Guo Yue is a world-renowned virtuoso of the Chinese bamboo flute. As a child Guo Yue learned how to put not just his breath but his whole body into his playing ? creating curvaceous notes that blend and swoop to form an astonishingly gentle and beautiful sound.
Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958, the year of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. His name is a revolutionary one: Guo meaning Kingdom, Yue meaning Leap Forward. His family lived in a traditional courtyard in the maze of old alleys known as the Hutongs, between the beautiful Drum and Bell Towers and the river where he played as a child. His courtyard housed the families of five traditional musicians, mostly from the countryside. From these musicians who (unlike his father) had received no formal musical training, he learned how to put not just his breath but his whole body into playing the flute. Yue now plays 15 different bamboo flutes.
Western music sounded “sophisticated” to Yue. “There are many more notes. I couldn’t relate to it at first. It was not part of my world. I loved the natural simplicity of Chinese music, which is based on a small collection of notes, like the ingredients in Chinese cooking. Western music was banned at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, together with literature, poetry, romantic love, even the flying of kites. Gradually I began to long for that other world, to hear freedom in the sound of Western strings.”
In the West, Chinese music is associated with the stylized, high-pitched sounds of Peking Opera. But Yue’s music is different. Most of it comes from bamboo flutes whose breathy, curvaceous voices bend and swoop, sometimes almost purring, poignantly conveying yearning, loss, parting, anticipation and joy. It may seem strange to use the words benign and contemplative when describing an instrument?s voice. The only comparable emotion in a Western instrument comes from the naive, endearing double bass and sometimes the bassoon.
“The silver flute, although I love its sound, is more restricted for me, more mathematical,” says Yue. “I can’t bend its cool notes to express feeling as I can on my bamboo flutes. As my mother said: ‘Bamboo is like the Eastern character; it can suffer so much, but it is not broken because it can bend.’ My bamboo flutes are like wild birds. If you play the music that comes naturally to them, then they will sing. I think my music is like the new branch of a very ancient tree.”
Yue also uses the erhu, a traditional two-stringed violin whose bow is woven permanently between the two strings. The erhu has a haunting, almost pleading voice which is intensely moving. This was the instrument Yue?s father played; he was a professional musician and died when Yue was five years old.
In 1982 Yue left China and, with the help of his third sister Yan who was living in England, he studied the silver flute at the Guildhall School of Music.
Since living in England, he has composed, arranged, performed and recorded traditional Chinese music. In I990 with his brother Guo Yi, who plays the sheng (an ancient hand-held bamboo wind instrument), they made a Real World album called Yuan, which also features the voice of his second sister Xuan. As the Guo Brothers, they performed at international festivals and concerts, including WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festivals worldwide.
Not wanting to be confined to traditional Chinese music, since 1990 Yue has worked as a soloist, writing his own music. He has collaborated with musicians and composers from Africa, Italy and Japan. In 1992 he made the album Trisan (Real World) with Joji Hirota, the Japanese Taiko drummer, and the Irish singer/composer Pol Brennan; this won an American instrumental award. Then in 1995 Yue and Joji recorded the album Red Ribbon.
In 1999 Yue performed his bamboo flutes concerto My Peking Alley with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the WOMAD Festival in Reading.
Yue has also worked on the soundtracks of several international films, including Bertolluci’s Oscar-winning The Last Emperor and The Killing Fields. He also played the soundtrack theme, composed by George Fenton, for the Emmy award-winning Channel Four television documentary Beyond the Clouds which was directed by Phil Agland who commented: ‘In the magical hands of Guo Yue, the bawu flute creates sounds that haunt the soul‘.
Yuan (Real World, 1990)
Trisan (Real World, 1993)
Red Ribbon (Riverboat Records, 1994)
Our Homeland: Traditional Chinese Music (Bamboo Mountain, 1995)
Touching The Water (Dureco, 1996)
Music, Food and Love (Real World, 2006)
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.