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 instruments.
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 Ramirez?
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 crisp sound.
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?