Sounds of ancient China

q&a Liu Fang is an internationally acclaimed virtuoso performer of pipa and guzheng.

Chinese Liu Fang plays the lute, 23 November 2006 in Paris, during the Charles Cros Academy (the French equivalent of the US Recording Academy) award ceremony. Liu Fang was awarded the Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / ERIC FEFERBERG
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Liu Fang is an internationally acclaimed virtuoso performer of pipa (Chinese lute) and guzheng (Chinese zither). She was born in Kunming, China, and started her music career early as child prodigy. She now lives in Montreal.

The pipa is a very traditional Chinese instrument, which has existed in China for more than 2,000 years. It has four strings and 13 frets and is pear shaped, like the oud but a bit shallower. The pipa's sound is more bright and clear, crystal like. There is a Tang Dynasty poem which described the sound as like pearls, large and small, falling on a jade plate. The guzheng is even older. It has existed for more than 3,000 years and has 21 strings. Its sound is very deep and mellow, more like a voice.

My mother was a traditional Chinese opera singer, so I listened to lots of traditional music growing up. I began playing pipa at age six. I got up at around 5.00 every morning and practised until 7.30 when I would go to school like all of the other kids. I also played for another three hours in the evening. Pipa is very difficult to play, so I did this for 10 to 15 years. I needed lots of practice just to get the techniques.

I didn't think too much about the music I had in my heart for a long time and my technique was not good enough to express myself. I began to perform live at nine years old, and when I was 11, I played for the Queen of England when she visited China. But compared to what I can do today it was nothing; the instrument is now part of my body. I can do whatever I want.

I left China in 1996, when I was 22. I moved to Canada with my husband because of his job. He is a scientist. The multicultural society there really opened my eyes and I have had lots of chances to play with musicians from other traditions. In 2000, I became the artistic director of the Silk and Steel projects, a series of concerts in which I collaborated with musicians from various traditions, but that stopped in 2006 when the Conservative government cut the arts funding. On my most recent recording, Silk Sound, I collaborated with musicians from Algeria, France and Mali, and that won the Academie Charles Cros Award in France, which is like their Grammy.

I was approached by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage over email. This will be the first time I've played in the UAE, so I'm quite excited to see the audiences' reaction. I am going to play some more traditional stuff for both instruments and also some contemporary music. Some of the pieces are at least 1,000 years old and we don't even know who wrote them. Lots of Chinese contemporary music was composed around the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution in China. I will be playing pieces by composers like Wang Huiran, Zhu Yi and Wen Bo. I will also play some Liu Tianhua, who is a genius composer from the early 1930s.

During the Cultural Revolution, people were not allowed to play it or hear it for 20 years because it was bourgeois. Now it is more accepted, but because nothing happened in Chinese music during the Cultural Revolution, education in China about classical music is very poor. Most of my audience is in the West, not China. In the West, there are lots of fans. I have people crying at my concerts because they are moved by the music. I hope there will be a revival of the traditional culture in China, but I'm also very pleased to have a following in the West.

Liu Fang, The Empress of Pipa, tonight, 8.30pm, Al Dhafra Auditorium, Cultural Center, Electra Street at 2nd Street, 02 621 5300.