In Conversation: Wang Zheng-Ting

In Conversation: Wang Zheng-Ting

On ethnomusicology, the development process and performing the sheng.

In Conversation: Wang Zheng-Ting

On ethnomusicology, the development process and performing the sheng.

Congratulations on your recent performances of Kites of Tianjin! In this work, you perform on the sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument. What was your first experience of the sheng, and when did you start playing the instrument?

I grew up in a big family as an amateur music lover. My younger brother played multiple instruments, so when I was little I heard him playing violin, Chinese violin, harmonica and Chinese flute. Sometimes, I would try out his instruments when he was not home! Finally, when I was in primary school, I started to play Chinese flute, harmonica and violin properly. When I was in middle school, I was fascinated by the sound of the Chinese mouth organ, so I started practicing very hard and seriously. I can remember spending most of my free time practicing my instrument, because my aim was to be a professional musician, and during that period, becoming one was a very hard and competitive path.          

You traveled to Tianjin with Adam Simmons for this project - can you tell me a bit about that experience and how the creative development process was aided by the trip?

I think the trip was very important for the project's development. When we were in Tianjin, we tried to meet as many musicians and artists as possible; visiting the Conservatory, the Song Dancing Company, and attending the Tianjin Conservatory of Music final examinations. We also tried to eat the local street food and to talk to the locals as if we were local Tianjin people. I believe all these activities assisted Adam in the composition of the piece.        

The work is based on the "Wei Kites", which were made by Wei Yuantai for the Emporer. What is the story of these kites?

When we visit Wei Guoqiu's workshop, we found there were so many different kinds of kites; in the shapes of birds, fish, dragonflies, butterflies. I am not sure what kind of kites were made for the Emperor by Wei Yuantai, though we were told by Wei Guoqiu (the fourth generation maker of Wei Kites), that there are outdoor and indoor kites. Usually, the kites are for entertaining and for children to play with; they can be flown incredibly high. Ten years ago I brought Wei Guoqiu to Melbourne to celebrate the Chinese New Year and during the event, he flew a kite so high that the pilot in a helicopter was suspicious about what it was, and he got told to bring it down. When we saw each other in April this year, we spoke about the incident, and he told me that the kite he had flown that day was a very good one, and after he pulled it down a young man had asked him to sell it.     

As well as performing on the sheng, you have a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. How have your academic studies assisted your performance practice?

I think my studies in ethnomusicology help me to think more about the things behind music making. They also help me to communicate well with my fellow musicians and ethnomusicologists through international conferences and publications. 

Do you have any advice for students interested in finding out more about ethnomusicology?

If you really love music and are interested in ethnomusicology please do so, though remember that there is not a huge demand for ethnomusicologists in the job market. I do it because I love the music and I am interested in the subject, and I think that's a good enough reason to focus on research. 

Finally, where can we hear you perform for the rest of 2018?

In September, I will assist the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music Symphony Orchestra on their tour to Singapore and Shanghai, and in December, will then perform again with Adam Simmons in Tianjin and Shanghai.

Hear Wang Zheng-Ting with Adam Simmons on their tour to Tianjin and Shanghai in December 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker.