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New York Music Ensemble Marks New Year By Sharing Chinese Culture

Chinese New Year in New York is about more than fireworks, dragon parades and red good luck bunting. There's also the erhu, the pipa and other traditional Chinese instruments that remain unfamiliar to many Americans.

An ensemble named To mark the New Year, three members of the group are showing off their music and discussing aspects of their culture in front of an audience of children at a public library in Brooklyn.

"We want to introduce the many different varieties of Chinese music to American audiences, especially where people are not familiar with Chinese culture and music," says Music From China founder and executive director Susan Cheng.

She says the group's authentic Chinese sound attracts both Chinese and non-Chinese who want a taste of the real thing. She believes the beauty of the music creates new opportunities for Westerners to experience at least one facet of China's complex culture.

"When people don't understand other people's culture, they tend to stereotype and get all kinds of wrong impressions of other people," Ms. Cheng says. "Only because they don't understand…they don't know enough. This is an important task that artists have, to let people know what it's all about. And it's good for everyone to understand each other better."

The children quickly understand that unusual instruments can make beautiful music. The ensemble includes an erhu, a sort of upright, snakeskin-covered violin with two strings…a pear-shaped Chinese lute called a pipa…and a multi-stringed Chinese dulcimer played with miniature hammers.

Chinese music dates back millennia. It includes a wide range of styles, from regional folk tunes and ancient classical works to contemporary compositions. Music From China founder Susan Cheng says all traditional Chinese arts -- poetry, theater and painting, as well as music -- share a reverence for nature.

"For example, the Taoist ideas, the yin and the yang, the balance of opposites," she says. "Especially [with] the classical music, the creators of this music strive to evoke nature…using the tones and timbres of the instruments to create an image or a picture. The ancient music is very poetic."

Li Sun embraces her lute-like pipa and plays a piece called Moonlit River in Spring []. She says the song makes her nostalgic for the homeland she left just two years ago. "Whenever I play my instruments with our group, I can feel from the music the Chinese people's spirit…I can think of the moon and the water raining, and the peace of the water," says Ms. Sun, who has studied the pipa for 20 years. "It's not just the notes and the technique. It's the love, the cheerful, the painful, the sadness…justice…a lot of things."

Ensemble founder Susan Cheng explains that -- unlike the gong-and-drum-filled Chinese operas familiar to many Americans -- traditional Chinese music usually emphasizes melody. "That really has to do with the spoken language," she says, "because the Chinese language itself is very musical…because of the tones we use in verbalizing. When you hear Chinese spoken, it's almost like someone is singing."

Those tonal variations can often be heard on the erhu. Music From China Artistic Director Wang Guowei picks up the upright violin, performing a passage that sounds like speech and ends in laughter []. After a bit of instruction, the children also get a chance to laugh at themselves -- as they try playing the rhythm parts of an old Chinese folk tune.

Susan Cheng then ends the program by leading the ensemble in a lively old Chinese song "to get you into the spirit of the New Year," she says. "People played it a long time ago, for many generations."

Music From China calls the piece In a Festive Mood []. And that is the emotion in the room as both children and musicians mark the start of the Year of the Rooster.