In tandem with other rock bands based in China, such as Tang Dynasty (Wong, C. 2011), Second Hand Rose has woven aspects of Chinese cultural heritage into the sonic fabric of their art. The female costuming that Liang Long has used onstage serves as a visual connection to opera traditions, but there are several ways that the band explores audible cultural heritage as well.
The most obvious element of Chinese musical culture explored by the band is the inclusion of several traditional instruments, mainly from the woodwind or “bamboo” family (for more information on this classification navigate here or here). All of these instruments are played by Wu Zekun, and feature in the band’s recordings and live performances. Liang explained to the ChinaVine team how initially he worked with these instruments in his song writing as solo elements and would use them to create a cultural shift within a given song by having the instrument come in at the moment when a guitar solo would commonly emerge in a rock song. Eventually, though, he and the other band members sought to incorporate the instruments and the traditions they represented more fully into the music. Now, a double-reed instrument such as the suona might appear in a song as part of the overall harmonic structure, an element of sonic texture, or as a solo instrument. Liang and the band are committed to continuing exploration of the many ways they can draw on Chinese traditional instruments in order to continue crafting original rock music that is firmly connected to cultural heritage.
In addition to using particular instruments anchored in long-standing Chinese musical history, Liang himself draws on a vocal style connected to theater traditions from his home area. During discussion with the ChinaVine team, Liang explained that he does not think of his voice as a “rock and roll” voice, meaning that his singing voice is not strong and thick—aesthetic expectations for male rock singers in China (cf. Wong, C. 2011 for a discussion of masculinity and the Chinese hard rock band, Tang Dynasty). In order to foreground the qualities of his voice, he draws on a common conversational style of folk singing found throughout Northern China and with which he grew up: er ren zhuan. The vocal timbre in this style consists of a nasal or pinched quality, and Liang employs this to varying degrees across Second Hand Rose songs. As such, his voice becomes a key element of musical heritage, whether he is singing about traditional themes or not.
The third manner through which Second Hand Rose incorporates Chinese musical culture into their rock song structures involves the “standard” rock instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums. When working on the musical arrangements for one of Liang’s songs, the band members pay attention to opportunities they might have for incorporating rhythmic patterns or melodic figures that reference Chinese musical traditions. For example, the drummer may diverge from a common rock beat by playing brief passages on his kit that echo percussion patterns found in Chinese performing art traditions. Or the bass player may similarly include a short ostinato pattern that recalls traditional rhythmic elements while also referencing contemporary rock via the sound of an amplified electric bass.
Yao Lan, the long-time guitar player for Second Hand Rose, provided the ChinaVine team with one of the more poetic examples of merging Chinese musical heritage with modern rock instrumentation during their performance of “Spring’s Story” at the interview session. This slow ballad from the band’s 2006 release, The World of Entertainment, features fractured glassy chords on the electric guitar that form a sparse harmonic background for the lyrics and melody. Liang’s vocals hang above the music as he sings in the higher range of his voice, employing a timbre connected to the er ren zhuan tradition. During an instrumental break performed on guqin in the recorded version of the song, Yao Lin employed a unique technique on his guitar to sonically represent the long low tones and glissando available to a guqin performer. Taking advantage of the high gain of his guitar’s amplifier, he used both hands on the fretboard of his instrument to tap notes in the lower register. The short video clip found in the gallery below shows Yao’s fluid and striking ability to bridge Chinese musical heritage and contemporary rock sounds. His solo begins at the 1:15 minute mark in the video.
Thanks to University of Central Florida undergraduate student Ryan Whittingham for contributions he made to the interpretation of Second Hand Rose’s use of traditional instrumental techniques.
Wong, C. 2011. “A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty: Masculinity, Male Camaraderie, and Chinese Heavy Metal in the 1990s.” In Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music around the World. Wallach, J., Berger, H. M., & Greene, P.D. (Eds.). Duke University Press Books.
official book website for Metal Rules the Globe.