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Lan Tung sets out to redefine ‘Chinese music’

The musician and improviser puts her eclectic tastes on display with the first-ever Sound of Dragon Festival beginning May 1.


Many people have asked Lan Tung why there’s never been a Vancouver festival celebrating Chinese music. “There are so many Chinese musicians here, it’s natural to think it’s been done,” she says.

Tung is an erhu (二胡) performer, composer and improviser. This year she’s organized a music festival called Sound of Dragon, which aims to celebrate “Chinese music” while breaking down common assumptions about the genre. Tung says she puts quotation marks around the words “Chinese music” to both respect and challenge tradition.Lan Jazz fest blue

“In terms of marketing you just have to use words people will understand,” Tung says of the labels “Chinese music” and “world music.” She says these descriptions are often record label inventions. “It’s up for interpretation—that’s why we put it in quotation marks: [audiences] don’t immediately interpret our performance as traditional Chinese music. Eventually we want to change ideas of what Chinese music can be.”

With plenty of improvisation, experimentation and cross-cultural collaboration, Sound of Dragon stands out for its diversity and innovation. “The scale we’re doing and the inclusion of so many different genres and styles has never been done before,” Tung explains of the performers’ jazz, contemporary and experimental influences. “It’s really difficult for us because we are in so many different styles.”

Originally from Taiwan, Lan has been playing the erhu for thirty years. In Taiwan, she received her training under Chen-Ming Huang (founder of the Chai Found Music Workshop), Su-Feng Chen (concert master of Taipei Municipal Chinese Orchestra), and then with Chun-Tung Lee when she entered the Chinese Cultural University.

Tung’s hunger for music outside her own culture has pushed her to collaborate with musicians, composers and improvisers from around the world. She has studied with Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath in Bombay, Egyptian violinist Dr. Alfred Gamil in Cairo, and with Uyghur fiddle virtuoso Abdukerim Osman in Urumqi. Tung is currently the leader of the Juno-nominated Orchid Ensemble, and she performs with contemporary ensembles like Birds of Paradox, Tandava and Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra.

While her training is disciplined, the sounds of Tung’s compositions are free and unpredictable, thanks to her understanding of improvisation. “Improvisation is a term that can mean different things,” says Tung. “When you look at different music, for example Indian music, pretty much all songs are improvised. They have a composition, usually quite short, and the rest is expected to be improvised.”

Tung says each culture has its own rules of improvisation, which creates an interesting space for collaboration. While a song may sound like anything goes, each mode and set of rules informs the live composition.

“Improvisors are really composers who are composing together onstage,” says Tung. “We’re constantly listening and making decisions: you decide when to join, what to leave out…. if you decide you’re going to play, what are you going to play?”

The Sound of Dragon Festival runs May 9 to 11 at the Roundhouse Theatre, featuring dozens of performances by local and international artists.

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