I can’t help but think how different your life would have been if you had been born earlier. Could you talk about your learning environment during your early years?
There were very few musical scores and records of guitar in China at that time, and no CDs at all. For the first three years, I played with other kids in a “guitar group.” We mostly played to accompany our own singing. Our teacher was very good in terms of making us enjoy playing, but she was an amateur in guitar teaching.
After two years of playing, your parents spent more than one month’s wages to purchase you a better guitar. What pieces were you playing at that time? Did you learn by sight-reading or play by ear?
Chinese parents are always extremely supportive of their children. I learned by sight-reading from the very beginning. I played some Carcassi, Sor, Giuliani, and Tarrega, and I also played some folk songs. When I was 11, I was learning Giuliani’s “Grand Overture,” Barrios’s “La Catedral,” and Sor’s “Variations on the Theme of the Magic Flute.”
You played for your hero John Williams in a master class when you were 17. What did you play for him?
I played Mertz, Regondi, and Domeniconi. That was the first time John heard “Koyunbaba,” which he later recorded on The Guitarist [Sony Classical]. It has been a privilege to know John. He is not only a true musician with such passion in his music but also an incredibly generous and kind person. I’ve learned a lot from him. In addition to guitar playing, I also received a lot of inspiration and direction from him.
One piece on Si Ji, “South China Sea Peace” by Stephen Funk Pearson, is very unusual. You place an additional saddle on the fretboard under the strings, giving the guitar two sets of six strings—two different tunings and sounds at the same time. Some of the pitches are not perfect and this becomes part of the character of the piece. Can you clarify this intriguing technique?
If you put a pencil underneath the strings at, say, the 10th fret, you’ll find two different tunings if you pluck both sides of the pencil. If you play with both hands on one side of the pencil, then you will find some of the pitches are not perfect. For this piece, I had to play on both sides of the extra saddle, making for a very unique sound. And it’s quite tricky to sight-read the score!
What advice would you give to aspiring guitarists?
I strongly suggest that every guitarist try to collaborate with other instruments as much as possible. I also hope guitarists consider playing in the overall context of music rather than just playing the instrument itself. Everyone should try to make a small contribution to the guitar’s development. Above all, the keys to success are true love, will power, and dedication—never give up.