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George Gao: Force of Nature

January 31, 2013

George GaoThe other day we skyped George Gao, the great erhu player. He was in his small, fourth-floor apartment a few blocks from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “Where I am used to be a French hotel,” he said and went on to describe the huge tree in the courtyard, a “French Plane” planted during the time of the concession. It was 10 o’clock in the morning; he was doing back-to-back 30-minute interviews. “My room is very messy,” he confided and added that this is where he practices, between two and four hours every day.

Gao, one of the world masters of the erhu, will perform on Saturday, at the San Francisco Symphony’s Chinese New Year Concert and Celebration.

The erhu is that two-stringed, quintessentially Chinese instrument in the Huqin family of bowed string instruments, brought to China in about the Tenth Century — by “barbarians” from Central Asia. The sound box, or bowl, is often covered in python skin, and these days to own an erhu in China you must secure a certificate from the State Forestry Administration certifying that the snakes used were not wild but raised in snake farms.

The Erhu produces a highly evocative sound that often seems less a violin or a lute than a human cry. And while it can convey lightness it has an extraordinary capacity to express nostalgia and sorrow.

We asked Gao whether Anders Ericsson’s notion of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach mastery of a discipline resonated with him. “It’s especially true for instrumentalists,” he said and went on to describe the moment in 1985 when he felt he could finally play the instrument without feeling “enslaved.”

“After a very intensive practice for a particular competition I thought to myself, oh my god, I feel so much better. There’s no longer a wall between the instrument and me. I can play however I feel. And so I started to explore other possibilities including Western European classical pieces.”

You need to tune your mind to your muscles, until you feel no obstacle, until playing the instrument is like singing. – George Gao

And what was the wall between him and the erhu?

“The wall is the technique that limits you from doing things as easily as if the instrument were your voice. As an instrumentalist that’s what you need to conquer, to make the instrument as much like a part of your body as possible, and so you need to tune your mind to your muscles, until you feel no obstacle, until playing the instrument is like singing.”

Child of the Cultural Revolution

Gao was born in Shanghai in 1967, the year after the start of the Cultural Revolution. Not long afterwards, his parents were assigned to work in northwest China, in Gansu province, a harsh land at the eastern end of the Silk Road, on the edge of the Gobi Desert and well known for earthquakes, famine, and drought. His father was a railway engineer, a needed skill in the province; his mother, a music teacher.

At six, Gao took up the erhu, whose roots are in this part of the country. “When I was a child I was very mischievous. I often got in fights. My mother thought I should learn music and we had an erhu. It was very cheap.

What’s important to me is the erhu’s value as a communication tool to reach out to the audience.

“I remember when I was a child I didn’t think about getting into music professionally. This was during a period (in the mid 1970s) when a lot of people like me wanted to avoid hard labor so they learned to play instruments. Parents didn’t want their children enslaved to the earth as they had been …. In those days music was for opera and theater and served only one purpose: as government propaganda.”

Gao eventually returned to Shanghai where he entered the conservatory, and so began an international career that eventually lead to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and appearances with ensembles and orchestras around the world. Recently, he has been invited to various meetings to talk about the intersection of Chinese and Western music traditions.

“Of course every instrument originates from somewhere and has a repertoire based on that place, but the instrument itself should not have a national signature, a national identity. The violin is a Western European classical instrument, but when it’s played in India, or China, and the music is played the way it’s meant to be played there, the sound is wonderful and not out of place. My point is that the instrument is only a voice and should not have any national identification. I don’t view the erhu as a Chinese instrument but rather as an instrument that originated in Mongolia, was popularized in China, and now is heard within different cultures around the world.

“What’s important to me is its value as a communication tool to reach out to the audience.”

His other phone was ringing — another interview. Gao’s become a rock star of sorts. He had one more thing to add: “When I play music not only does it make me feel good mentally, but physically it makes you healthier. When I practice, the physical movement of using the bow and moving my fingers makes me really sweat. It’s a way to master the emotions and your body at the same time. It’s true exercise.”

Mark MacNamara, a San Francisco-based journalist, has written for such publications as Nautilus, Salon, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair.  Recent pieces for San Francisco Classical Voice include profiles of San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink, and the great violinist, Midori; along with essays on Teddy Abrams’s effort to build political bridges with music and Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast.