Red Chamber
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Red Chamber

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada | INDIE | AFM

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada | INDIE | AFM
Band World Classical




"Red Chamber Performs!"

A traditional Chinese plucked string group called Red Chamber made an appearance at Idaho State University on Saturday, April 9. For those who find their music collection limited to typical American tunes, the sound of Red Chamber is one to remember. The Canadian group is composed of four female musicians who hail from China.

The instruments that the group plays are traditional Chinese string instruments. Mei Han plays an instrument called a zheng, which has a horizontal surface with 13 to 21 strings. Guilian Liu is considered one of the world's finest players of the pipa, a type of lute. Zhimin Yu plays another type of lute, called a ruan. Geling Jiang is considered a multi-instrumentalist and plays the sanxian, a three-stringed fretless lute, and also plays the zheng, pipa and ruan.

The program began with six classical and traditional Chinese pieces. The women displayed the typical use of their instruments in a graceful and beautiful way. The first half of the program included a zheng solo by Han called "Lonely Crows Playing in Winter Stream." Han explained that the piece showcases the technique used to play the zheng. The right hand is used to pluck the strings while the right hand bends them. She also explained that the zheng was traditionally an instrument played by women for personal entertainment or for very small groups, but not for performances. The zheng carried with it the ability to make the song feel intimate, even in the concert hall.
After the intermission the music continued with a transition into more contemporary pieces. African drumming and music inspired one of the songs, "A Dream of Africa." Han explained that traditional Chinese music has an emphasis on melody, subtlety and tone rather than rhythm, so African music was difficult and interesting to arrange for the traditional Chinese instruments. As Red Chamber moved into the two very American pieces of the program, "Pony in the Forest" and "Katy Hill," Jiang introduced the two pieces as bluegrass in style. "Redgrass, not bluegrass," said Han, emphasizing the Chinese twist on the American style, adding, "We're in bluegrass country."

Near the end of the program, Han expressed the group's enjoyment with its first trip through Idaho, but with a twist of humor. "We love everything: people, cows, mountains," she said.

Expect outstanding virtuosity, power and passion, Red Chamber is all of those things and more. Beyond musical talent, the four women who compose the group have a wonderful stage presence and sense of humor.

To watch these women play instruments most Americans can't even pronounce the names of, and to watch them play so well, is truly an awe-inspiring experience. - Boise Review

"Red Chamber's musicians red-hot sexy, red-hot accomplished"

The Red Chamber ensemble employs traditional Chinese instruments, but its repertoire includes various worldly delights.

Mei Han has a clear concept for her latest musical undertaking: the working brief for the Red Chamber ensemble is "beautiful music and beautiful image". To that end, she's enlisted three of the top Chinese musicians working in the Vancouver region, and they're all poised and attractive women. But Han is quick to point out that she's not trying to create a scaled-down version of the popular Twelve Girls Band, assembled by record producer Wang Xiaojing.

"They're all 'hot' women," Han says of her bandmates, when reached at her East Vancouver home. "But it's not like the Twelve Girls Band: these are accomplished musicians and also good human beings, good mothers, mature beauties."

Perhaps the image they're trying to project is a more elegant one, I suggest, and Han agrees. "Yeah, elegant," she exclaims. "Exactly."
With pipa specialist Guilian Liu, ruan virtuoso Zhimin Yu, and multi-instrumentalist Geling Jiang joining Han in Red Chamber, the group is certainly rich in musical possibilities. It's also as conceptually elegant as it is sonically accomplished, and on a variety of levels.

The group takes its name from the Qing-dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber, a daring look into the lives of women and girls in 18th-century Beijing. Tsao Hsueh-Chin's fictional masterpiece is also notable for its use of everyday language rather than poetic speech, a practice mirrored by Red Chamber's interest in folk forms from all over the world.

"And also, besides the hotness, the sexiness, the red in our title most of all reflects that we are from China," Han continues. "We all grew up in a communist country, so red is what we saw in the first half of our lives."

Scholars will appreciate the inclusion of Qing Beiyue, one of several Tang-dynasty scores discovered in a Silk Road cave in 1903 and now preserved in a French museum. "Generally, the Chinese music you hear is this light, almost girlie, childish kind of music, with very rudimentary western harmony behind it," says Han, an acclaimed musicologist and a virtuoso on the zitherlike zheng. "But what we hear from this piece is that, first of all, the scales, the modes, are completely different. And also the music is not rushing, it's not light. It has weight."

The group will also tackle folk melodies from Borneo and Bulgaria, along with commissioned works from Vancouver composers Craig Day and Farshid Samandari. According to Han, the latter's Breeze of Hope is a particular challenge, drawing as it does on the quartertone scales typical of Persian music. "As a musician training in China, you only learn Chinese music," she notes. "It takes lots of time and lots of hearing to produce the exact sound of the quartertones."

Still, that's just the kind of stretch Han and her bandmates crave: a chance to do something new within the context of two great and ancient cultures. - Georgia Straight

"Red Chamber - Chinese Music"

It takes passion to pursue a career in music and I can safely say that all of the 2008 Summerfolk per¬formers certainly have that devotion to their craft. Red Chamber is a group that personifies this idea.

Elegant in their formal attire, Red Chamber is fascinating to watch. Their inspiration comes from a rich culture and the traditional pieces they per¬form have played an important role both as court and folk music in China.

Mei Han, bandleader of Red Cham¬ber, is an enthusiastic and vibrant artist who seeks out new forms of ex¬pression. Mei (pronounced May) is a virtuoso on the Chinese zheng. The zheng is about five feet long and re¬sembles a harp played in a horizontal position. Twenty-one strings arch over high movable bridges on the body.

Musicians use their right hand to pluck the strings. The left hand press¬es the strings to produce notes while adding vibrato, pitch alterations and slides. In contemporary practice, the left hand often joins the right hand to play a counter-melody. Experimental techniques can include the use of a bow, hammering or preparing the strings.

Mei's playing is always as delicate as it is authoritative. Impeccable timing, dynamics and subtle changes in touch and tone are beautifully created in her masterful hands. Presenting music deeply rooted in over 2,000 years of Chinese culture, Mei transforms this stately instrument into a powerful tool for contemporary explorations.

Ms. Han studied with China's top zheng masters Zhang Yan and Gao Zicheng. "Music is learned from a master in China, always through formal conser¬vatory training. If you want to be a professional musician, you have to have graduated from conservatory," says Mei. Her dedication took her to some 28 remote ethnic nationalities in southwest China to collect folk songs. "My first zheng teacher, who is still living, is the last generation of Chinese folk musicians. He taught me by voice and notation. Phrase by phrase he'd sing the melody and in this way I was able to learn the traditional material."

For more than 10 years Mei performed as a featured soloist with the prestigious Beijing Zhan You Ensem¬ble, the premiere ensemble of its type in China. In 1995 she received a mas¬ter's degree in ethnomusicology from the Musical Research Institute of the Chinese Arts Academy in Beijing, con¬sidered the most prestigious institute for Chinese music studies.

Mei came to Canada in 1996 to at¬tend the University of British Colum¬bia. Having received yet another mas¬ter's degree at UBC, she is currently working on her PhD. "I spent 15 years studying English while still in China. I knew coming to Canada was going to work out. Every¬thing here — it's for me. The value placed on culture and morals are very close to mine — honest, friendly, cour¬teous, all these things. I consider Canada my home now."

Most meaningful to her music and life is that in Vancouver she met Randy Raine-Reusch, who became her husband in 2001. Randy is an improvisational-based composer. He is herald¬ed as a "dexterous multi-instrumental¬ist" due to his ability to play about 50 of his collected 600 world instru¬ments. Randy has created distinct new performance styles on a number of in¬struments including the Chinese zheng, Japanese ichigenkin (one-string zither) and the Thai khaen (16-reed bamboo mouth organ). He has recorded tracks on albums by Aerosmith and the group Yes.

Since their meeting, Han and Raine-Reusch have redefined the zheng and challenged the world of traditional Chinese music in general. Together they have invented new tunings, de¬veloped new fingering techniques, ex¬panded old structures and created radical new forms of expression on the zheng. They have created a new reper¬toire, combining Chinese musical tra¬ditions with those of world music and jazz.

"There is no improvisation at all in Chinese music. Randy taught me about free jazz and playing sponta¬neously" says Mei. "I have also worked with bluegrass and folk musicians, learning to improvise over chord pro¬gressions. The zheng is a very neutral instrument and can embrace many others — mandolin, banjo, slide and classical guitar. I've learned to jam on 12-bar blues too."

Along with Mei, the en¬semble is rounded out by Zhimin Yu on ruan and pipa master Guilian Liu. Referring to her bandmates, Mei says "Guilian and Zhimin are two of the finest players I know and with this group, the musicianship is at a very high level."

Red Chamber straddles traditional and contemporary, whether it be an¬cient Chinese string band music, folky bluegrass or jazz fusion. They excel in bringing China's ancient repertoire to life but they are also very much per¬formers for the 21st century. These fine musicians set the stage on fire with hot licks, power and passion!

Richard Knechtel is the artistic director of Summerfolk.
- Sun Times


Redgrass - 2008, available at and Itunes, Emusic and more.



Sssss...Red Chamber is hot, steamy hot!
Whether it is fast and furious stringband music, the sultry beauty of Imperial Court classics, or cutting edge contemporary creations, Red Chamber's fiery passion embodies every note.

Red Chamber straddles traditional and contemporary, whether it be ancient Chinese string band music seldom heard in the west, bluegrass, or jazz fusion. These virtuosic performers set the stage on fire with hot licks, power and passion!

Red Chamber takes its inspiration from the traditional Chinese "Plucked String" repertoire that is seldom if ever heard in the west. Featuring only plucked strings. Red Chamber creates a unique sound while performing a repertoire that spans centuries, including transcriptions from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), to modern compositions. Red Chamber is exploring other genres of plucked string music like Bluegrass, jazz, and a host of other folk traditions.

This is an exciting ensemble of masterful musicians bringing a new sound on ancient instruments to the concert stage.

Mei Han is recognized internationally as one of the leading virtuosi and authorities on the Chinese zheng (zither). The Montreal Gazette called her "The Zheng Master" and the Calgary Herald referred to her as a "virtuoso of the first order". Han has performed and lectured on Chinese music worldwide; recorded two Juno nominated CDs; and created a large repertoire of new music, contemporary chamber music, free improv, and world music for the zheng. She has performed with Orchestras in China and Canada, and been the subject of national TV and radio specials in Australia, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Singapore and others.

Guilian Liu is one of the world's premiere pipa (lute) masters. Liu graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing and was the first prize-winner of the Chinese National Instrumental Music Competition in 1989. Liu has performed in Europe, Asia and North America. Her superb expressiveness and impeccable techniques were praised by renowned conductors Herbert von Karajan and Seiji Ozawa. She was featured performing in the Oscar winning documentary From Mao to Mozart - Isaac Stern in China (1979). Liu was the Director of the Shanghai Pipa Society before moving to Canada.

Zhimin Yu is a versatile ruan (lute) virtuoso. Yu was a principle player at the prestigious Chinese National Broadcast Orchestra, Beijing, with which toured to numerous countries. Since immigrating to Canada in 1989, she has become one of the most sought Chinese musicians in Vancouver and has performed with the Vancouver Chinese Ensemble, the Silk Road Ensemble, and many other cross cultural projects. Yu is also a gifted composer, actively writing for a wide variety of Chinese and Western ensembles. Yu has single handedly redefined the ruan repertoire, bringing it into the 21st century.

Geling Jiang is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, who started her professional training at age of 10. After graduated from Wu Han musical Conservatory, she became a member of the Chime Bell Ensemble of Hubei province for 20 years, with which she recorded numerous radio broadcasts, TV programs, and films; and performed tours to the United States, Japan and Singapore. Trained initially as a sanxian (three-string fretless lute) player, she also regularly plays the zheng, pipa and ruan.