It was a happy coincidence that I bumped into Will McNicol in Chengdu when I was on my way to my Mum’s 96th birthday.
I was met at the airport by Will, Xu Bao and Joshua Jiao and rushed to a restaurant in an emergency food dash.
Will had been touring China with his own super charged yet gentle brand of acoustic music which he played on a new crossover guitar made by Martinez. This is a nylon strung instrument with a longer neck (the neck meets the body at the 14th fret) and a slightly shallower body. Will had just played in Chengdu the night before, following on from ten or more concerts throughout China, ably assisted by Josh.
After a wonderful lunch which culminated in the smashing of a wine glass while I was on a swing (don’t ask) we were joined by Alex Wang, CEO of Martinez. The following, slightly inebriated interview(s) discussing the future of the guitar in China, connections, Will’s music, life, the universe etc followed without further breakages .
A clip from Will’s latest recording
Will was voted Acoustic Guitarist of the Year by Guitarist Magazine in 2011.
Here is his piece “The Wakeup”.
When I was in Chengdu recently, I had a fun time with Alex Wang, CEO and founder of Martinez guitars, and persuaded him to do an interview just before I left for Hong Kong.
Here is a little bit about Martinez guitars, which are sold worldwide. In between drinking competitions I was astonished to discover that Martinez sold 70,000 guitars last year!
The new era of classic guitar producers were initiated when a talented China luthier, Mr. Alex Wang (the founder of Martinez brand) who learnt from the American luthier, Mr. Kenny Hill who trained & influenced many aspect of Martinez team for best practices based on the USA hand-made classic guitar making. The third influential person in this joint venture is a German luthier, Mr. Wolfgang Jellinghaus who fill in the role as the tone woods sourcing for the best of Martinez guitar sound.
In summary, the tradition of hand-made best practices from USA, the internationally trained China skills to assemble guitars in a modern guitar factory out of China and the sourcing capability for best tone woods out of Germany are the example of a globally integrated classic guitar brand, that is the Martinez Guitars ! This is another proof that the buzz word of “globally integrated company” were no longer dominated by the high-tech industry, it is happening in the classic guitar industry. The result is a new era classic guitar which inherited the “the hand-made guitar making” quality out of the modern guitars factory facility at the affordable price points. The consumers who buy these guitars will benefit the outcome of ‘globally integrated company’ concept.
Intrigued? I was, and will be visiting the factory very soon.
What job do you do after graduating in classical guitar?
When I first visited Chengdu two years ago, I was surprised that the professor at the conservatory, Xu Bao also ran a music shop.
I learned that this was a place his more advanced students could teach and it was a general meeting place for the increasing number of students he had.
There were also guitars for sale.
On this present visit, he had just opened a new shop, a hundred yards down from the previous one, but I also discovered that there were another two shops in other areas of Chengdu.
They all sold relatively expensive guitars from Altamira, Martinez and Milestone.
Overall, there were around 300 students and each shop was managed and part owned by one of Xu Bao’s students.
Intrigued, I wanted to find out why there was such a demand for guitar studios, their function in the life of students who have finished their studies and how Xu Bao manages to sell higher quality and more expensive guitars to his students.
The studio/shops themselves were also an interesting design, incorporating lots of open space and making use of all the space that was available.
In the following interview, I was ably assisted by one of Xu Bao’s former students, Wenjun Qi, who is now studying with Bill Kanengiser in Los Angeles.
It was back to Chengdu last month to teach some of Professor Xu Bao’s students. This was a special trip because I was also the CD producer for Kuang Junhong’s first CD (at the age of 14). He really is something, and I hope you will enjoy the CD when it is released by Naxos.
There is a youthful optimism about his playing, but there is also the odd touch of masterful genius which comes through. Needless to say, his technique is flawless.
As he is very dedicated, I am sure he will mature into a wonderful musician.
His teacher says that to play an instrument well, you have to be first and foremost a good human being, with heart. (The other thing he says is that his students should have experience with other teachers and to this end he has invited many teachers from the West at his own expense, so that his students can absorb as many influences as they can).
It was very cold in the Main Concert Hall of Sichuan Conservatory, which was having a lift shaft installed during the day (and there are also 900 practice rooms all around making a Babelicious cacophony), so we had to record until late at night. It amazed me how many people were out on the street still eating at 4.00 am!
Junhong was the ideal person to record – he was always on the ball musically, and could intelligently work out edit points where necessary. There were a few pieces which were recorded as whole takes, and he can instantly absorb a musical or technical nuance.
During the day, we had lessons on the pieces, including his (by now famous) Chaconne by Bach. There was also Tedesco, Granados, Albeniz, Legnani and Mertz.
Junhong’s Chaconne at Iserlohn International Festival
What was unusual about the evenings was that I also recorded another guitarist consecutively – Chengbin from Shanghai, who has not made a CD before although he is quite a bit older than Junhong. His background is in Chinese Opera and he is a very instinctive and lively player. His CD was entirely of Brouwer, made for the sponsor of the recordings, Altamira.
Both players used Altamira guitars exclusively for their CDs.
Xu Bao and Chengbin outside the shop
Lu, GG, Junhong in the studio
We managed to finish the two CDs – done, dusted and edited in five days, with discussions and lessons on the pieces during the day as well as lessons for another 10 or so students.
So no time to see the pandas on this occasion, then!
Luckily we still had time to eat, although breakfast was a bit hazy after finishing regularly at 4.00-5.00am.
None of this would have been possible if I had not had a fine recording engineer with musical (and English) knowledge, who was so easy to work with it seemed that I was editing the CD directly.
His name is Lü Xin Long and it is worth keeping an eye out for his name, as he seems to be doing a lot of work at the moment in conjunction with the Chengdu YunTian Culture Communication Co.Ltd. On the final edit for Chengbin, he stayed up all night to master the CD so i could take it to Hanson Yao of Altamira when I went to Hong Kong the next morning.
Junhong, Lu Xin Long and Xu Bao
I also met another Chengdu kid to look out for – 11 year old Huang Yuexuan, who is extremely studious and serious about the guitar and also a bit of a laugh. His daily fare seems to be Villa Lobos Etudes 1 and 2, Bach Lute Suite 4 and Barrios Sueno en La Floresta. I would say he probably should get out more, but he does sometimes have to practise outside Xu Bao’s shop, which is in a leafy boulevard lined with instrument sellers and (for some unknown reason) hairdressers.
Xu Bao’s 200 or so students are divided between him and 4 or 5 other teachers, all ex students of his and it is all very hierarchical, but relaxed. We drank a lot of tea outside, mainly at dusk. Everyone was very respectful, hospitable and hard working. I felt very well looked after.
Huang YueXuan in the middle
Huang YueXuan doing a bit of casual practice in the lunch hour
Villa Lobos Etude 2 with a new fingering
You can listen to the interview I managed to snatch with Xu Bao during lunch just before leaving for the airport.
The next couple of days were spent in Hong Kong with Hanson Yao in his new guitar shop, with my friend and writer Jane Ram, and with my sister in law visiting from California and my 92 year old mother, but that is another story.
I had a wonderful time despite hard work and lack of sleep. Everyone was hospitable in a relaxed and human way. and I hope to return to Chengdu soon. It was great fun. Thank you all, especially Xu Bao, Hanson, Yang Yang, Zhu Re and of course the two artists, Junhong and Chengbin.
Maybe next time, I will get to see some pandas!
If you haven’t come across him yet, Kuang Junhong is a 13 year old genius who plays the guitar with wonderful musicality. His teacher Xu Bao invited me over to Chengdu (in Sichuan Province) last month and I had the pleasure of teaching Junhong and many others of his talented pupils (as well as eating some fine Sichuan food – mostly mouth-numbingly spicy). There will be a few other young guitarists from this part of China you will eventually hear about. Continue reading →