Composers Gabriel Prokofiev and Effy Efthymiou collaborate with Chi-Ling Lok and the UK Chinese Ensemble
Young British composers write new music for Chinese instruments
“I’ve long been interested in non-Western instruments and exploring new sounds,” says Gabriel Prokofiev. “I wrote this Concerto for Turntables, which is a sort of global instrument,” he laughs. Grandson of the famous Russian composer, Prokofiev also wrote his thesis on Tanzanian music and worked as a tour manager for Hukwe Zawose. He’s just finished writing pieces for erhu (Chinese fiddle) and piano commissioned by New Sound China UK. “I got to know the zeze, the fiddle that Hukwe played, quite well. It’s played in a similar way to the erhu and came to East Africa via Indonesia. The exciting thing about the Chinese classical tradition is it’s so old.”
New Sound China UK was founded by pianist Chi-Ling Lok and they’ve also commissioned a piece for pipa (lute) and piano from Effy Efthymiou. The crucial stage in the process was a workshop session where erhu player Wang Xiao and pipa player Cheng Yu demonstrated what the Chinese instruments can do.
“I can play classical guitar, which is useful in composing for pipa, but it’s also a hindrance because some of the techniques are so different,” says Efthymiou. “The middle strings are a semitone apart, which seems really weird and pipa players do a tremolo with all five fingers. But there’s no point in writing pastiche. We’re thinking as craftspeople of how to make this piece work on the instruments.”
“The luxury we have is being able to work with the performers,” chips in Prokofiev.
When Efthymiou had written the piece, she asked Yu to play it through on the pipa. “I’d written this phrase and she played it, but I felt it needed to speak more. I’d written in an accent and tremolo, but then she played it a different ornamentation – a straight note, a tremolo and then a vibrato – and that changed everything.”
Cheng Yu started learning the pipa aged seven and graduated from the conservatoire in Xian. She’s lived in London since the 90s. She is leader of the Silk String Quartet, an ensemble of Chinese instruments featuring pipa, erhu, guzheng (zither) and yangqin (dulcimer). They performed with pianist Lang Lang and the London Symphony Orchestra in 2009. But talking about these new compositions, Yu says: “I really wanted to do something different, because we’ve been playing traditional Chinese music since we were young and we’re looking to expand the repertoire because we’re Chinese musicians living in this country.”
Both Lok and Yu are thrilled with the results. “This is just the research and development,” says Lok, “and we’re very happy about it.” Funded by the Arts Council England, New Sound China UK hope to commission larger and longer pieces and certainly Prokofiev and Efthymiou hope it’s an ongoing relationship. “There’s a political aspect to this,” says Prokofiev. “There are contemporary Chinese composers writing for Western ensembles, but it’s one-way traffic. Why is it always Western orchestras and instruments? It’s seen as a prestigious thing for classical composers and I think that’s rubbish because it shows this superiority complex of the West and a good first step to redress that is for Western composers to be writing for non-Western instruments. And often these orchestras are often much older and have longer traditions. There’s an un-mined void here, which is the beginning of something.”
The pieces are premiered at A Little Bite Music at Manchester’s Bridegwater Hall on September 25 at 12:30pm. Admission is free. Click here for more information.