Mr Wang Guotong is a musician with an illustrious career. He has devoted more than 50 years of his career to the development of the erhu, erhu music and performance, as well as to the education of traditional Chinese music.
Famous for his utilisation of the spiccato bowing technique, we were curious as to how he came up with this technique on the erhu when predecessors never had such a technique and some were in fact quite opposed to him introducing such a technique to the erhu.
"In the late 50s when I was still a student, there were not many technical studies for the erhu. So I took etudes and studies from western instruments such as the violin and cello and practiced them on the erhu. They had many passages requiring fast spiccato bowing and as I practiced and experimented, the spiccato bowing for the erhu slowly developed. It was a natural process."
Talking about his collaboration with the composer Liu Wenjin (劉文金) on the Sanmen Gorge Capriccio (三門峽暢想曲), Mr Wang recalls that there were many fast passages inside the piece that naturally called for the spiccato bowing. However, this was perhaps the first time such a technique was used in an erhu composition and many people could not accept it. He was hence faced with plenty of criticisms that going along such a path, developing these new techniques, he was bringing the erhu into a suicidal path. On hindsight however, we have plenty more other types of techniques now that are even more demanding and people are playing entire pieces like "Carmen" on the erhu. New techniques while they may not be entirely suitable for the erhu, does provide a very good push to spur further improvements and development in erhu playing techniques. Mr Wang's stance now is hence that while it is important to constantly develop new and improved techniques for the erhu, we should still always remember the traditional things. Being able to play fast virtuosic passages must not come at the expense of not being able to play slow and expressive and traditional passages well.
In addition to being a performer, Mr Wang has also worked with instrument-maker Man Ruixing (滿瑞興) to create new specifications for the erhu to improve the sound production and quality.
"The instrument I am going to use for "Erquan" (二泉映月) in this concert will be a "didiao cuxian erhu" (低調粗弦二胡). There are two different schools in folk erhu, the "xixian erhu school" (細弦二胡流派) and the "cuxian erhu school" (粗弦二胡流派). Liu Tianhua (劉天華) belongs to the former while Ah Bing (阿炳) to the latter. The "cuxian" erhu is much used in the operas of the Jiang nan (江南) area as an accompanying instrument. The tuning is a fifth lower than that of the "xixian" erhu. Using such an instrument to play pieces such as Ah Bing's "erquan" will much better bring out the anguish and despondent tone of the music."
Mr Wang started collaborating with Mr Man Ruixing in the 70s in the development of the instrument construction. They started from the shape of the zhonghu sound box and slowly reduced the size until the specifications for the best sound was found and that became a fixed dimension for erhu construction. They had wanted to apply for a patent for these specifications but an accident made him rethink his priorities.
During the period of recuperation from his traffic accident, Mr Wang spent a lot of time thinking. He realised that in applying for a patent for the erhu specifications, he might get monetary rewards when people assume his erhu specifications. However, there might be many others who will modify the specifications just a little, so as not have to pay for the patent. But it will defeat the purpose of them experimenting and finding the best specifications for the erhu if no one is going to use it. Hence he decided not to go ahead in applying for a patent for the erhu specifications and this specification is still what many erhu makers are following now.
Mr Wang has also written many compositions for the erhu. It seems like many performers of his generation were also prolific composers of their own instrument whereas most performers nowadays do not write their own music. We were curious at this difference in attitudes and asked Mr Wang to comment on it.
"The popularisation of an instrument is dependent to a large part, on it's compositions. Take the erhu for example. Before Liu Tianhua (劉天華), it was largely an instrument used in accompaniment. Without his 10 erhu pieces, the erhu will still be accompanying operas now."
Although there have been more and more composers writing for the erhu now, Mr Wang feels that simply depending on the composers alone is not enough. After all, performers are the ones who know their instruments best; where the best sound will come from, what techniques to best portray the music the composer wants. This is very common in the Western music scene as well. Composers like Liszt and Paganini are themselves virtuosos on their own instruments. Ah Bing himself was also a performer and he took the melodies he knew well and developed them into the pieces we know so well today.
Mr Wang believes that it is also helpful to collaborate with composers in their compositional process. It not only helps the composers develop better ways to write for the instrument, it also helped him in refining his own compositional techniques.
With plenty of composers writing very avant garde pieces now, Mr Wang has the stance that art should be all-encompassing. The more types of compositions there are, the better it is for the music scene. Good music will withstand the test of time.
Mr Wang has devoted his entire life to the performance, teaching, writing and development for the erhu. His passion for music and for the erhu stems from his deep love for the erhu. He believes that since a person's life is limited, he should make the best of his time and devote his entire energies into doing the best he can for the area he is passionate in.
Finally, Chinese Music has undergone great changes and development over the past 50-60 years and Mr Wang has seen the development and improvement of the erhu over the years. He feels that a large part of the development of an instrument or a type of music is not merely dependent on the professionals playing it, or the students and teachers in the conservatories, but more so in the population. It is the people who provide the greatest impetus for growth and development of music.
Here is the video of our interview.