Entering the main office of the Anderson Center, a historic estate just outside Red Wing, it’s not uncommon to hear music, since the property has long served as an artists community.
But this month, the soothing string melodies echoing through the building’s corridors sound unlike any other created by prior artists-in-residence. Notes rush like waterfalls and burble like fountains; they undulate, wavelike, and rear up in grand swells. The tranquil tunes evoke floating on clouds — if they don’t engender world peace, they will at least lower a listener’s blood pressure.
The music emanates from the center’s basement art gallery, where Jarrelle Barton practices his guzheng (pronounced goo-jung), or Chinese zither, a harp-piano hybrid. Overlooked by a pair of Calder prints, his long fingers race and leap across the strings. Surrounded by the works of Picasso, Chagall and other artistic masters, Barton sounds well on his way to becoming a master himself.
Although the ancient Chinese instrument is experiencing a resurgence worldwide, guzheng players are rare in Minnesota, and Barton is the first one to participate in Anderson’s selective residency program. He was chosen because of his technical and emotive capabilities as well as his potential, said Stephanie Rogers, the center’s director.
Barton’s guzheng-playing videos have drawn thousands of views online and caught the attention of Chinese music enthusiasts worldwide. He’s preparing for high-profile performances at the Twin Cities Lantern Festival on Aug. 25 and at the Ordway in December.
But after a long, unusual journey to learning guzheng, he’s happy to play anywhere and everywhere, even if no one else is listening.
“I like everything about the guzheng,” he said. “I like the way it sounds, I love the way it looks. I love bending the stings, plucking the strings. I was born to be with this instrument.”
A serendipitous CD
A little over a decade ago, when Barton was 13, he lived in Cleveland, where he went to the public library most days after school to play chess and listen to music. One afternoon, he checked out a CD of traditional Chinese music.
“I heard the guzheng, and, oh, my gosh, I fell in love with it,” he said. “It was so beautiful and heavenly sounding. I had to learn it.”
Most kids Barton’s age would be more likely to take up the piano, violin or guitar. But Barton wasn’t like most kids. His grandmother Erma Yates describes him as an “unusual, special person” — a little quiet, but with very deep feelings. He was enamored of an instrument that’s been played in China for 2,500 years: a hollow wooden soundboard about 5 feet long and a foot wide, with 21 strings and triangular supports beneath each for tuning.
But Barton didn’t know any of this back then. He’d never even seen a guzheng. Guided by the picture on the CD case, he tried to make his own out of a wooden tea tray and guitar strings. “The instrument I made was very different from a guzheng,” he said. “It was very light and airy, and it didn’t sound great.”
Barton, who lived with his grandmother, begged her to buy him a guzheng he’d found online. She agreed, but the gift came with strings attached:
“She said, ‘Oh, Jarrelle, this is an expensive instrument,’ ” Barton recalled. “ ‘You’re going to have to really practice and get good.’ ”
Acquiring the instrument proved less complicated than learning to play it. Barton couldn’t find any books on how to play guzheng in English, and the online tutorials he found were in Chinese, too. So he started teaching himself Mandarin by taping vocabulary flashcards around the house. He also learned Chinese music notation, which represents notes as numbers instead of dots on a staff.
At the same time, he accustomed his body to feeling the guzheng music.
“I watched tutorials and watched the masters’ hands — how they moved and how they plucked the strings,” he said. “I tried to listen to as much traditional guzheng music as I could so I would have an ear for the music and so I was respectful when I played.”
Barton progressed as far as he could on his own, then searched for a teacher online. He found a guzheng master from Beijing who was living in Burnsville and convinced his grandmother that they should to move to Minnesota so he could take lessons and also be near family.
When Barton was 14, the two made the trip by Greyhound bus, and there was no way he was putting his precious guzheng in the cargo hold. Barton placed it in the seat in front of his — the tall, skinny teenager and his instrumental twin, embarking on a new future together, attracting plenty of inquisitive looks.
At home in Prior Lake, Barton typically practices at least six or seven hours a day. He teaches a few guzheng lessons and performs around the Twin Cities area at farmers markets and weddings, or Buddhist temples for Chinese New Year. He also makes money by busking near the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. When Barton plays in public, Yates likes to be in the audience, watching listeners’ reactions.
“I look around at people that are listening and it’s really obvious that they are touched from somewhere deep within,” she said.
Barton plays a little bit of everything: traditional and contemporary Chinese pieces, European music, even improvisational jam sessions. His own compositions tend to have a more modern, avant-garde sound. Barton relishes the various ways the guzheng can be played. Its strings may be plucked and pressed to create tone bends (like those in guitar licks) and tremolos (trembling, rapidly repeating notes) in addition to arpeggios (separated chords) and glissandos (slides between notes, as on a harp). Some performers even beat the back of the guzheng like a drum with one hand while the other plays the strings.
David Badagnani, director of the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble, discovered Barton’s music by watching his videos online. “From the first note, I knew this was a very serious musician with a very deep understanding of this tradition,” he said.
The guzheng is difficult to master, Badagnani said. Learning the nuances of bending the strings to find in-between notes can be acquired only through dedicated practice.
“To play it at the very sophisticated level that Jarrelle has reached at his young age is very rare,” he said. “Even among musicians who are from China, some don’t play the older traditional repertoire with as deep an understanding of the music. He also has this real meditative quality to his music where every note seems to have a meaning.”
Chinese culture permeates Barton’s life outside music, too. He has studied Chinese watercolor painting, calligraphy and bonsai. He loves cooking Chinese food, fragrant with ginger, garlic and star anise. For formal guzheng performances, he’ll dress in a Mandarin suit. After a woman who saw him playing at the Mall of America in Bloomington for Chinese New Year told him that she saw the Buddha in him, Barton researched Buddhism and decided to convert.
Barton recently uploaded a few of his videos to Weixin, China’s social media “super app.” They went viral, with viewers making comments such as “great,” or “master,” or “wow, this foreigner can play our music.”
Barton said he’s received hundreds of messages from Chinese people. “I can’t answer them all,” he said. “A lot of them want to study guzheng with me, or they are already accomplished musicians who want to congratulate me on my success in learning guzheng.”
Guzheng enthusiasts are often surprised to see the instrument being played by a 6-2, 25-year-old African-American with no connection to China. “I’ll get strange looks from people sometimes,” Barton said. “Until they come over and listen to the music, and their expressions change.”
Carol Chang, one of the largest American guzheng retailers, who also plays in a California ensemble, got to know Barton when he bought an instrument and peppered her with questions. She said she’s impressed by his strong feel for the music.
“Even compared to Chinese people learning in America, I’ve never seen other people playing with so much Chinese flavor than him, especially his traditional pieces.”
Other listeners have been less open-minded. Barton said once, after a performance, a man handed him a book on African drum music and told him that he should be playing an instrument from his own cultural heritage.
After taking a few months off to wrestle with the issue, Barton decided he could never give up an instrument that has given him such joy and purpose, that he considers his best friend, that he credits with saving his life.
“Music is universal — it goes beyond,” he said. “I think anyone can learn an instrument regardless of your ethnic background or what language you speak or what color you are. You can learn any instrument you’d like and create beautiful music to share with people.”