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NIU Chinese Music Ensemble rings in Year of the Monkey

erforms at DeKalb Public Library to kick off lunar new year

DeKALB – Library patrons got a glimpse of the Chinese – or Lunar – New Year on Wednesday as Northern Illinois University’s Chinese Music Ensemble celebrated the incoming Year of the Monkey with traditional Chinese music and a dragon dance. 

The DeKalb Public Library hosted the 15-person band in its new Yusunas meeting room downstairs. The was the third time the band had performed in honor of the Lunar New Year. New Year’s celebrations are a big deal in China, but since it comes in early February there isn’t much chance to celebrate in DeKalb, said Jui-Ching Wang, ensemble director, musician and NIU world music professor.

“We’re really lucky that they always ask us to come out,” she said. 

Chinese music is the art of storytelling and evoking emotion, she said. The trick is to get it right with the often challenging instruments and melodies. 

“The instruments are very different than Western instruments,” she said. “Even though you feel like, ‘Oh, that’s just a flute,’ or ‘Oh, that looks just like a big guitar.’ ”

Musicians have to incorporate different technique into their playing as well, which adds an additional layer of challenge, she said. 

“You hear a lot of sliding, pulling or vibrating,” she said. “That is very Chinese. … The aesthetic concept is also very different.”

Chinese classical music should sound unique with each new performance, unlike Western music, which is meant to sound the same each time its played, she said. 

“Each time, you should play something different, something better,” she said. “It has a lot of interpretation.” 

The ensemble is open to professors and students alike. Taylor Atkins teaches East Asian history at NIU and is a longtime musician. He decided to try out the daruan – a modern Chinese instrument that is similar to a bass in that its a plucked string instrument and makes bass-like tones – for a new challenge. 

The daruan is one of the more modern instruments, created in the 20th century, he said. 

“It’s based on a smaller, traditional instrument,” he said. “It does some of the same things as a bass, but sometimes doubles the melody.”

Quentin Dover has been with the ensemble since 2009 and said it’s not just the instruments that are different, it’s the style of playing. Dover has his master’s degree in classical guitar performance and plays the pipa, a traditional Chinese four-string lute. 

“There are certain similarities. It’s a fretted instrument similar to the guitar,” he said. “But it’s played completely different. The aesthetics and the music are a little different than what I played in classical music.” 

The Chinese New Year began Monday and the sign of the monkey symbolizes an uninhibited mind, independence, intelligence and experimentation, according to an NIU handout.

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