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  • Writer's pictureSiqian Li

Kang Yang: Fearlessly, intoxicated with music

The second episode of The Interlude: Dialogue with Artists featured an interview with Kang Yang, a young Chinese musician based in the UK who amazes his audiences with his charismatic performances as a baritone and guzheng (Chinese zither) performer. The Guardian has praised his performances as "utterly astonishing". With his talent, Kang has graced famous venues in London, such as the Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre, and the British Museum. He has also been invited to collaborate with musicians worldwide at fashion shows for prestigious brands like Burberry and Chanel.

Kang is a highly creative and distinctive young artist who has brought traditional Chinese folk music to a global audience, constantly innovating and exploring new expressive forms to create an artistic atmosphere that offers audiences a world of possibilities. Chatting with him was extremely inspiring and fun.

Siqian: Kang, I find it so unique that you are a singer and a guzheng performer at the same time. What has brought you to London, and how have you started to promote traditional Chinese music in a Western country?

Kang: My journey began during my undergraduate years in China, where I pursued a dual degree in Opera Singing and Guzheng Performance. After completing my studies, I was driven to advance my vocal training in a European country. I applied to various institutions in the UK and France and ultimately chose the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD) in London. The artistic atmosphere of this school, its exceptional vocal program, and the tremendous support it provides to its students were all factors that drew me in.

Siqian: I see. So, while studying vocal performance at GSMD, you also performed as a guzheng performer. This is a pretty special path!

Kang: During my time at GSMD, I saw an opportunity to promote Chinese traditional music in the UK. I was fortunate to meet Professor Cheng Yu through a collaboration with the band SAULT. She is a dedicated advocate for Chinese traditional music and appreciates my playing. Since then, she has opened doors for me, introducing me to more opportunities and collaborations with her Chinese traditional string quartet.

* Cheng Yu: A pipa and guqin performer based in the UK. She founded the Youlan Qin Society in London, funded by the Prince's Charities Foundation. I also had the pleasure of collaborating with her at the Lancaster Music Festival in 2022.

Siqian: That is wonderful! As far as I know, SAULT's musical style blends R&B, New Soul, and House - genres rooted in popular electronic music. What inspired them to incorporate Chinese instruments and fuse those traditional sounds into their music?

Kang: Each of SAULT's albums draws inspiration from different regional cultures. At that time, I recorded vocal and guzheng parts for their albums 'Air' and 'Untitled (God)', as well as the EP 'Aiir'. During the recording process, I seamlessly switched between vocals and guzheng. The album 'Air', inspired by Paris and recorded for Paris Fashion Week, was a unique experience. Before the recording, all musicians had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so we didn't know it was for an album for SAULT - we thought it was for the soundtrack of a film, because the whole atmosphere on set was so grand. It wasn't until later, when we collaborated with SAULT for live performances, that we realised those recordings were used for their albums.

Siqian: That’s an exciting infusion. What was the experience like collaborating Chinese traditional instruments with popular Western electronic music?

Kang: It was certainly a novel experience. During the heyday of Impressionist music, the French greatly admired Chinese culture, so French music from that period often incorporated pentatonic scales. So the album 'Air', inspired by Paris, was influenced by this lineage and incorporated elements of Chinese music.

Siqian: How wonderful seemingly different cultures and styles are apparently connected!

Kang: Absolutely! The concept behind this album is truly global. It skillfully combines elements of traditional Chinese music with Western pop music, embodying cross-cultural innovation in music. This interdisciplinary collaboration is significant for promoting Chinese musical culture and allowing more overseas audiences to appreciate Chinese music. Additionally, this band has an interesting feature - you can't find any names or photos of the members on their albums. At the live concert last year, SAULT's members and all the musicians performed without showing their faces. We wore outfits from fashion designers and were entirely obscured by elaborate fashion stylings onstage.

Siqian: How come it was designed that way? Musicians nowadays want more recognition and visibility.

Kang: The concept behind the stage design was actually to have the audience focus solely on the music itself, rather than focusing on who we are as performers. This ambiguous approach to concealing our identities lends a sense of mystery and imaginative space to the music, allowing listeners to be more immersed in experiencing the music itself.

Siqian: It is indeed a unique concept to centre music and fashion while diminishing the audience's excessive focus on the musicians themselves. You've also performed at Burberry fashion shows in London. What was that experience like?

Kang: I joined as a singer at the Burberry fashion show. The show featured two movements from Vivaldi's Four Seasons and some modern vocal works collaborating with an orchestra. We had rehearsed 6 or 7 pieces beforehand, but until right before the show started, the models' choreography and the specific musical selections were still unknown to us. The level of confidentiality for major fashion shows is extremely high - all of our phone cameras were covered up, and sometimes, even during rehearsals, the models' outfits would be obscured or differ from the final looks. So, as performers, our sheet music would be arranged by staff based on the artistic director's final decision, and we would only know the exact pieces and order once we were on stage performing.

Siqian: Wow, it must be a memorable experience.

Kang: Yes, it is! And I felt proud of being the only Chinese musician in the show.

Siqian: I can imagine! How did the experience of performing music at a high-profile fashion show like this differ from the traditional concert performances? What distinctions did you notice as a musician between these two very different performance settings?

Kang: It was very different from my previous experiences. As a classical musician, I initially had reservations about this highly commercialised environment. However, as I started to work with the team and became part of this production, I gradually accepted and recognised that this form of performance promotes classical music in another way. It opens up new expressive spaces and audiences for classical music, allowing it to merge with more popular cultural elements, thereby garnering wider attention and appreciation. So, although it differed from my prior experiences, I gradually discovered the value of these fusion performances.

Siqian: True, it allowed classical music to become more accessible to a broader audience.

Kang: Yes. Many pieces they chose, like Vivaldi's Four Seasons, are familiar even to those who don’t know much about classical music. The choice of music resonates with the audience. At the same time, I also gained a lot of valuable experience from it. I saw the close collaboration between all the teams and how the final stage production, which incorporates visual, auditory, fashion, and artistic elements, was gradually pieced together. It broadened my horizons for musical performance and allowed me to experience the fusion and mutual influence between different art forms. This comprehensive interdisciplinary collaboration allows the audience to appreciate the charm of classical music through an audiovisual feast, which is undoubtedly significant for promoting classical music.

Siqian: Your artistic expression must be free when working in that atmosphere. From a young age, we have received classical music training and are often constrained by certain ingrained mindsets. We tend to think that all artistic expression must follow certain "rules", and that only performing in prestigious concert halls qualifies as a high-class classical musician. But, in some non-traditional settings and environments, classical musicians can explore more possibilities for artistic expression. Once freed from rigid preconceptions, we can take a more open stance to experiment with new forms of expression, sparking collisions between classical music and contemporary popular culture. 

Kang: Yes, when I perform guzheng in Western countries, the organisers are always respectful of my ideas. For them, guzheng is an instrument they may have heard or seen in films and TV, but need to learn more about. So, the organisers always communicate with me in advance, hoping to present a stage performance that everyone is happy with. They give me a broad creative framework, but also allow me ample space to create and interpret according to the characteristics of guzheng. This collaborative model makes me feel their respect for our traditional instruments. They are willing to listen to my ideas and jointly create stage works with cross-cultural appeal. This mutual understanding and inclusiveness undoubtedly provide me with great space and possibilities to promote Chinese music in the West.

Siqian: In your experiences of performing guzheng in the UK and other European countries over the past few years, what has been the feedback and reaction from the audience towards Chinese traditional instruments and music?

Kang: People are very interested in and curious about traditional Chinese music. While they may have yet to hear of many of our traditional instruments, they are often greatly impressed when experiencing the charm of these instruments up close. So, in my concerts, whether singing or playing guzheng, I always bring as many elements from Chinese music as possible to the audience. For vocal performances, if it's my solo recital, I would always incorporate art songs composed with ancient Chinese poetry as lyrics and Chinese folk songs. I would also add one or two works by foreign composers inspired by Chinese culture. This programming idea is actually inspired by Chinese bass-baritone singer Shen Yang's UK concert tour "The Journey of Tang Poetry". The concert featured art songs from around the world using texts and inspirations from Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), containing 6 to 7 different languages. These works reflect the distinct understandings of Chinese culture by composers worldwide. When our ancient poems were translated and spread abroad, there were various translated versions, and the differences in the text directly influenced the musical language. I'm always interested in this cross-cultural programming approach, as I believe that performing works inspired by Chinese culture in local languages across different countries is bound to produce brilliant cultural exchanges between the East and West, and it’s a wonderful way to promote classical Chinese culture.

* Shen Yang: A bass-baritone singer, gold medalist of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, currently teaching in the Vocal and Opera Department of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Siqian: That's a great approach. It reminds me of your graduation recital at GSMD, titled "Intoxication". Can you share the original inspiration behind this theme?

Kang: I like to present things a bit differently from other musicians. This title was inspired by the concert program, which was divided into three parts: "Intoxication of Poetry", "Intoxication of Love", and "Intoxication of Wine". What I wanted to express was not being drunk but rather a state of being tipsy or intoxicated in a more poetic sense. In ancient Chinese culture, wine was deeply intertwined with poetry and music - "the lute, wine, poems and rhapsodies" is an elegant lifestyle that literati pursue. People would reach an "uninhibited" state while composing poems and melodies after drinking, able to open their hearts and freely express inner emotions. For example, 竹林七贤 Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, as well as the ancient melody 酒狂 The Drunken Rhapsody, were the representatives of this aesthetic ideal. I hoped that through this theme, the audience could experience the unique charm of the aesthetic of "intoxication" in traditional Chinese culture.

Siqian: The artistic conception you expressed through music was profound. Could you elaborate on the program design for the "Intoxication" recital?

Kang: Of course. Opening the programme with the "Intoxication of Poetry", I selected two art songs composed using the ancient Chinese poems 春晓 The Spring Dawn and 静夜思 Thoughts on a Quiet Night as lyrics. Then I sang Quatre Poèmes d’après l’ “INTERMEZZO” d’Henri Heine by J. Guy Ropartz in the "Intoxication of Love". This is a thematic song cycle, starting with recounting sweet love memories, asking why you don't love me anymore, experiencing heartbreak, and finally dying for love. To conclude the programme, each "Intoxication of Wine" piece corresponded to specific wine cultures. For example, the British composer Cyril Scott's "A Song of Wine" was set to the poem 春日醉酒言志 Waking from Intoxication on a Spring Day, by Chinese poet 李白 Li Bai, relating to Chinese wine; German composer Engelbert Humperdinck's Ach wir armen Leute from the opera Hansel and Gretel depicting an alcoholic, relating to German beer; Verdi's Brindisi (not the one from La Traviata), closely tied to Italian wines; and George Gershwin's jazz song Vodka, obviously a work inspired by vodka.

Siqian: This programme is so appealing! These three parts are perfectly strung together by the focus theme of "intoxication", vividly portraying the unique state pursued by Chinese literati and perfectly integrating Western culture through the music. Speaking of "poetry", many traditional Chinese melodies were created based on poems. Could you tell us more about the intrinsic connection between Chinese poetry and traditional music?

Kang: Our poetic culture is vibrant, with each dynasty in history having its unique characteristics. Music compositions set to ancient poems are highly aligned with the cadences and rhythms of the poetic verses in their musical language. I always carefully arrange and incorporate musical works from ancient poems in my concerts. I select the appropriate poems according to different themes like love, nature, etc. However, many poems are less familiar to the general public and have been set to excellent pieces by young composers, so I'm also very happy to explore and present these new works. For example, 静夜思 Thoughts on a Quiet Night I just mentioned was composed by the young Chinese-American composer Sam Wu. This song combines Beijing opera vocals with bel canto singing techniques, alternating between recitation and singing - a fascinating fusion of Eastern and Western culture. There are even more examples of guzheng works composed based on poems, like 云裳诉 Robe of Clouds was inspired by 长恨歌 Song of Everlasting Regret by Chinese poet 白居易 Bai Juyi; 临安遗恨 The Regret of Lin An, selected from poet 岳飞 Yue Fei’s 满江红 Full River Red; as well as 枫桥夜泊 Night Mooring by the Maple Bridge, 定风波 Calming the Waves, and so on. In my opinion, ancient Chinese poems expressed through instrumental performance can present two ways of expression: one focuses more on the humanistic sentiments, using layers of progression in the music to depict the emotional changes of the characters in each poetic verse; the other is more image-inspired, like 枫桥夜泊 Night Mooring by the Maple Bridge, using music to "paint" the artistic conception of the poem, which is very similar to Western Impressionist art. This is also why I always provide the audience with program notes, which can guide their imaginations and perceptions.

Siqian: Through your curation of the concert program, I sense the deep thoughts you put into presenting a performance - it promotes Chinese culture and a precious heritage imbued with profound significance. It's something our younger generation of musicians should explore further. Looking ahead, what kind of musical experiences do you particularly wish to present to audiences, or what performing formats would you like to explore?

Kang: In the future, I want to continuously discover and present a deeper and more diverse side of Chinese culture, allowing audiences to gain a more comprehensive and in-depth understanding of our arts. The repertoire I'm currently exploring, as well as collaborations with different instruments, have already started incorporating a variety of artistic expression forms. Going forward, I will continue to explore the possibilities of collaborating with other creative formats, such as collaborations with the visual arts. I aim to provide audiences with a whole multi-sensory immersive experience so that while appreciating the music, they can also witness the charm of artistic fusion.

Siqian: I completely agree with your ideas. The world is becoming more diverse, and people constantly seek richer spiritual experiences. Diversified and innovative artistic collaborations will be indispensable in the future. 

Kang: Exactly. In the past, concerts, art exhibitions, dance performances, fashion shows, etc., were presented more independently. But now, we are in an era of artistic fusion. Large-scale exhibitions and fashion shows are excellent mediums and platforms. We should use diverse resources to collaborate with artists from different fields, as it can be extremely inspiring across art forms, and the mutual inspiration and resonance with artists are hugely satisfying and joyful.

Siqian: I can totally relate to that feeling! Speaking of exhibitions, could you share your experience performing at the "China’s Hidden Century" exhibition at the British Museum last year?

Concert Poster at at the British Museum "China's Hidden Century" Exhibition

Kang: I performed in a traditional Chinese string quartet with Professor Cheng Yu and two other musicians for that concert. We selected works from the Qing Dynasty (1889 - 1912) to align with the exhibition theme. Although we had a general program framework, the performance was improvisational. In traditional Chinese music, works were passed to others without notating the scores. The same piece could have various versions across regions. The improvisational ability of performers was usually highly demanded during performances. This improvisational characteristic is also a great charm of traditional Chinese music. It's an experience I deeply cherish and enjoy.

Siqian: When I previously collaborated with Professor Cheng Yu, I also realised the importance of this improvisational ability! For those used to performing from scores, it is challenging. Before we end our chat today, could you talk about the concert you gave during Chinese New Year at St John's Smith Square in London? I heard this was the UK premiere of the guzheng concerto 苍歌引 Ode to the Spring.

Kang: At least it was reported by the official UK press as the UK premiere. Ode to the Spring is a work for guzheng and a symphony orchestra composed by female composer Chen Zhe. It was also one of the final round repertoire for the Golden Bell Award. We did not use the orchestral version for this London performance, but rather an arrangement for guzheng, piano and Chinese bass drum.

* Golden Bell Award: China's most prestigious and major national music competition.

Siqian: What is the story behind this composition? 

Kang: It is a piece themed around "spring", containing imagery elements in nature, depicting a scene of "rebirth of nature" when the spring comes, so it fits very well with the Spring Festival. This work fuses Chinese classical artistic imagination and conception with modern compositional techniques.

Siqian: Another poetic piece of music!

Kang: This piece is also one of the most difficult guzheng pieces to perform. So there was immense pressure in preparing for the performance - after all, this was the UK premiere! 

Siqian: I'm sure you made it a success!

Kang: Yes, it was ultimately very successful!

Siqian: Thank you so much for sharing. I believe that through your continuous innovation and promotion in music, more and more audiences will come to understand and appreciate Chinese culture. I also look forward to future collaborations with you.  

Kang: Thank you, me too.

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