In the House – Mark Troop, Founder of the Yin Yang Collective

Yin Yang Collective, East-West fusion band

Yin Yang Collective

In the House – Mark Troop, Founder of the Yin Yang Collective

05 February 2014

By Francesca Walford

London East-West fusion band Yin Yang Collective will perform at Asia House on Thursday, 6 February to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  Mark Troop, the founder, tells us what the audience can expect.

You were formed out of The UK Chinese Ensemble and The Chamber Music Company?

Yes, my first collaborator was Cheng Yu, who runs the UK Chinese Ensemble. We are planning many things for the future including larger scale projects.

Your debut was in December 2008 with Inspired By China, a one day festival of Chinese music during the 2008 year-long China Now Festival, the largest ever festival of Chinese culture in the UK. Whose idea was it to form Yin Yang Collective?

That was me. As director of The Chamber Music Company I had a track record of doing large-scale Latin American things with our Latin American Roadshow. I always wanted to transfer it to China and Yin Yang Collective was the result!

What drew you to the idea of fusing Chinese and Western music and does it work?

My personal interest in China and the Far East has been ongoing on for a long time and the possibilities for fusion with Chinese and Western instruments are fantastic. That is due to the nature of Chinese scales and harmonies and the fact that Chinese instruments can play harmony unlike Indian instruments where both the playing styles and the lack of harmonic system make fusion much harder.

In East Asia there is an established interest in Western music (unlike India, where there is very little), so Chinese musicians are very aware of Western styles and more than willing to try them. Many have indeed played Western instruments as part of their education. All this makes fusion very straightforward.

Our overall aim for this project is to be reciprocal. Western instruments give a new perspective on Chinese tunes, in the same way that Chinese instruments give a new perspective on Western melodies.

To date this has been done more extensively in the East, as the East Asians all already play Western style!

Many of their classical tunes and folk melodies are thus well suited to Western style harmonies, so, as the arranger for the band I can use the original palette of Chinese harmonies and then venture into Western style and the musicians have no problem with that. In fact they often prefer doing ‘changed’ versions of Chinese tunes as they play the originals so often!

Are you the only collective of this kind (Chinese-Western fusion) in the UK/world?

I’m sure there are quite a number world-wide, but in the UK we are the only one I know of.

The best known East-West fusion ensemble is Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble in the USA.

Even though we started collaborating in 2008, we’ve taken a while to get going as we are such busy people! But right now we are on a big push towards making the group professionally known. I think there’s a big interest.

I have some knowledge of Chinese styles and one of my players is an expert. We use that as a framework. Then, with the knowledge of the Chinese sounds, we imagine what parts of the Western canon might work and try that out too. Then, in a more ad hoc way, we use the collected experience of the group to add new repertoire. Last year we added Japanese folk into our folk song suite since we had a shamisen (three-stringed Japanese musical instrument) player on board.

Yin Yang Collective

What impact do these Chinese instruments have on Western melodies?

They sound more archaic, rather like they are from the Western historical performance movement! This is because the Chinese tunings are more like old Western instruments – so, bizarrely, by being ‘inauthentic’ in arranging the music, we are sounding like the original Western instruments did! Many Chinese instruments are plucked, so you get a slightly rustic feel to the music.

The dulcimer disappeared from modern concert music several centuries ago and its hammered roll is a very characteristic sound that we no longer have. The erhu (two-string fiddle) can play most music written for the violin, but owing to its particular construction totally alters the expressive potential in a melancholic way (it is very much the ‘soulful’ instrument of the Chinese ensemble).

The ruan is like a guitar, but the playing style is different, with much more tremolo.Greensleeves, for example, has an altered tuning with the wistful sound of the erhu.

People respond very well to the different sounds. They are excited by the familiar put into a completely new context. We show the instruments in their original context as a way of highlighting their suitability for the Western style which has been fascinating for audiences.

Which Chinese and Western instruments will be used on Thursday?

The erhu, yangqin, xiao, and zhongruan alongside the European piano and cello.

In the West we have so many ‘smooth’ instruments – strings, winds and brass. Chinese instruments are more ancient and the playing styles are so different. Even the xiao (flute), which is a bamboo-style recorder is played very differently to Western flutes.

Many Chinese instruments have no direct Western counterparts. They are all fascinating and each has so much history; the erhu came up the Silk Road from the Middle East and was then ‘Chineseified.’

The performance at Asia House will have solo pieces so that the audience gets to know the original characteristics of the instruments before hearing them in altered contexts.

The melodies you will be performing on Thursday are from the UK, Japan, France and Greece. Can you name some of the pieces?

Basse-Danse (Medieval Burgundian), Birds in the Mountains (erhu solo), Reverie at the Dressing Table (xiao solo), Haru No Uta (Japan), Gloucestershire Wassail (UK), Gong Xi Gong Xi (China), Camel Bells on the Silk Road (zhongruan solo), Réponse d’une épouse sage (France), Falando de Amor (Jobim), Spring Arrives at Hong River (yangqin solo), Autumn Leaves (jazz standard), Folk Song Suite: Flowing Streams (China),Greensleeves (UK), Tzibaeri (Greece) and Horse Racing (traditional erhu showpiece).

How has the music you will play been particularly selected to celebrate the Lunar New Year? Are these all traditional European New Year pieces?

There are a few New Year pieces – Haru No Uta, Gloucestershire Wassail and Gong Xi Gong Xi – plus related Spring tunes.

Chinese New Year was just a big excuse for a celebration East-West style!

Traditional European New Year pieces are quite hard to find!

We have taken Spring pieces as much as New Year, in order to avoid the Carol service mentality! The old tunes are pleasantly rustic. We included one wassailing song just to show off that style.

The repertoire will be performed by six musicians, in classical, folk, bossa and traditional jazz styles.

How does the Yin Yang Collective’s music develop the understanding of Eastern and Western traditions?

The Chinese instruments are fascinatingly different, but the music is designed for the same old traditions– dances, weddings and funerals.

Chinese music also captures spiritual essence and contemplation just as Western music does.

The experience for us all, Western and Chinese, is the excitement of discovering the familiar through the bracingly new!

Francesca Walford is currently doing an internship at Asia House.