Lockdown Recommendations from Musicians: Guitarist Xuefei Yang

Guitarist Xuefei Yang shares the films, books and music she's been discovering at home during the coronavirus pandemic

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Musical recommendations

During these uncertain times, I like to listen to music that makes me feel relaxed, feeds the soul and leaves me feeling inspired.

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The Complete Ella and Louis on Verve

I could listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s voice for hours, especially her ballads.

I bought this CD from a charity shop, and is the record I’ve played most on my hifi during lockdown. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are such an incomparable combination, with the combination of voices sounding like butter on grainy bread. Recently I also watched the BBC documentary on Ella’s life story. Her rise to prominence as a black artist in her time is extraordinary and inspirational.

The Quintessential Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli

Guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli are such a perfect team.  They both showed such resilience in different ways: the changing appetite for musical styles meant that Grappelli’s career was very up and down, while Reinhardt had to relearn his instrument so he could play with three fingers, after his hand was severely burnt in a blaze in a gypsy caravan.

Such resilience in the face of adversity reminds me not to complain about the personal challenges that I found hard to conquer.

Raphael Rabello: Cry My Guitar

Raphael Rabello was the outstanding Brazilian-style guitarist of his generation.  This was the very last recording he made just before he died aged 33. The producer heard of the sad news while he was still mixing the record.

This is probably his best solo recording, showcasing his extraordinary talent as a musician, guitarist, arranger and improviser. In my own album Colours of Brazil, there are several pieces in which I owe him a debt of gratitude for his improvisational ideas – they really make the pieces sound so spontaneous. I wonder if he realised that one day his playing would inspire a Chinese guitarist to play the music of his country.

Hilary Hahn Plays Bach

I love the sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Bach, and often practise them on my own instrument. They are good training for technique, as well as being fulfilling for the mind. I have long been amazed by Hilary Hahn’s Bach interpretations, both her recordings and live videos. It’s formidable – satisfying in every way.

Books

Julian Baggini: How the World Thinks

I am constantly amazed by the huge diversity of solutions the human race has created to live together in societies. It is not until you experience this diversity that you realise how much your own behaviours and beliefs are shaped by the culture you were brought up in.

Building an awareness and understanding of others is key to ensuring that people from different cultures can meet and not clash. My latest recording Sketches of China is my own small contribution, by sharing the lesser-known world of Chinese music with an international audience.

In thinking about such questions, this fascinating little book has help challenge my own thoughts and gain a better understand the philosophies of east and west.

Arthur Waley: The Book of Songs

My name Xuefei (meaning ‘snowing densely’) is taken from the Book of Songs, China’s oldest collection of poems, dating back some 2500-3000 years. Ironically, as a schoolgirl I didn’t take  much interest in these ancient words, even though we all had to study them.

My interest was stirred whilst playing and recording Britten’s Songs from the Chinese with tenor Ian Bostridge. Britten took the lyrics from Arthur Waley’s English translations of poems from the Book of Songs. I was intrigued to see how an English academic interpreted these ancient poems. In modern life we may not have chariots, but the basic human message remains equally clear over two and half millennia after they were created.

We can strongly feel the desires, pain, anger and reverence in these poems and relate them to our life now. Reading them before you sleep – imagining a different life and a different culture expressed in poetic language – sends you into a peaceful sleep.

Films

The Notebook

I unashamedly search for romantic films, and came across this film by sheer coincidence. It’s a classic love story between unlikely lovers, which has been beautifully produced.

Coco

When I saw the cartoon picture of a cute little boy playing a guitar, I thought this film might give me some inspiration and encouragement for my career. It ended up giving me something much deeper, reminding us of some of the big questions in life: What life is all the about? How we will be remembered?

Alongside these big questions, the visual effects on display are an absolute feast for the eyes. The music is so enjoyable I even arranged the theme song, which I uploaded to my Youtube channel.  I have since nicknamed one of my guitars Coco – it has maple sides so looks quite similar to his!

Le château de ma mère

We might think we’re stimulated by high drama and extreme action, but there are still lots of nuanced human stories that are well worth telling. I enjoyed this French film (based on a Marcel Pagnol’s autobiographical novel) for its refined detail, heartwarming real-life story, stunning cinematography and locations. It tells a heavy-hearted story with a light-hearted humour.

Little Women

Another movie from a classic book presented in a film format. I especially enjoyed this beautifully made period drama. It took my mind away from the current time and planted me in another world.  This story of women’s lives told by a female director made me hugely empathetic towards the characters, despite the story being set in a time and society that is totally unfamiliar to me.

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Xuefei Yang’s new album Sketches of China is released on 7 August on Decca.