25 Jul 2016

Acoustic Heaven - Celestial Gifts From China

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 25 July 2016

Victoria University's music students are in acoustic heaven with the arrival of a shipping container full of precious traditional Chinese instruments. The collection is a gift from Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, who funded the entire purchase of the collection for the Confucius Institute at Victoria University and the NZSM. 

Brian Diettrich, Senior Lecturer in Ethnomusicolgy lifts the elegant length of  guzheng (a 21 stringed plucked instrument) easily out of it's packaging at the new Asia-Pacific Music Studio at Te Koki, the NZ Music School at Victoria University (NZSM).

The top of the guzheng is covered by rose-wood and a scenic poem inlaid with mother-of pearl. This is one of three guzheng to be unpacked. Bubble-wrap lies strewn across the floor, the space is littered with large and small boxes and out in the foyer, enormous drums, still covered, are on their way to Rotorua Boys High School. Brian can't keep the excitement from his voice, like a child on Christmas morning.

"It's not heavy, it's a hollow instrument like a violin. I can put a bridge in it for you, and it's tuned on this side. The strings a plucked and struck on this side and bent on this side to create this sound..."

He plucks and the notes are so evocative, it transports us back to around 2500 years ago when this Chinese zither was first invented. The aroma of the guzheng is also evocative, sweet like camphor. Brian tells me it's made from wutong (paulownia) wood native to China.

Acoustic heaven - Celestial Gifts From China

Acoustic heaven - Celestial Gifts From China Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Brian explains that in a move to create and develop master classes in classical Chinese music and a Masters programme of Chinese music as a focus, Victoria University’s School of Music and the Confucius Institute worked to bring a very large collection of beautiful classic Chinese instruments into the country. They were entirely gifted by Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing. Xiamen University in Xiamen (Wellington's sister city) sourced, purchased and transported the instruments from China to Wellington.

Driven by the Director of the Music School, Euan Murdoch and also Dr Luo Hui, formerly the Director of the Confucius Institute, this precious collection is an extension to the legacy of the late and renowned New Zealand Composer Jack Body, who, Brian insists, would have been utterly delighted to see these latest celestial gifts arriving from China.

The other half of the room is filled from end-to-end with two spectacular gemelan orchestra sets; the first, the older Javanese instruments gifted by Jack Body and the Balinese set on loan from another iconic composer, Gareth Farr.

Launch of the Asia-Pacific Music Studio at NZSM

Launch of the Asia-Pacific Music Studio at NZSM Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The following week the launch of the new Asia-pacific Music Studio is like acoustic heaven for the students and staff at Victoria University’s Te Koki, New Zealand School of Music. I meet Dr. Luo Hui at the entrance. He's acting a lot like Brian, excitement bubbling to the surface.

It's really a dream come true. It's special in that it had a long gestation. I was involved in a lot of cross-cultural projects with Jack Body [and] I was ticking which instruments to come through.

The collection is still missing it's fifteen erhu (two stringed bowed instrument), Luo Hui explains that this is because the erhu are being shipped separately, the traditional snake-skin covering needs to be cleared by bio-security first.

The collection will benefit students and ethnic communities across the country. Current director of the Confucius Institute Wen Powles tells me that the purpose of expanding the collection is to make it accessible to communities and students alike.

This is a joint cultural project between our two institutes so that we can base an entire suite of Chinese instruments at the school of music.

As Gamelan Orchestra Director Budi. S Putra and Gareth Farr play on the combined gamelan sets in the music suite at NZSM, several other performers perform the pipa and guzheng in the Asia-Pacific Music Studio.

Visiting Chinese Master of the guzheng, Chen XiYao explains the different energy flow involved in creating the very different sounds between a guzheng and pipa. Blonde dread-locks swinging, a masters student nods appreciatively.

Cici explains the pipa

Cici explains the pipa Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Across the studio Cici (Chinese name Jingyuan) performs on the lute-like pipa to a group of listeners who notice the similarities with their own ancient and traditional instruments from Columbia and India.

It seems like the long journey across the oceans in the shipping container has not only bought these celestial gifts to their new home, but also created a bridge between these countries.

And for music lovers interested in viewing the newly gifted traditional Chinese instruments of the Asia-Pacific Music Studio, they’re housed at Te Koki, The New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University in Wellington.