Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.
Cultural agnosticism was the watchword of the evening as Huang Ruo and Min Xiao-Fen faced a full room at China Institute last night. Fresh off Tuesday’s CD release party at (Le) Poisson Rouge, they explained through words and music how culture in China—a country where tradition weighs more heavily than in most places in the world—adapts to the 21st century in the hands of younger artists. Composer Huang spoke and sang, and explained how he learned much about the diversity within China before going abroad and learning about the world outside. “At Oberlin, I could take music, but also philosophy, computer science; it was great.” Pipa virtuoso Min, who spoke during the conversation’s second half, was no less engaged: She grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when political and cultural orthodoxy was a matter of life and death. The crowd hung on every word as she retold her journey from there to her present-day role as the world’s premiere pipa-jazz crossover artist. Besides Huang’s singing, the audience was treated to audio recordings, Four Fragments for Solo Violin (played by Judy Tang from Huang's FIRE ensemble), and Min’s memorable mash-up of Ellington’s “Satin Doll” and the classic “Night Shanghai.” The finale: Written on the Wind, Huang’s piece for pipa accompanied by a calligraphy-inflected abstract art video. Min sang, but in no recognizable words: “I don’t know German or French,” said Huang, “and I kept going to the opera and relying on the surtitles. Then, I just turned off the surtitles, and tried to guess what the meaning was from the context, the emotion. My guesses were pretty good! So for this piece, I made up a language.” For those of us often left straining to understand the meaning in cross-cultural contexts, a nonsense tongue was the ultimate equalizer. Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China