Master of music fusion eyes Sichuan opera

Nearly 30 years ago, when pianist Gao Ping studied at the Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, he was often attracted by the sounds from the Sichuan Opera School, which was located nearby.

"I could hear the folk instruments of Sichuan opera, like gongs and drums, as well as the high-pitched singing, through the window when I practiced works of Beethoven and Mozart at the conservatory," recalls Gao, 44.

The memory lingered in his mind and unconsciously influenced Gao, who worked and studied in the United States and New Zealand from 1990 until two years ago.

Now, the pianist and composer has returned to China, as a professor teaching composition at the China Conservatory and Music College of Capital Normal University in Beijing.

He recognises that the clash of Sichuan opera and classical music has left a deep mark on him, and his biggest musical interest is to fuse piano with other art forms.

"One of my dreams is to mix piano with Sichuan opera. But I am still working on it. I want to find the most proper way to put the two different arts together," Gao says.

Gao is no stranger to fusion in musical fields. In a recent afternoon, Gao held a concert along with Chinese contemporary poet Zhai Yongming. While Zhai read her poems, Gao played his compositional works and gave improvisational performances.

"The sound of piano makes an interesting counterpoint to the language of poetry," he says.

"When you play different melodies to the poems, the music gives the words different meaning and feeling. It works the other way around, too," Gao says.

Last summer, he worked with Wu Na, a player of guqin (a traditional plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument), which inspired him to try playing the piano like playing guqin.

For Gao, those crossover collaborations have been liberating.

In fact, he has never been a conventional pianist, though he was born into a musical family.

He recalls that he liked improvising and composing when he was as young as 9. However, both of his parents and his piano teacher criticised him and asked him to "obey" the music scores.

At around 14, he fell in love with jazz. In 1989, he established a jazz band called Titan with some classmates.

He received his bachelor's and master's degree from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Butler University in the United States, and then spent seven years teaching composition at School of Music of University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Years of living in the West, he says, enabled him to be more aware of his Chinese cultural background.

In October 2004, he wrote a composition titled The Mountain, which was commissioned by American pianists Frederic Rzewski and Ursula Oppens. Gao draws his inspiration from his home of Sichuan province, and The Mountain recalls the expressive and humorous melodic tone of the local dialect. The same year, he finished composing Twelve-Hour Bridge, during his residency in the US.

"I imagined and created an illusionary bridge in music, which erases the long distance between China and the US," says Gao.

Questioning the Mountain, his work that was commissioned by Japanese violinist Rieko Suzuki, was a meditation written after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008. His recent works, including The Four Not-Alike and Night Alleys, for piano and traditional Chinese instrument ensemble, deepened his ideas about combining East and West.

"Several years ago, I got an opportunity to play percussion when a group of friends performed Sichuan opera in Australia. I hope that all the composition and collaborative experiences I have had would contribute to my dream-that is, fusing piano with Sichuan opera-one day," says Gao.