Rosalind Knight reports on Silk and Bamboo – The Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral, 27 July 2007

Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire
Silk and Bamboo was an evening of classical Chinese music performed on traditional Chinese instruments. The music was a mixture of festival songs, folk music and some modern pieces composed by the group's director. The titles of each piece were themselves a source of entertainment; some were lyrical and descriptive, including The reflection of the moon shadow on Erqun waters and Coloured clouds chasing the sun'; others were simply intriguing, such as ‘Tiny vegetable and Washing clothed. The music itself was enchanting, and the concert was the perfect introduction to Chinese music for those who, like me, knew very little about it.

There were three instruments showcased during the performance. The erhu, or Chinese violin (pictured), had only two strings, but made a range of different sounds. It was beautiful and mournful during a folk song about a woman crying into a river, but produced harsh squeaks and braying noises in Horse racing to convey the sounds of the charging animals.

The other instruments were the guzheng, which had lots of strings that were plucked, and the yangqin, which was described in the programme as ‘a Chinese hammered dulcimer.' Essentially, it was lots of pegs with wires wrapped between them to create chromatic scales. The wires were hit with two bamboo beaters to create sounds. The performer, Han Ying, hit the notes so fast that she sometimes became a blur of hands and bamboo.

The performers never set the rhythm before they began a piece - they simply launched in and played in time. I asked them how they knew what the rhythms were. ‘This is Chinese folk music,' said Hu Bin, ‘we don't need to count out loud. We feel the rhythms in our heart.' I assume she didn't mean they were fitted with pacemakers...

The three players filled the beautiful Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral with their music, at times getting so loud that it sounded as though they were being amplified. The acoustic range of each instrument was incredible, especially as the erhu only had two strings.

These acoustics were used to produce rousing, noisy festival music and gentle lullabies and folk songs, which washed over the audience. They were so soporific that my sister pointed out more than one case of Crouching Pensioner: Hidden Snoozer in the audience. Those who remained awake were treated at the interval with the opportunity to ask the friendly players questions and have a go on the instruments themselves. The aim of the concert was to provide a first-hand experience of Chinese music, and Silk and bamboo certainly succeeded in doing this. I would definitely recommend seeing it live if you get the chance again.

Writer: Rosalind Knight