Nicole Ge Li claims that she didn’t choose the erhu. Instead, the erhu chose her.
“My mom’s a singer, so she was the first one to introduce me to music,” the 28-year-old virtuoso explains in a telephone interview from her Richmond home. “But not particularly Chinese music until I got into elementary school. My parents were thinking of putting me into violin lessons, but the teacher said, ‘Oh, there’s so many students already learning the violin in this class. Why don’t you choose a Chinese instrument? And there’s a similar one, the Chinese fiddle, so you can try it.’ That’s how I started to learn it.”
Li spent her early years in Zhengzhou, a city of some nine million people in north-central China, and received a first-class grounding in the technical aspects of her instrument. Her training continued in Shanghai, but it wasn’t until coming to Canada with her parents that she began to unlock the erhu’s more expressive side—a process that has only deepened since she began her PEP (Piano Erhu Project) collaboration with pianist and UBC prof Corey Hamm.
“For me, the most challenging thing is the musical form,” she says of her shift toward contemporary music. “Musical structure in western composition is different from Chinese. It’s also the scales they use: in China, music is normally pentatonic, but here there are no rules at all, and no fixed forms. I’ve had to get used to this way of writing music.…and that’s one thing I feel really happy about, because I’ve learned something in Canada that I would never have learned in China.”
It’s not that Li has abandoned her roots: she’s the concertmaster of the B.C. Chinese Music Ensemble and also maintains a busy teaching schedule, noting that her students are learning erhu from a genuine love of Chinese culture rather than as the result of parental pressure.
But it’s PEP that’s taking up most of her creative energy: the duo will launch the first in a series of three CDs with a Modulus Festival concert on October 27, and it has already amassed a body of 40 commissioned works.
Hamm and Li met in 2010, when the BCCMO and the pianist’s Nu:BC Collective collaborated on a concert. “We premiered six ensemble pieces that year, but it was in a group, so we didn’t really talk much,” she explains. “But at that time I noticed that Corey is a fantastic pianist. Later on I had my own recital in Richmond, so I asked him to accompany me—and after that, we both said, ‘Oh, piano and erhu are really good together!’”
The combination isn’t new: in China, pianists have accompanied erhu players since the end of the Cultural Revolution. There, though, the erhu is the star, with the piano in a supporting role. Hamm and Li’s project finds the two musicians collaborating on an equal basis, making for a new and fascinating sound—and a perfect example of Vancouver’s open-minded intercultural music scene.