Words by Stephanie Eslake
Mindy Meng Wang is a storyteller. The Chinese-Australian artist expresses her unique narrative on the guzheng – an instrument typically associated with traditional Chinese music, which she plays for contemporary Australian audiences. Through her creative approach, Mindy weaves a story that stretches the physical limits of this ancient instrument, and strengthens connections between cultures.
“The background of this musical instrument is quite special,” Mindy says. The ancient zither has a history dating back 2,500 years. It’s tuned to a pentatonic scale; this means Mindy has a range of just five notes to work with, though she collaborates with musicians of Western instruments designed to be played with more than double that capacity.
“It’s not like a piano, where you can move your hand and be in a different key. Most of the notes are not available,” Mindy says of the guzheng. She also contends with the cultural and stylistic parameters in which the instrument is usually performed.
“People would expect you only play it in a traditional style.” And it’s exactly these challenges that has empowered this musician to create her own new style, which she can play alongside instruments of any culture.
“I’m actually expanding on this repertoire, ability, and style,” Mindy says of the guzheng. She has made it her own.
“It took me a long time to see how I can merge and change the instrument, but still maintain the beauty in music, and make it possible to work cross-culturally.”
This is the type of music Mindy will share through the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Artist-in-Residence program, for which she has been handpicked in 2022 alongside fellow resident and early music specialist Erin Helyard.
Mindy’s improvisations cross the borders between traditional Chinese music and jazz; between Western classical and contemporary. As the composer-performer explains, “it can be anything – I want to break the stereotypes”.
“I would like to share this story, and share the knowledge I have with the instrument with the audience.”
To Mindy, it’s a story that reflects her own cross-cultural experiences: having studied guzheng in China from seven years old, and performed live from 10, Mindy later travelled to United Kingdom to learn Western classical music. She went on to receive academic achievements and artists’ awards, and play in major festivals and shows across Europe along the way.
When she moved to Australia, Mindy continued her exploration of Chinese and Western musical styles. She has played at popular local venues with critically acclaimed performance partners – but not without many challenges along the way.
“I’m a migrant, and it is difficult for migrant musicians to start creating in a strange place,” Mindy says of forging her path in Australia.
“So the stories are not only about the instrument, but also my journey – and how to break the barriers and bring this instrument and music to the West.”
Of her residency at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Mindy says: “I would be happy to share my stories, my experience, and my music through all sorts of different channels.”
One of the benefits of this residency is the way artists can welcome others into their story, too. Melbourne Recital Centre’s program opens the door to artistic exploration; residents like Mindy and Erin can choose how they’d like to spend their time with the Centre, shaping unique relationships with audiences and fellow artists in the process.
For Mindy, art is best experienced with others, and she hopes to make the most of this time with the Centre’s creative community.
“I just love people, and love to play with different musicians,” Mindy says.
Collaboration is a goal of Mindy’s, which she feels is well-matched to the Centre’s own approach to music presentation.
“I’m really happy that I could have got picked for the residency, because Melbourne Recital Centre is a wonderful place that I feel especially attached to,” she shares.
“There are many reasons – first because of the quality of the work they present; and the second thing is about what they believe in, and how they are leading the industry.
“They are leaders, not followers. They’re being very proactive. And I believe that they believe in equality – that music is for everyone – and also diversity.
“I believe in that, too. So I’m so glad we can work together to actually achieve this.”
Co-artist-in-residence Erin Helyard also feels a personal attachment to Melbourne Recital Centre. To Erin, this residency gives the chance to return to a strong local community of music makers and listeners.
“I lived in Melbourne for over three years, and I miss the city, my friends, and the culture very much,” Erin says.
“This residency gives me the chance to re-engage with Melbourne audiences across the year, to showcase a range of my musical interests on outstanding instruments in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s outstanding venues.”
The artistic director and co-founder of Pinchgut Opera, Erin has spent his career researching historically informed performance practice, and presenting early music to modern listeners through his often-combined roles of performer and conductor.
“I’m a huge advocate for historical instruments,” Erin says.
“I like to explore the synergy between instruments and the music that was written for them, and how the music and the instruments change in over time, and in symbiosis.”
Erin is leading Australia in this field. He received the University Medal for his studies in harpsichord performance at Sydney Conservatorium of Music; he later obtained a PhD in musicology and Masters in fortepiano performance from the Schulich School of Music in Montreal. His contribution to music in Australia has led to him receive two Helpmann Awards for Best Musical Direction, and a Music and Opera Singers Trust Achievement Award.
At this stage in his career, Erin is interested in using the Centre’s residency as an opportunity to keep sharing and shaping the remarkable story of early music.
“I love the idea of having some time and space to talk about complex issues,” Erin says.
“I feel like a lot of public discourse about classical music is extremely simplistic. It would be great to really get down and critically evaluate some of our preconceived biases about historical instruments. So in that sense, we can have the time to flesh out some ideas and concepts.
“This residency gives me the chance to re-engage with Melbourne audiences across the year; to showcase a range of my musical interests on outstanding instruments in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s outstanding venues.”
Erin and Mindy were handpicked for this year’s artist-in-residence program. They follow in the footsteps of some of Australia’s most inspiring musicians including composer and multi-instrumentalist William Barton, pianist Anna Goldsworthy, recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey, and pianist Paul Grabowsky.
Melbourne Recital Centre’s Director of Programming Marshall McGuire says, when selecting these impressive artists, “we wanted to shine a light on those artists who have something to say, want to explore, take some risks, and connect with an audience and audiences over the span of a year”.
The residency gives artists the freedom to shape the nature of their time with the Centre, allowing them to perform concerts, interact with its many spaces and programs, and build relationships with visiting artists throughout the year.
Mindy hopes to participate in a range of the Centre’s creative programs, and has a vision to create an original work that could continue to be performed once the residency has ended. Erin plans to re-engage with Melbourne audiences, and showcase his diverse musical interests through podcasts, writing, lectures, and recitals.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the span of their projects over the year, to get to know them better as musicians. Each has an enquiring mind, virtuosity in spades, and the ability to communicate with passion and vitality,” Marshall says.
“I hope that artists feel a closer connection to the venue – not just as a building, but as an organisation committed to bringing artists and audiences together to share in powerful and musical performances.
“It’s a place to share and test ideas, and to build conversations around what it means to be a musician, an artist, a performer.”
There’s no doubt that by the end of their residency, these artists will have initiated insightful conversations among local musicians and audiences.
To storytellers like Mindy, these conversations can also become part of a broader narrative. They reveal the power of being heard.
“I want to communicate with the young Asian or young multicultural artist – especially the artist who plays a non-Western musical instrument, or is doing something in a less-familiar environment. I want to encourage them, and tell them it’s possible,” Mindy shares.
“I have some young Chinese artists that came to me saying I really inspired them and encouraged them, and make them feel they can do music – they can play a traditional instrument in the West. So that’s something I want to share as well.”
Melbourne Recital Centre presents Mindy Meng Wang's concert Nervous Energy, in the Primrose Potter Salon with Tim Shiel, October 8 at 7pm, with more concerts to be announced.
Erin Helyard will perform with and direct musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music in Mostly Mozart - Conflicted Passions, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, June 8 at 11.30am June 8. Erin will also perform with the Orchestra of the Antipodes in Pinchgut Opera 2022 series concert Women of the Pietà by Vivaldi, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, 7pm September 15 and 16.
Melbourne Recital Centre’s Artist & Writer-in-Residence is generously supported by the Vizard Foundation.