Wu Wei, was born in China and studied the sheng (Chinese mouth organ) at the Shanghai Music Conservatory. In 1995 he became a DAAD scholarship and studied at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in Berlin, where he is now based. In addition to many prestigious national and international competitions, the CD “Unsuk Chin’s 3 Concertos”, on which he has recorded one Sheng Concerto by German Gramophone with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung, won the “International Classical Music Award 2015“ and “BBC Music Magazine Award 2015 ”.


    As an avant-garde soloist, you’ve made great contribution to the evolution of the 3000 year-old sheng. How have you broken away from tradition of this ancient instrument?

    It’s a very ancient instrument, and traditionally only used to play Chinese music or Chinese opera. But in the last 25 years - I've spent more than 25 years in Europe - it has become a multi-functional instrument. In fact today I play baroque, contemporary, electronic, classical and jazz - it’s not only Chinese music anymore. There are so many different musical languages that composers speak and they have different ways of composing for the instrument. This also means there are new musical languages for me. When I play baroque or classical music, I can’t use traditional Chinese ways to play the sheng because it’s a different style.

    It’s amazing because the sheng has very rich over notes. In a traditional Chinese ensemble, the orchestral instruments tend to play very high, the instruments work well on their own but not necessarily together. The sheng ties it all together; this is one of its main functions in a Chinese ensemble. In Chinese music, instrumental polyphony is not that common. If I play Western classical music, I have to adopt a different approach. It’s similar in articulation, there are parallels between the different styles of music, but the way it sounds is different. This is a fascination for me, researching the timbral possibilities of the instrument.


    What inspired you in your earlier days to explore repertoire outside of the sheng?

    I learnt the instrument in a different way. I played Chinese music, and it’s sometimes very physical. Traditionally, we have no improvisation. At the time, before I came to Europe, I played only Chinese music, yet I felt we needed more for the instrument.

    In Germany, I was exposed to jazz, improvisation, classical music, music from different cultures and it opened a different way for me. Previously, my professor had done great work to develop the instrument physically, in doing so he extended its repertoire whilst respecting its tradition. So, with this new style of sheng, I could play traditional Chinese music but also other music.

    I have so many influences from so many different cultures and art forms, all of which inspire my playing. Every time I work with a composer they always have their own ideas about the instrument, I will also give them many ideas about the sound and skills - it’s opened so many different ways for me. I can’t say now I played avant-garde or not avant-garde music, to me it's life!


    You moved from China to Berlin in 1995 and have mentioned in a previous interview that building a bridge between the sheng and Western Classical orchestral music is a fascination for you. What has inspired you to try and widen the repertoire for the sheng and what do you find most exciting about working on a commissioned piece by a Western Classical composer?

    Chinese music is basic on the melody, more line music. Music is a kind of multi-dimension sound art, trying to open more space or more dimension for Chinese music is very very difficult. Only few musicians could find the way. Western classical music is more complex. It displays melody, harmony - and also in different ways to show more dimension of the music. This fascinates me very much. My instrument, the sheng, is the oldest Chinese harmonic wind instrument. But in Chinese music its use is very simple. Traditional Chinese harmony, in Gagaku music, only uses 11 traditional chords. But I felt, there should be more for this 3000 years old instrument. Especially after the modern 37-piped sheng redesigned by my professor, Weng Zhenfa, it could now play harmony, melody, polyphony and much more.

    The sheng alone is like a mini orchestra. But if the sheng is played alongside a Western orchestra, it could open many different musical possibilities and directions to show much more colour, power and energy. That is why I extremely like playing sheng concertos with an orchestra and have played sheng concertos from different composers like Unsuk Chin, Jukka Tiensuu, Ondrej Adamek, Enjott Schneider, Guss Janssen, Huang Ruo, and Xu Shuya.

    My new and next sheng concerto will be by a very talented Austrian composer, Bernd Richard Deutsch. I will premiere his sheng concerto with Basel Sinfonietta, Seoul Philharmonic and China NPAC Orchestra. In October, I will also play Unsuk Chin's sheng concerto with great maestro Susanna Mälkki and New York Philharmonic.


    What advice and knowledge would you give to musicians here in the UK who wish to pursue a career in the performance of or writing for non-Western Classical instruments?

    If you have an open-mind and are interested in other cultures, those other cultures will be open for you. You will get a much richer experience, it will help you understand yourself and also more about those other cultures - then you could start to learn about their instruments and music. Many things have to be done with respect to study, and then you could ask yourself 'Why do I have to write this or this piece of music?'. If you have an open-mind, it will bring you much inspiration for new music.

    It's a very interesting instrument. When you work with different musical traditions from different cultures and you come together, you can make something new.

    The sheng comes from China, but it does not just belong to China, it belongs to everyone on earth and that’s why I’m trying to work with so many people. I like traditional Chinese music, but it helps me a lot learning and experimenting with different musical styles from around the world. I understand better my own culture looking at it from the perspective of other cultures.


    You took part in a Family Concert here on 17 March ahead of the world premiere of the sheng concerto on 21 March and you have also collaborated on a children’s book about the Sheng. Do you think it is important to introduce young audiences to the Sheng and to classical music more generally?

    Young people have very open minds to music. I am part of several projects in Berlin, in fact I have an audiobook written by a French author Claude Clement about my instrument and the story for the children and I do the music. It gives them the chance to learn or touch or feel the sheng and opens the imagination of children much more than we think. It works very well.

    The culture also opens up the minds of children to imagination and fantasy that’s why I’m very glad to work with them and watch their imaginations take different directions. The young audience is our future, only they could open imaginations that you never think or never see.

    I am very excited to work with young audiences!


    You have quite an exhausting schedule. How do you work around all that time travelling around all over the world?

    On one side, that is the profession. You need a lot of energy, even to produce very soft notes. That’s why you need to keep the foundation of your body. But then you hear amazing music, so you can’t stop.

    I have to thank the people that I love, they give me much power. Like my wife Li Yu, my daughter, my parents and also professors Weng Zhenfa, Mou Shanping and Xu Chaoming. If I am ever disappointed in myself, I get a new start from the big support they give.


    Wu Wei will be giving the world premiere of Donghoon Shin's Sheng Concerto in a glimmering concert embracing music dissolving borders on 21 March

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