A phoenix-head harp and a philoso­pher-mu­si­cian


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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.


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.”


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