In Vancouver, intercultural music-making is nothing new: think of Jelly Roll Morton introducing jazz to the Patricia Hotel’s house band circa 1920, or Chief Dan George’s fusing of Coast Salish chants with country rock on In Circle, his 1974 album with Fireweed. But the existence of an entire scene devoted to cultural fusion is a relatively recent development, and one of its landmarks was the arrival of pipa virtuoso Qiu Xia He in 1989.
A native of Shaanxi, China, she trained at the Xian Music Academy and even taught there, briefly, before coming to Canada. But it was here that her exploratory nature really blossomed—both as a soloist on the mandolinlike pipa and as a member of the open-ended band Silk Road Music, currently a duo with her husband, flamenco guitarist and oud player André Thibault.
Since joining forces, the two have performed with representatives of many immigrant cultures—and now those sonic strands are being woven together in Thread, a collaboration between Silk Road Music and the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, commonly known as VICO.
“To combine these two ensembles gives us a chance to stretch our repertoire into a bigger setting,” says He, in a telephone interview from her East Vancouver home. And to say that their repertoire is eclectic would be a considerable understatement. Saturday’s concert includes a new arrangement of He’s perennial favourite Clouds, an exploration of the similarities between traditional Irish and Chinese styles; Biwa Blues, which links the Yangtze to the Mississippi; Gao Shan Qin, Persian composer Farshid Samandari’s arrangement of a Taiwanese folk melody; and Mark Armanini’s pipa concerto Of Wind and Water, which, like many traditional Chinese compositions, aims to invoke images of the landscape. But where Chinese music stresses melody above all else, Armanini’s piece deploys harmonies that He compares to those of Claude Debussy.
More than cultural boundaries are being crossed here, though. Armanini’s also contributing an arrangement of another traditional pipa showcase, Han Ya Xi Shui, and for this He and the VICO musicians will be joined by dancer Wen Wei Wang—who, like his musical counterpart, marries his Asian training to a love of the improvisational avant-garde.
He explains that, for the last three years, she and Wang have been touring Made in China, a multimedia spectacle that also features the Beijing Modern Dance Company’s artistic director, Gao Yanjinzi, and electronic-image magician Sammy Chien.
“The challenge for me, for my kind, of musician,” He says, “is that in modern dance they really aim for.…something that’s never been done. So it’s very hard, right? ‘Never done’ means that you know everything that has been done. And that kind of spirit is incredibly inspiring, because you have to put yourself out there and then try everything. There is this constant looking for things that sparkle and that are new and fresh, and that kind of standard, that kind of approach, is very liberating. You have to put yourself on the highest alert so that you’re ready for anything that happens—and that’s quite interesting.”
Silk Road Music and the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra present Thread at the Annex on Saturday (December 2).