If Nathania Ko is awed by her instrument’s fabled history, she doesn’t show it. Nor is she overwhelmed by the responsibility of being Canada’s only professional konghou player, and one of only a handful in North America. But once the 22-year-old Burnaby native discovered her life’s purpose, she took to it in a big way.
“I’ve played piano since I was five, and I played French horn for eight years in elementary and high school,” Ko tells the Straight in a telephone interview from Burnaby General Hospital, sounding composed despite waiting for her mother to emerge from eye surgery. “When I was in Grade 10 I started the Chinese zither, the guzheng, and then after I passed my levels for that, my mom was asking me, ‘Hey, do you want to start another instrument?’ So I checked online. There’s this Chinese eBay called Taobao, and I just typed in ‘Chinese instrument’, and then I came across this weird-looking harp with a chicken head, and I was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ So I searched on YouTube, and I heard my first teacher play a piece called ‘Tears of the Concubine’. I called her right after I saw that video and I said, ‘Do you teach?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ ”
Three weeks later, Ko was on a plane to Beijing for her first lesson—and now, after further studies in China, she’s starting work on her master’s at UBC, the only konghou player ever accepted into the harp program.
The “chicken head” that decorates her instrument actually depicts a phoenix, symbolizing the konghou’s resurrection after centuries. “Four hundred years ago, this instrument went extinct, because in the imperial court, the emperor of the Ming Dynasty loved the konghou so much that he made it forbidden for commoners to play it,” Ko explains. “It was only allowed to be played and heard by the royals and their court musicians.”
After wars and political upheaval, the konghou tradition was lost and any surviving instruments destroyed. “But Japan and Korea preserved it very well,” Ko adds. “A few hundred years back, China gave them this instrument as a present, and in the museums there we can still see very well-preserved ancient konghous.”
The modern instrument that Ko plays is quite different than those historic examples. The contemporary konghou is a hybrid of the pedal harp and the guzheng: it’s fully chromatic, with foot pedals like its European cousin, but paired strings and a guzheng-style bridge allow for even more expressive pitch-bending. Ko—who’ll play the West Coast Harp Society’s annual Harp Day concert at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver on October 20, before joining China-based pipa player Xu He for a Roy Barnett Hall recital on February 8—is looking forward to incorporating contemporary composed music, North Indian percussion, and improvisation.
And she’s acquired a couple of useful mentors in that regard: in addition to her studies with VSO harpist Elizabeth Volpe Bligh, she works part-time as personal assistant and translator for pipa virtuoso Wu Man, a member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. You may have never heard the konghou, but you’ll soon be hearing more from Ko.