Beethoven string quartets. Traditional Chinese music. Heavy metal. Electronica. These are the musical inspirations of composer, musician, and Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) student Qianqian Jin.
A native of the Xinjiang province in Northwestern China, Jin, a bachelor’s degree candidate expected to graduate in 2020, grew up in a region heavily influenced by its central Asian neighbors: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The society Jin grew up in was eclectic and colorful, and her musical taste followed suit.
“It was a very multicultural experience,” recalls Jin. “There were mosques and bazaars, and many Turkish-speaking people.”
At age eight, Jin began studying the guzheng, a traditional Chinese zither. She spent the next nine years in conservatory learning and playing traditional music. At age 17, she had the opportunity to travel to and study in Israel, spending the next two-and-a-half years there. It was there where she taking a more experimental approach with her music. “I began to ask myself, ‘Why am I practicing and playing someone else’s pieces all the time? Why don’t I start writing and playing my own?’”
“In Israel, there is a lot more freedom of expression,” she says. “That’s where I began improvising on my instrument.” Though Israel was very different from Xinjiang, Jin found herself in familiar territory as she met classmates from all over the world. “It was an international community, we just all got together to jam and play experimental music, each person bringing their own culture and experience.”
Music was a way to express herself, to push the limits of her creativity, to meet people she might have otherwise never encountered. “At the time, I was very rock and roll,” she remembers. “I was a teenager in high school and into heavy metal. I would meet guitar players and drummers and play with them. I had fun challenging myself to find the right scaling and pitching, transforming the guzheng so that it fits into different musical genres.” (Her acoustic instrument had 21 strings tuned to a pentatonic scale—not exactly a seamless fit from the get-go.)
In these early days, Jin and her friends jammed and played in bars. While familiarizing herself with experimentation, she also c recorded interesting sounds and compositions on her phone. There was no intention to become a musician full-time, but it was something she also couldn’t do without.
When Jin came to the University of San Francisco, she declared an International Relations and Affairs major, and planned to become a lawyer, also minoring in Music. “This is when I began getting formal training in Western notation and theory,” she says. Jin continued with her studies, but couldn’t help wonder what life might be like as a musician.
Craving a new environment, a new challenge, new cultures to encounter and explore, Jin studied abroad for one year at King’s College in London. There, she expanded her academic pursuits, but it was the live music she experienced in Europe that would change the course of her life.
“I traveled all around and absorbed as much European musical culture as I could. During that time, I was deep into understanding what Western music was.” She had never been to a live concert of a Western orchestra before.
“I traveled to Vienna and saw a concert every single night,” she recalls. Listening to the music and experiencing it live helped put composers like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven into historical perspective. “I remember one concert in London. It was a string quartet and I think they played Beethoven. I was so inspired by his use of themes that were repeated throughout each movement. I was never bored.”
Back in San Francisco, Jin contemplated studying for the LSAT and going to law school. “That’s when I realized this was not what I wanted. I didn’t feel passionate about what I was doing.”
She researched alternative paths and came across SFCM’s TAC program, an exclusive course of study that gives students a direct connection to the worlds of film scoring, video game composition, sound design, and more. The cutting-edge program, geared toward composition, experimentation, and technology was the perfect fit for Jin.
“It was stressful to change tracks from what I originally planned to do, but when I first sat in on a TAC lecture, before I was even a student, I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’” That first lecture, given by faculty members Matt Levine and Jonathan Mayer (both music producers at Sony Interactive Entertainment) convinced Jin to apply to the program. “They were talking about so many interesting things—mixing music, preparing for a recording session … I wanted to know more about them.”
Today, Jin is working on a project which marries the three currents of her musical training: the years spent mastering the guzheng, her love for improvisation and experimental music, and her training in film and video game composition through TAC. With the help of faculty members Clint Bajakian and Taurin Barrera, she is tackling new challenges. “I realized there are two things I need to figure out: how to make non-acoustic sounds blend into the guzheng, and how to amplify my instrument so that it sounds good in a live show.”
The solution is a customized MIDI controller and amplification system that is designed for the guzheng. The device plugs into a laptop and has knobs, touch pads, and motion sensors to play with the sounds created on the instrument.
“I’m testing where to put the microphone and I want to see which extended techniques can come out of the controller,” she says. A big challenge is figuring out how to amplify each of the 21 strings.
The end goal? Turn the guzheng into an electric guitar.
Now a third-year TAC student, Jin has already produced electroacoustic music and was invited to perform at the International Computer Music Conference in Shanghai in 2017. She has collaborated with Matmos, the experimental electronic music duo, and in 2018, orchestrated a traditional Chinese piece for guzheng and string quartet featuring live processing on her instrument.
On the technical side, Jin spent a month in the summer of 2017 in a recording studio with the aim to record every frequency possible on the guzheng, from lowest to highest, along with different articulations and extended techniques. Now in post-production, this 50 GB sample library will eventually be available to people using computer software to write music. When they want to hear their music played on the guzheng, it will be Jin’s recordings that will be played back to them.
If you ask Jin what her music sounds like, she’ll tell you there’s no one answer. “I don’t have a particular genre,” she says. “I like to do a lot of electronic mock-ups with my acoustic instrument. At the same time, I do pop music, sometimes EDM, and other times a very traditional string quartet. I don’t want to restrict myself into any sort of musical genre. Inspiration can come from anywhere.
“When I’m writing and composing I ask myself, ‘What is the more creative way to write this so that it’s more interesting and more engaging to my audience?’ I want my music to express my artistic values and contribute to my audience in a positive way.”
One thing is certain, as Jin’s musical career evolves, her guzheng-turned-electric guitar is sure to be always by her side.