Chinese zither innovator to play Juneau

Recital set for Friday at Northern Light United Church

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2005

Since moving to Canada from China in 1996, Mei Han has established herself as one of the pre-eminent Western-style innovators on the Chinese zheng, a 21-to-25-string wooden Asian long zither.

That's no small feat, considering the zheng has a 4,000-year-old oral instruction history that is constantly at risk of losing its nuances as its older practitioners die off. The instrument is still taught in China, but mostly in highly structured conservatory settings, where tradition is the rule.

"The notations have changed and the teaching methods have changed, so lots of subtleties have been lost in the last 50 years," Han said. "But we still have lots of old folk musicians, and people who keep rediscovering that there's lots of things that can be done with the zheng in terms of traditional playing."

Han will play a recital as part of the CrossSound 2005 concert festival at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 25, at Northern Light United Church. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors.

The show will include traditional and contemporary Chinese and Japanese zheng songs. The instrument is quite bulky, so she can only afford to bring one of her zhengs from Michigan.

Han will also participate in CrossSound's Juneau residency, one of three Southeast collaborations scheduled for March 24-30. Teams in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka will be creating original scores. The result, "RainSongs: Three Antiphonous From Wet Lands," will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at Chapel by the Lake. Friday ticket stubs are food for a $5 discount.

Han has been corresponding with CrossSound co-founders Jocelyn Clark and Stefan Hakenberg for the last five years. This is her first trip to Alaska.

"The beauty of the zheng is the subtleties, what we call the tail, the resonance, the bending notes," Han said. "It's not about Western harmony, how many keys you can play, how much modulation you can do. This instrument carries the value of the Taoism and the Confucianism, which is the relation between human beings and the nature."

Han lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and teaches at the University of Michigan. She's premiered almost 50 zheng compositions since moving from China, many with her husband, Randy Raine-Reusch. She's also preparing a zheng-harpsichord duet for the 2005 Open Ears Festival in Ontario, Canada.

"Growing up in China, the country had endless political campaigns and movements, and lots of information - especially as it related to Western society - was banned," Han said. "As a performer, you only learn how to play the instrument. There wasn't much insight, and I didn't know much about Chinese history."

"When I came to the West, I started to really appreciate Chinese music and music from all cultures," she said. "It's certainly been mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, eyes-wide-opening."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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