in different styles, like Jazz, blues, ambience, pop, electronic, and experimental etc.
Q: Carolyn Schofield (aka Fia Fiell) and Peter Knight will join you on stage at Play On. What can we expect from your collaboration?
A: I worked with Peter on many different projects, this time we will play a duet between Guzheng and trumpet. We will also use a computer to manipulate the sound and add layers. We might use rice too! Together this will create a minimal yet rich sound.
This is my first time collaborating with Carolyn, we met a few months ago. She has a distinct style that I feel very connected to. We have planned to use light electronic sound, Guzheng will play the melody to create a sound image of a spacious landscape.
Q: You epitomise the cross-culture experience of Play On. How has the Australian music scene influenced you?
A: I used to live in China and the UK before I moved to Melbourne. I imagined Australia would be very similar to the UK, but now I find they are so different! Australia is such a multicultural country. While I’ve been here, I have had more opportunities to work with musicians from different cultural backgrounds. This has inspired a lot of my recent works. Melbourne’s art circle is also very different compared to China and the UK. Melbourne has a strong Jazz scene, I definitely do more jazz-influenced work now too.
Q: As a child prodigy who has gone onto to perform all around the world, what keeps you motivated and passionate about your work?
A: My passion and motivation have come from the love of my instrument. It represents the wisdom passed down in the last thousand years from my culture. And the love I have for the western art world/system and it’s innovative and encourages the individuals. I feel I can not keep all those beauties to myself, with my skills, I have to introduce it to the opposite culture groups. Like an interpreter translates the language, I have to translate the culture. Through building the bridge to the arts, I can truly discover the real power of the instrument.
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: All the artists are agreed with their own practice, I want to make more great music with the Guzheng and find more possibilities for this instrument. Recently, I have been working with some friends to make an electronic Guzheng, this will open up the instrument to more sound capabilities.
In the future, I would like to expand my experiences with multi-artform projects. For example, collaborate with an architect and visual artists. I also want to work with a professional on a project that involves science, nature and music.