East meets West equals life-changing experience

Matthew BourneTue 3rd April 2012

An encounter with an enlightened zither player is the highlight of a six-week residency in China

Firstly, I am not who you think I am. If you are reading this blog in expectation of details of my forthcoming works for ballet, then I must point out that I am not the choreographer of the same name; so rather than tell you to stop reading, I welcome you to start reading, instead…

It is a privilege to have been chosen to take part in a six-week musician-in-residence scheme, based in Xiamen, China, made possible by the PRS for Music Foundation and the British Council. I'm now in the final phase of my residency, half in a state of reflection and half in anticipation of events still to come. In fact, what's been so rewarding about this experience so far is that most days I have no idea what's going to happen, who I'm going to meet and what surprises are around the corner. The people of this laid-back, gently anarchic and wonderful city have been so kind, coming out of the woodwork to introduce me to people who they think may be able to help and/or provide inspiration.

A very recent example of this happened just the other week when I was approached by a student studying the guqin (a seven-stringed zither) who invited me to meet with him and his teacher, Yong Lin, at his home near Xiamen University. This meeting a few days later proved to be a life-changing experience. The way Yong Lin spoke about music was beautiful, inspiring and more akin to meditation technique than anything else (indeed, the history of instrument itself numbers a few thousand years and is closely related to nature and the practices of Taoism/Lao Tzu/Confucius/Buddhism): playing the guqin is not about acquisition, ego, or even 'technique' as we would define it; if one is to master this instrument, aspects of the breath, inner stillness and calm are fundamental. This is the technique. And, after further meetings, it became clear that adhering to any other method as the means by which to 'acquire' mastery is utterly futile!

Consisting of one bedroom, a guqin/meditation room and a small kitchen, Yong Lin's home was simple, uncluttered and itself had an air of calm. It is difficult for me to describe the impact or influence the sound of this instrument had on its immediate environment – it was as if the air in the room and around the guqin became still, frozen, and that I was suddenly even more aware of my breath, bodily movements, sensations and thoughts. Sonically, the guqin is very quiet, very beautiful and I felt it was impossible to turn my attention to anything else, even if I'd wanted to. Each time I have visited I have not wanted to leave!

Through our conversations, we talked about the factors that are important to guqin performance, most importantly surrendering oneself – ie allowing factors such as the immediate environment, temperature, situation, one's own mood/temperament to dictate and shape the interpretation of the music, embracing impermanence rather than seeking to control or 'perfect' the musical outcome. These are the very tenets that I have tried to adopt in my own approach to performance and I cannot describe the feeling of sharing a common border with such an ancient musical discipline, and only just 6000 miles or so away from home.

Read more about Matthew Bourne's work at his blog

Matthew Bourne

English pianist and composer Matthew Bourne first came to national attention as one of the winners of the Perrier Jazz Awards in London, 2001. He has released two solo albums in 2007 and 2012 as well as several collaborative works. For more information, visit http://matthewbourne.com

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