As one of the world's finest classical guitarists, Yang Xuefei has released a number of recordings during her decadeslong career.
These range from adapted pieces of classical music by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert, to the music of contemporary Brazilian guitarists, including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Joao Pernambuco.
On Friday, Yang released her latest album, titled Sketches of China, which is her very first album of completely Chinese music.
The album, consisting of two discs of 17 music pieces in total, includes classic and contemporary music. It covers solo pieces, chamber music with other Chinese instrumentalists, and pieces for guitar and orchestra.
"The album has been my longtime wish," Yang told China Daily in a phone interview before the new album was released.
"Along with my career, I've performed many music works adapted from Chinese music pieces. I always wanted to release an album, which fully displays Chinese music works from different times and with different styles."
Yang, who was born in Beijing, graduated with a bachelor's degree in classical guitar from the Central Conservatory of Music in the city. She won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2002.
As a soloist, she tours worldwide and has been living in London for 20 years. Her international success has led her to play in more than 50 countries at numerous prestigious venues such as the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York.
From the start of her professional career, Yang says that she began a journey to explore Chinese repertoire for guitar. The experience of traveling around the globe and performing music from many different countries has given her a more vivid perspective on her own cultural background.
When she wrote down a song list for the new album, Yang found that the list went so long that she had to make the new album double discs. She also explored the versatility and great potential of guitar during the recording.
"The sound of guitar has a magical quality, which keeps surprising me," says Yang.
"While respecting the spirit of traditional Chinese music, it's important for the music to develop and live with the current times. I hope this album will open a new door to guitar repertoire and take Chinese music to a wider audience."
In the album, she has adapted Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon, one of the best-known orchestral works by Ren Guang, a noted Chinese composer of the early 20th century.
She also adapted White Snow in the Spring Sunlight, a classic piece of traditional Chinese music, which first appeared in a pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute) score during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, a signature pipa piece of the Chinese classical repertoire, which is named after a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poem by Zhang Ruoxu and describes a charming moonlight scene over a waterside village south of the Yangtze River, has been arranged by Yang for guitar for this album.
She also played the traditional Chinese music piece, Everlasting Longing, with guzheng (Chinese zither) player Yuan Sha, her longtime friend and former roommate from the Central Conservatory of Music.
"For this collaboration, we reinterpreted the piece as a duet, rotating the melody and harmony between us, to have some contrast of sounds. Each of us also added an original improvised cadenza to reflect something of the nature of our musical instruments," says Yang.
Besides traditional Chinese music works, Yang also recorded original contemporary music pieces written by Chinese composers for guitar in the new album.
When Yang performed with Xiamen Symphony Orchestra in Fujian province in 2019, she mentioned to the conductor Fu Renchang that she was looking for Chinese repertoire for guitar and orchestra.
Fu, who is a composer of the orchestra, told Yang that he enjoys the sound of classical guitar very much and soon he wrote a piece, titled A Lovely Rose, for guitar and the orchestra.
It's based on a folk song of the Kazak ethnic group, which became popular in China thanks to the adaptation by the late musician Wang Luobin (1913-96).
A Lovely Rose was released on July 17, as the first single of Yang's new album.
Fu also wrote another piece for guitar and orchestra, titled Dreams of Gulangyu Island, portraying the tranquil and beautiful Gulangyu Island, a famous tourist site in Xiamen.
Seven Desires, composed in 2002 by award-winning composer Tan Dun, was also recorded by Yang in the album.
Inspired by his guitar concerto Yi2, blending the different traditions and characteristics of two plucked instruments－Spain's flamenco guitar and China's pipa, Seven Desires is a musical mini-drama where the guitar has been "transformed" to pipa. In each of the seven sections, the guitar emulates the pipa's sound.
Another piece, Shuo Chang, was written by Chinese composer Chen Yi.
"With the new piece, I use the guitar to perform a monodrama, representing the singing, speaking, and the performing of instruments like the sanxian, the pipa or the drum in a style of traditional Chinese musical storytelling,"Chen explains.
"It's inspired by shuo chang (speaking and singing), a Chinese folk music form, which historically was popularly performed at tea houses in small towns and cities. The guitar solo piece has the flavor of shuo chang music."
Chen was one of the first Chinese women to receive a master's degree in composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1986. She now lives in the United States.
Yang says that the release of the new album has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally, it was scheduled to be released in February. She was also forced to cancel or postpone her shows due to the pandemic, which made her frustrated.
"While staying at home, I play my musical instruments in my garden, practice my skills, listen to music that makes me feel relaxed and focus on my future plans. I also go out to do exercises every day because it's important for me to get close to nature," says Yang.