In pre-pandemic days, this would have been a joyous night for Gao Hong. She and Issam Rafea would have been together on stage at the Cedar, playing the CD release concert for their latest collaboration, “From Our World to Yours.” Earlier this month, the album won two gold medals at the Global Music Awards, an international music competition that celebrates independent music.
Gao is a world-renowned master of the pipa, the pear-shaped Chinese lute. She began her career as a professional musician in China at age 12. In 1994, she played a 10-city tour of the United States at the invitation of Minnesota-based composer Paul Dice, who had seen her perform in China.
“At that time, not many people in America knew about the pipa,” she said. She decided to stay. “Then Paul and I married, and here I am. For 26 years!” For 19 of those years, she has been on the music faculty of Carleton College, teaching Chinese instruments and directing Carleton’s Chinese Music Ensemble.
In 2005, Gao became the first traditional musician to receive a Bush Artist Fellowship. In 2019, she won her fifth McKnight Artist Fellowship, the only musician in any genre to win so many. She has received grants, awards and commissions from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Jerome Foundation, American Composers Forum, TPT, Theater Mu, the Walker, USArtists, and many others.
In spring 2017, Gao met Syrian oud master Issam Rafea at Carleton, where he was artist-in-residence. She suggested they go into a studio and record some improvisations. These became their first album, the award-winning “Life As Is: The Blending of Ancient Souls From Syria and China.”
Their music is an exquisite, in-the-moment wordless communication. Something happens when they play that’s hard to explain. Everything is here and now. No two performances are the same. The instruments seem to sing in different voices.
We spoke by phone on Thursday morning. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: This must be a bittersweet day for you. Tonight would have been your CD release concert with Issam Rafea at the Cedar. Did you have other plans for the new CD, and what happened to those?
Gao Hong: We canceled six concerts in the Twin Cities. One at the Cedar, one at Carleton, and four at libraries. We had a nine-city China tour planned for June [that included] Beijing and Shanghai. So many people were waiting for us!
Last Saturday, there was a video livestream in China of a concert we played last year at the Smithsonian. The Chinese online broadcast stream has 172,000 views. We are so proud.
We’re thinking about having another tour in America, and one in Europe. But right now, obviously, everything is canceled.
MP: Tell us about the kind of music you and Issam play together.
GH: People think we are playing music we already composed. But when we perform, we are improvising. Making music on the spot. We don’t talk about what will come – which key, what kind of mood. We don’t give a title because we don’t know the title until after we play. We don’t talk at all. We listen to each other and go with the heart.
MP: That sounds like a wonderful way to communicate.
GH: It’s the most exciting part. We use music to make a dialogue. That’s how we talk to each other. I’m trying to understand what he’s thinking, what his next passage will be, which key he will play in. If you listen carefully, you know the next step.
Issam likes to change keys, so I follow him. Or he follows my melody and I follow his harmonies. Suddenly we both go to the major at the same time, or to a different key, and we don’t know how we even got there.
We have similar backgrounds – playing, composing, improvising. Also, the pipa, if you trace it back, is part of the oud family. One (the oud) is the lower range, and one (the pipa) is the higher range. So it becomes a 10-string instrument, and we’re like 20 fingers.
MP: Is improvisation part of the pipa tradition?
GH: We do have some improvisation, but it’s more like bluegrass. You play the melody and add your own elements and techniques. But you don’t improvise outside of the melody.
MP: What else in your life has changed because of the virus and the lockdown?
GH: Oh my gosh! Teaching! Besides teaching individual instruments – pipa and all the Chinese instruments – I’m also directing the Chinese Music Ensemble.
One-on-one teaching through Zoom or Skype is not new for me, because I work with a lot of people from England, China, Spain, New York and Seattle. What is new is the rehearsal with the ensemble.
It’s impossible! I have to talk to everybody together and make sure that each part is right. Then coach them one-on-one. Then they each send me a video and I look at the video. The next time, I tell them “Use this finger” or “Use this string.” It’s crazy! I teach them one-on-one, then put them together to see what it sounds like. It’s so much work!
The good thing is, I don’t have anything else to do right now, and I don’t have to go anywhere. So teaching is making me happy.
MP: Since today is your CD release, tell us about “From Our World to Yours.”
GH: Our first CD, “Life As Is,” was the first time [Issam and I] met. We didn’t rehearse, just went into the studio and played. The music just naturally came out of the moment. After that, we had a connection. We started touring and made a commitment to another CD.
We went to Kracum Hall, the new concert hall at Carleton, and recorded it live. This time, we tried to bring more colors from our instruments. I wasn’t representing pure Chinese music. He wasn’t representing pure Syrian music. We were both representing ourselves. “From Our World to Yours” isn’t about two instruments, it’s about two people.
We went to the hall and played – no talk, no editing. It was absolutely organic.
People have asked, “What’s your secret? Do you ever talk about your music and how to improve?” We both said, “Our secret: Don’t talk!” If we don’t talk, we have the heart connection. This kind of connection doesn’t happen very often, especially from two different cultures and two different instruments. But it sometimes happens. If you use your heart to play, you connect to people’s hearts. Use your heart and the audience will hear you.
MP: You’ve been very successful at getting grants in Minnesota. You’ve heard that the Minnesota State Arts Board has suspended nine of its ten grant categories to focus on general operating grants. How does this affect you?
GH: First, I want to thank the Minnesota people. So many people have asked me, “Why do you stay in Minnesota? Why not come to New York or San Francisco?” I say, I love Minnesota. It’s very liberal, with such great support. I love the State Arts Board, McKnight [Foundation], Bush [Foundation] and MRAC [Metropolitan Regional Arts Council].
When I heard the State Arts Board would cancel individual grants, I was very, very upset. It’s not because of the money, but so many projects will not get done. So many activities for individual artists will be gone. Will some of the money go to artists?
I’ve performed in Carnegie Hall, in big concert halls and festivals. But for me, it’s not about where I play, it’s about who I play for. I did a lot of touring with an Arts Tour Minnesota grant, going to small towns. One of the towns had 132 people. I had 59 people show up! For Chinese music! They had never heard a pipa or seen a Chinese person. Then I went to a small library. The children had never seen a pipa. They came up to touch it.
I like to play for people like I’m in the living room with them. Then they can understand this music, understand this culture, rather than be scared of it. That’s why these grants are so important – the touring grants and the folk and traditional arts grants.
Especially in this difficult time, music is so important. When a tragedy occurs, music is part of the medicine for healing people’s spirits. It comforts people and connects people. Music is a bridge.
I hope the state arts board has something for individual artists. But I’m not complaining. I’m lucky I still have a teaching job. But if they don’t have grants for artists, if they cancel all the gigs, where will the artists go? What will they do?
MP: Some people are calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” Have you ever felt targeted?
GH: I personally didn’t get attacked, like other people. Northfield is pretty nice. But I can feel the tension. One time I was shopping, and a lady said, “Are you sure you want to shop here?” That was before everything closed.
People would look at me like a stranger. If I had a mask on, they would stay away from me. My daughter, who is in England, called me and said, “Mom, try not to go shopping. Because now is very dangerous.” She’s worried about me.
Since I’m in a small town, I don’t feel that very much. But some of my friends got attacked. A neighbor wrote a messy note about the “Chinese virus.” That’s obviously not the right thing to do.
I’m lucky I’m in Minnesota, lucky I’m in Northfield, and I don’t go anywhere.
Out today (Friday, April 24),“From Our World to Yours” is available from Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music and Arkiv Music. Here’s a link to all. This page also includes the video of Hong and Issam performing at the Smithsonian that has been viewed in China more than 170,000 times.