People who make Monaco: Zhang Zhang
The musician Zhang Zhang
is one of Monaco's most familiar faces. Her name - one of the most ancient in Chinese history - was the official
title of a tribal leader in
charge of making bows which would shoot the perfect arrow. We think it
applies just as well to the bow that Zhang employs to make perfect
music, and we started by asking her about that.
Did you always want to be a violinist, and who were your greatest inspirations as a chilld?
Unlike some of my friends, I didn't choose the violin - or even a career in classical music: it was decided for me by my parents. I did not accept my fate easily; I felt it was an imposition on my freedom, even at the age of four! What softened my rebellion was that I was put on stage at an early age, which I enjoyed much more than the repetitiveness of practising.
In my teens I became aware of the commercialization of the music profession that put competitions and achieving fame ahead of artistic expression, as if we were training for competitive sports or spectacular circus acts. We were taught to play everything in the same manner, from Bach to Bartok: it was all about mastering the violin and sounding 'clean and good'. The result was that a generation of young violinists started to sound just like one another, unlike the old masters each with their distinct voices. Even today, conservatoires in China are still more focused on producing dazzling technical prodigies able to execute music with marvellous speed and robotic precision - but not much else.
Like many others of my generation, I was being pushed towards something that I did not sincerely believe in, urged on by teachers, parents, and other musical authorities who deemed I had the 'talent' to become a success. These included famous professors collecting 'trophy students' to promote their own prestige by 'guaranteeing' a wonderful solo career. There was a lot of dishonesty in the name of pedagogy and mentorship.
At the age of 18 I met my future teacher, master Sergiu Luca. He was a brilliant violinist and an exceptional 'complete musician' who didn't care about the commercial aspect of the profession; instead he devoted his attention to the authentic art. He used to say to me: 'Don’t just play the violin! Play the music!'
Mr Luca liberated many young professionals from the shackles of the conventional path, encouraging each to become complete musicians expressing our individual voices. None of the Luca pupils play like each other, nor did we strive to become a copy of our master; we all sounded like ourselves and went on to create our own fulfilling careers in music.
Your father was a great Chinese violinist, who played for presidents Nixon and Ford. But growing up in Communist China must have been difficult. What was it like for you?
My parents were very famous in the 60s and 70s: my mother was a celebrated film actress from a well known family, yet we were very poor materially, having lost everything in the Revolution. China in the 1970s was nothing like it is today. We lived in Beijing, in a room of 9 square metres, even though my father was a top musician and my mother’s face was on giant billboards. Together they made about the equivalent of €10 a month.
We didn’t even have room for a proper table to eat on; instead we used my mother’s wooden piano bench for meals. My brother and I wore clothes hand-made by our mother, we had practically no toys and only one pair of shoes until we outgrew them. And of course no television, but we enjoyed creating games from our own imagination, much of which involved what we could find in nature (lots of dirt and flowers!) and reading books, which were abundant.
But even with the lack of material wealth, we were surrounded by a strong community of family and friends, feeling loved and cared for, which is much more essential to a child than anything money can buy. I remember being very impressed the first time I saw hot water coming out of a tap at the age of 9, the day after we left China!
You are a lover of Baroque and 20th century music. Who are your favourite composers?
Before trees branch into their spectacular variations, the roots and trunk must be solid and powerful. It's the same with music, where the Baroque period is very significant for all the music that came afterwards. The one composer that I esteem above all others is Bach. It was my teacher Sergiu Luca who made a pioneering contribution to the world of music nearly 40 years ago, by recording for the first time all six of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on original Baroque instruments. He significantly changed the modern view of Baroque music and its performance style in the 20th and 21st century.
It was also due to Mr. Luca that I begin to explore works by living composers, and it's been a fascinating experience working with composers as they create a piece of music. I don't always like new music, but I do believe it is an essential part of a musician’s complete education to fully understand the process of experimentation in composition.
If I could choose just one composer to play for the rest of my life, it would J.S. Bach, but I'm also a fan of Mozart, Prokofiev, Mahler and the French Impressionistic composers, as well as having a soft spot for Opera, Brazilian music and Eastern European folk tunes.
Since coming to Monaco you have been extremely active, not only playing with the OPMC but also with your own groups and in private recitals. But above all you have thrown yourself into charitable work. Tell us a little bit about Zhangomusiq.
The Zhang Zhang Band started in 2002, at La Rascasse. After seeing me jam with the band Caligagan on stage one Saturday night - we were playing Bob Marley - manager Antonio Ierone offered me a weekly slot at the club. The original band included myself, Jazz guitarist Leopoldo Giannola, and bassist Maria Chirokoliyska. We played every Wednesday for several years. Those mid-week happy hour sessions soon became a popular local event where many young professional ex-pats would come together to warm up for the weekend. It was a lot of fun and we certainly experimented with all kinds of music!
We have since become a much larger and musically diverse group, but still with the remarkable Leopoldo Giannola as our artistic pillar and my longtime classical partner Elzbieta Ziomek playing the piano. Guest artists have included my mother, and my brother Leo Zhang, who is an accomplished cellist and composer. Since those days at La Rascasse, we've performed for thousands of people, from Bach to Bossa Nova and lots of stuff in between.
Our mission is simple: 'Good Music For Good Causes'. All our ticket receipts are donated to humanitarian or ecological projects in progress around the world. We believe that every little bit can make a difference to someone’s life, be it a child, an elderly person or an endangered species. Saving one sea turtle or given a lonely old person a better Christmas may not look like much on paper, yet to the individual concerned, it can make a world of difference.
Since 2007, we have worked in association with Mission Enfance, Foundation Nicolas Hulot, Monaco Aides and Presence, Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres, the Musée Océanographique de Monaco and the Kimiko Date Foundation of Japan for Tsunami relief. We are proud of our work and are grateful to all the support and sponsorship we have received from friends and Monaco entities, including the Gouvernement Princier, the Monte Carlo SBM and several Private Banks. Generosity is of the essence in the Principality, and we are determined to play our part through music.
In 2009 Zhangomusiq was able to generate
enough funding to build a school for girls in Afghanistan. Today it's
doing very well, and has more and more students. I believe education -
especially the education
of women -
is crucial to the improvement of any society. Even though I many never
see this school or meet the students, I know we have made a difference
with our music.
You are also an accomplished poet, and you're currently working on a screenplay. Can you tell us something about your future projects?
My dream as a child was to become a Chinese Opera singer. They had the most breathtaking power and
costumes! But I've also always been fascinated by words, and began reading at the age of 13 months. Writing poems for me is not really a hobby, because I only do it when it's imperative, when I try to express what I must at a particular moment. Sometimes months go by without writing a single word, but at other times I can write three poems a day for weeks, even waking up in the middle of the night to jot down words in the dark. I am not sure if my poems are good, but that's not important. 'Quiet Lunacy' is how I would describe it!
The screenplay is a dark satire written in Chinese, about a Beijing family living in North America. Much of the literature about China in the last twenty years seems to be more of less of the same genre: the protagonist’s heroic survival through the feudal system and war, followed by the harsh communist regime and the traumas of the revolution, eventually finding freedom and success, after a fantastic escape to the Occident. But the protagonists in my satire are much more flawed human beings, some of them quite detestable. Even the apparently good people behave foolishly or even badly.
This past August I spent a month in Beijing, the first two weeks playing concerts with the Monaco String Quartet Ensemble which I founded in 2005 with a few colleagues of the OPMC. We were very honoured to be the first official classical music group to represent the Principality in a major festival in China. The concerts were very successful and we were delighted to perform a sell-out concert in the National Theatre for the Performing Arts on Tiananmen Square.
For the rest of the summer I was exploring the city that has become totally transformed since my childhood. China has always been my roots and my past: now it will also play an important part in my future. One of my current focuses is to promote and develop the presence of Monaco to a greater public in China, through quality musical and cultural activities.
I am currently featured in the November issue of Air France In Flight magazine (Chinese edition), describing my experiences as a Chinese artist living and working in the Principality. A small but positive step towards bringing my two favourite countries closer together. To me, Monaco has an enchantment that goes far beyond beauty and comfort. It's a unique place where incredible dreams really do come true, if one has the courage to reach for them. It's a marvellous village, which can also feel like the exciting centre of the world - and if we could only add an authentic Chinese restaurant, it would be even more perfect!
What, for you, are the values which make music and the arts in general so important for people’s lives? How can music inspire others to do good in the world?
Music is a universal language shared by all human beings, regardless of cultural boundaries and frontiers. It's our common heritage and the manifestation of the best in each of us. While humans are capable of great destruction and cruelty to each other and to our environment, we are also able to create great beauty inspired by nature and love. Creating art and music are the sincere celebrations of humanity, a reminder of our own magnificence and our diversity.
We have a tendency to judge music by its presentation rather than its real essence. It's funny, only the other day I heard a delightful jazz duet as I was driving with a friend. When my friend told me it was Tony Bennett singing with Lady Gaga, I burst out laughing at my own prejudice. I had no idea Lady Gaga could sing so beautifully - because I'd never listened to her! Having read about all the publicity buzz on her extreme costumes and elaborate disguises, I fell into the trap of making assumptions based on the packaging alone.
Similarly, not every elegantly attired classical musician is worth listening to, even if they ‘look the part’. What counts is to have open ears and open hearts. Good music comes in many forms and there will always be rewarding surprises if we are ready to listen.
Interview by Alex Went; photos by Naneen Rossi
With thanks to SBM and the Monte Carlo Casino