Hecheng Liu

Buddha Jumps for
Hecheng Liu

Pipa master
He-Cheng Liu will be performing with the Jumping Buddha Ensemble in March and April in the Bay Area.
Pipa virtuoso from Beijing joins San Francisco’s Jumping Buddha Ensemble

By Yafonne
Arriving to the United States just two months ago, Beijing native He-Cheng Liu has been a musician for 30 years. Liu, 40, is a pipa (lute) and gu-qin (ancient zither) virtuoso of remarkable experience. A member of the prestigious National Traditional Orchestra of China since 1984, Liu has toured all over the world, performing and teaching, all over the world — from Vienna to Denmark, and Singapore to Taiwan.

Earmarked for music at age 10, Liu was one of the few kids chosen by the Chinese government for conservatory training at Madame Jiang Ching’s May 7th Cultural Arts University in Beijing. It was 1972, a time when all of China’s arts and cultural activities, except for the Beijing Opera, were suspended due to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). In those days, Madame Jiang Ching still loved Chinese literature and film, and wanted to preserve something on a national scale. She was allowed to open a special national school for the arts.

“They came to the schools for testing. They were testing for music talent and ability,” Liu recalls. “Out of the whole country, only 40-50 students were selected to attend the May 7th Cultural Arts University.”

Liu studied for 12 years under the influential pipa master Li Guang Hua, who taught only four students in his life. “He taught me everything about pipa, from being an artist to being a person ...You cannot see or touch his art. But it comes to you little by little, step by step. I learned from him everything about music and life.”

During college, he was allowed to choose a second specialty, the gu-qin, which he soon mastered as well.

“I chose the gu-qin because I love the sound. I enjoy playing it mostly for myself. It reflects my own soul expression.

The pipa is an ancient, four-stringed Chinese lute instrument popular throughout Chinese history and culture, from courtly entertainment and accompaniment to modern orchestral solo and ensemble recitals. Originating from the Qin Dynasty (222-207 BC.) and Central Asia via the Silk Road in the 5th century, the pipa has had a very high and distinguished history in China, undergoing extensive development from the Han Dynasty through the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

“In Chinese music, there are instruments that have the ‘line (xian) expression,’ like the erhu. My pipa has the ‘dot (dian) expression.’ Of all Chinese music instruments, the pipa best typifies this style of expression. In the world, it is actually the most developed of all the lute instruments, with the most variety of expressions,” says Liu.

Wrapping white tape around his fingers, Liu prepares to play the pipa at the close of the interview.

“In the past; they used real human nails,” he explains, sitting on the living room sofa, “but today we use false nails to produce a better sound quality when the strings are plucked.”

He holds the pipa upright and close, like a dear friend, and begins to play a traditional piece called “Yi Ju Wu Chu” or “Dance of the Yi People”, a very popular minority folk song in China.

With his eyebrows furrowed slightly in deep internal concentration, he began to pluck the strings, at first slowly, delicately, like a flowing Chinese river. Before long, though, his fingers flew rapidly over the strings, fluttering as fast as humming bird wings. Displaying a pizzicato of rapidly anger-plucked strings, Liu demonstrates the pipa’s quick changes of moods — from the gentle, tender strokes to intense guitar-like strumming.

“I feel very close to my music,” he smiles afterwards. “I really hope to continue developing my music, to make a career in music here. I cannot leave the music of pipa which I love.”

Though this is Liu’s first Chinese New Year in America, his impressions of America began way back in China, from an album of the Bay Area world music band, The Jumping Buddha Ensemble, that caught his ears by surprise. At the time, his conservatory professor in Beijing was using the album to teach a class.

“Back in China, I listened to Michael Santoro’s CD The Jumping Buddha,” he says, finding an immediate affinity towards it. “I really like what he’s doing with the music. It’s a very fresh, creative, new sound for Chinese music.”

Little did he know that the ensemble would be as interested in him as he was in it. As luck would have it, during a U.S. tour with the China National Traditional Orchestra last August, he chanced to meet up with Santoro, the group’s artistic director, who was looking for a pipa player.

Named after a famous Hong Kong dish, so delicious that even Buddha would break his meditation to jump over a wall to eat it — the Jumping Buddha Ensemble represents Northern and Southern Chinese music, ancient, traditional and contemporary, with mixtures of other world music elements. You won’t find a group like this anywhere in the U.S. — only in the Bay Area, a fertile ground for world music. Led by Santoro on dong xiao, Zhang Xiao Feng on erhu, Fred Fung on yang qin, the ensemble is also joined by outstanding virtuosos Lu Xan on the di zi and Chang Hai Yue on the zhong ruan. Liu, as the latest addition, promises to diversify the sound even more.

“[Liu’s] a top-level, and very versatile, world-class player, doubling on pipa and gu qin,” explains Santoro, who is working with the band to record their second album. “His coming will add an ancient dimension to our group. Now, I can play the xun instrument (globular ocarina) with him.”

This Friday, Liu will perform the pipa and gu-qin at Clarion Music Center, with accompaniment from members of the Jumping Buddha Ensemble. Presented by Door Dog Music Productions, the concert will feature Liu He Cheng on both the pipa and his secondary instrument, the gu-qin, a most ancient instrument from China played by even fewer musicians today. Featuring the most representative pieces of pipa, from the traditional to the modern, he hopes to introduce Bay Area audiences to the sound and spirit of the Chinese pipa instrument.

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