A phoenix-head harp and a philosopher-musician
If Nathania Ko is awed by her 2
instrument’s fabled history, she doesn’t show it. Nor is she overwhelmed by the responsibility of being Canada’s only professional konghou player, and one of only a handful in North America. But once the 22-yearold Burnaby native discovered her life’s purpose, she took to it in a big way.
“I’ve played piano since I was five, and I played French horn for eight years in elementary and high school,” Ko tells the Straight in a telephone interview from Burnaby General Hospital, sounding composed despite waiting for her mother to emerge from eye surgery. “When I was in Grade 10 I started the Chinese zither, the guzheng, and then after I passed my levels for that, my mom was asking me, ‘Hey, do you want to start another instrument?’ So I checked online. There’s this Chinese ebay called Taobao, and I just typed in ‘Chinese instrument’, and then I came across this weird-looking harp with a chicken head, and I was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ So I searched on Youtube, and I heard my first teacher play a piece called ‘Tears of the Concubine’. I called her right after I saw that video and I said, ‘Do you teach?’ And she said ‘Yes.’ ”
Three weeks later, Ko was on a plane to Beijing for her first lesson—and now, after further studies in China, she’s starting work on her master’s at UBC, the only konghou player ever accepted into the harp program.
The “chicken head” that decorates her instrument actually depicts a phoenix, symbolizing the konghou’s resurrection after centuries. “Four hundred years ago, this instrument went extinct, because in the imperial court, the emperor of the Ming Dynasty loved the konghou so much that he made it forbidden for commoners to play it,” Ko explains. “It was only allowed to be played and heard by the royals and their court musicians.”
After wars and political upheaval, the konghou tradition was lost and any surviving instruments destroyed. “But Japan and Korea preserved it very well,” Ko adds. “A few hundred years back, China gave them this instrument as a present, and in the museums there we can still see very well-preserved ancient konghous.”
The modern instrument that Ko plays is quite different than those historic examples. The contemporary konghou is a hybrid of the pedal harp and the guzheng: it’s fully chromatic, with foot pedals like its European cousin, but paired strings and a gu- zheng-style bridge allow for even more expressive pitch-bending. Ko—who’ll play the West Coast Harp Society’s annual Harp Day concert at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver on October 20, before joining China-based pipa player Xu He for a Roy Barnett Hall recital on February 8—is looking forward to incorporating contemporary composed music, North Indian percussion, and improvisation. And she’s acquired a couple of useful mentors in that regard: in addition to her studies with VSO harpist Elizabeth Volpe Bligh, she works part-time as personal assistant and translator for pipa virtuoso Wu Man, a member of cellist Yoyo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. You may have never heard the konghou, but you’ll soon be hearing more from Ko.
> ALEXANDER VARTY MATTHEW ARIARATNAM
Any discussion of Matthew Ariaratnam’s 2 music is necessarily going to be reductive, because he’s already created a vast and varied body of work. Deceptively placid guitar quartets that mix shimmering abstraction with very prettily plucked notes. Slowly unfurling soundscapes that can, at times, sound quite literally like a walk in the woods. Electronic dirges that hint at tectonic plates shifting below a calm surface. And then there’s dumbpop, his home-studio “rock band”, which specializes in one-minute melodies that make the Ramones look loquacious.
At 26, it’s possible that he’s still finding his way, slowly developing a signature sound. But it’s more likely that Ariaratnam has already discovered his own sound world—one marked by discovery, along with the different creative opportunities afforded by duration and concision.
“They are opposites, but I think they both function as ways of being in the world,” Ariaratnam tells the Straight in a wide-ranging phone call from his East Van home. “I’m really trying to think about my musical practice being more expansive: not ‘I’m a composer who writes chamber music’ or ‘I’m a composer who just writes pop music,’ but having my primary focus be setting up listening.
“I see dumbpop as using what I’ve learned being a songwriter and my skills as a composer,” the former classical guitarist continues. “I’m trying to put that all into one thing, and distill it as fast as possible. How strong a song can I make with just a minute of material? It’s kind of a compositional challenge. The long, unfolding things are also a compositional challenge, but there I’m more thinking about landscape…and about working with groups of people in different ways— not just in a compositional way.”
That Ariaratnam is as much a philosopher as a musician is readily apparent. When he composes, he’s thinking as much about sound’s function in the world as he is about note placement, and he brings an improvisational aesthetic to his work that is also a reflection of how he navigates life itself.
Improvisation, he says, “is kind of a practice that I feel like I do just for survival, because it really brings you to a present moment, where you don’t have to think about the future and you’re not thinking about the past. It’s very meditative, I guess, and it’s been central to all of my work. Anything I’ve composed, I will improvise first.”
Which makes it hard to predict just what Ariaratnam will do at the Fox Cabaret on April 26 of next year, when he’ll join percussionist Julia Chien and composer Alex Mah as part of Music on Main’s Emerge on Main showcase of new artists to watch.
“There’ll be some music, that’s for sure,” Ariaratnam says with a laugh. “Definitely some sound stuff. It might not even be guitar; it could be many other things.”
> ALEXANDER VARTY