I don't know whether the British Museum has only recently started having concerts, or whether I just never paid attention before, but I was back there last night to hear a performance on the guqin, or Chinese zither, by the world-renowned player Li Xiangting. The guqin, like the rubab, was an instrument I'd heard played but never seen. Unfortunately, photography wasn't permitted during the concert. I wish I could show you the varied techniques that a guqin player uses, sometimes seeming to strike the strings like piano keys, sometimes strumming and sliding.
Before he began playing, Mr Li gave a brief talk (in Chinese, with the presenter translating) about the guqin's traditional relationship with painting and calligraphy. Later on we got to see this relationship in action. The artist Guo Le (who turned out to have been sitting next to me in the audience) joined Mr Li on stage. The presenter announced that Mr Guo would create a painting based on a theme chosen by the audience, while Mr Li improvised a tune on the guqin and xiao (bamboo flute). The subject we eventually chose was a Shih Tzu dog. This caused some difficulty at first, as neither musician, painter nor presenter had heard of the breed before. Fortunately, the production assistant found a picture online and projected it onto the overhead screen. Mr Guo produced a very characterful picture of the dog, while Mr Li came up with suitably bouncy accompanying music.
Most of the rest of the programme consisted of traditional music. I particularly liked Yi Guren ("Remembering an Old Friend"), a wistful composition from the early 19th century, and Jiu Kuang ("Wine Drunkenness"), a convincingly tipsy-sounding piece from the 15th century. There was also a contemporary composition, Jieshi ("Secluded Orchid in Jieshi Mode"), which the composer Raymond Yiu had based on the oldest surviving guqin tablature, from the sixth century. For this performance Mr Li was joined by members of the English Chamber Orchestra, who made modernist noises behind him while he played a conventional-sounding melody.
The only distraction from the music was a couple of mice who ran back and forth in front of the stage. The Gayer-Anderson Cat would not be pleased!