Guo Yue

Guo Yue was born in Beijing in 1958, the year of Mao's Great Leap Forward. His name is a revolutionary one: Guo meaning Kingdom, Yue meaning Leap Forward. His family lived in a traditional courtyard in the maze of old alleys known as the Hutongs, between the beautiful Drum and Bell Towers and the river where he played as a child.

His courtyard housed the families of five traditional musicians, mostly from the countryside. From these musicians, who (unlike his father) had received no formal musical training, he learned how to put not just his breath but his whole body into playing the flute. Yue now plays 15 different bamboo flutes.

What did Western music sound like when he first heard it as a child?

“Sophisticated. There are many more notes. I couldn’t relate to it at first. It was not part of my world. I loved the natural simplicity of Chinese music, which is based on a small collection of notes, like the ingredients in Chinese cooking. Western music was banned at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, together with literature, poetry, romantic love, even the flying of kites. Gradually I began to long for that other world, to hear freedom in the sound of Western strings.”

Guo Yue. Photo credit: Sue Belk

In the West we are apt to associate Chinese music with the stylised, high-pitched sounds of Peking Opera. But the music of Guo Yue is very different. Most of it comes from bamboo flutes whose breathy, curvaceous voices bend and swoop, sometimes almost purring, poignantly conveying yearning, loss, parting, anticipation and joy. It may seem strange to use the words benign and contemplative when describing an instrument’s voice. The only comparable emotion in a Western instrument comes from the naive, endearing double bass and sometimes the bassoon.

What is the difference between playing the bamboo and the silver flute? “The silver flute, although I love its sound, is more restricted for me, more mathematical. I can’t ‘bend’ its cool notes to express feeling as I can on my bamboo flutes. As my mother said: ‘Bamboo is like the Eastern character— it can suffer so much, but it is not broken because it can bend.’ My bamboo flutes are like wild birds. If you play the music that comes naturally to them, then they will sing. I think my music is like the new branch of a very ancient tree.”

"I have heard Guo Yue play his music, I have eaten his food, and can guarantee he delivers in a magical way." Peter Gabriel

In 1982 Yue left China and, with the help of his third sister Yan who was living in England, he studied the silver flute at the Guildhall School of Music.

Since living in England, he has composed, arranged, performed and recorded traditional Chinese music. In I990 with his brother Guo Yi, who plays the sheng (an ancient hand-held bamboo wind instrument), they made a Real World album called Yuan, which also features the voice of his second sister Xuan. As the Guo Brothers, they performed at international festivals and concerts, including WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals worldwide.

Not wanting to be confined to traditional Chinese music, since 1990 Yue has worked as a soloist, writing his own music. He has collaborated with musicians and composers from Africa, Italy and Japan. In 1992 he recorded Trisan with Japanese taiko drummer Joji Hirota and Irish singer/composer Pol Brennan, winning a U.S. instrumental award. In 1999 Yue performed his bamboo flutes concerto My Peking Alley with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the WOMAD Festival in Reading.

Yue has also worked on the soundtracks of several international films, including Bertolluci’s Oscar-winning ‘The Last Emperor’ and ‘The Killing Fields.’ He also played the soundtrack theme, composed by George Fenton, for the Emmy award-winning Channel Four television documentary ‘Beyond the Clouds,’ directed by Phil Agland, who commented: ‘In the magical hands of Guo Yue, the bawu flute creates sounds that haunt the soul.’

In 2006, Guo Yue released Music, Food and Love, a musical companion to his book of the same name. Both book and album offer an evocative journey through Guo Yue’s remarkable life —from his early years in The Hutongs of North-East Beijing, through the 1966 Cultural Revolution that exploded when he was just eight years old, to his 1982 departure for London and his vivid, bittersweet memories of his recent visits back to China. Produced by Richard Evans, the album was recorded in Beijing, Bath, and Budapest.

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