Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Visual Arts

Insights: Hong Shu-ying

印映 reflections impressions 


Published: 27 Mar 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

Drawing from her personal experience of learning and teaching the erhu, 印映 reflections impressions by Hong Shu-ying unfurls through an ensemble of works encompassing video, print and annotations to reflect on imitation and mimicking as a way of learning. At the source of these works lies the famed 1950 erhu audio recording of Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring (二泉映月, Erquan Yingyue) by Abing. A seminal figure in the realm of the erhu, Abing is a Chinese folk musician revered for his innovative playing style and legendary—but largely undocumented—contributions to musical compositions for this two-stringed bowed instrument.

Detail of <em>印映 reflections impressions,</em> Hong Shu-ying, 2024.

Despite its poor audio quality, Abing’s 1950 recording of Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring served as the reference for transcribing the erhu classic into cipher notation (or jianpu), evolving into a systematic method for disseminating and learning the composition. Subsequently, performance recordings and user-made videos of the piece have been created, owing to its widespread popularity, considerable significance within cultural contexts, and its role as a valuable resource for learning and instructing the erhu. Intrigued by the proliferation of these recordings, this exhibition sees Hong delving into videos of Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring by both professionals and amateurs of erhu on platforms like YouTube and Youku. Through processes of cropping and screenshotting various lunar and hand imagery as well as representations of Abing, Hong extracts the parallels and variations in these materials, observing how they imagine, shapeshift and form diverse time capsules of expressions. 

Finally, undergirding the works is the significance of notations and annotations in learning and playing the erhu. These annotations offer a comprehensive guide, providing technical and interpretational insights essential for learning a piece. For Hong, they also act as a conduit for the transmission and preservation of knowledge by establishing an informal lineage from erhu teachers and other performers, as well as fostering a continuum of understanding and interpretation. 

The works in the exhibition draw from your erhu learning and teaching experiences, which sparked your fascination with the significance of recordings as valuable resources for musical instruction and the role of imitation and mimicking in learning. While the evident connections between Abing and the 'erhu' exist due to his significant contributions to the instrument, what aspects of Abing's legacy intrigued you?

It is fascinating why Abing is such a seminal figure even though we know little about him. There is intrigue about Abing precisely because so little about him has been documented. I first came across Abing 'officially' when I learnt about the canonical pieces of erhu, one of which is 二泉映月 (Erquan Yingyue; Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring). I knew he was a blind busker, a talented musician and a man with a really sad life. The assumption as a child was that he was sad because he was blind, and hence his songs were sorrowful and lamented his plight. As I grew older and delved deeper into my research for this body of work, I came to realise that Abing's narrative is intricate. The diverse representations of him across various times and platforms mirror broader cultural contexts and our ways of inheriting and learning about culture and music. Looking back, I recognised that I might have encountered cinematic depictions or caricatures of Abing in movies I watched during my childhood.

Detail of <em>印映 reflections impressions,</em> Hong Shu-ying, 2024.

There exist four versions of Abing’s official biography by the author and musicologist Yang Yingliu in 1952, 1954, 1977 and 1979, with different parts of his biography censored or euphemised due to the political sensitivities at each time. I believe Abing was identified and strategically made a figure of cultural and historical importance because his stories and biography were malleable. Politically, Abing represented the folk and traditional; he was also mythical and well-loved by the city of Wuxi in Jiangsu province, China. This made him convenient for nationalistic and social engineering purposes.

Musically, Abing is a great case study on the richness and excellence of the musical traditions of Taoist ritual music and Wuxi opera. The only audio recordings of his music are the six pieces he played when Yang visited him with a magnetic wire recorder in 1950. The powers and institutions that immortalised him had different agendas, which I was ignorant of when I first learnt and imitated his music. It is intriguing how Abing and Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring have become canonical, while other equally (if not more) skilled buskers or Taoist music players have been forgotten. The man, the music, and the legend live on because of reproduction: first the recording from 1950, then the transcribed score, and repeated performances and recordings of the piece.

Does this process not remind us of how we learn and inherit culture or even language? Through imitation, we gain continuity and shared understanding, enabling us to create deeper meanings and expressions; even something as personal and expressive as music begins with imitation as learning. 

How did your exploration into these user-contributed online videos of "Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring" begin, and what were you looking at when you started examining these recordings?

Initially, I was looking at these user-contributed videos, including reposted ones originally produced by television stations or professional musicians, out of curiosity about their aesthetics. I was amused by how certain studio sets were reused and particular motifs and decorations were especially popular. This begun my first foray into looking at these videos collectively and paying more attention to how these visuals and imageries recur or are appropriated.

Screenshots of different studio-recorded music videos from reposted videos on YouTube.

It became increasingly obvious to me that there are similarities and identifiable tropes in the videos. I felt the same curiosity and excitement I had when working with scores and annotations in past works—were there stories and a type of language waiting to unfold in these videos as well?

Your artistic process involved capturing and cropping materials from the internet related to "Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring". I found this method of creating the works intriguing in its own utilisation of imitation and I am curious about your thoughts regarding this approach.

I love working with this method. It is a way of reading images closely and a different way of seeing. I like found images. No image is made without a larger context and intention, but the relationship between the original context and intention changes when we look at them again. In a way, these YouTube videos are unintentional time capsules—they capture how people see and imagine at a specific point of time, and as viewers or consumers of these videos, we encounter these materials in our own social context contemporarily and as informed by our own experiences.

It is endearing to imagine how someone painstakingly converted CD footage or tape-recorded footage of performances to share on YouTube; or learned to shoot themselves performing the piece, taking care to dress up or use a green screen and thereafter adding their interpretations and visual story-telling elements to the song. These efforts and earnest sharing emerge out of their love and interest in sharing the music, in prolonging and seeing this music piece and Abing’s story permeate the lives of many others. It is very humbling and quite contemplative to work with such intimate but publicly available materials.

Screenshots of different amateur-made music videos of <em>Mirrored Moon in the Erquan Spring</em> found on YouTube.

The way we associate imageries or visuals with music and sounds is a fascinating process. There are 'intuitive' ways we associate audio with visuals, like synaesthetic responses. I believe a lot of it is learnt or impressed upon us from our own experiences and the stories others share. I learnt to play many pieces with musicality and emotions because my teacher told me stories or described landscapes while I was interpreting the music. Growing up in Singapore, I could not see a lot of these landscapes or the settings of the stories in my immediate environment, so I relied on dramas, movies, documentaries and music videos to build up my visual vocabulary. I am sure others have similar experiences or been influenced similarly.

By dissecting these online videos, you have accumulated a vast array of material and expressions, including the art direction and set designs showcased within them. For this exhibition, you chose to emphasise several recurring elements consistently found in these videos, such as the moon, imagery of Abing and hand movements. Could you expand further on the rationale behind selecting these specific motifs for your final presentation?

The moon was a motif I was interested in. It is in the title of the piece and features in all the amateur-made music videos I came across. The moon has phases and changes in appearance because of the illumination it receives, echoing how these videos are only 'alive' when they are on our screens. We have all seen the moon, yet the way we imagine it can be so varied (for example, a full moon as compared to a crescent moon). To me, the various representations of the moon echoes how we learned about the piece by Abing and came up with our various interpretations and expressions of the piece. This was why the work 音情圆缺 phases is presented as a series of lightboxes and a video montage.

The likeness of Abing and the plethora of creative interpretations that followed was a playful way of surveying how imitation and images inform our visual imagination. Abing is survived by one photo which was salvaged from his identity card. Visual representations of him took reference from this documentation and oral recounts of how he looked like. Abing lived till 57 years old and hence I selected 57 different headshots of him to showcase the different ways people have represented him. His iconic shades are a distinctive feature. If you look closely, there are images of him without the shades when he was younger or with his eyes rolled backwards that provide clues to his life. He was born sighted but started wearing shades after he lost his sight, as the public became afraid of his appearance due to his missing irises. I also realised that Abing’s likeness and his popularity might be the reason for the stereotypical image of erhu players as older men who are blind, wear shades and are often poor buskers.

If the likeness of Abing was how the general audience formed their ideas of an erhu player, the hand movements in the footage was something that intrigued me as a way of learning. I started working directly with Abing’s recording by experiencing the process of annotating his original recording in a notation format, imitating how it was done posthumously by musicologist Yang Yinliu. This experimentation resulted in the five pieces of annotations 听听记,听听学 play by ear in the exhibition. The transcription of the recording into a musical score was what led to the proliferation of the piece alongside widespread sharing and reproduction of the audio recording.

I realised annotating from scratch using an audio recording was oddly immersive, amplifying details like the speed of the bowing and minute differences in timbre depending on how Abing moved his erhu and hands. I felt surreally close to Abing, trying to tell apart the noise and semblances of his breathing in the recording. I was curious about what I would discover if I only annotated the visuals of hand movements. I am used to having an audio and visual as points of reference when learning from recordings. I watched the snippets where hands were featured and edited them into a montage before transcribing them into the annotations that accompany the video montage 手册 • 手测 observing the hand. The process was perplexing and I was imitating the same actions I saw on screen, using muscle memory of mirroring the hand gestures to recall the symbols for each movement. I had no way of understanding what I saw until I experienced it with my body. I have not quite decided what I feel from this new way of observing and annotating but I am excited by it!

Explored in two works within the exhibition are the significance of annotations on musical scores. In your previous projects, like 笔迹 script/notes, you explored aspects of annotations. Why does this form of writing (annotation as trace) intrigue you?

I spent much of my teenage years as a score librarian for one of the orchestras I played at, so I always have a soft spot for them. Especially in the Chinese orchestral community in Singapore, scores are often hand-copied and annotated with improvised and borrowed symbols and annotation conventions. In 笔迹 script/notes, I revisited 18 years of scores to mine for traces of how this language has formed and continues to evolve. These annotations are traces of inheritance and continuity, language formation, and ultimately the strong desire to carve out a common language to share and connect.

I have many thoughts about notations and annotations, and some of them are articulated or challenged in the text, On Drawing Sounds by Samson Young, an artist I greatly admire. The following two quotes often come up when I make annotations and when I teach my erhu students.

“0. A great many musical traditions do without the need for notation. But notation remains a relevant question so long as we are not ready to relinquish entirely the notion of authorship. 
5a. Notation does not need to result in an action, which is to say, function as a score. The reserve is possible. Other operative logics are equally probable. Notation as transcription is particularly under-explored.” 

Extracted from On Drawing Sounds by Samson Young.

In the context of music, annotating is a mnemonic technique. You could see it as documentation or instruction. Yet this process of transcribing is quite creative and personal too—it involves a certain level of interpretation and borders on translation, especially with the change in format from audio to markings. Even though there are various notation systems, our familiarity with the written script or signifiers means all of us have an in-built and instinctive way of looking at annotations.

For the annotation pieces in this show, I wanted to highlight the repetitions, visual rhythm and patterns present in the music. This was a quality characteristic of Abing’s pieces and his practice of improvising and playing as a busker—creating a motif and repeating it with variation across different musical phases, almost like how oral epics used to travel in the days of oral performances where stories spread through spoken words with repetitions and repeated structures. Quite serendipitously, some of these traces I have extracted also visually recall paths and routes, and I thought this is apt when thinking about how Abing often walked and played when busking.

Artwork image of <em>听听记,听听学 play by ear.</em> Image courtesy of the artist.

The other thing about annotation that is oddly satisfying to me is the way it conflates time. An annotation of music and sounds is almost like a long-exposure photograph—it captures moments within a single image frame. When you look at the video for play by ear, you take in 24 frames per second over four minutes. Yet, when you look at the annotation, the same information has been compressed into a single print: you can read it as a whole image or read it “line by line” like a word-based text. The sequence and process of encounter is entirely up to you to decide and play with, which is somewhat like how our memories work—we do not always remember things in chronological order or with a sense of time, as there are different priorities when we recall a memory. Annotations and notations mean a lot to me because they exist as quiet witnesses of interpersonal interactions and the effects of time.

印映 reflections impressions by Hong Shu-ying is on view at the Esplanade Community Wall from 18 January to 12 May 2024.

Join artist Hong Shu-ying as she sheds light on the inspirations behind her work and the exhibition on 27 Apr, Sat at the Recital Studio Foyer. 

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN