A Night of Moving Sounds

There were a number of reasons why the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble’s presentation of Speaking Strings Utter Things intrigued me, not the least its rhyming name and the promise of seeing something I’d never seen before. It was that type of random cultural mash-up of old-meets-new and East-meets-West that would be weird anywhere else but Vancouver. If you had the chance to check out a quintet of classically trained musicians who play instruments that have such exotic names as the erhu, gaohu, zhonghu, zheng, and laruan, wouldn’t you at least be curious as to what they looked like and how they sounded?

To give a brief introduction, the erhu, gaohu and zhonghu are part of the bowed instrument family known as huqin, and are often referred to as the “Chinese violin” or “Chinese 2-stringed fiddle”. Their appearance is very striking, with its long neck and python skin-covered sound box, and the ones in Speaking Strings Utter Things were recently upgraded to a range of four octaves. These instruments were the showcase of the ensemble, and with their range they are able to imitate the tone and colour of the human voice.  The zheng (also known as the guzheng and Chinese zither) sort of resembles the inside of a piano on a wooden slab, and is plucked by the musician who has a pick on almost every finger.  You may have heard it played on the song “Hong Kong” by the experimental cartoon band Gorillaz. Out of all the instruments, the laruan was the most familiar-looking, with an appearance similar to the cello.

So the main premise of Speaking Strings Utter Things was having this traditional Chinese Hu quintet collaborating with the improv actors of The Fictionals Comedy Co., where the instruments would provide the sound effects and voice-over dubs for the improv comics. The program was an interesting mix, alternating improv scenarios with musical performances that ranged from the traditional music of Shanghai to Tchaikovsky. The backdrop for all of it was the Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first Ming Dynasty-style garden to ever be built outside of China. In some respects, the only way it could have been more authentic is if you were actually in China.

The standout musical performances for me would be Vivaldi’s Spring, Canon in D by Pachelbel, and Flowery Sixth Beat, a traditional song from Shanghai. Vivaldi’s famous violin concerto is one of the most well-known  pieces of music from its period, and you could say that they really went for baroque!  … Sorry.  The way the ancient Chinese strings played Spring gave it a whole new feel as the erhus could almost sing when the vibrato kicked in. Counting the bow strokes was practically impossible, while watching the ensemble members move along to the music as they played helped bring you in and really captured your attention. I liked the performance of Canon in D because it was on this song that the zheng (Chinese zither) played a major role as its plucked strings took on the iconic melody, which worked amazingly well. The way the strings were such a perfect match for the traditional Shanghai song Flowery Sixth Beat made you realize – this is what these instruments were made to play – and in the middle of the Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Garden, I almost forgot I was in Vancouver.

When it comes to improv comedy, you never know what to expect, and that is part of the excitement. Also, there’s always that terrible fear a friend might think it funny to volunteer you, or perhaps that’s just me? Alas, there were some misses, as is the nature with improv, but there were also some truly inspired moments that took me by surprise. The two performers from The Fictionals certainly were not lacking in energy or enthusiasm which I found quite endearing, considering the difficulties of combining such disparate disciplines as improv and traditional Chinese string music, on the fly. Another memorable thing was the distinct laughter of a small child in the audience who absolutely loved the weird sounds the erhu would make during the improv skits, to the point where he was like a real-life laugh track during the improv skits, which turned out to be quite contagious. The Fictionals did display an impressive range of styles, from straight-up improv, to singing and dancing. Apparently, on some nights, they even do burlesque!

Overall, I’d give serious kudos to all the performers, both the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble and The Fictionals, for stepping out of their comfort zones to try something completely different and new.  After the show, we stepped outside the garden, and just a few blocks later we were grabbing dim sum and fried chicken at the food stalls in the Chinatown Night Market. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday night.