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The Nanyin Project

A continuing compositional and ethnomusicological research initiative focusing on my local Mi-nan musical culture (updating)

This is a continuing compositional and ethnomusicological research initiative that has led to a number of preliminary creative outcomes. This page serves as an introduction to the project background and signposts readers to the project highlights.

An Unexpected Start

My first formal encounter with Nan-yin happened in Spring 2021. After attending a public lecture at Xiamen University by Ms Yayi Cai, I decided to study Nanyin and joined her collegium called Nanyin Yayi. I was prepared to receive what I imagined as a traditional, meticulous, and even pedantic teaching style. But I realised I was wrong from the very first collegium gathering. Yayi Lao-shi (lit. teacher) is an open-minded, intelligent and witty person. She began the gathering talk by announcing that she wanted to organise an 'experimental' concert. For a moment, I thought I was back in the UK, sitting in a lecture about Western contemporary music. Yet, I'm not sure if Yayi knows much about this area. Her ideas clearly resembled what we would say about experimental and improvisatory works. Still, she pitched it using her own words and phrases, which were easy to understand but thought-provoking at the same time.

At that time, I hadn't even bought my Nanyin Pipa yet (a close relative to the more commonly seen Chinese 'Folk' Pipa). But Yayi wanted me to be on the stage.

'Well, Lao-shi, I haven't learnt any of the four instruments yet...'

'What about taking your cello up the stage, then?'

So, with much excitement, I accidentally took part in an experimental music performance! I was grouped with a more senior student. Every time she recites a word (from a lyric), I would play a sound on the cello as if I were having a diction lesson. The task itself was not new to me at all as an experienced improviser, but I still felt rather overwhelmed during the performance, as it was the first time I truly felt the conflicting co-existence of two very different musical cultures and logic in my head. Yet, as a classically trained Chinese musician, Yayi probably didn't feel the same at all. And that amazed me and made me realise that not everything we see and hear can be described as an 'integration' of x, y and z musical cultures. Two lines of musical logic may travel along different routes, cross at one point, and leave each other. In that sense, 'integration' may be an a posteriori phenomenon — it is after we find ourselves interested in things similar to those from another musical culture that we may have the false impression that we are 'integrating' the two.

Maybe I can stop caring too much about the tool I use and more about what I want to achieve in my work.

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