Piano and erhu pair up peppily at Modulus Festival

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      That Corey Hamm and Nicole Ge Li are onto something is evident from the fact that their fledgling Piano and Erhu Project, aka PEP, has already attracted 43 tailor-made scores from composers worldwide. And it’s not like the two are offering lavish commissioning fees, either.

      “We wish we could!” Hamm says in a telephone conversation from his Vancouver home. “When you have 43 composers, it’s basically impossible. But we’ve promised the composers that we’ll work hard, and we’ll premiere the pieces, and we’ll do our best to do multiple performances of them. We’ll record them for an album—and for every piece that we’ve premiered, we’ve done a YouTube video too, although not all of those are out yet.

      “And we have another project, which is to take all of the scores and publish them as one volume,” the UBC associate piano prof adds. “That’s quite a tricky little process, but I’m optimistic that that will happen—and I’m talking about not just an online version, but a hard copy of the thing to put in the library.”

      Giving further evidence that Hamm and his erhu-playing colleague deserve their sprightly acronym, the first PEP album will be released on Monday (October 27) as part of the Modulus Festival. The second, set to launch in January, is already in production, and if things go according to plan a third will see the light of day in May of 2015.

      Hamm and Li’s musical rapport was evident as soon as they shared a stage in 2010, as part of a UBC-sponsored double bill of their respective bands, the Nu:BC Collective and the B.C. Chinese Orchestra. But when they got together to play duos, they found that the available scores didn’t adequately challenge their abilities.

      “Nicole brought me about three volumes of existing work, and we read through most of them,” Hamm recalls. “And they were good pieces, but they were very conservative, kind of Gypsy-ish things. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s fine, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progressive stuff.’ That’s how we thought of PEP. We thought it would be interesting to see what people would do with that instrumentation—and it has been fascinating to see the composers deal with that, not only musically but sometimes almost sociologically.

      “Sometimes you’ll get western composers who are intrigued by the idea of writing a Chinese piece, basically; they want to assimilate that style and write something that the erhu is really good at, in a style that it is used to,” he continues. “We also see Chinese composers who are doing the opposite: they’re saying ‘I don’t want to do that.’ They tend to explore more avant-garde things—and then you get everything in between.”

      For PEP’s Modulus concert and CD launch, Hamm and Li plan on staying close to home, focusing on pieces by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s former composer in residence Edward Top, his successor Jocelyn Morlock, their Victoria Symphony counterpart Jared Miller, and Hamm’s UBC colleagues Keith Hamel and Dorothy Chang. With that crew, however, expect a wide range of styles, considerable melodic beauty, and more than a few surprising twists.

      The Piano and Erhu Project plays the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Monday (October 27) as part of the Modulus Festival.