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Music

Canadian erhu master on his love of China’s stringed instruments and how ditching the violin made him a better musician

Jeremy Moyer discovered the two-stringed erhu on a volunteering trip to Taiwan in 1990. He has just released his third solo album of Chinese stringed instruments and has developed a sound that is entirely unique

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 8:36pm

Performing recently in a Shanghai park, a musician gingerly glides his bow across the strings of his erhu before tightening them to bring the instrument back into tune. Soon he is immersed in the haunting sounds of his composition, Snow Legend, with little but the calling of birds in the park for accompaniment.

Across China, it is common to see elderly people in parks playing the two-stringed instrument often referred to in English as a “spike fiddle”. But what makes this performance in Shanghai remarkable is that the musician is a foreigner.

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In February, Jeremy Moyer released his third solo album, Chinese Bicycle Stories, featuring his own compositions for both the erhu and qinqin, a Chinese three-stringed version of the lute. It was the Canadian’s latest milestone in his journey into traditional Chinese instruments that started with a volunteering trip to Taiwan back in 1990.

Moyer grew up surrounded by music in a small town in Ontario. He played the violin and piano, but ditched both for the guitar in his teenage years – a move that proved instrumental.

“What was important about learning guitar by myself and wanting to play songs I liked was that I discovered you could learn by ear,” he says. The ability to figure out chords and be able to play by ear would later prove crucial in Taiwan. 

Moyer first went to Taiwan in 1990 as a volunteer for a year with his Mennonite church and helped in a school for the blind and handicapped. “There were temples everywhere and musicians playing in them – both groups of retired amateurs and professional temple ensembles,” he recalls.

Already interested in folk music thanks to time spent in France and South America, his interest was piqued by one instrument he was seeing and hearing everywhere – the erhu. While living in Taichung, he started taking lessons from a local erhu teacher.

Returning to Taiwan in 1996, he discovered the Taiwanese coconut shell fiddle known as the kezi xian, which was used as the lead instrument in local opera and temple music. An introduction to an elderly local folk musician named Zhang Shidong cemented his interest in Chinese music as more than just an extension of the violin or a novelty.

“I had this ideal in mind of what a folk musician should be – somebody who had been playing since a child and had all these songs in their head,” Moyer says. “And [Zhang] was pretty much it – meeting him was a life-changing experience.”

Zhang’s children and grandchildren never thought of him as a musician – he had spent his entire life working at a post office. Communication with him, though, proved near impossible; Moyer at the time had only rudimentary Mandarin and Zhang could only speak the Taiwanese dialect and Japanese.

“His approach never mentioned anything about technique,” Moyer says. “He would play the song and I would copy how he played. He had this ideal of how it should sound and I had to play with him regularly to get that.”

A Discovery of Chinese Folk Tunes, Moyer’s first album, was recorded in Canada and released in 1997. It was an ode to Zhang, capturing some of the traditional tunes he had passed down.

“For a while I was embarrassed by the album, as the playing is technically too simple. But now I like the spirit of it and in retrospect it really represents what I learned from him,” Moyer says. 

It was not until coming to Shanghai in 2004 that Moyer started to formalise some of his studies of Chinese instruments. He had already been composing music for the erhu since 2000, but under the tutelage of several professional erhu players, his technique improved considerably.

Moyer’s second album, Mangoes from 2009, was largely a backlash against formal erhu studies. Recorded in Shanghai while Moyer was musician in residence at the Shanghai-Zhujiajiao World Music Centre, the album features more tracks with a Latin feel than a Chinese one.

“It’s a fruit basket – a mishmash of different songs I made up with different instruments while setting up the recording studio there,” Moyer explains. “I had been practising erhu so much for a few years I was sick of it and just wanted to play guitar, so there are songs such as a bossa nova track.”

My music has many elements of traditional Chinese folk music … but my overall sound is still entirely unique – there is no Chinese ensemble that sounds like mine
Jeremy Moyer

His latest musical adventure started at about the same time in a barber’s shop in Dali, Yunnan province. Hanging on the wall along with other instruments was a customised qinqin. “I was curious about [the instrument]. These days, though, they’re hard to find and the ones around are poorly made, cheap and don’t sound good,” Moyer says.

However, this qinqin was different, fitted with a pentatonic fret system and strings that needed plucking with a plectrum made from the tip of a goat horn. “It has a distinct sound that I just loved when I first picked it up. Musicians in Yunnan, where there are a lot of minorities, have a different idea about what sounds good. I find it an inspiration – it has its own music.” He later bought the instrument from the barber. 

He explains that he had a specific idea of what he wanted to do for his latest album, which features music for the qinqin and various other bowed stringed instruments such as the erhu. “It uses my own compositions with Chinese instruments and most have a strong Chinese style structurally.”

Locals, he says, can often provide harsh feedback when asked to comment on foreigners playing Chinese instruments, with the main retort being it doesn’t sound “Chinese” enough.

“My music has many elements of traditional Chinese folk music. In many ways, it is a celebration or homage to traditional Chinese folk music and rural folk instruments and traditions. But my overall sound is still entirely unique – there is no Chinese ensemble that sounds like mine.”

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Chinese Bicycle Stories can be streamed and bought here