Interview with Ji Wei
As Chinese Guzheng musician and Professor of music at the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM), Ms. Ji Wei has gained high praise for her remarkable performance technique and musical expression. She has held nearly 100 solo concerts at home and abroad in such concert halls as the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Chinese National Centre for the Performing Arts, LA FANICE Opera, Zurich Opera House, Royal Albert Hall, and Radio City. She has also performed in solos at the Venice International Music Festival, BBC Music Festival, Beijing International Music Festival, Beijing Modern Music Festival, Sino-France Cultural Year Opening Ceremony Concert, the National Centre for Performing Arts Opening Concert, and the concert celebrating the 10th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and the EURO.
She has published dozens of solo CD albums, solo live concert DVDs and some DVDs for teaching purposes. She has been awarded as China’s “Golden Record of Best Performer” (the first and only player to receive this award as Guzheng musician). She is also the first guzheng musician to record for the Deutsche Grammophon- Gesellschaft.
Ji Wei is dedicated to exploring new opportunities to bring Guzheng onto the modern, international stage. She has produced many works combining the guzheng with other western instruments, creating new musical styles and adding depth to the repertoire of the guzheng. For her innovation and efforts in this field, the Hong Kong magazine Jessica named her one of “The Most 10 Successful Women of 2009”. To help aspiring guzheng players, she has compiled dozens Guzheng performing textbooks and frequently delivers master classes. For her efforts and positive reviews from her students, she was honored with an “Excellence in Teaching” award by CCOM.
Can you tell us a little about the Guzheng?
Zheng is the original name, if you hear zhang, qin, xin, it’s from China, not like pipa, erhu, it’s now called guzheng because gu is “ancient”, it’s a very old instrument, like the guqin, the seven-string instrument. This instrument is the oldest, has the longest history.
Why did you choose to learn the Guzheng ?
When I learned, it wasn’t popular in China but now it’s the most popular Chinese instrument and it’s second only to piano of all the instruments. There are many reasons. The guzheng is easy to learn and sounds beautiful. If you hear it you’ll love this instrument. It’s not like erhu, pipa, they need tuning. Easier to play at a basic level. For women, it looks very elegant and beautiful but men and people of all ages can play it too. I know some retirees who play.
When did you first begin to play?
I was born 1979 and was playing in the early 80′s when it was not popular yet. I was born just as China opened up. That’s why my parents wanted me to play music, they didn’t have the chance to learn themselves. Their dream wasn’t realised. The teacher chose me and another girl but I was the one who got better and better. I kept winning the contests. We didn’t study seriously but I kept passing with high marks and kept advancing. The other girl quit after two years.
I started at age 4. The teacher saw me and thought I looked classical. I was very small when I was younger and I’m small still. She said I fit in this instrument, but at the time, it was not popular at all.
Why do you think the Guzheng was so unpopular?
During the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t revolutionary, it was a court instrument, a palace instrument, and they called it capitalist. It was big so wasn’t easy to carry. You couldn’t carry it along with the army to encourage the soldiers. The erhu, flute and pipa could be taken along to the battle. Old guzheng pieces are also very slow, soft, not revolutionary so could not motivate the soldiers. These instruments were burned, the guzheng, the guqin, along with the Western instruments. Fang Kong Fa Xiu, you had to go against Confucius, against capitalism.
When did you first begin at the China Conservatory of Music?
I went to Conservatory at age 12, a young age. Then I became a professional student, the instrument is so interesting, it’s so easy to show different kinds of emotions, many things. So many techniques, so many things, it was so challenging.
But many students go to conservatory at nine or ten. Is that right?
Yes, I auditioned in fourth grade, but it was the Tiananmen Square event so they weren’t accepting any new students. I cried but I didn’t know the reason then. I still remember that year.
Was there any sense of having an advantage because there weren’t many people interested in playing the Guzheng?
About ten years ago it became popular but in the ten years before that is was not. Still it was really important to take the time for people to develop their skills.
Can you tell us a little more about the instrument itself?
Ususally 21 strings, and it has a bridge, the guqin has no bridge. Guzheng in the ancient times, it’s almost 3000 years old, was popular during the Han Dynasty around 200 BC. The instrument looked similar but it had fewer strings. It was around 10 or 11 strings, it kept developing and in the Tang Dynasty it had 12 or 13 strings. During the Ming it had 16 strings and now the normal is 21 strings. You can see how many improvements and how much was done this century. The music was becoming more complex, you needed more strings and this instrument was the forerunner of so many Asian zither instruments, the Japanese Koto, the Korean Kai Yagan. Vietnam and Mongolia also have their own versions that look similar but they have different strings.
Does the guzheng use the same scale as Western music? (for example A,B,C,D,E,F,G, sharps and minors?) or is there a different way of writing music? If so, is it easy to transpose the music between the two?
No, it is not the same. It’s Pentatonic scale. There are five notes (1,2,3,5,6 – no 4 and 7).
Now it’s same way to write the music but in ancient times there was only one kind of character-based musical notation.
It’s not easy to transpose that s why I said it’s a challenge for the player. Also for the instrument I have to create the exact notes there are not on Pentatonic scale.
Guzheng or Guqin? Which one came first?
No written records, so we don’t know which came first. The guzheng always had the bridge and I think they came from the same period.
Qin players say it’s older and more difficult. Do you think that is true?
I think it’s because of the culture. The qin culture hasn’t changed over the years and it’s so far away from the guzheng now. You feel it’s very hard to learn because the culture is so hard to learn and there are so many things modern people don’t know. You can compose contemporary music but not many composers do because the guqin is limited. If we don’t improve, we don’t have the ability to express modern music. The guzheng is more versatile. Some are smaller just for the old pieces. The materials used to be silk, twisted silk, and then they became – not catgut, it’s a very green instrument – now they’re steel core, wrapped with silk, and then covered in plastic. The strings don’t break, you can you play over an orchestra, you can play with ensembles.
Do you use period instruments for period pieces?
Sometimes, that’s why I use the smaller instrument for the older pieces. There are two main schools, the northern and southern, but they are different than pipa schools. The two schools, among the northern part, there are many schools, Shaanxi, Shandong, Henan, they base the music on the region, the character of the music is the character of the area. But northern music, they have differences from each other, but their similar characteristic, is that they sound bright and joyful, big heart, welcome, but southern music is softer, more gentle. There are a number of schools in Guangzhou, some are original Cantonese, Ke Jia is northerners who moved to Guangdong. Ke means guest so the music has some character of the north, and the most important school is in Zhejiang.
I also play a Japanese piece, on the Koto, when I perform abroad. Many of the audience think that the guzheng is a koto, or a “Chinese Koto”, and I want to say that the guzheng came first. Japanese people, they really take care of their of their tradition, and they don’t want to improve or change too much, but I’ll use my instrument to play the piece. The koto is different, it’s only silk strings, the bridges are different material. Japanese, either they’re very traditional or really creative, so they have contemporary pieces for Koto, but they don’t want to change the instrument so much. They have changed a little, but it’s a different way of thinking. They keep more traditional music, they practice and perform more than Chinese, they protect the tradition more. During the Cultural Revolution we lost so much, we lost so many repertoire, but the Japanese have so many still, there are a lot of people who only like the old things, although some people do new and creative things. People tend to do one or the other, focus on traditional or focus on modern, but guzheng players want to show a broad range, they want to show they can do everything.
You have made an impressive amount of recordings. Can you tell us a little about your accomplishments?
I played solo pieces and ancient pieces but I like contemporary very much, I have recorded a lot of contemporary pieces. People write things for me to premier and I have a great passion to play the new pieces. It’s not easy, it’s a challenge, you are the first person playing this piece and you have no one to follow. I like this kind of thing but you have to look for the composer, not every composer wants to write for this instrument, or knows the instrument very well. In China, people are writing for commercials or TV series, I can’t pay them that much, I have to look for people who love the instrument.
Ye Xiaogang just wrote a piece for guzheng and orchestra, anniversary of 1911, I just performed that piece, we premiered it, orchestra and chorus.
Do you collaborate with Western instruments/music? What is the result?
Yes I tried a lot different kinds of collaboration with Western instrument and music. Like guitar, piano, flute, harp, cello etc. That was a very good personal experience for the musician. For Guzheng, the instrument, it was a big challenge to be able to express western music and collaborate with western instruments because of Pentatonic scale. So It was a really hard work, I had many failed experiences but finally I did it. The result is very successful and the audiences liked it so much. I was fulfilled for the hard working.
You also collaborate with other traditional Asian instruments/music groups, like Japan’s Kodo. Can you talk a little about this?
Yes, I enjoy collaborating with Asian traditional musicians and ensembles a lot. I like to play with them because the cultures are very close to each other but still a bit different. That was very interesting. When I played with them I could learn a lot from them. For example JP and KR pay more attention to the manner but in China and western countries it is not like that. They trained the musicians how to walk on stage, how to sit, how to bow at an exact angle. Those ideas were so fresh for me so I appreciated working with them very much.
Are you composing your own music?
I hops so. One day I’ll compose for my instrument but I have to learn more about music compositon. That ‘s not so easy. I already arranged some pieces for my Guzheng ensemble and for beginners. I also wrote some text books. They includes hundreds of small pieces I arranged
Hopefully I can compose the great one soon.
What do you like about contemporary pieces?
Because I’m professional, I have the ability to help my instrument expand and improve, you have to play new pieces. From the new pieces, you can find so many ways to show the instrument and learn new techniques or figure out your own techniques. If you want a sound you have to figure out how to make that sound. No one can tell you how to play it and sometimes you can’t play it at all, and it’s a really big challenge to solve this problem by yourself. Sometimes they don’t know that the guzheng is limited, the pitch on this string or that string and do I have to move the bridge or find another method I can use.
Do you think traditional instruments are getting more popular now?
No, the pipa, it used to be really popular, but now not anymore. Pipa is hard and people want things to be easy – also I think it doesn’t sound as good as guzheng. Now the economy is getting better so families have bigger houses, more space. Now they can buy a guzheng but before they had five people in one house, they had no room. Like in Western countries, sometimes they buy a piano or a harp just because it looks good.
Do you see the Guzheng as a status symbol?
Yes, but guqin people wouldn’t agree, they think they have better taste. Not many play guqin, not many instruments left, they make some new ones, but not so many, it’s like playing an antique. It’s more valuable, there are so few of them. It’s almost like an investment for collectors, but it’s an investment in quality, not to resell.
I know that charity work is important to you. Can you tell us a little about it?
In 2009, I just wanted to do some charity work. Now China is still poor in many places and people need to be educated. I got the title, but I haven’t done so many charitable things yet, but I hope to do more. In the northwest, in Qinghai, there are so many children living in the mountains, it’s a really hard life. There was a big blizzard that year so I collected and took some clothes and blankets and money. They need this kind of thing, not just for living but also for education, it’s not possible for them to learn knowledge, I want to help the poor people and children.
Where can we fond out more about you and your work?
My Youtube page