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Mei Han - Full Reviews

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GATHERING - Mei Han & Red Chamber - Whole Note

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
Gathering is the latest album by Red Chamber, one of the finest string music ensembles in North America. Red Chamber is an all-female group specialized in Chinese musical instruments.

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
It might seem odd to compare the four stylish women of Red Chamber to Ireland’s most beloved leprechauns, the Chieftains; after all, barring a sudden surge of interest in leather-elbowed tweed jackets, Paddy Moloney and crew aren’t going to be gracing the cover of GQ anytime soon. But once you strip away the visual disparity, it’s clear that the two bands are basically on the same trajectory.

Both are rooted in tradition: Celtic for the Chieftains, Han Chinese for Red Chamber. Both are made up of instrumentalists who, individually, are of international repute. Both blend serious scholarship with the desire to please. And yet the Chieftains can get Mick Jagger to guest on their albums while Red Chamber scuffles on the college circuit. What gives?

I’d hate to think it was racism, but North America seems reluctant to accept the fact that one of the greatest string ensembles in Chinese music lives in Vancouver. Sexism might be a factor, but in their scarlet cheongsams the members of Red Chamber haven’t entirely rejected the beauty myth that powers the entertainment industry. And the music? Well, anyone who doesn’t respond to Gathering, the group’s second release, needs their ears syringed.

To begin with, Chinese music shouldn’t be that foreign to non-Chinese listeners. Structurally and tonally, it bears some similarity to baroque music, Celtic music, and bluegrass: the zheng, for example, sounds very much like a harp, while the sanxian is closely related to the banjo. And on Gathering the members of Red Chamber have ventured deeply into cross-cultural fusion, mixing Chinese classics like “Dance of the Yao People” with newly minted offerings from local composers Moshe Denburg, John Oliver, and Randy Raine-Reusch. Arabic strings, Jewish melodies, and African rhythms all play a part, but what this lovely recording most resembles is an extended Silk Road journey anyone can enjoy at home.
Source URL: http://www.straight.com/music/719226/red-chambers-gathering-beautiful-journey
Follow Alexander Varty on Twitter at @alexandervarty.

 

 

GATHERING - Mei Han & Red Chamber - Froots
Red Chamber are a quartet of Canadian-based Chinese women playing traditional stringed instruments. Their leader and zheng player, Mei Han, was a soloist in Beijing before emigrating and the other members are all graduates of Chinese conservatories. Such musicians are driving a new wave of Chinese music abroad, particularly as many of them appear keen to adapt their instruments to other influences and experiment. One of the common threads of the several albums reviewed here of music with Chinese origins is their incorporation, to varying degrees and success, of external elements. Red Chamber’s Gathering is fairly typical. They’re aided by a small number of local Canadian musicians and composers who add guitars, oud and percussion to several tracks while the material incorporates occasional Gypsy or Arabic elements alongside more traditional Chinese styles. And some of these do work. The group’s playing on the fusion pieces is full of energy and invention and there’s a nice groove to the simple Arabic tune Ah Ya Zein while their treatment of a set of Cape Breton and Metis fiddle tunes would make them Celtic Connection favourites. The zheng solo on Peng Baban is perhaps the best of the Chinese material.

 

 

UME - Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Musicworks
These two British Columbia-based improvisers have broad and significant experience, and the music they create possesses both substance and real delicacy, often at the same time, a quality of weightlessness delivered with an absolute specificity. Zheng player Mei Han belongs to a rapidly expanding group of musicians raised in the tradition of Chinese classical music who have elected to explore the possibilities of free improvised music, among them pipa player Min Xiao-Fen (a New York resident who has worked with John Zorn and Derek Bailey), and zheng player Xu Fengxia (a Berlin resident who has recorded free improvisations with the bassists Joe Fonda and Peter Kowald).

The zheng is a long zither of twenty-one to twenty-five strings that resembles the Japanese koto. It’s usually tuned in just intonation to a pentatonic scale, but Han regularly explores alternate tunings, including tempered pitch. An essential part of this music’s character arises from the similarities and differences between zheng and piano - there is an underlying concordance of resonance in the large sounding boards, but the distinctions in sound production are marked, as are the differences in tuning. What makes this CD so distinctive and beautiful is the subtle gradations of difference and resemblance between an instrument essentially designed for playing non-harmonic music and one designed to facilitate playing chords. There are, however, moments when the two instruments’ identities seem to overlap, fuse, and even exchange.

Those gradations of pitch and overtone pattern, of exchange and concordance, create the poetry here - a symmetry that the two musicians even find in the echo of their nanes. The album title, Ume, is Japanese for plum, while mei is a Chinese winter-blooming plum, and Plimley is “fifteenth-century English surname meaning plum field or orchard.” Those associations and cross-cultural affiliations underscore the music, developing an almost vegetative natural form that colours such pieces as Candle Dried Leaves and Blue Now. It’s consistently fresh work of inspired lyricism, ranging from the drama of Terra Mova to the playful splashes of sound in Echoes of Bela and the blues-y tonality of Into the Outer.
Stuart Broomer

UME - Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Signal to Noise
The earth moves with attitude in Paul Plimley’s left hand from the opening notes; it takes no nonsense from his right. Zheng master Mei Han gives none. The immediate results are a flash breeze of recognition between the distant string cousins, followed by their settlings into their more distinct voices (jazz tinged piano, traditional zheng). Plimley’s is the co-founder of the NOW Orchestra with Barry Gay and he has worked with bassist Lisle Ellis. Mei Han has a comparable pedigree as a performer and a scholar of Chinese music.

This CD is a Pacific Rim plum (ume is Japanese for plum), British Columbia- grown, from two events: the duo’s performance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, and their collaborations with other musicians via the internet. The latter, Sound Travels Global Internet Exchange, was live interactive 2002 series of sessions between the duo and Akikaza Nakamura in Tokyo, Ellery Eskelin in New York, Jason Robinson in San Diego, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras in Melbourne, Le Quan Ninh in Toulouse, and Mia Zabelka in Vienna.

Thirteen short tracks are conceived (say the players) as music haikus. Their sequence, combined with their titles, cue both structural and poetic listening, a welcome compliment to improvised music. The title track is plumb center, in the divine number seven spot; before it are references to earth (Terra Mova), to time and dance. The titles after Ume all suggest departure from earthly things and airs, and float glimpses of their purplest blues from space, or mind, or both.

The zheng is a long zither, dating from the first century B.C.E. Traditionally pentatonic, its modern incarnations have 21-25 strings, thus a variety of possible scales tunings. Still, even pitch-for-pitch dialogue with a modern chromatic piano evokes a meeting of the new and the old as much as one of contemporary kin sharing common ancestry. Plimley flexes his bluesy-jazzy inflections, and Han stretches strings to bend her note, and we recall that the former gestures evoked in America to simulate the souls of the latter and its more archaic (still singing) voices.

All that said, the real juice flows from the common ground both created and claimed here. The give-and-take is as masterful as the execution of ideas. Han’s plucky runs meet their match with surprise, in Plimley’s staccato touch; her choice of notes and strums often suggest that so many pianists who play the inside of their instruments are only reaching for what she has in full. While the improvisational approach and vocabulary is current and global, the influence of Asia on the piano, not least jazz piano, since Debussy and Ravel is recalled in every one of these tracks, as well as in the impressionistic lilt of the whole CD.

This combination of fleeting moment and network structure, of music and poetics, makes the listening a warm soak in a hot tub on a gentle rainy night in the great Northwest.

--Mike Heffley

UME - Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Far Eastern Audio Review
When listening to the new disc by Mei Han and Paul Plimley it is surprising how much their improvisations sound like compositions. The improvisations are so well crafted and balanced that it is as if each musician is instantaneously composing a part that fits perfectly with the other. This is true from the first track "Terra Mova" to the last track "Interval of the Avatar."

"Silken Steel" is a mixture of the traditional chords and sounds of the zheng with straight ahead jazz chords played by the piano. The improvising in this track shifts back and forth between these styles. At certain moments in the CD, the similarities in sound between the piano and the zheng are such that it is difficult to tell them apart. These moments are countered by the bending of the zheng strings, which is done in such a way that the sound is often more like a blues guitar than a traditional Chinese instrument. It is crucial that Plimley’s sound is restrained during the more intense zheng playing. Plimley maintains a reserved sound while Han dives into an uninhibited barrage of bending and vigorous strumming in "Echos of Bela", making you wish that the great banjo virtuoso would challenge his instrument in such a physical way.

In "Blue Now", the melodic content is anything but blue. Both players are bursting with energy. Plimley’s hands, though well under control, fly all over the keyboard while Han meticulously strums chords on the zheng. The slower, contemplative "Matter into Waves" explores a more western classical sound, though there are occasionally jazz elements such as descending chords in the piano echoed by the zheng. The final track "Interval of the Avatar," continues in the classical vein with elements of jazz noticeable in the arpeggios played by either instrument.

While this recording demonstrates a more pitch-oriented approach to improvising, the ideas are so unique and inventive that an exploration of timbre is not missed, and in this case could even be considered an attribute. All in all, UME is a beautiful collection of improvisations made by two excellent musicians --well worth having in your collection.
--Jonathan Chen

UME - Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Point of Depature
The meeting of musical traditions in a freely improvised context rarely results in finely meshed music. More often than not, there are collisions, near misses and misfires that are interesting as such, but should in no way be heard as a synthesis, the articulation of a median between the two traditions. If their traditions are steeped in improvisation to any discernable degree, the musicians have to negotiate their respective practices to arrive at this halfway point. Musicians from traditions that do not include improvisation must dive in headfirst into the deep of spontaneous music making, sometimes proving themselves to be innately gifted improvisers.

At their best, these cross-cultural exchanges reveal idiom not to be a limitation or a barrier, but a conduit to collaborative music. That’s the case with this album of improvisations by zheng virtuoso Mei Han and pianist Paul Plimley. This is largely due to Han’s ability to use the pentatonic tuning of the long zither to create other types of scales and to employ various plucking and strumming techniques to broaden the instrument’s expressive range. Han responds sensitively to the spaciousness and blues tinge in much of Plimley’s playing, but without relegating herself to a secondary role. Conversely, Han’s ability to shape a phrase by bending or dampening a string is something Plimley unfailingly keys into, often impressively mirroring Han’s touch. Their fluid rapport keeps all options open, leaving the listener with the idea that the music can go anywhere at any moment. What’s remarkable about the album is how frequently Plimley delves into harmonies and rhythms mainly, if not exclusively associated with jazz, while Han digs deep into Chinese materials, and the results leapfrog over both traditions.

UME - Mei Han & Paul Plimley - Clouds and Clocks.net
Looking into my mailbox I found a small package that had been sent by Canadian label Za Discs, which up to that point had been totally unknown to me. Here come two surprises, the first (really ugly, this one) being that the Italian Postal (dis)Service had decided to make me fork out five euros, due to...? (For a review copy, which I had never asked for? So I'm lucky that not too many labels send me promos!) The nice part of the story being that, upon opening the package, I immediately saw that one of the musicians involved was pianist Paul Plimley. But who was the lady at his side, and what was that strange instrument she was shown playing? ("Improvisations For Zheng And Piano", went the subtitle.)

I think Plimley is a well-known pianist, thanks also to his collaborations such as the ones with bass players Barry Guy and Lisle Ellis, and to his work with the NOW Orchestra, the line-up of which he is a co-founder. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure to listen to Mei Han (the booklet immediately told me what I needed to know about her CV) and to the ancient and noble instrument called Zheng that she plays: to simplify things quite a bit, it looks almost like a harp about 5' long that you play in a horizontal position; provided I counted right it has 25 strings; sometimes to me it sounded quite similar to a harp, but with a range more in the middle-low region; at times I was reminded of an acoustic guitar (during some "bluesy" moments I thought about the man who's the most "oriental-sounding" among all the European improvisers: Hans Reichel), or a harpsichord, or the right hand on a piano playing "stride".

Thirteen tracks in fifty minutes tell of a concentrated, careful breathing. The cover writes about "improvisations", and there is no reason to doubt this, even if sometimes (the opening theme in Terra Mova, which would be appropriate accompanying the opening credits of a film noir; the incredibly precise closing moments of Emptied Diligence; some overlapping melodic phrases on Matter Into Waves) it all sounds almost too incredible. This is the type of improvisation that has deliberately chosen to work within a defined set of parameters, which in my opinion makes this album a lot more "entertaining" (and destined to be played fairly often) than it's usually the case with a lot of CDs of improvised music (where quite often one thinks something like "I should have been there").

Ears that are wide open, interchangeable roles, the players showing a sympathetic approach that appears to testify of a long musical relationship. Quite often the tracks inhabit slow, meditative atmospheres, where sometimes the notes from the upper part of the keyboard reminded me of the meditative side of Muhal Richard Abrams, but there are also very fast moments. Ume is an album, which possesses both depth and (relatively speaking) user-friendliness. It could work quite well as an "intelligent background", but it would be a pity to leave it in the background, right? - Beppe Colli

Outside the Wall: New Music for Zheng - Musicworks
Astonishing Zheng Virtuosity
Mei Han is a player of the Chinese zheng zither, which is comparable to the Japanese koto—a plucked instrument with over twenty strings (traditionally made of silk, but nylon-wound steel is generally used today) running over high movable bridges. She studied the instrument in her native China, and had a career there as a practising musician before moving to Canada, where she collaborates, with composer and Asian music specialist Randy Raine-Reusch. It is on his label that her CD Outside the Wall has now been released. It is a showcase of her skills as a musician of both traditional and contemporary repertoire. Two of the compositions on the album can be traced back to ancient times, while others were written recently. Except for the last two pieces, in which the instrument is paired with a string quartet and electroacoustic sounds on tape respectively, the music on this album is for zheng solo. The selection and order of the pieces has been well thought out. In the first half of the album two old Chinese compositions are separated by Minoru Miki's The Greening, written for twenty-string koto in 1967, and are followed by Raine-Reusch's Outside the Wall.

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 dynamics—especially 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 environments—one 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 are astonishing.

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 instruments—from 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.
By René van Peer

Outside The Wall - Wholenote Magazine
Although titled “New Music for Zheng”, this CD actually includes both old and new, ranging from a 10th century Song dynasty medley to recent works from 2004 and 2005. The featured instrument, the zheng, is an ancient twenty-one stringed Chinese zither, nowadays a popular solo instrument in concert music of China and the West.

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-Reusch’s 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
There’s an old jazz maxim to the effect that “you learn the rules so that you can forget them;” that is, achieving a level of mastery of one’s tradition can free an artist to break through the walls that define that tradition. Thus it seems fitting that Mei Han’s new tour de force CD, Outside the Wall begins with melodies that date back to the dawn of the previous millennium and ends with electronic-wind-tunnel improvisations called “Bamboo, Silk and Stone.” In between, Han uses her zheng’s twenty-one strings to explore a thousand years and the present moment alike.

Those familiar with Mei Han through her modern, experimental collaboration with husband Randy Raine-Reusch, Distant Wind, may be surprised by this disc’s first three tracks. “Xi’an Medly” and “Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossom” channel the performer’s spontaneity into traditional melodies. Han switches to the koto to perform Minoru Miki’s gorgeous twentieth-century piece, “The Greening.” The climax of Miki’s 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 Oliver’s “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. It’s 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 Han’s 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 - The Wire
The Chinese zheng zither strikes me as one of those instruments that finds it hard not to stray into Pretty World, but here Mei Han and her producer, multi-instrumentalist, Randy Raine-Reusch do a good job. Mei Han has a fine touch and dynamic range, whether tackling ancient repertoire (the medieval “Xi’an Medley” and “Three Variations on the Theme of Plum Blossom”) or engaging with the darkling electro-acoustic storms of “Bamboo, Silk, and Stone” (a collaboration between Raine-Reusch and Barry Truax). Minoru Miki’s 1967 “The Greening”, originally for Japanese koto, is a moody, effective work. In fact Mei Han’s zheng readily impersonates a koto, or the seven string qin zither, the Taoist philosopher’s aid to contemplation.  Raine-Reusch’s title track is a graphic score that draws out Mei Han’s dramatic best, while Canadian guitarist John Oliver supplies an overheated extravaganza for zheng and string quartet.  Clive Bell, The Wire Oct. 2005

Outside the Wall & Bamboo, Silk and Stone - Signal to Noise
Randy Raine-Reusch and Mei Han share a passion for Chinese zithers, and both love to take these microtonal, slide-tuned beasts on thousands-year journeys from traditional practice to the most angular and sever modern music. These two recordings compliment each other to he point of overlapping one track, Raine-Reusch’s composition “Bamboo, Silk and Stone.”

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. “Xi’an 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 Han’s 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 Zookeeper online
Han is an ethnomusicologist and master of the zheng, a 21-stringed Chinese zither. This disc consists mostly of new or recent works (1967-2005) by modernist composers, all but two are solo pieces. The zheng is a very versatile instrument, and Han gets a wide range of textures and moods from it, with near-silent plucking at one moment and a bold harplike sweep the next. This is serious art music, well rendered.  

CONCERT REVIEWS

Strings and Strikes

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 on—and a good thing, too, for the score that would have been lost proved one of the evening’s 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 Vancouver’s musical multiculturalism, and having Raine-Reusch’s wife, zheng virtuoso Mei Han, in the soloist’s seat only added to its pleasures. Marked by the ritual pulse of an electronic gong, the work’s 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 Fisherman’s Song of the East China Sea, by Zhang Yan; and the rather stunning, episodic The Greening, by Japanese composer Minoru Miki, in which Han’s Asian zither aped the sound of the shakuhachi and essayed some brisk, Steve Reich–like 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 Reynolds’s 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 Huang’s cause.

A mixed bag, then, but at least Han’s brilliance helped dispel the gloom, Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, May 11. 2006

Fear No Music - Mei Han produces everything from whispers to growls from a Chinese zither
Delicate as an orchid, the Chinese zither (zheng) sings with a steely voice. Ancient Chinese herdsmen, who popularized the zheng 22 centuries ago, knew its voice well, and yet even they might have been astonished at the variety of sounds Mei Han drew from it at a compelling concert by Fear No Music Friday night.
Twenty-one strings arch over the zheng's fragile-looking body, which rests on two pedestals. Mei used artificial fingernails to pluck the strings, creating resonant tones that grew from a whisper to a growl.

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
Part of the mandate of Vancouver New Music's Eat Me festival, billed as "a feast of pan- Asian sonic delicacies" was to present music that mixes the latest technical and aesthetic advances with the musical and meditative heritage of various Asian cultures. None of its performers were more successful than Vancouver's Mei Han, whose Thursday (October 24) program at the  Scotiabank Dance Centre included both an ancient tribute to the beauties of spring and an equally gorgeous but more technological look at some of the materials used in Asian instrument making. 

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.
Alex Varty, Georgia Straight
 

Musical Duo Strike the Right Chord with Zheng
"The Concerto for Zheng and Orchestra" ("When Cranes Fly Home") in the second half of the Sunday concert at the Poly Theatre by the China Philharmonic Orchestra will present an innovative experience of zheng, the traditional Chinese plucked instrument with 21 or 25 strings.

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.
China Daily, Beijing, Feb 28th 2003, by Chen Jie