Wu Tong: Song of the Sheng

Article by Jasmin justo

The Asia Society in collaboration with the Center on US-China Relation’s Forum on the Arts and Culture, hosted a unique concert. On March 19 presented the Wu Tong: Song of the Sheng. Wu Tong is a vocalist and composer who performs contemporary and folk songs through the unique instrument the sheng and bawu. Wu Tong is also a 1994 graduate from the Central Conservatory of Music and has performed in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, and Hong Kong Philharmonic amongst others.

At the Asia Society, he performed a series of compositions with a variety of artists and instruments with his own unique instrument, the sheng. The sheng is an antique wind instrument dating as far back as 1100B.C. There are different types of sheng that can have 17 vertical pipes called reeds to 32 reeds, that can play three to four notes at a time at different tunes. With a sound between a harmonica, accordion, and violin, its unique sound makes the instrument compatible with a wide range of compositions.

At the beginning of the concert, Wu Tong played a traditional song Yangguan, as attribute to the former chairman of the Silk Road Foundation and supporter of Wu Tong’s organization Silk Road Ensemble. The song is traditionally played with a guqin, a traditional stringed instrument with ten or more strings. However, for Wu Tong decided to use the elegant sound of the sheng, “I have tried to express my feelings in an elegant manner. The piece is a symbolic way of continuing a discussion with one who has left us.”
Following Yuangguan, Wu Tong plays “Phoenix Spreading its Wings”, an original composition from his father’s friend Hu Tianquan, a sheng virtuoso and composer Dong Hongde. The work was inspired by bangzi, a popular instrument in Shanxi province used for operas. The music imitates fluttering sounds like a phoenix while capturing the elegant movements of a phoenix.

As a bonus, the audience was able to see the first world premier of “Distant Mountain”, commissioned by Sotheby’s. Distant Mountain was presented in a video format showing the painting. The painting is inspired by a paintings of Chinese modern master Wu Guan Hong (1919-2010). The painting depicts a watercolor mountain that spirals along a coastline with crashing waves and colorful plants. With the presentation of the painting, Wu Tong and composer Eli Marshall, performed in an arrangement for sheng, cello, and vibraphone. Wu and Marshall have collaborated previously composed the score for Wong Kar Wai’s film, “Ashes of Time Redux” (2008).
After “Distant Mountain”, Wu Tong also played “Jin Tune” and “Song of the Sheng”. “Jin Tune” is a song composed by sheng virtuoso, Yan Haideng, that describes the Shanxi landscape, using the tunes familiar with the bangzi. Song of the Sheng is a original composition made by Wu Tong. Improvising with guitarist Simon C.F. Yu, Wu Tong dedicated the song to the traditional values of the sheng and its natural ability to blend its melodies with other instruments, such as the guitar. “The piece is strong, yet peaceful. It is simple, yet the same melody on a different instrument would have an entirely different character.” Wu Tong also improvised with Shane Shanahan, percussion and Neena Deb-Sen, who plays the cello. Neena Deb-sen is a active chamber musician who performs with the Macao Orchestra. Shane Shanahan is also a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble and is part of a band called “The Exotic Experiment” who is well versed in traditional Chinese music, modern jazz, and contemporary electronic beats. Wu Tong sang Longing for the Spring Breeze, a Taiwanese love song about a young maiden in love with a mysterious man.
At the finale of the concert, Clifford Ross and Wu Tong presented “Harmonium Mountain II”. “Harmonium Mountain II” is a computer generated video that explores the boundaries of surreal reality with colorful 3D animated graphics in a imaginary natural landscape. Clifford Ross was inspired to create this piece with the photographs he took of Colorado’s Mount Sophris. Wu Tong provided live music in timing with the animation with the fluid melodies of the sheng. For more information about this unique musician and his other perfomances: visit: http://www.silkroadproject.org/ensemble/artists/wu-tong

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