The Music of Gao Hong - A Celebration of 50 Years of Making Music With Friends


Congratulatory Letters from 

Frank Kouwenhoven

Music Scholar and Co-founder of CHIME (European Foundation for Chinese Music Research)

Gao Hong – Infatigable Builder of Musical Bridges





(Translated by Yanmei Jiang and Shanghong Li)

Gao Hong is widely viewed as one of the world’s finest pipa players, but there’s more to her than dazzling technique or sonically brilliant displays. For one thing, in personal contact, Hong is an extraordinarily pleasant, warmhearted and fairly direct person, down-to-earth, open-minded, spontaneous, and in these respects perhaps more likely to remind you of some friendly neighbour down the local street rather than of a top-ranking stage celebrity.



But it is precisely this – her urge and joy to communicate on ‘street level’ - which gives her music-making such tremendous punch: I know only a tiny handful of fellow-musicians from China who have cast out their stylistical net just as widely and as undauntingly as she has done. Gao Hong is equally at home in Chinese traditional pipa repertoire and in complex avant-garde works, and seems ready to tackle almost anything positioned in-between these two opposites.

高虹人格魅力与她的音乐演奏风格浑然一体,她的演奏朴实无华,恰恰因此深入听众灵魂深处。高虹演奏风格洒脱自然,毫不拘泥,这在我了解的中国音乐家中凤毛麟角。 她对传统中国琵琶乐曲了如指掌,对先锋音乐也广泛涉猎,所以能够在这两种迥然不同的音乐风格之间游刃有余地探索与挑战。


Yes, she set out in firmly conventional ways in the 1980s, mastering traditional pipa in all its glory, graduating from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and earning fame as a favourite student of the great Chinese master Lin Shicheng (d.2005), the ‘Ravi Shankar of the pipa’.



Gao Hong is now a Ravi Shankar of Chinese music in her own right. But what does she actually not play?


She performs gospel, Afro-American jazz, bluegrass, Arabian music, Indian music, pop, symphonic music, Chinese traditional pipa, Chinese storytelling, and all of that with the same vigour and passion and (seemingly) the same ease as if all these territories had already struck roots with her at the time of her birth.



That is nonsense of course, but if you listen to her playing it’s difficult not to believe that she has it all in her fingertips, and merely needs to do a bit of pi and pa (upstroke downstroke) on her pipa to bring the magic alive.



She has been playing around the globe, in solo concerts and with prominent world musicians like Shubhendra Rao, Kenny Endo, David Hagedorn, Sowah Mensah and so many, many others, a list too long, too varied and too boastful to reproduce here. But of course, her apparent performative ease is misleading. What she’s achieving on stage is hardly a mere outcome of happy musical freewheeling, spontaneous interaction or fun. Though the fun is certainly present!

高虹的演出遍及世界各地,既有独奏音乐会也有和众多著名音乐家的合作,比如 Shubhendra Rao, Kenny Endo, David Hagedorn, Sowah Mensahand,等等 。与她合作的音乐家级别之高、人数之多,风格跨度之大,此处难以详尽。看似轻松自如的音乐会绝非随意的即兴表演,而是源自于高虹在台下的勤学苦练。


Behind the scenes, and for a start, there’s always a great deal of hard work involved, such as Gao Hong sweating blood and tears to master complete ragas or muqam structures before she would even consider to embark on a first joint improvisation with an artist from another part of the globe.



I guess one needs Chinese iron-style ambitiousness and a fervent sense of discipline to achieve all this, but believe me, not so many Chinese artists are capable of just this level of commitment. After carrying out nearly four decades of music research in the People’s Republic, I can safely say that many instrumentalists on the Mainland would not care to undertake anywhere near the amount of research or effort that Gao Hong has invested in her numerous cross-cultural projects. And this is the rare privilege and hallmark of a great musician: to go to the very bottom of things before solidifying results, and then to build bridges across cultures that hold.

我认为,取得如此成就必须具备华人特有的进取精神和钢铁意志。即便在华人艺术家中,高虹执着和努力也是非常突出的。 我研究中国音乐已近四十年之久。可以肯定地说,中国大陆没有哪一个民乐演奏家像高虹那样孜孜不倦地推动跨文化音乐项目;潜心钻研,厚积薄发,用音乐搭建坚实的文化之桥,这正是高虹作为一位杰出音乐家的与众不同之处。


I have known Gao Hong for several decades now. I have heard her swing with the band Speaking in Tongues in Amsterdam, I’ve heard her improvise in astonishing ways, and after surprisingly little preparation time, with ad hoc musicians from Sweden, Mongolia, China and Israel during a concert in Lisbon, and these are just two of many fond memories that come to my mind. Her American husband Paul Dice acts as her tour manager, and always seems to hover as some modest and inconspicuous ghost in the background. But no mistake, he is actually a formidable composer, who has written splendid music and produced many excellent arrangements for her.

我认识高虹已经几十年了。 我曾在阿姆斯特丹听她与 Speaking in Tongue 乐队的合作演出;在里斯本的一场音乐会中,看到她与来自瑞典、蒙古、中国和以色列的音乐家在基本没有什么准备的情况下即兴演奏,效果极佳,令人啧啧称赞。 这只是我关于她许多美好记忆中两个小小片段。 高虹的丈夫Paul Dice是一位硕果累累的作曲家。他不仅创作,也是她的演出经纪人,他总是默默无闻地支持着妻子。


Last but not least, I’d like to draw attention to (in my opinion) one of Gao Hong’s finest, most impressive ventures:  her cooperation with Arabic ‘Ud-player Issam Rafea from Syria (captured on a cd album that just won two gold medals from the Global Music Awards). When I hear them exquisitely weaving their voices together, in improvisations and joint compositions of incomparable delicacy and emotional power, it makes me think of the Tang dynasty, that great medieval era of magnificent encounters between Central-Asian and Chinese culture, resulting in art and music of unprecedented richness. Yes, a handful of scores from that period have survived, and they have been reconstructed for performance. But when I hear the free melodious conversations between Gao Hong and Issam Rafea, some footsteps away from any academic theorizing about old manuscript notations, and first and foremost a shared adventure between two living representants of different major musical cultures, I can’t help but think: this is the real thing! This is how bridges between different worlds are built. Absolute persuasive, and with not a little touch of genius.

最后,我要强调一下我个人认为高虹最好、最具感染力的一个创新,即她与叙利亚的阿拉伯乌德琴演奏家 Issam Rafea的合作。他们录制的CD获得了两项全球音乐奖金奖。不管是即兴演奏还是现场作曲,他们都能把极其微妙的情感通过两种不同的乐器巧妙地融合在一起。每次聆听他们的音乐,我都仿佛回到唐朝(西方那时处在中世纪),身临其境地体会中亚和大唐的交流以及由此产生的无与伦比、及其丰富的文化和音乐。那个时代的乐谱有少数流传至今,而且被重新编曲演凑。但是每次聆听高虹和 Issam Rafea自由、动听的音乐对话,我都会觉得这才是真正伟大的音乐! 他们没有停留在重新演奏古乐谱上,而是两种重要音乐体系的传人对传统的探索和重新阐释。凭借超凡的天赋,他们在不同文化之间搭建起牢固桥梁,令人叹服。


Frank Kouwenhoven


Frank Kouwenhoven is a music scholar and co-founder of CHIME, a worldwide platform for promotion and research of Chinese music.

Frank Kouwenhoven 是音乐理论家,也是CHIME(欧洲中国音乐研究基金会)的创始人之一。CHIME致力于中国音乐的研究和推广。

March 7, 2022 in the Netherlands