Sizhukong: It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Oon
The third of Sizhukong's traditional instrumentalists is the exceptionally talented Chihling Chen. Whether on ruan [Chinese lute], an instrument that dates back 2,000 years, or liuquin, Chen's technical prowess on these beautiful instruments is something to behold. Her facility in conjuring moods or creating a scene like a painter is an essential part of Sizhukong's sound. Two hundred years ago, the liuquin was, like the other traditional instruments in Sizhukong, an instrument of accompaniment in Chinese opera. Then it had only two strings and seven frets and was not designed for chromatic tones. Over the years, like a tree growing and gaining branches and reach, it has evolved to its present status as a four-stringed instrument with 24 frets.
Perhaps more than the other instrumentalists in Sizhukong, Chen faced the greatest challenges in adapting her instruments and playing to a western musical framework. "The difference between playing in Sizhukong and in a traditional ensemble is that in the traditional way I only have to play melody and some simple harmonylike two notes or three notesbut in Sizhukong I have to play chords, so it was very difficult when I first joined the band," she says.
Undeterred, Chen started to learn guitar to better understand the concepts of the western way of thinking and playing and voicing chords. "Liuquin is played very similar to guitar," Chen continues. "You use a pick and press the frets. The difference is that the guitar fret is lower, and with liuquin, you don't really press down to the board. In the Chinese orchestra, it has the melodic part because it is the highest instrument. In Sizhukong, I have to accompany other instruments, so I had to learn how to play the chords. When you learn liuquin, you learn to play by notes and not by chords, and with higher strings it is more difficult then guitar to play chords. "
"Adapting traditional Chinese instruments to jazz is not easy," she continues. "Technically, the way of thinking, the way to express yourself, is different. I used to think note for note, but now I have a more jazz way of thinking."
This jazz way of thinking, which is as good a way as any to describe the music of Sizhukong, is an ongoing process. Even for Peng, who was trained at Berklee, the fusion of Chinese traditional music with jazz has been and continues to be a constant challenge.
"Up to 100 years ago, there was no concept of harmony at all in China," Peng explains. "They only had melodies. So when we use harmony, it's already a little bit westernized. At the beginning it was very difficult for us to play together. This syncopation, for me, is already very difficult, even though I studied jazz. It's not easy to play in time. So much syncopation is just not natural for me, and for Chinese music it's like an alien thing," she says, laughing, "so we practice a lot to make it happen."
"Although I studied jazz at the beginning," Peng continues, "I didn't understand the expression or detailed parts like tone or rhythm. But after I met classical Chinese music instrumentalists, I found the way they deal with every note is very delicate. The way to start a note or to end it has many different ways. Just one note you can make sound very differentthe tone, the color. I learned a lot from Chinese classical music. I think western classical music has those details too, but I just didn't learn that before. I learned the details from Chinese traditional music. I think that helped my ear to develop a lot, and I can hear more things, which is reflected in my playing."
As the other members of Sizhukong are embracing jazz, Peng, like Vanbuel, is also embracing Chinese traditional music in an effort to better fuse the two idioms. "I'm learning; I'm taking traditional lessons of nanguan singing, which has a different philosophy of singing to western cultures," she explains. "I'm also learning some instruments like sanxian, a three-stringed instrument, and try to see if I can get more into traditional music. "
Peng's jazz idol is Herbie Hancock, though on the beautiful "Bathing in the Stream" from Sizhukong's first CD, there is a distinct flavor of Duke Ellington in the arrangement and in her playing. In fact, the inspiration that Peng draws from the environment around her, the courting of African and Latin rhythms and colors and the graphic nature of the music is very Ellingtonian.
When Peng solos, there is an ever-present grace in her improvisations, but her playing is tempered by the dynamics of the band. "The difficulty we face is that we have to adjust to each other. I feel I cannot play too loud or too sharp, otherwise I will counter the traditional instruments, so I make the tone more tender," she says. "Mine is more of a supportive role. They need a good platform. I need to choose the voicings to fit in with their sound."