Liu Fang:10 Talented Fingers by Wah Keung Chan
/ April 26, 2004
It was only one instrument, but 10 very
talented fingers," said BBC commentator Sir Ian Mckellen of Chinese pipa and
guzheng player Liu Fang, following a live broadcast last November. Fang was
in the midst of a three month tour of Europe that included participation in
France's China Year. Reviews were ecstatic.
At 29, Fang has been establishing a national and
international career for the last seven years from her base in Montreal.
"Montreal is rich in culture and close to Europe," said Fang. Thanks to Canada's
flexible immigration rules she arrived in the city in 1996 with her husband, Dr.
Risheng Wang, who worked as a research scientist. "At first, Liu wasn't making
music, and I felt really guilty," said Wang, who decided to find his wife
performance opportunities. Soon, he quit his job to manage her career
The classical music world has embraced Fang and her
extensive touring has taken her to England, France, Germany and the Czech
Republic. R. Murray Schafer and Melissa Hui have composed music for her, and she
has performed with the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Montreal, the Paul Klee
Quartet in Venice, and with cellist Yegor Dyachkov. A duo CD with flautist Lise
Daoust is slated for release in the fall on the ATMA label.
"We couldn't have done it without initial support
in Canada," said Wang. "The Canada Council helped, both financially and
psychologically." In 2001, Fang was one of the three winners (the only one in
music) of the Canada Council's Future Generations Millennium Prize for artists
under 30 with the greatest potential. Part of the citation reads: "Liu Fang
likes to create new musical forms and explore new avenues. She works frequently
on transcultural music collaborations with other musicians."
Canada and the West turned out to be receptive
audiences for Fang and her pipa. "We have lots of fans in Quebec and Paris, as
well as many in the Vietnamese community and in Toronto's Chinese community,"
said Wang. Judging from the press write-ups, Fang now has a following in
England. "In the West, there are more concerts. In China, traditional music is
not taken very seriously; it's treated more like entertainment. The largest
conservatory in Shanghai has only 200 students." When Fang was a student at the
Conservatory, she was not the favourite student as she did not enjoy imitating
her teachers, or being very theatrical, smiling when the music is happy and
looking sad for sad tunes. "Inside, I wanted to play my way," said Fang, "which
is very expressive and soulful."
"During the Tan Dynasty, pipa music moved people to
tears," said Wang. It was this soulful playing on a cassette that initially drew
Wang to Fang. Wang, a meteorologist working in Germany, wrote to Fang; the
couple met during one of his trips back to China and were soon married.
Music was always in Fang's life. Her mother was a
traditional opera singer in Yunnan Province, in southern China. She started on
the pipa at the age of five and played in public by nine. At 11, she played two
works for the visiting Queen Elisabeth. "I met a great teacher at age eight.
When she moved to Schechuan province, I could only study with her during my
The pipa is a pear-shaped instrument with four
strings tuned to AEDA and 30 frets--the strings can be depressed to sound in 1/4
tones. In Liu Fang's hands, it comes to life. "The key to Chinese music is
melody and space. In Western classical music, harmony and melody are the key.
Like a Chinese painting, space or silence plays an important role," she tells
us. Chinese music is notated with numbers for the pitches and symbols for the
speed and finger techniques. "It's like Chinese calligraphy," said Wang. "The
fine subtleties are passed on from master to student." Growing up, Fang changed
teachers constantly, trying out all the teachers in her province.
Compared to the erhu or the guzheng, the solo
repertoire of the pipa is quite significant at 300 pieces, enough material for
five solo CDs. Fang has already released two solo albums plus two of duets on
Philmultic, their private label. The company was formed after their first
recording for a third party. "We were inexperienced, and we didn't sign a
contract. We have no idea how many copies were sold and do not receive any
royalties," said Wang. Last year sales of their two solo CDs each reached 1000
copies through their website and concert sales alone. In order to retain a
distributor in Europe, Philmultic needs to release six more albums. Some of
those albums may include Fang's compositions, as she develops new repertoire for
For a shy woman who prefers to talk with her
instrument, success does not mean complacency. "A live concert is a constant
challenge to transmit the soul of the music. I'm always thinking of new
collaborations and composing new music to integrate the pipa into western
culture. Before a concert I concentrate for two hours and I'm always nervous.
Every concert hall has its own personality. I cannot control the acoustics or
the knowledge of the audience."
With a schedule of 70 concerts a year, including
only 20 in Canada, the couple is home for only three months. There are no
immediate plans to play in China: "We would like to bring back to China fresh
ideas about Chinese music, but not now. In the West, you have people who cannot
live without music. In China, they only understand how to market fame. You have
to make it big in the West."
Chopin, Schubert, Berlioz, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach,
Mahler's 1st Symphony
Beethoven's 6th, 5th and 3rd
symphonies, piano concerto #5,
violin and cello concertos