Sat, Jan 24, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Pipa blues

Guitarist David Chen and pipa artist Chung Yu-feng have launched a project that combines pipa music with the blues

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Having known each other for a decade, David Chen and Chung Yu-feng started their crossover project, Fade to Blue, last year.

Photo courtesy of Trees Music & Art and Yang Wen-ching

The performance by Chung Yu-feng (鍾玉鳳) and David Chen (陳思銘) at Thinkers’ Theater (思劇場) on Taipei’s Dihua Street (迪化街) last month was both fascinating and peculiar. Playing in front of a full-house, Chung, a pipa (琵琶) player, and Chen, a guitarist, combined the unlikely sounds of Chinese pipa and blues guitar in a collaborative music project they call Fade to Blue (藍掉).

The musicians, who have known each other for 10 years, describe their collaboration as challenging and fun. It also affords them the opportunity to break out of their musical comfort zone and explore musical styles excitingly unfamiliar.

“The structure of [Chinese music] is not intuitive to me at all. The fun part is trying to create your own logic for it,” says Chen, a blues/folk guitarist who grew up in the US state of Ohio.


The classically-trained Chung says that music free of fixed forms does not come easily. Rather than a broad, inclusive genre, Chinese music (國樂) is a term that specifically refers to the modern Chinese orchestra, which emulates the Western symphony orchestra, says Chung. Academic training is rigid and students are treated more like “tools” than creative musicians.

“You are trained to perfect your techniques. After graduation, you can work as a performing musician, but it is the same music again and again. There is nothing much happening creatively. It is suffocating,” she says. “Even if it is a new composition, it is created by a composer. Your job is basically to make sure you can play it right.”

In 2003, the aspiring pipa player wanted to try something new and teamed up with Hakka musician Lin Sheng-xiang (林生祥) on what would become the award-winning album Getting Dark (臨暗). She has played with musicians from different cultures and musical backgrounds ever since.Chung has worked with Sambasunda, a celebrated fusion ensemble in West Java, Bedouin musicians and artists from Sudan and Nubia.

One of the biggest challenges she faced after bidding her orchestra colleagues farewell was the realization that she now has more control over her own fate.

“You don’t have a composer to rely on, to give you sheet music to play. When, say, David plays a blues tune, I must decide which playing style or notes I can use, when I should jump in and join him, or how the segment should be arranged. You don’t just play. You create,” she says.


Chung’s encounter with rich musical traditions gives her many new ideas to experiment with. Siwa, for example, draws inspiration from Arabic music, while Seven Beat Flash is the result of a self-challenge after hearing a folk song played by a Mongolian musician, which follows a pattern of five beats per bar. It is an irregular rhythm to musicians like Chung, who are accustomed to four beats per bar.

Chung believes that rhythms come from life, the way people live and interact with their surroundings. Five, seven and nine beats are common in Mongolian music, closely related to the bodily rhythms of riding a horse. In Persian music, there even exists 11 and 13 beats. To step outside her musical style, Chung made the song that has seven beats per measure.

“To them, rhythm comes naturally. Han culture doesn’t encourage bodily rhythms that much. We have been sitting bolt upright for too long. We don’t know how to move,” she says.

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