British-Chinese composer Alex Ho tells me over lunch at a bao restaurant in central London: “Not only for the enjoyment, but even professionally and creatively—you’re gonna make better work if you just get on with people.” Ho is one of two artistic directors of contemporary music collective Tangram (七巧板), a group of composers and performers whose mission statement is “transcending the China-West divide.” The collective champions the social aspects of its artistic community, including the sharing of food, as much as the art it creates. “At Tangram, what we’ve done for most of our projects is: have a meal before the project, if not during, [or] after,” Ho says. “Just to share food together. So it’s particularly appropriate that we’re here.”
The focus on interpersonal relationships and collaboration punctuates Tangram’s history, back to the organization’s founding in 2019 by Alex Ho and co-director and yangqin player Reylon Yount. The pair met via a mutual friend in Boston before reconnecting in London. “We realized in our artistic work, we were interested in very similar themes,” Yount explains. “Me from the angle of a Chinese-American yangqin player, him as a British-Chinese composer. From these two different ends, meeting in the middle, we decided to collaborate.”
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This realization led to the pair’s first project together: a piece for solo yangqin, composed by Ho, entitled “Rituals and Resonances.” Ho describes the piece as an exploration of “the dislocation between cultural identity and heritage” in diasporic communities. Aesthetically, the steady, gradually shifting soundscapes, and extended techniques on the yangqin—alongside Yount’s performative whispers and vocalizations—pay homage to Chinese and Western musical traditions, while aligning with neither. The collaboration earned Tangram the winning award at London-based label Nonclassical’s 2019 Battle of the Bands—also giving them Chinese Arts Now’s Artist Development Bursary in the same year.
This dislocation in diasporic identity resonates not only with Ho and Yount, but the many other performers and composers comprising the collective; artists from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the UK, U.S., and Canada all feature. Ho explains: “We came to these points of similar interest in different ways, but also in different chronologies. Reylon grew up steeped in Chinese heritage, and I was the total opposite—just a very Western music education.”
“British dysphoria!” shouts Taiwanese flutist Yi-Hsuan Chen over the table. We all laugh.
Chinese-American pianist Jessica Zhu describes this feeling of dislocation. “We’re all living, and having our feet, in two different worlds,” she explains. “Our family is one world, and the world around us is a little bit different—and [when] we go back to our home country, it’s also a completely different world. I remember being in a Chinese school, having to sing the Chinese National Anthem, and wearing the red tie… and then moving to the States, having to learn the Pledge of Allegiance, and a different national anthem. It’s different, but also similar.”
It’s this framework of creation as artists within the diaspora, Yount explains, that gives the collective their name—derived from a Tang Dynasty puzzle. “That’s what a tangram is,” Yount says, “a seven-piece puzzle that you have to re-arrange into the shape of whatever silhouette you’re given.” By attempting to solve this puzzle, the artists of Tangram find their aesthetic language.
However, how Tangram’s artists have approached questions of Chinese and Western identities is not uniform. “One thing I’ve been thinking about is the impossibility of complete translation,” flutist Daniel Shao tells me. “The acknowledgement that cultural contexts don’t always have a meeting point. There are some experiences that you may have in China that cannot be completely translated to a Western context. There’s a beauty in acknowledging that.”
This acknowledgement reminded me of their concert of Lunar New Year Premieres at LSO St. Luke’s in 2022, and particularly Beibei Wang’s piece “JiuGe (酒歌),” in which performers Shao, Yount, and Wang herself portray a New Year celebration featuring Chinese drinking games. The central motif revolves around the clinking of bowls representing xiajiucai (下酒菜), alongside theatrical renditions of traditional drinking songs and chaotic crescendi performed on Beibei’s formidable percussion setup. “Not having to present everything to a Western audience and cater to their needs, is a really beautiful part of what I’ve learned from Tangram,” Shao continues. “Not having to apologize for having many fragmented parts of my life, or feeling like it has to be one or the other. We can be all of everything. We don’t have to be less British, or less Chinese, just because I’m half and half.”
Similarly, much of Ho’s artistic ethos centers around the communal and social aspects of performance. “One of the major projects we’ve done is ‘Untold,’ which is an ‘anti-opera’ [that] features Tangram performing,” he explains. “One of the main ideas from that is: Dan isn’t coming in as a flutist, Reylon isn’t coming in as a yangqin player, they’re coming as themselves.” Developed as part of Sound and Music’s New Voices program, “Untold” turns the standard model of operatic collaboration on its head, with the lines between character, ensemble, and crew being blurred and shared equitably.
In a sense, Tangram’s approach to cultural identity puts the artists themselves at the forefront, rather than cultural upbringings or traditions. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Tangram prefers not to refer to their practice as fusion: while many of the multitudes of cross-cultural collaborations in classical music have focused on blending traditional elements into a classical musical practice (or vice versa), Tangram stands out in their practice of what they call infusion. As Yount explains, “Fusion implies the cultures were separate to begin with, [whereas] infusion, it’s like: we’re infusing the essence of who we are into everything we do.”
‘INFUSION’ also happened to be the name of Yi-Hsuan Chen’s Tangram Voices concert in April 2021. “Tangram Voices is a platform for individual artists to curate their own shows, to showcase their voices,” Yount says. The initiative was spearheaded by composer Sun Keting (Rockey) as a series of digital concerts during the pandemic, but has since developed into a live showcase.
For Shao, the ability to create and curate a program that differs so significantly from the traditional concert model is one of the most liberating ingredients of Tangram Voices. “What Tangram does is allow us to unlock parts of ourselves which we otherwise might have locked away at some point; allow us to ponder on what parts of ourselves we might be hiding to stay safe. We’ve learned how to curate a version of ourselves, and Tangram is allowing me to interrogate that.”
The sixth installment of Tangram Voices—entitled “LAOGANMAN”—was curated by Shao. “It was about queer Chinese / Western masculinity,” Shao says. “It was a massive experiment which Reylon and Rockey were instrumental in helping come to light.” A truly interdisciplinary affair, “LAOGANMAN” features elements of performance art, poetry, and interpretative dance, alongside renditions of Bach and a new commission by Ben Nobuto. “It really felt like Dan was going all out, but it was so considered,” Yount tells me. “It was so exciting not just to be a part of, but to see all of these different sides of Dan.” Zhu describes her experience performing with Tangram in a similar way: “That freeing feeling, that you’re not limited by a certain set of rules—that you can’t create what you would like to do, because of who you are. It’s very difficult to put into words.”
Tangram has made it clear through their projects that it’s not just about themselves as artists, but about the wider East and South East Asian (ESEA) music community in Britain. “I think a word that I really like to use these days is ‘multiplier effect,’” Yount says. “Something that we have loved to witness is how artists connect through a Tangram gig, and then they’ll offshoot and collaborate with each other on their own terms. We really encourage that, because it means that we’re creating fruitful connections.”
Alongside their concerts, Tangram have worked with a multitude of ESEA composers such as Raymond Yiu, Tonia Ko, and Vivian Fung, as well as collaborating with performers such as the Ligeti Quartet on projects such as “Our Silence is Your Silence.” With the collective now becoming Associate Artists at LSO St. Luke’s for 2022-25, these strands of both internal and external collaboration are sure to develop further.
As Tangram becomes more established in the music scene, it wants to continue embracing ambivalence. “I don’t think that, as a collective, we have answers about what cultures are, what identities are, what Chinese-ness is,” Ho says. “Each project feels like it’s a questioning of that, whereby the people who are in the room in that project come together to discuss it, and explore it artistically. There’s a lot to unpack, and we haven’t unpacked all of it.”
The most important thing to Tangram, however, is that they are able to create art beyond the cultural frameworks many of them were trained in. “We’re just trying to make good music,” Yount says. “It just so happens that this is the cultural structure we exist in, so there’s certain kinds of undoing. Part of our manifesto is to dismantle Western cultural hegemonies in music, and in our music-making. And that’s so that we can fully thrive as artists. We’re creating a space for ourselves.” ¶
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