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Homegrown Plus: Ann Yao

A woman seated on stage playing a Guzheng, or Chinese zither. Text to her left reads: Library of Congress/American Folklife Center/Homegrown 2020/Online Concert Series/"Homegrown at Home"

Ann Yao. Photo by Li Wei.

In the Homegrown Plus series, we present Homegrown concerts that also had accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) This time, though, there’s a twist: Ann Yao, who performed in the 2020 series, also presented a Homegrown concert way back in 2011 with the Ann Yao Trio, before we thought up the Homegrown Plus idea…and before we even had a blog. But we can easily place that concert in here as well, so I’ll be presenting THREE videos in this special Homegrown Plus blog.

Two women are seated onstage. One plays a pipa, or pear-shaped lute, and the other plays guzheng, a Chinese zither.

Yihan Chen (left) and Ann Yao performing at the Library of Congress, July 27, 2011. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Ann Yao performs cutting-edge interpretations of traditional material on the zheng or guzheng, one of China’s most ancient instruments. A five-foot long, horizontal, plucked zither that typically has 21 strings, the zheng is first mentioned in Chinese literature in the third century B.C. Born into a musical family in Shanghai, Ann Yao grew up immersed in traditional Chinese music. Her grandfather’s home was an important gathering place for traditional musicians from many regions of China. Ann was learning the zheng from her aunt and uncle by the age of ten; she developed an interest in and later mastered varied regional styles. She was also influenced by the folk and theatrical styles she learned from the musicians who frequented her grandfather’s house. Ann went on to study zheng at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Upon graduation, she joined Beijing’s Central National Music Ensemble. After moving to the United States in the 1980s, she joined Music from China, an innovative New York City-based ensemble known for contemporary arrangements of traditional material. She has lived in Florida for almost 30 years, where she performs at many venues including Disney properties such as Epcot Center. She now performs in various small ensembles and as a solo artist.

A man sits onstage in a chair playing an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese spike fiddle.

Wang Guowei performs traditional Chinese music on the erhu in the Coolidge Auditorium on July 27, 2011 as part of the Ann Yao Trio’s concert in the Homegrown Concert Series.

Ann’s first concert for AFC was part of the 2011 Homegrown Concert Series, filmed before a live audience (remember those?) in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. As Florida folklorist Blaine Wade explained in an essay at the time (you can read the full essay here), the music of this concert was influenced by Ann’s unique background:

Ann grew up in her maternal grandparents’ house surrounded by traditional Chinese musicians. By the age of nine, she was learning the pipa, a pear-shaped lute, from her grandfather, Sun Yu-de. He also played the xiao, a vertical bamboo flute. The influence of her aunt, Sun Wenyan, and her husband, He Baoquan, however, led her to begin playing the zheng, a five-foot-long zither, by the age of ten. As with other Chinese instruments, the zheng mainly provided entertainment and expressed personal emotions in ancient times. Beyond this common thread, different regional styles, or schools, exist; often, these schools are named for the provinces where they predominate. In several northern provinces – Henan, Shandong, and Shaanxi – the zheng primarily accompanied regional theatrical performances, whereas in the southern region, Zhejiang and Hakka zheng music was more for self-entertainment. Like her aunt and uncle, who were both exposed to a variety of regional schools, Ann’s musical training and repertoire reflect a broad spectrum of styles. She was, however, particularly influenced by her aunt’s training in the Zhejiang school, as well as the theatrical and folk styles she learned growing up at her grandfather’s house in Shanghai.

In this concert video, you’ll also see Wang Guowei playing the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, and Chen Yihan playing the pipa, a pear-shaped lute.

For Ann’s 2020 concert, she and her husband, musicologist Li Wei, recorded her playing in their lovely home in Orlando. Due to the conditions of the pandemic, it was a completely solo concert of music from different Chinese regional traditions. Since Ann is an accomplished soloist, this was an appropriate showcase for her talents. See that concert in the player below!

A woman seated on stage playing a Guzheng, or Chinese zither.

Ann Yao performs traditional Chinese Zheng Music in the Coolidge Auditorium on July 27, 2011 as part of the Homegrown Concert Series. Library of Congress photo.

In the oral history, Ann Yao and Li Wei both joined me for a conversation about Ann’s career and the traditions in which she performs. Li Wei’s expertise in the musicology of Chinese folk and classical music allowed him to supply important background information, while Ann shared her unique perspective as a lifelong practitioner of both ancient and emergent musical genres. We covered a number of areas, including her development of the “Butterfly Zheng,” an innovative instrument design which allows her to play uniquely contemporary music in the Chinese classical tradition. Watch the interview in the player below!

You can find all three of these videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website:

You can read more about Ann Yao in this 2011 Homegrown essay by Blaine Wade.

You can also read more in this detailed and fascinating essay by Li Wei.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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