Fri, Aug 19, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Jazz wordplay

Jazz musician Martijn Vanbuel takes inspiration from Mandarin, Hoklo and written Chinese

By David Chen  /  Staff Reporter

Jazz fusion group Sizhukong plays a mix of Western and Chinese instruments

Photo courtesy of Sizhukong

It should be no surprise that when a musician encounters a new language, they hear something akin to music.

At least that’s how it is for jazz musician Martijn Vanbuel, who has recently been composing songs inspired by the sounds of Mandarin and written Chinese.

For several years, the Taipei-based Belgian expat has served as bassist of the jazz ensemble Sizhukong (絲竹空), and for the group’s latest project, he is assuming a role as musical director for a set of concerts that are being held tonight and tomorrow at the Red House Theater (西門紅樓).

The concert program, entitled Tongue Twisters, features Vanbuel’s new compositions, as well as several pieces by bandleader and pianist Peng Yu-wen (彭郁雯).

Sizhukong, a Golden Melody Award winner, is best known for using jazz to interpret traditional Chinese music. This time around, though, the group will be taking a different angle by exploring how the Chinese language translates into jazz.

Vanbuel says as a foreigner who learned Mandarin after arriving in Taiwan in 2006, he saw a musicality in the language that a native speaker might not necessarily see. He says several of his compositions are inspired by the melodic qualities of spoken Mandarin and its tones.

But it’s not just melody that inspired him. “Chinese sounds, to me, they might resemble instruments, like the way you hit a cymbal or a drum,” Vanbuel said in an interview with Taipei Times earlier this week.

Running with that idea, he came up with the song Ting Bu Dong (聽不懂, or “I don’t understand”). When Vanbuel hears this phrase, he says he hears the sound of different instruments. “Ting” reminds him of the sound of a triangle; “bu” sounds like a high-pitched tom-tom you find in a drum kit; and “dong” rings like the boomier-sounding floor-tom drum. This number is likely to be one of the more unusual-sounding compositions, as the members of Sizhukong won’t be playing their instruments. Instead, they will be beat-boxing.


WHAT: Tongue Twisters, a concert by jazz ensemble Sizhukong (絲竹空)

When: Tonight at 7:30pm, tomorrow at 2:30pm and 7:30pm

WHERE: The Red House Theater (西門紅樓),10 Chengdu Rd, Taipei City (台北市成都路10號)

ADMISSION: NT$700 at the door, NT$500 each for groups of four when purchased online through


Vanbuel practiced writing Chinese characters to flesh out another composition, You Wen Xi Zi (遊文戲字), the title of which is a play on the Mandarin words for “game” (遊戲) and “written word” (文字), which is also the Chinese title of the concert program this weekend.

“I wrote the words, and I listened to the rhythm of the strokes, and I made melodies out of those rhythms,” he said.

Sizhukong dubbed the concert program Tongue Twisters in reference to one composition in which Vanbuel created a melody out of a tongue twister often heard in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese). He described the piece as “humorous and abstract at the same time.”

In addition to the wordplay, concertgoers will also get a taste of Mandarin’s poetic side. Vocalist Tsai Wen-hui (蔡雯慧) will sing a new arrangement of The Missing Link (失落的環節), a composition that Vanbuel wrote in collaboration with lyricist Wu Ching (吳青). The song is part of the album of the same name by Vanbuel’s own group Orbit Folks (世界軌跡), which earned a Golden Melody Award earlier this year for best crossover music album.

Sizhukong’s standard lineup of musicians plays a mix of Western and Chinese instruments. This weekend’s concerts will be different as they emphasize the latter, with the erhu (二胡), the dulcimer-like yangqin (揚琴) and the guzheng (古箏, Chinese zither) among the sounds in the mix.

The concerts will also have a strong visual element, with animations and lighting created by multimedia artist Blaire Ko (柯智豪).

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