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Vancouver Erhu Quartet pairs Eastern and Western bowed-string instruments in pursuit of intercultural connections

Vancouver Erhu Quartet by Alistair Eagles.
The Vancouver Erhu Quartet is comprised of violinist and violist Parmela Attariwala, erhu players Jun Rong and Lan Tung, and cellist Sungyong Lim. Photo by Alistair Eagles.

When Vancouver musician Lan Tung was growing up in Taipei, she loved taking in Taiwanese opera performances outside Taoist temples. Troupes would build little stages and stage productions to the sounds of Chinese folk instruments, some of which resembled the classical erhu.

“I was always watching the musicians playing,” Tung tells Pancouver over the phone. “I think that was a part of my introduction to traditional music.”

Music is a central component of the Taoist faith as it’s seen as a way to speak to the gods. So, these shows happened on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Chinese orchestras existed in every educational district when Tung was young. She joined one in elementary school. Over time, she mastered the erhu, a two-stringed bow instrument often referred to as the Chinese violin.

“It’s not the easiest instrument to pick up and be able to play,” Tung says.

But Tung didn’t confine herself to Chinese music. Far from it. Since moving to Canada in 1994, she has travelled to a multitude of countries, immersing herself in their musical traditions and vocabulary as she’s expanded her intercultural repertoire. She formed Orchid Ensemble in 1997, weaving together Eastern and Western musical traditions. In 2001, Tung was one of the founding members of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, which promotes cross-cultural instrumentation.

She joined other groups in subsequent years—such as Proliferasian, Have Bow Will Travel, and Crossbridge Strings—advancing her appreciation for music from different cultures.

“Every time I go to a place where I enjoy the music, I will meet the local musicians,” Tung says. “The kind of style of music that I’m interested in playing—the choices I make—all originate from these travels. So, it’s very important.”

Vancouver Erhu Quartet. Photo by Alistair Eagles
The Vancouver Erhu Quartet will premiere works by four Canadian composers. Photo by Alistair Eagles.

Tung describes erhu as very lyrical

In 2020, Tung formed the Vancouver Erhu Quartet with fellow erhu player Jun Rong, violinist and violist Parmela Attariwala, and cellist Sungyong Lim.

Their first rehearsals were outdoors because of the pandemic. The musicians trace their roots back to Taiwan, China, Punjab, and Korea.

“So, it’s a different kind of sound, with beautiful melodies,” Tung adds. “The erhu is very lyrical.”

According to Tung, it’s only been in the past 10 years that people have begun experimenting in Asia with ensembles comprised strictly of Chinese bowed-string instruments.

“It’s become a new genre—a new instrumentation is being explored,” she says. “No one has done that in Canada yet.”

The Vancouver Erhu Quartet, however, is pairing Chinese and Western bowed-string instruments. There are certain advantages in doing this. Tung says that the erhu generates middle- to higher-range pitches. The cello, on the other hand, offers music on the lower end, which she feels is very important.

Moreover, she points out that the Vancouver Erhu Quartet pairs two erhus opposite the paired cello and viola.

“It works pretty well sonically and for composition techniques,” Tung declares. “A lot of interplays are provided between the two pairs.”

Lan Tung describes the origins of the quartet in this video.

Composers infuse work with sounds of the world

On Sunday (December 10), the Vancouver Erhu Quartet will premiere works by four composers in what’s shaping up as a breathtaking expression of intercultural music.

“This is not your typical Chinese music concert because the composers are from all different backgrounds,” Tung states.

Taiwan-born and Montreal-based Yawen Wang’s “Cinq fois par jour” was inspired by her trip to Morocco. Translated into English as “Five times a day”, it’s a reference to the Muslim call for prayers.

“If you ever travel to any Muslim countries, which I did a number of times… you will hear the mosque calling people,” Tung says. “The sound comes through the tower, sung through the microphone. That’s what you hear.”

She points out that if someone is between different mosques, they will hear this coming from different directions. These calls might be sung in different keys, even though they create a similar mood.

Another composer, Amir Eslami explores human identity in “Illusion & Reality”. Tung says that this piece reminds her of yin and yang in that one part is dreamy and slow whereas the other is very rhythmic.

“The dreamy part has the quarter-tone sound from Persian music,” Tung comments.

Harbours serve as a metaphor for different cultures

Meanwhile, composer Elizabeth Knudson’s “September Songs” is made up of three movements: “The Hummingbird”, “To the Rising Moon”, and “Tunnels of Light”.

Knudson crafted “The Hummingbird” with notes from a Hindustani raga, according to Tung.

“Although the piece doesn’t sound Indian at all, it has a lot of the classical phrasing and the mood in the first movement,” Tung says.

The second movement, “To the Rising Moon”, is inspired by a poem written by legendary Persian Sufi mystic Rumi. Thus, the international flavour is hidden within the piece.

Another composer, Moshe Denburg, has created a two-movement work called “The Harbour of Reunion” and “The Harbour of Tranquility”. Tung points out that Dennburg often talks about harbours as being beautiful places to meet, as well as a metaphor for different cultures.

“I’ve worked with Moshe since the ’90s,” Tung says. “He writes very colourful, very beautiful melodies and very exciting rhythmic parts as well.”

Tung emphasizes that the quartet did not give any instructions to the composers about the types of music to create for the upcoming concert.

“They decided what they wanted to write,” she says. “I think it is pretty natural in Vancouver that you ask composers from different backgrounds to write music. Then, they show you the world.”

The Vancouver Erhu Quartet will perform newly commissioned works by four Canadian composers at the Annex (823 Seymour Street) at 4 p.m. on Sunday (December 10). Tickets are available through soundofdragon.com.

Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.