Universal Language

Universal Language

This month marks the beginning of the Year of the Dragon, the only mythical creature of the 12 animals represented in the Chinese zodiac. Despite its reputation in Western literature as a brutal and ferocious creature, China’s legendary dragon is much more altruistic.

“There’s an ancient story about how all the animals were chosen,” says Chia-Yu Joy Lu, co-founder and artistic director of the New Haven Chinese Cultural Cooperative. “The emperor wanted to choose the animals who would be the guardians of Heaven, so they had a race. Everyone assumed that the dragon would finish first, because it flies and moves fast, but the dragon was generous and took time to help people along the way. It helped the rabbit when the rabbit got in trouble—so the rabbit came in fourth, and the dragon fifth. It became the symbol of kindness and royalty.”

The dragon’s commitment to the enrichment of its community makes it a fitting metaphor for the NHCCC, a nonprofit with the goal of making Chinese music and culture accessible to everyone. The 13-member musical ensemble introduced itself to the New Haven community last month with an open-house performance at Yale. Tomorrow evening at 6:30, the group will present a Lunar New Year concert at Hopkins School in Westville.

Co-founder and president Lely Evans, who teaches Chinese at Hopkins, believes music is the perfect ambassador. “It’s a boundless language in itself,” she says. “It speaks to you without you having to learn it. Anyone can appreciate it, even though it might have sounds, textures or timbres that are different.” I can attest to this. During the group’s January open house, the music seemed on the surface a world apart from any Western-based forms, yet it went straight to my gut, whether melancholy and reflective or boisterous and forceful.

The Hopkins celebration will offer poetry and dance as well. Jiayan Liu, who plays pipa (also known as a Chinese lute) in the ensemble, will perform two dances. The first, “Reversed Pipa,” is a traditional dance inspired by ancient Mogao Caves murals; “Entwined” is a more modern piece incorporating a long silk fan. Two of Evans’s students at Hopkins will read and interpret Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu’s work “Delighting in Rain on a Spring Night” accompanied by Evans on guzheng, a 21-string plucked zither.

Artistic director Lu, who also directs Chinese music ensembles at Wesleyan University and Smith College, points out that, much like American blues and folk music, many of the melodies the Hopkins audience will hear are based on traditional regional folk songs. However, while the blues and other American popular music forms tend to be concerned with human emotions and the strife of living, Chinese music has typically been concerned with celebrating nature and painting aural landscapes. Songs bear titles like “Peach Blossom Ferry,” “Thunder in a Drought” and “Blooming Flowers and Full Moon.” Says Evans, “As the melodies progress, you can see a boat rocking on the water or sense a storm approaching.”

The NHCCC’s roots go back to 1980, when a Taiwanese professor at Yale founded a weekend Chinese language school for Chinese-heritage families, as a way to keep successive generations in touch with their roots. Roughly 30 years later, Evans became the school’s primary administrator and soon opened it to anyone who was interested, regardless of heritage. Then COVID-19 hit, and the school moved its courses online. “The pandemic had me wondering whether what we were doing was the best way to impact our community,” Evans says. “Should we be focusing on legacy, or bringing awareness of our culture to a larger audience? What did we want to do as human beings?”

Such questions gave rise to the ensemble. Many members came to Chinese music from backgrounds playing Western instruments. Evans, a longtime pianist and violinist, took up guzheng as a pandemic project while visiting family in Taiwan. Naomi Senzer, a professional flautist, plays the dizi, a Chinese transverse flute, alongside Kevin Chan, who only took up the instrument a month ago after studying flute through his school years.

“With the Western flute, I can get a pretty consistent sound,” he says. “The dizi is more temperamental. There’s this piece called a membrane that you need to apply. I was so bad at that at first, it kept falling off. Now, I can hit the notes I need and make the right sounds, but I have a long way to go to increase my musicality,” devoting four hours of private practice in addition to the group’s rehearsals in order to get there. “I’m very lucky the group was open to taking me in.”

Final co-founder Margaret Wei, who had been Evans’s administrative partner at the language school, is similarly devoted to the yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer, which she started learning from an expert over Zoom. Meanwhile, pianist and guitarist Alec McLane, an ethnomusicology librarian at Wesleyan University, has played the sheng, a polyphonic free reed wind instrument that dates to 1100 BCE, for more than 20 years.

Other instruments in the ensemble include the erhu and the zhonghu—two-string bowed instruments that approximate the violin and viola—and the daruan and zhongruan, two members of a family of five plucked string instruments similar to the banjo or guitar. The ensemble’s sound is rounded out by a single Western instrument: the double bass, played by David Evans, Lely’s husband and head of Yale’s Berkeley College.

Though they’re all at different proficiency levels, these musicians mesh well. “As a classical flautist who is learning a new instrument, a new repertoire and a new way of reading music—the notations are different from what I’m used to—I just find playing with the others so powerful,” Senzer says. “This is a group of people who are incredibly committed and kind, and so welcoming it creates a feeling of community for me.”

Sounds like a collaboration that would make a Chinese dragon proud.

New Haven Chinese Cultural Cooperative

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image of the ensemble provided courtesy of the New Haven Chinese Cultural Cooperative.

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