Students Bring First-Ever Guzheng Recital

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Jingchen Jiang ’18 plays the guzheng part of a 13-minute long piece.

By YVETTE YINUO SHI, Arts & Sciences Editor

As a college well-known for its international vision, Middlebury College does a fairly good job of bringing different aspects of diverse cultures to its members. But there is always more to be showcased, and the students never cease to surprise the community.

The Chinese Society, along with the Chinese Department, purchased a “guzheng” (٪j筝), also known as a Chinese zither, last May. On Monday, March 6, the first-ever guzheng recital took place. An audience filled the entire Chateau Grand Salon to listen to the repertoire of student performers and had a chance to observe the Chinese plucked string instrument which has over 2,500 years of history.

With a resonant cavity made from wood, a “guzheng” has 16 or more strings and movable bridges. To pluck the strings, players often wear fingerpicks on one or both hands. Having emerged during the Warring States period (475-211 BCE), the instrument also became the model for some other Asian zithers. The fascinating ancient instrument has obviously not become obsolete in any way – it is one of the most popular Chinese instruments today.

The first scheduled performer of the song “Liuyang River,” Emily Cipirani ’19.5, was unfortunately not able to attend the showcase. According to Jingchen Jiang ’18, one of the other players and organizers, Cipirani was the one who started the whole idea of bringing guzheng music to campus, as she owns one guzheng herself.

“Emily learned to play it from a Chinese teacher in Ohio, and is very passionate about it,” Jiang said. “We thought that many people might like it.”

Lyra Ding ’19, who started playing the “guzheng” at the age of six, carried out the following two pieces to great reception. The first one called “Han Gong Qiu Yue” is a very traditional song with an ancient melody and simplified techniques.

“I played it without the fingerpick because in that way I think it’s more similar to another instrument called guqin, which I also play,” she said.

Ding’s second piece, “Qin Sang Qu,” is a familiar one for her, and the song tells about a young girl parting from her loved ones. The nostalgia was, according to Ding, somewhat in accordance with the reality of being abroad and away from home.

The last piece, “Eternal Sorrow of Lin’an,” was performed by Jiang and Gloria Breck ’18. The unique composition is a concerto of “guzheng” and piano, and the flawless collaboration between pianist Breck and Jiang, who played the “guzheng,” made it the highlight of the showcase.

The piece was perhaps the most powerful one, telling a story about a national hero that was falsely accused by his country and executed. Lasting for more than 13 minutes, the performance shifted between absorbing solos of the guzheng and piano, and the even more captivating ensemble of the two culturally and fundamentally different musical instruments.

“The piece is probably one of the biggest guzheng performing pieces, and I wanted to challenge myself with the difficulty,” Jiang said.

This was not the first time that the two good friends collaborated on a musical piece. Jiang talked about their collaboration for the International Student Organization (ISO) show last November, for which they performed an excerpt of “Butterfly Lovers,” a very popular and more light-hearted piece.

“We felt that for a formal recital, we should have something more serious,” Jiang said. “We needed a piece that would truly convey and express the instrument, and one with more cultural foundation.”

The success of the recital has prompted Jiang to think about what types of guzheng pieces could be performed in the future, as the piece “Eternal Sorrow” was “a bit too heavy.”

“We weren’t sure about to what extent a very Chinese and folk piece like this one will be approachable for foreign audience members,” Jiang said.

The fact that many of the listeners were deeply moved by the music was encouraging.

“So we felt that maybe music really is something universal,” Jiang said. “People can all sense the emotions embedded in it.”

The team put a lot of effort into writing the recital program, hoping that the audience would gain sufficient historical and cultural context for understanding the music.

Jiang believes that these sorts of events should be promoted on campus.

“We have organizations like the Chinese society and ASIA [Asian Students in Action], but people seem to be more interested in talking about politics and social issues,” Jiang said. “I think there should be more things focused on the cultural aspects.”

Now that the college owns a “guzheng” and many people are interested in it, future activities devoted to the instrument are guaranteed.

“The Music Department professors are very excited about this,” Ding said. “They kept asking us if we could do a demo or even a class for them, so that they can understand this instrument.”

Jiang also hopes that students will join, likely through a student-hosted J-term workshop next year.