Curious George

Virtuoso George Gao explains the mysteries of the erhu, the two-string Chinese violin

Mar 29, 2000 at 4:00 am
There are only those who love the erhu and those who do not yet know the erhu. For those who know it, there is good news: George Gao is coming to St. Louis. For those who don't, allow us to answer a couple of questions.

First, the erhu. Often described as a "Chinese violin," the erhu comprises a hexagonal resonator, usually mahogany, covered with snakeskin, usually oil-soaked python. The neck traverses the resonator, passing completely through it. The erhu has only two strings, traditionally made of silk but now more commonly steel, stretched from the sound box to two tuning pegs at the upper end of the neck. Instead of a nut, there is the qianjin, a silk cord wrapped around both the strings and the neck. There is no fingerboard; therefore tonal qualities are determined both by the fingers' positions and by the amount of pressure applied. This allows for a remarkable versatility and variety of sounds but also makes the erhu, as Gao charitably phrases it, "a very challenging instrument to play." The erhu is bowed like a violin, but its bow, constructed of bamboo and horsehair, is woven between the inner and outer strings, and the instrument is played with its base resting on the musician's thigh. Other than that, sure, it's a violin.

Second, George Gao. Among aficionados of the instrument, Gao's name inspires reverence. Born in 1967 to a family of music lovers, Gao was introduced to the erhu at the age of 6 for the best of reasons: His mother, to distract him from his "naughtiness" and keep him from fighting with other children, decided to teach him the rudiments of the instrument. Two years later, he won his first competition, an open contest in his native Gansu province. He was hooked. At age 8, he decided on his career, inspired by what he remembers as "the excitement of delivering my feelings through music." At 12, he entered the Affiliated Secondary School of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Gao went on to attend the Conservatory, all the while taking part in -- and often winning -- competitions, including a sweep of the three highest honors at the Beijing China National Invitational Erhu Competition.

While a student, he became fascinated by Western popular music. Because of the relative inaccessibility, and attendant expense, of this music in China, he and his friends taped music off the radio, or, when fortunate, received tapes from relatives in North America. Still, he did not pursue his interest in performing popular music, Eastern or Western, until after his graduation in 1988. For the next three years, he played keyboards in pop groups Maple Leaf and Snow Man. In 1991, Gao moved to Toronto to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he now teaches.

When Gao talks about his career with the erhu, he does so with an easy laugh and a sense of enthusiasm that's contagious. Since his relocation to North America, he has expanded his project of fusing traditional Chinese instrumentation with Western musics -- classical, pop, New Age, jazz -- through the medium of the erhu. The challenge of combining such disparate genres is one Gao embraces. "When I try to play different things," he says, "I find excitement, not difficulty." Part of the excitement comes from taking an instrument that is traditionally used, according to Gao, as a "totally melodic instrument" in directions for which it was not originally intended. Classically, the erhu player develops a repertoire of tunes, some of which have been passed down and refined over hundreds of years. These melodies provide the themes on which the musician works subtle improvisations in performance. And though Gao can play the changes, as it were, his enthusiasm is for the integration of the erhu into a new genre, formed at the intersection of Eastern and Western, classical and popular musical forms. Such ambitions demand commitment and rigor, obviously, but what is particularly impressive about Gao is the joy with which he approaches the project.

Actually, Gao is not the only erhu player bent on expanding the range of the instrument. Jiebing Chen is breaking new ground in her work with the Beijing Trio. The trio -- filled out by pianist and Asian Improv head Jon Jang and legendary drummer Max Roach -- is fusing a unique sound by integrating the erhu into a more overtly jazz setting. These are indeed interesting times for erhu fans.

For his show at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Gao plans to "introduce the instrument to the audience" by presenting a range of pieces chosen to demonstrate the erhu's versatility in various contexts. After beginning with traditional Chinese music played solo, Gao will perform with piano and taped accompaniment. Moving from traditional music to his own compositions allows him to provide an erhu sampler and to demonstrate his own versatility and virtuosity as a performer. Come, know the erhu, love the erhu.

Gao is being brought to St. Louis as part of the UM-St. Louis Center for International Studies' inaugural Performing Arts Series. This season has already featured performances by Vuka Uzibuse, a South African dance/drum/chant ensemble; Nikos Touliatos, a Greek percussionist; and Altan, an Irish musical group. Following Gao in the series will be Kati Kuroda, a Japanese-American actor, starring in Sakura, The Bandit Princess on April 13. Each of the previous performances has been remarkable, and the series will continue next year. Keep an eye out also for the Center's Greek and Greek-American Cinema series, which screens April 5, 12 and 19 at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Not a one of these events should be missed.

George Gao performs at 8 p.m. March 31 at the J.C. Penney Auditorium on the UM-St. Louis campus. For tickets, call 516-7299. For further information, call 516-5733.