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Red Chamber is not your typical Chinese string band. The Vancouver-based group has seriously eclectic, transcultural tastes. Led by the zheng scholar and virtuoso Mei Han, the group includes Guilian Liu on pipa, Zhimin Yu on zhongruan, daruan, and Geling Jiang on sanxian and zhongruan. They are all masters of their respective plucked Chinese string instruments.
Already well established as professional musicians in mainland China, these women sought a second home on Canada’s west coast where they have expanded both their careers – and ears. Mei Han reflects on this process of cultural awareness: “[As we] travelled around the world and collaborated with artists from a wide range of cultures, we have grown to become more open and aware.”
Gathering, their second album, exhibits influences of diverse musics discernable in the inclusion of instruments such as the tabla, djembe, dumbek and gong. Multiethnic melodic layers are also in ample evidence. The scores variously draw on Chinese, Arabic, West African, Klezmer, Greek, Turkish, Cape Breton and Métis sources, performed on Red Chamber’s Chinese plucked strings. The latter range from the brittle high-trilled notes of the pipa to bass daruan tones.
The album’s success owes much to Vancouver composers Moshe Denburg, John Oliver and Randy Raine-Reusch. They each contributed scores, exploring this transcultural terrain, which were then skillfully articulated and extended by the musicians. Just one example: while Ah Ya Zein, an Arabic love song arranged by Raine-Reusch, is culturally anchored by Gord Grdina’s moody oud expositions, it is Mei Han’s inspired mercurial zheng solo that providesthe most unexpected musical thrill.
I saw Red Chamber live at Toronto’s Music Gallery in 2010. I was mightily impressed not only by the individual virtuosity of the musicians, but also by their tight ensemble and culturally inclusive repertoire. Until they grace a hall near you, this enjoyable record is the closest to a transnational musical Silk Road journey you can experience.
Andrew Timar Whole Note Magazine
GATHERING - Mei Han & Red Chamber - World Music Central
The four musicians in Red Chamber are highly eclectic, open to wide-range of musical influences. I’ve seen them live and their repertoire ranges from traditional and classical Chinese music to bluegrass, jazz and esoteric contemporary western classical music. On Gathering they deliver an outstanding set of original pieces and traditional compositions presented with exciting new arrangements.
The musical influences on Gathering cross various boundaries. The opening piece sounds like a sort of Greek klezmer mix, while other times the ensemble digs deep into their Chinese roots as well as African and Celtic music.
Highlights include ‘Dao Chuilian’, a splendid Chinese-flavored piece. Another high point is ‘Madly Riding’, a modern acoustic worldbeat composition where the four instrumentalists demonstrate their admirable skills accompanied by percussion and other instruments. There is also the exquisite ‘A Dream of Africa’ where the ensemble emulates at times the sound of a kora. The spirited final piece, ‘Dance of the Yao People’ also stands out, featuring spectacular solos.
The lineup on Gathering features Mei Han on zheng, liuqin; Guilian Liu on pipa; Zhimin Yu on zhongruan, daruan; and Geling Jiang on sanxian, zhongruan. Guests include Gord Grdina on oud; Liam MacDonald on jembe, riq, dumbek, daf, bass drum, rattles, qaraqib (also known as karkabas); Sunny Matharu on tabla; Randy Raine-Reusch on gongs, bells, shakers, saz; Michael Viens on 6-string and 12-string guitars, bodhran.
Red Chamber is an outstanding Chinese string music ensemble featuring four extremely talented musicians that certainly deserve more international attention.
A. Romero World Music Central.com
GATHERING - Mei Han & Red Chamber - Georgia Straight
GATHERING - Mei Han & Red Chamber - Froots
UME - Mei Han
& Paul Plimley - Musicworks
UME - Mei
Han & Paul Plimley - Signal to Noise
- Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Far Eastern Audio Review
Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Point of Depature
- Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Clouds and Clocks.net
Outside the Wall:
New Music for Zheng - Musicworks
Even though these pieces are stylistically
quite different, there is still a strong sense of continuity from one
to the next. The main difference between these four pieces seems to
be in the way they approach tonality, the harmonic setting out of which
the melodies grow. Harmony, an implicit chordal structure, is far more
apparent in the contemporary pieces than in the older ones. This gives
the former a gravitational pull, a sense of anticipated direction, that
is considerably weaker in the latter. However rigid these may be in
their formal structure, they sound as if they were painted or drawn
on a sparser canvas. What they all have in common is a deep sensitivity
for the sounds that capable hands can entice from a zheng. That sound
is by turns soothing, contemplative, vigorous, plaintive, and blatantly
sweet and romantic. Regardless of the mood and the pace of the music,
Mei Han's playing is always as delicate as it is authoritative, she
is impeccable in her timing and in her use of the dynamicsespecially
notable when she pits single notes against a background that consists
solely of the fading resonance of the previous moments. The glissandi,
overtones, slight differences in timbre and the slow decay have been
captured in full detail. These aspects are also present in the final
pieces of the CD, both of them a departure from what came before. Here
the zheng has been set in two very different environmentsone that
is classical and one that is rather more contemporary. These pieces,
John Oliver's Purple Lotus Bud (commissioned and played by the Borealis
String Quartet) and Bamboo, Silk and Stone by Barry Truax and Randy
Raine-Reusch, demonstrate how the zheng can be combined with sonic settings
that differ radically from its own native tradition. The greatest surprise,
in a way, is the first of these, for zheng and string quartet. I would
think that it is much more difficult to bring these together in a meaningful
way, than when building a scenery using electronics, in which timbres
can easily be suited to that of the Chinese instrument, as in Bamboo,
Silk and Stone.
The combination of the plucked and the
bowed strings is often quite effective, especially when the quartet
takes a step back to follow in glissandi and bent tones where the zheng
leads it. There is an open, tentative quality to these passages that
is absolutely captivating. When the quartet comes closer to its own
tradition it seems to brush the zheng aside, and the openness of the
music with it. But even in places where the music is more predictable,
the performance is superb, and the timing and balance of the interplay
For the concluding piece, Barry Truax
and Randy Raine-Reusch recorded a tape to be used as a landscape through
which Mei Han threads her path. The source material, which was processed
by Truax, comprises a variety of East-Asian instrumentsfrom deeply
resonant metal percussion to flutes, and zheng. These are decidedly
sensuous surroundings for her to wander around in, full of open perspectives
that she can and does incorporate into her playing. Each of these pieces
demonstrates that Mei Han has the mastery that you might expect from
a musician trained in China; but also how far she goes beyond technical
skill. She plays with a spellbinding sensitivity, with a feeling for
sound and stillness, for timing and subtle drama that is too often lacking
in performances by Chinese musicians trained to mechanical perfection
in their own classical traditions.
Outside The Wall -
Performer Mei Han, a resident of Vancouver, is a magnificent musician: her focus, passion and intensity keep the listener riveted, eagerly anticipating every note as the music unfolds with elegance and poise. Four of the six tracks are for zheng solo: of these, two are ancient Chinese pieces arranged by the performer. Another is a striking work called The Greening (1967), by acclaimed Japanese composer Minoru Miki, who is notable for his energetic promotion of East Asian instruments. In fact, this piece was originally for koto, though it works well on zheng, retaining much of its Japanese flavour. Finally, solo zheng is featured in Raine-Reuschs transcendental Outside the Wall (2005), which depicts the moments leading up to an awakening.
The remaining tracks combine the zheng with other instruments. Purple Lotus Bud (2004) by John Oliver is a first for zheng and string quartet (the Borealis). And the CD ends with an interesting electro-acoustic collaboration, Bamboo, Silk and Stone (1987) by Barry Truax and Randy Raine-Reusch.
An eclectic musical experience of the highest
quality, this CD is sure to interest traditional Chinese and contemporary
art music fans.
Outside the Wall
- Far Eastern Audio Review
Those familiar with Mei Han through her modern, experimental collaboration with husband Randy Raine-Reusch, Distant Wind, may be surprised by this discs first three tracks. Xian Medly and Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossom channel the performers spontaneity into traditional melodies. Han switches to the koto to perform Minoru Mikis gorgeous twentieth-century piece, The Greening. The climax of Mikis famed composition, in which a delicate, syncopated melody rides over dazzling waves of arpeggios, is a perfect showcase for her technique and sensitivity.
The other three pieces on Outside the Wall are neither traditional nor straightforwardly melodic. The title composition is a new four-part tone poem by Raine-Reusch that explores the perception of time and space in the moments before physical, psychological or spiritual awakening. Commissioned by Han and Borealis String Quartet, John Olivers Purple Lotus Bud is apparently the first work written specifically for zheng and string quartet. Playful and stirring, the piece wanders through Eastern modes and Western harmonies, exploring the tensions and consonances that result. Its hard to believe no one else has written for this mix of timbres. Finally, the aforementioned Bamboo, Silk and Stone uses tape manipulation of other Asian string instruments to create an otherworldly setting for Hans performance.
Mei Han is equally at home inside and outside
the wall of tradition, giving disparate material a unity of sound and
purpose. The rules are clearly hers to break.
Outside the Wall -
Outside the Wall & Bamboo,
Silk and Stone - Signal to Noise
Mei Han is monogamous when it comes to her instrument. She sticks pretty much to a beast called the zheng, coaxing a variety of haunting moods and incisive statements from its 21 strings. Han floats seemingly without strain from one musical tradition to another. Xian Medley offers hyper-aware, keenly disciplined and finely etched Chinese traditional sounds, while the following track, The Greening, comes as a reverse culture shock, floating in lush harmonic territory of Ravel and Debussy. Diving deeply into a brief suite by Raine-Reusch. Outside the Wall, Han probes the essence of the solo zheng, making the listener almost resent the party-crashing Borealis String Quartet when they show up for a long and intermittently successful Kronos Quartet-type multi-cult exercise.
Unlike the zheng-faithful Han, Raine-Reusch seems to have a zither in every port. He has collected hundreds of these exotic instruments, and loves to plug them in and/or prepare them a la John Cage. Raine-Reusch teams brilliantly with hard-core new music stalwarts like trombonist Stuart Dempster, and Jon Gibson, founding member of the Phillip Glass Ensemble. His playing may not be as deeply sensitive as Hans but his restless creativity more than makes up the difference. Bamboo. Silk and Stone sticks to clean, severe settings, both traditional and modern. Both of these discs are well worth experiencing, if only to discover a beautiful and versatile family of instruments that two sensitive artists have plucked up wholesale and brought into a new millennium. Larry Consentino
Outside the Wall - KSZU
Featuring Mei Han, Aiyun Huang, and Lee Pui Ming. A Vancouver New Music production, in association with explorASIAN and Asian Heritage Month. At the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Saturday, May 6.
Downtown was nearly shut down last Saturday night: due to an apparent power failure, cars shuffled nervously through unlit intersections, and on Granville Street, early drinkers sat glumly in the dark. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the Scotiabank Dance Centre, Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi was in the middle of explaining that his featured artists would perform acoustically, and that only one piece needed to be struck from the program.
Then the power came back onand a good thing, too, for the score that would have been lost proved one of the evenings highlights. Bamboo, Silk and Stone, a 1994 collaboration between electronic composer Barry Truax and multi-instrumentalist Randy Raine-Reusch, is an early and enduring example of Vancouvers musical multiculturalism, and having Raine-Reuschs wife, zheng virtuoso Mei Han, in the soloists seat only added to its pleasures. Marked by the ritual pulse of an electronic gong, the works prerecorded component blurs the boundaries between real and sampled sound, and in her spur-of-the-moment response Han similarly integrated elements of traditional Chinese music with the radical techniques of free improvisation.
Of the three Chinese Canadian musicians featured in Strings and Strikes, Han delivered by far the most compelling performance. Her opening set included a delightful, if slight, Asian fantasia by California composer Lou Harrison; an appropriately stormy Fishermans Song of the East China Sea, by Zhang Yan; and the rather stunning, episodic The Greening, by Japanese composer Minoru Miki, in which Hans Asian zither aped the sound of the shakuhachi and essayed some brisk, Steve Reichlike arpeggios.
Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Or, more precisely, downhill and then halfway back up again. Toronto-based Lee Pui Ming, the last of the three artists on the bill, is an intermittently gripping pianist and an interestingly theatrical performer, but her two passages of wordless, anguished babbling were simply one too many.
Percussionist Aiyun Huang, who appeared second, is clearly skilled. But the scores she worked from on Saturday did not showcase her abilities in any really useful way. Roger Reynoldss Autumn Island, in particular, proved a time waster: austere, formless, and interminable, it might look good on the page but fails to connect in performance. Stale text-sound experiments by the otherwise estimable Frederic Rzewski and Vinko Globokar did not help Huangs cause.
A mixed bag, then, but at least Hans brilliance
helped dispel the gloom, Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, May
No Music - Mei Han produces everything from whispers to growls from
a Chinese zither
The concert, called "The Many Faces of China," wasn't really that, but more an exploration of ancient and contemporary uses of one instrument. The zheng is resilient enough to sound authentic in both eras, even in jazz and free improvisation.
Mei is an ideal interpreter. Straight-backed and elegant in a high-necked sheath dress of red and gold, she brought a quiet intensity to her instrument that suited the music. Her arms moved in fluid strokes as her right-hand fingers plucked notes and the fingers of her left hand pushed down on the strings to bend the pitches, adding expression to the music.
Like other West Coast ensembles devoted to contemporary concert music, the Portland-based Fear No Music took advantage of its Pacific Rim connections for the program. Music ranged from third-century China to Canadian composer John Oliver's "Purple Lotus Bud" (2004) for zheng and string quartet. This kind of program, a refreshing alternative to Western chamber music, is precisely what makes Fear No Music and other groups like it valuable.
Friday's concert, held in the Wieden+Kennedy atrium, even offered a work for dueling zhengs, when Canadian composer/performer Randy Raine-Reusch joined Mei in "Dragon Dogs." Just as in jazz, they traded fast, forceful riffs --there's no other word for it -- that evolved in fascinating currents and eddies. It all made perfect sense.
Mei's tour-de-force came in "The Greening," a Japanese solo written in 1967 by Minoru Miki that required intricate plucking patterns from both hands. Deep bass and high melody wound their way through the work, finishing up on an open-ended chord. A deeply satisfying piece.
A string quartet and a percussionist joined Mei for the final piece, Oliver's "Purple Lotus Bud." Instead of functioning as melodic instruments, the string players -- violinists Ines Voglar and Erin Furbee, violist Joel Belgique and cellist Adam Esbensen -- contributed sonorities though sustained notes and chords. Percussionist Joel Bluestone punctuated the piece with atmospheric bells, gongs and cymbals.
Those ancient herdsmen would have loved
it. David Stabler, The Oregonian,
Monday, April 24, 2006
Vancouver New Music Festival,
2002 - Eat Me Offers Much to Sink Your Teeth Into
Huan Yi's Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossoms was written sometime between AD 265 and 420, and it's typical of the Taoist works of the era: the material calls for a performance infused with pensive thought and infinite patience, and the Chinese-born zheng master delivered. Han gave each note its own shape: some rose up, others dove down, and still more shimmered with delicate vibrate, all controlled by subtle pressure on the strings behind the harp-like instrument's floating bridges.
Han is an ethnomusicologist as well as a virtuoso,
so it's perhaps natural that she should excel in bringing China's ancient
repertoire to life, but she is also very much a woman of the 21st century,
and this was revealed in her renditions of Tribute to Ling-ling: Music
Inspired by Works of Visual Artist Chong Ling-Ling, a brand new work
by Toronto pianist Lee Pui Ming, and Bamboo, Silk, and Stone, by Randy
Raine-Reusch and Barry Truax. With its ever-morphing electroacoustic
counterpoint, the latter was particularly captivating, but Han's fierce
concentration on Lee's dense and demanding score was no less impressive.
Musical Duo Strike the Right Chord with Zheng
With four movements, the concerto conducted by John Sharpley of the United States is cyclic and bustling with complex texture. There are fundamental, and generally submerged, musical materials that permeate through the work. The orchestra and the zheng's tuning are delicately intertwined. Sharpley scored the 25- minute concerto for the Canadian-Chinese zheng player Han Mei, soloist at the concert.
The concerto's origin came about a few years ago, when Sharpley first met Han and her husband Randy Raine-Reusch at a music festival in Sarawak, Malaysia. "I was deeply inspired by the couple's extraordinary music-making," said Sharpley. Recognized internationally, a virtuoso on the zheng, Han presents music deeply rooted in over 2,000 years of Chinese culture mixed with ground breaking contemporary styles. After learning ballet and violin briefly in her younger years, Han turned to the zheng when she was 10. "Before my first zheng teacher, renowned zheng master Gao Zicheng showed me the instrument, I had never seen it. But after listening to him play the piece 'Lofty Mountains and Flowing Rivers,' I was fascinated by the sound and immediately asked Gao to teach me," she recalled.
That began Han's exploration of the zheng, which spanned more than 20 years in China. She studied with a number of famous zheng masters including Gao and Zhang Yan. From the age of 16, she began playing as a featured soloist with her performances broadcast on national radio in China. "Though my technique was improving quickly during those years, I gradually sensed I was lacking a deeper understanding of the music," she said. "I couldn't shake this feeling of emptiness and asked myself if I would just play these several zheng pieces for the rest of my life." So she enrolled in a master's degree of Ethnomusicology at the Chinese Academy of Arts in 1993. Her dedication took her to some 28 remote ethnic nationalities in Southwest China to collect folk songs.
In 1996, Han went to Canada for an ethnic music programme in the School of Music at the University of British Columbia. She worked as a teaching assistant while performing Chinese music to Westerners. "In Vancouver, I gradually found it a home for various people, languages and cultures. I could hear a fusion of music types and I realized how shallow my knowledge about music was," she said. What is most meaningful to her music and life is that in Vancouver, she met Randy Raine-Reusch, Randy, the composer and multi-instrumentalist, who became her husband in 2001. An improvisational based composer, Raine- Reusch, 50, shows great interest in extending the boundaries of music. He has created distinct new performance styles on a number of instruments including Chinese zheng, Japanese ichigenkin (one-string zither) and the Thai khaen (16-reed bamboo mouth organ). Raine-Reusch has also been heralded as a "dexterous multi-instrumentalist" due to his ability to play about 50 of his collected 600 world instruments.
The co-operation and romance blossomed one day in 1998. After hearing that Raine-Reusch was good at playing zheng, Han called him out of curiosity. At first, he politely rejected her. Han later learned that Raine-Reusch had been eager to co-operate with some Chinese zheng players but was always met with a negative response. The players he asked could not fathom his musical style and preferred to only play "Lofty Mountains and Flowing Rivers" or "Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossoms." But Han was determined. Raine-Reusch finally invited Han to his home, where he played a CD of his jazz for her. He had never expected that the Chinese woman would take to the music, "but she immediately understood and enjoyed it," said Raine-Reusch. Then he asked her to play the zheng. "Don't use your mind and forget the melody, just play with your feelings," he inspired her and she played for more than 15 minutes. The amazing result was "I felt the wall which had stood in front of me suddenly crumble," she described the sensation, "I inhaled the fresh air and saw a bright broad world which I had never seen before." They appreciated each other's talents.
Since their meeting, Han and Raine-Reusch have redefined the zheng, and challenged the world of traditional Chinese music in general. Together they have invented new tunings, developed new fingering techniques, expanded old structures and created radical new forms of expression on this ancient instrument. They have created a new repertoire, attempting to combine the Chinese musical traditions with those of world music and jazz. Their first CD of zheng "Distant Wind" reached the top of the charts on the Canadian College Radio Charts, and was nominated for a Juno Award (Canadian Grammy) and two West Coast Music Awards. They also often performed improvisational works with other artists at major international jazz festivals and concerts.
They have stepped from the past to the future, trying to construct exciting new forms of expression for the new millennium.