The Pipa Quartet – Pǐn 品 23 August 2014
Robot Jive – Mark John Hariman
Antecedent – Jeremy Wong
Whispering Winds – Chow Jun Yi
Into the Light – Chow Jun Yi
Send me a Rose – Uighur traditional, arr. Samuel Wong
the jigsaw fits but the image is not like the box – Bani Haykal
Wanderlust – Jordan Wei
Life, Everyday! – Aya Sekine
China Backstage – Samuel Wong
Ambush from Ten Sides – arr. The Pipa Quartet
The Pipa Quartet
SOTA Concert Hall
23 August 2014
Review by Derek Lim
Q: What’s worse than one pipa?
A: Four pipas
Make that ‘four electro-acoustic pipas’, the featured instrument is this evening’s thoroughly enjoyable concert. Though the name might lead you to imagine a chamber music group, the Pipa Quartet is not at all a classical Chinese ensemble. Its four members, Dr Samuel Wong, Goh Xueqi, Ivan Chng and Jeremy Wong are accomplished exponents of the original pipa in their own right, but as its leader Samuel Wong explains, they had to relearn certain techniques, learn how to use the pedal, commission new music and even experiment with a luthier to create an instrument that can sound both like a traditional as well as an electronic pipa.
All dressed in black, the quartet exuded a sense of ‘cool’ that seemed at odds with the conservatism of their instrument, with Samuel Wong a reliably entertaining narrator. Earlier pieces in the evening saw the instrument emulating an electric guitar (the rock-inspired Antecedent) while remaining resolutely pentatonic, showing what the pipa would sound like through pedals and distortions. Chow Junyi’s ‘Whispering Winds’ demonstrated an array of techniques on the instrument, including 遥指 tremolos, using the first finger only to tremolo (to simulate a guitar, perhaps?) while skirting the thin line between sentimentality and muzak. In many of the pieces, pre-recorded tracks accompanied the quartet and they had to ‘interact’ with the recorded music.
Notable exceptions were the hectic, Arabic-tinged Uighur traditional, ‘Send Me a Rose’, which returned the pipa to classical mode, making it sound in some places like the Uighur rawap, as well as ‘Ambush from Ten Sides’, a showcase, really of the collective techniques of the instrumentalists, even if I would have preferred another edition. The ‘pure’ acoustic pieces allowed us to hear the instruments undistorted, which was frankly a relief given that four pipas together do not produce the most mellifluous sounds and sometimes fought for attention.
More interesting were Wanderlust, a frankly amusing but effective samba-influenced piece that set my feet tapping, ‘the jigsaw fits but the the image is not in the box’, which employed recorded loops. I couldn’t keep a straight face in’Life, Everyday!’, a honkey-tonk piece that sounded like the soundtrack to an 80s video game, but playing from a de-magnetized audio tape. China Backstage was written at the backstage of the Hangzhou Concert Hall by Samuel Wong, who self-deprecatingly said that he’s no composer, but it was surprisingly effective and easy to listen-to – the kind of stuff you might expect to be playing in the cool lounge of a W Hotel. It also gave us a chance to appreciate the fine five-finger tremolo of Goh Xue Qi, the least extrovert member of the quartet, in the Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo bits.
As encores, they played a medley of songs by Jay Chou, JJ Lin and Stephanie Sun, as well as an unrehearsed arrangement ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov, garnering an enthusiastic ovation from an appreciative audience. Not a traditional pipa act, perhaps, but worth catching, and may their repertoire grow.
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