Time-travelling percussion: the sound of Chinese percussionist Beibei

Renowned Chinese percussionist Beibei speaks to MaltaToday ahead of two upcoming concerts as part of this year’s edition of the Malta International Arts Festival – one of which will take place in front of the Ħaġar Qim temples

Beibei: performs in two upcoming concerts as part of this year’s edition of the Malta International Arts Festival
Beibei: performs in two upcoming concerts as part of this year’s edition of the Malta International Arts Festival

Could you tell us a little bit about your musical background, and in particular how your career as a musician first started? What were the early highlights of your development, and how did it all evolve from there?

I got a violin as a birthday gift from my dad when I was three, and I began my early music training soon after that. Two years later, I also took to the piano. My dad used to be the conductor of the Chinese military brass orchestra, and I always followed him to rehearsals, which led to my love for percussion – I could always be found seated by the percussion section!

My musical journey has, so far, been marked by a few important turning points. After I won first prize in percussion at the Chinese national music competition at the age of 15, a member of the jury – who happened to be an expert on percussion – suggested that I continue studying percussion under his tutelage, at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. That really started off my studies in percussion, and I studied and lived in Beijing for seven years during that period.

During my final undergraduate year, I auditioned for Maestro Tan Dun’s opera, ‘Tea’, and was then fortunate enough to be selected as the primary solo percussionist for the opera’s premiere during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

I was subsequently invited to perform as a soloist in Tan Dun’s ‘organic music’ trilogy: Water Concerto, Paper Concerto and Earth Concerto. So, my collaboration with Tan Dun extends to a decade at this point, and was crucial in establishing my career internationally.

After completing my studies in Chinese percussion in Beijing, I went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, focusing on orchestral and solo performance while collaborating with a variety of different orchestras an artists – an experience which took me all around the world. I was also lucky enough to be granted the ‘Exceptional Talent’ marker in Music from the arts council in England, while the British Home Office granted me an ‘Exceptional Talent’ visa upon my graduation, which helped me to carry on developing my career in the UK as an artist.

I’ve now settled down in London permanently, where I teach Chinese percussion at the SOAS University of London, all the while continuing to engage in artistic practice, collaborating with orchestras, institutions and artists – pushing boundaries at every step of the way.

How has studying abroad influenced both your outlook and musical output?

The move to London changed my life tremendously. London is a dynamic and diverse city hosting a vast variety of different cultures. Learning about different cultures and taking in fresh ideas from so many of my fellow artists and friends has been very nourishing. My creative process has, in turn, been deeply influenced by these exciting surroundings.

What were some of your key influences throughout your musical career, and how would you say they continue to reverberate in your music?

Without a doubt, Tan Dun remains the key influence for my music. Playing Tan Dun’s music for the first time introduced me to the world of contemporary and experimental music, which was a beautiful and inspiring learning process. He is an incredible artist, thinker and researcher. I am still absorbing his knowledge and ideas to this day, and doing my best to develop my own voice through this experience.

You’re also very well renowned for mixing various genres in your sound. What motivates you to adopt this flexible and democratic approach?

Well, you see… I love showing people how to make a Chinese hot pot. Usually you throw in all sorts of veggies, tofu, lamb, beef and seafood into the soup mix. It is the eclectic combination that makes the soup so tasty, and a joy to anyone who tries it. This is exactly how I view my musical practice – and my life in general – right now: learning, collaborating and sharing with so many friends from varied backgrounds, creating a community that has no barriers or boundaries.

Are you looking forward to performing at the Malta International Arts Festival (MIAF)?

Certainly! It’s a great honour to be part of such an amazing international arts festival. It is also very thrilling to discover the MIAF’s great track record, which boasts an incredible mix of programmes, music, and crossover projects. It clearly is an exciting and forward-thinking festival. I enjoyed working with its new Artistic Director Ruben Zahra, even if we haven’t physically met yet. But we’ve been discussing the programme since last summer, and it was an inspiring and fun process.

It’s worth mentioning that I will be giving two concerts during the MIAF. The first will be ‘Temple Percussion’; a solo show at the Ħaġar Qim temples on July 3, and after that I will perform a solo show – the ‘Water Concerto’ by Tan Dun, where I will be a soloist alongside the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, on July 6.

What makes the experience even more exciting for me is that this will be my first-ever visit to Malta, and I’m very much looking forward to that!

Are you excited to perform at the Hagar Qim temples? How will the site itself inform your music and performance?

Absolutely! This is a beautiful surprise! I was totally amazed when I found out my first concert will be taking place in front of the Ħaġar Qim temples. The music of the night will be perfectly matched to the scene. We will experience time travel through music, going back into ancient times and into the future.

Beibei Wang will be performing ‘Temple Percussion’ at the Ħaġar Qim temples on July 3 at 9pm, and ‘Water Concerto’ on July 6 at 9pm. Both events form part of the Malta International Arts Festival programme. For more information and bookings, log on to: https://www.festivals.mt/miaf