AT THE HERBST THEATRE IN SAN FRANCISCO,
a guitarist takes the stage carrying a Greg
Smallman guitar, sits down, and launches into
a blistering “Leyenda” by Albéniz. Later, there
is a sensitive, romantic interpretation of “Valses
Poéticos” by Granados. But the real excitement
begins when the guitarist’s foot starts
tapping a mysterious green object, and we
hear the sound of a Spanish castanet accompanied
by a Delta blues bottleneck sliding
against nylon strings. Thus begins Stephen
Goss’ “Farewell My Concubine,” a Chineseinspired
piece written for the guitarist. While
all this naturally suggests the presence of John
Williams, the guitarist onstage is Xuefei Yang.
“When I was nine years old, my life changed
after I heard a recording of John Williams playing
Spanish music on the classical guitar,” says
Yang (who prefers to be called Fei, pronounced
“Fey”). At 17, she played Carlo Domeniconi’s
“Koyunbaba” and several other pieces for
Williams at a master class in her native Beijing.
Williams, who had never heard the piece
before, liked it so much that he later recorded
his own version. Williams also gave two of
his prized Smallman guitars to Yang’s conservatory
so that she and her fellow students
could better hone their skills. Yang became
the first guitarist to graduate from the
Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing
with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and the first
Chinese musician to study classical guitar
in the West, winning an international scholarship
for her postgraduate studies at the
Royal Academy of Music. Now 30, Yang has
performed throughout the world at some of
the most prestigious venues—including Wigmore
Hall and Lincoln Center—and recorded
three CDs. The title of her latest disc, 40
Degrees North [EMI Classics], refers to the
fact that the capitals of Spain and China both
lie at nearly the same degree of latitude.
On 40 Degrees North, you used four different
I like to change guitars all the time while
recording. Also, sometimes when I’m fed up
with practicing, I’ll switch guitars to get more
inspiration. It is difficult to travel with multiple
guitars, so if I can only carry one it will
be the Smallman. Some people say that
Smallman guitars are only loud and have no
color—but I disagree. Smallmans can have
lots of color, depending on how you play
them. And the complaint that they are loud
is a funny one, because when you play with
an orchestra or even with wind instruments,
you need a loud guitar. A Smallman may be
louder than other guitars but, compared to
other instruments, it’s still quiet. I played all
the Chinese pieces on the album on the
Smallman, because Chinese music is very
lyrical and melodic, and the Smallman is resonant
and really sings.
I also have a Ramirez that someone lent
me last year, and I find that playing Spanish
music on it is very authentic, as it has a very
quick response and is a little bit dry sounding.
When I play scales, the accent is an
important part of getting the articulation to
sound right. There are some rasgueados [a
strumming technique using single digits in
rapid succession that is commonly employed
in flamenco music] in one of the Spanish
pieces and the Ramirez sounds very crisp
and quick when using that technique.
The third guitar is a Fleta, which belongs
to a friend, and is very big and hard to play.
I used it for “Valses Poéticos,” because of its
depth and silky character. The fourth guitar
was a borrowed Michael Gee with a spruce
top, which I like very much. I have been
playing cedar-top guitars for years, but I
found that the Huang Zi piece, “Plum Blossoms
in the Snow,” sounded very nice on
the Michael Gee.
What led you to record “Yi Dance” with the
I thought that using a Spanish guitar to
play a Chinese piece would be somewhat
interesting. That piece was written for pipa
[a lute-like Chinese stringed instrument],
and the Ramirez has a similarly bright and
What type of strings do you use?
When performing, I use D’Addario Pro
Arté EJ46LP Hard Tension strings, and for
recording, I use D’Addario Pro Arté EJ45LPs,
because I don’t need the hard tension. Both
types of strings are lightly polished, which
helps to reduce noise. Also, the LP strings
are brighter than normal D’Addario strings,
and sound particularly good on the Smallman,
as it has a mellower tone.
What parallels and differences do you find
between Spanish and Chinese music?
They are very different, of course, but I
do find lots of similarities between pipa
music and flamenco music. Both are quite
free and lyrical, with very rhythmic parts.
There are two types of pipa music: One is
very intense, always describing war and fighting,
and the other is slow and liquid, with
lots of tremolo. More generally, Chinese
music has very little harmony.
“Farewell My Concubine,” by Stephen Goss, has
a very interesting intro. How did he communicate
what he wanted for the intro? Did he have all this
written down in the score or did he show it to you?
We both live in London, so we got
together and he showed me how to use the
castanet and the slide.
What challenges do Chinese composers face
when writing music for the guitar?
Chinese composers do not understand
the guitar. I would like to help them learn
more about the instrument and inspire them
to compose for it, and that’s why I asked
Stephen, who understands Chinese culture,
to write some Chinese-themed pieces. For
me, it doesn’t matter if a Welshman composes
Chinese music. As long as it’s good
music, why not?