Breakfast, poring over the cover photos on a CD recommended to Jack Body by Xiao Ma (the pop star look alike). Xiao tells us that Li Yugang also has a voice that sweeps through his extensive range with no perceivable break. Li Yugang has called his latest CD The New Drunken Beauty. Hmmm. And, he is both he and her.

Down at the studio it’s time to rehearse/record Gao Weijie’s work. Gao Weijie is Gao Ping’s father! Gao Ping was the Piano Prof at Canterbury University during most of the last decade. Gao Weijie is a famous and hugely respected composer and pedagogue. He looks learned and simultaneously like somebody who lived through the 1960s (after all, the two aren’t mutually exclusive). He smiles shyly and apologises over and over for having written what he describes as a “traditional-sounding work”. A) Who am I to comment and B) when I interview him later about his path through music it’s clear that he’s been there, done that, with many genres and methodologies. Xiao Ma (who sings the folksongs in Gao Weijie’s work) and I reassure him over and over.

Xiao Ma’s actually pleased that the work references traditional styles as the long, arching pentatonic lines suit his voice to a T. To me the concert being rehearsed (and simultaneously the CD being recorded) sounds like a beguiling blend of ultra-modern, genre-crossing and tradition-extending pieces.

I head off to find a quiet space to record more interviews. Not easy. This is an echo-ey, stone-floored building that amplifies the slightest whisper or giggle. Jack and I find a lobby and I set up the Sound Device recorder.

There are 13 members of the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra (including director, Liu Shun) and I’m determined to interview each and every one of them.

Guan Xin turns out to be invaluable as an interpreter and we quickly develop a bond and a modus operandi. Each musician brings in their instrument and whilst talking they demonstrate generously.

At one point, mid-interview, a Chinese man bursts through one of the connecting doors and proclaims officiously, “this room is not a room” and so the interview space is named. “It’s your turn to be interviewed in the not-a-room” the musicians tell each other.

Although I can’t understand much of what’s being said, Zhang Zunlian recalls his story of how he and his brother worked on a building site to raise the money to buy ZZ’s first instrument. There are going to be many moving stories to hear when translations are done back in New Zealand.

One of the musicians, Wei Wei isn’t actually due in today but she comes in especially to be interviewed. She plays the beautiful ruan (moon, referencing the round shape of the body of the instrument and its sound holes) She says that her dearest wish is to start up a ruan ensemble (maybe like a ukelele orchestra?).

Shen Cheng and Zhao Chengwei playing huqin and sanxian

Yang Jing, pipa player

Zhao Chengwei playing sanxian

One issue with our not-a-room is that one of the connecting doors leads to a fire escape and on the next floor up they’re staging a version of China’s Got Talent. I believe I can pick the winners from hearing their warm-ups.

Six interviews later, and reeling slightly, I’m moved by each musician’s love and respect for their instrument. Each one commented that they’d love for composers to come forward who would be interested in composing for them – this is a major opportunity for composers, if you’re reading this, act fast!

Rehearsal over, Helene, Rolf and I walk briskly back to the hotel in the chill night air. Blog and bed. K X

PS: See also a blog summary of my visit at

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