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The sounds of succor: Musicians' online efforts amid pandemic

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2020-04-08

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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the initiator of the Silk Road Ensemble, launches a project to bring solace and hope through music to people amid the COVID-19 pandemic. XINHUA

"In these days of anxiety, I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort," says Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist, who has been trying to provide succor during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since March 14, Ma has been posting videos of himself performing short music pieces on his social media platforms.

The first video he posted was his rendition of Antonin Dvorak's Going Home from 1893's Symphony No 9 and then on March 17, he posted: "This is for the healthcare workers on the front lines-the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No 3. Your ability to balance human connection and scientific truth in service of us all gives me hope."

All his videos are posted using the hashtag #SongsOfComfort, which is an idea he came up with spontaneously.

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Pipa player Wu Man, a founding member of the ensemble, says the "songs of comfort" project helps to connect people during the pandemic. CHINA DAILY

"I was in the office one day and we were talking like 'let's do something in this time that actually serves people's needs'. Somehow, music has always been comforting to me. This is what I do and this is the best that I can offer. I know that people are doing everything that they can to help in whatever way they know how," the cellist says in an interview with PBS NewsHour at his home in Massachusetts, the United States.

"When I was 19, I had a teacher who said 'Yo-Yo, you haven't found your voice'. I said OK and I kept looking for my voice. I think that my voice is in finding the needs of others and then representing them. If we can express what's inside, it gives a deeper understanding of one another."

The cellist also encourages and invites others to join him to post videos to give comfort. "We are collecting what is personal, what is true, what is trustworthy, what is community," he says.

One of the musicians who joined in Ma's "songs of comfort" project is pipa player Wu Man, a longtime friend of Ma and a principal musician and a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Silk Road Ensemble, which Ma initiated about two decades ago to find the meeting points of musical traditions between China and Europe.

Wu played the classic Chinese pipa piece, titled Da Lang Tao Sha (Great Waves Washing the Sand) composed by Hua Yanjun in 1950, recording the piece at her US home in California.

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Sheng player Wu Tong joins Yo-Yo Ma's project of posting music online. CHINA DAILY

"When Yo-Yo sent me an email about his 'songs of comfort' project, I thought it was a great idea to communicate with music and to bring joy to people during this hard time," says Wu. "I chose the piece because it's from my hometown, and I haven't played it for a very long time."

Born in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Wu became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

She moved to the US in 1990 and has imbued the 2,000-year-old, four-stringed Chinese lute with a contemporary vim, infusing it into a variety of genres, like jazz, rock and electronic music as well as performing with symphony orchestras, contemporary dance and theater productions.

"I've received lots of messages after I posted the piece online. The messages were sent from all around the world, including questions about my musical instrument, about my music learning experiences along with good wishes. It really connects people during these hard days," Wu says.

"I think a lot about the function of music because of this project and it's really an opportunity for me to associate my music with the word 'comfort'."

She adds that the piece is a combination of slower and faster tempos and reflects her mood at the moment.

"The ongoing viral outbreak has hit all aspects of our lives heavily. My son's university has canceled its graduation ceremony in May, which is very sad. We've been looking forward to that day for years. As musicians, we face challenges when our shows are canceled," says Wu.

She had planned to give two shows at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing over March 14-15 by working with the NCPA Orchestra, which have been postponed to August 2021. "I felt frustrated and disappointed, but then I rescheduled my life and, surprisingly, I found new audiences for my music through online events."

Wu joined in several online shows organized by the NCPA and Chinese media platforms, such as Lifeweek and Youku, which all received warm feedback.

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The 20-year-old Silk Road Ensemble aims to find the meeting points of musical traditions between China and Europe. CHINA DAILY

"Usually, I perform or give lectures in front of a real audience, members of which may be shy to ask me questions and share their ideas about my music. But with the online shows, I receive many questions, which is very inspiring," Wu says.

Also joining in Ma in offering musical solace via the project is Wu Tong, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble since 2000, who plays the sheng, a traditional wind instrument.

Wu Tong has shared his music through online shows since the outbreak. He has arranged Bach's Air on the G String, a part of the composer's Orchestral Suite No 3, for his musical instrument, which was shared online as part of the "songs of comfort" project on April 6.

"There is no stage, no lights and no applause from audience. But when I play music at home, I still feel the energy music brings to me, which is important," says Wu Tong, 48, who comes from a prominent family of sheng makers.

During his days of staying at home, Wu Tong has spent hours adapting musical pieces and practicing meditation. He canceled his plans to record in Japan and shoot a documentary in the US, as well as some other planned performances.

"Since we all have to slow down due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's a time to reflect upon our lives, to call for compassion and change," he says.

Contact the writer at chennan@chinadaily.com.cn


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