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University music programs across the United States are devoting increasing curriculum space to non-Western musical traditions. In addition to requiring introductory courses in ethnomusicology, many programs now boast specialized ensembles which offer students the opportunity to actively participate in musical traditions from around the world. Playing is to music as speaking is to language: true fluency and understanding are impossible with only a passive listening role.
Students at Wake Forest University have the good fortune to participate in a Gamelan (Indonesian percussion orchestra) and Chinese Ensemble, both directed by Dr. Elizabeth Clendinning. On Tuesday night, the students and their guides presented the results of their semester's work to a large and enthusiastic audience at Brendle Hall.
The first half featured the five-member Chinese Ensemble and their extraordinary guest artists Haiqiong Deng and Nan Liu. Consisting of hammered dulcimer, guzheng, pipa, erhu, and dizi, the ensemble had a vibrant and shimmering sound. For two tunes, Clendinning also joined on some light percussion.
Deng is an expert in traditional Chinese music and a specialist on the guzheng; but her masterful performance of the famous "Three Variations on Plum Blossom" gave the impression she'd devoted her life to studying the guqin. Deng's playing was supple, dynamic, precise, and expressive.
As she played, her husband Liu gave the audience an incredible demonstration of live art. During the course of the 7-minute composition, Liu whisked black ink onto a large canvas, slowly creating an ecstatic and wind-blown figure. Artist and musician seemed to move with the same rhythm, the density or delicacy of Liu's brush strokes mirroring the volume or transparency of Deng's sweeps across the strings of the guqin.
The figure on the canvas slowly revealed his identity: this was the famous Chinese poet Li Bai, his gaze locked upward in characteristic wonder and his beard and robes dancing in the wind. As the magnificent dual piece came to a close, the audience didn't hold back. This was an extraordinary, creative act, and it was met with due enthusiasm.
Deng's second solo performance was on her chosen instrument, the guzheng. She was joined on stage by pianist Mary Ann Bills for "Tune from My Home Town" by young Chinese composer Chen Yixuan. A hybrid composition combining authentic guzheng idioms with Western-style piano accompaniment, "Tune from My Home Town" is a minature concerto for guzheng, complete with cadenzas. Indeed, Deng's performance had all the energy and virtuosity of a classical soloist performing a beloved concerto.
The program's second half featured Wake Forest's Gamelan, or the Gamelan Giri Murti as it is formally known. An essential component of Balinese and Javanese music and dance, the Gamelan is a percussion ensemble consisting of bells, gongs, cymbals, and most characteristically, a large array of mallet instruments. Together these instruments produce a complex, ringing sound image.
The first piece was a Tabuh Telu (a composition characterized by its rhythmic structure) entitled "Kembang Kuning," which translates roughly as "Exploding (blooming) Golden Flower." Indeed, the large deep gong which marked out the meter gave the impression of a colorful explosion beneath the shimmering mallets.
Clendinning explained that there are two broad categories of Gamelan: an older, smaller ensemble and a newer larger one. WFU's ensemble uses instruments which are capable of performing both repertoires. To demonstrate the older style, the students performed "Dongkang Menek Biyu." Although the older ensemble is closely associated with funerals, this piece (meaning "Frog Hopping Up Banana Tree") was light and sweet.
To close the concert, WFU's concert choir took to the stage to perform an arrangement of a traditional harvest dance entitled "Janger." Featuring some choreography for the ensembles and their conductors, "Janger" was a fun and energetic close to a most colorful evening.
The global perspective that the Gamelan and Chinese Ensemble provide to the WFU, and their audience, is invaluable. Congratulations and kudos to Clendinning and her ensembles!