fROOTS Magazine 2006.06


LIU FANG Le Son de Soie – Silk Sound
Accords Croisés AC 116

Liu Fang, born and educated in Yunnan province of southwest China and now resident in Montreal, is best known as one of the world’s leading players of pipa, the dry-toned, teardrop-shaped Chinese four-string lute. Her occasional British performances have included a rain-soaked, noise-pollution afflicted one at Reading Womad a couple of years ago in which her concentration and undistracted excellence brought deserved acclaim from a dripping but entranced audience.

Less known is her command of the less air-portable guzheng, the Chinese long-zither that is the parent to a family widespread in east and central Asia including the Japanese koto. Its strings – nowadays usually 20-25, each running over a movable bridge – are tuned to the appropriate mode, but in the tradition those notes are considered dead, meaningless, until animated by bends and vibrato achieved by the player pressing on the non-sounding lengths of the strings behind the bridges.

Whereas in most of her recordings on the Philmultic label Liu Fang concentrates on pipa, for this elegantly packaged release on French label Accords Croisés three of the eleven tracks are guzheng solos, adding variety and giving a wider view of her musicianship. All the rest are pipa-led: four solo, two duets with Ballaké Sissoko’s kora, two with Henri Tournier on Indian bansuri transverse flute, and one with Algerian oud player Alla.

She has an extraordinary focused, poised presence in her manner and her playing. In a lesser player this is just a trained formality; the body of material and techniques for her instruments is extremely highly developed, passed down through centuries. But Liu Fang’s total devotion to her playing has moved her beyond perfect execution to the creativity and flexibility that marks a true musician.

The duets here are based on traditional themes but are improvising dialogues. For me those with the kora, one based on a Songhai melody from Mali, the other on a traditional tune from Kanding in southwest China, have the most direction, flow and balance between the players, whereas while the oud and bansuri enrich the tone-colour palette those pieces seem rather more tentative.

The album has the sort of airy, reflective sound the instrumentation suggests, but there are bursts of wildness, particularly in the pipa solo The Dragon Boat, a modern piece composed in the 1960s by Lin Shicheng based on three folk tunes, in which Fang uses techniques of scratching, damping, aggressive rasqueado and fast tremolo (the latter involving an extraordinarily disciplined rippling of all five picking fingers).
More about Liu Fang and her instruments. Accords Croisés are distributed by Harmonia Mundi.

- Andrew Cronshaw

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