[Edits will be in parenthesis]
Location: [Dr] Cheng Yu’s house
I spoke to Fred Wong yesterday at the London yaji! He gave a long talk about silk strings and the whole process he went through to make the taiko strings. Blood and sweat! I only understood bits of it as he spoke Mandarin (he can speak Cantonese and English).
I’ll point out the important info I [managed] to prise out:
1. When applying the ‘string gum’ [i.e. ‘string glue’] on the strings, you should so the whole playing length of the string and not just the bit where it needs patching up.
2. Do not use the new tuning device on silk strings. Never ever, ever! You should string traditionally, and you must wrap on the goose feet very quickly (I think he said he uses his bare hands without a cloth…)
3. You do not need to tune it to ‘standard’ tuning (i.e. 5th string at A, etc) as there is no standard. It must be tuned in accordance with the qin you have. Tune it to the point it sounds good, then that is the pitch you keep. [You can tune to F but the strings will be more likely to break.]
4. When playing with silk strings, you must pluck lightly and not like the way you play metal-nylon. If you play like m-n, then the strings will buzz and slap on the surface. This also stops it from breaking often. It must be played gently.
5. The bridge should not be too high [or too low], the inner edge of the bridge should not be too sharp, and the knot should be in the center and not too much to the right edge. [I]t will break more easier if it is.
6. The Huqiu [brand] strings [from circa 1970s with the red silk packaging wrapping] are not good. They break very easily and the quality does not match the Taigu ones which can be strung to higher tension [and the Huqiu ones are also very sticky and hurt your hands when you slide on them]. It is the reason why may people turned to m-n strings because Huqiu couldn’t meet the high standard of previous dynasties. But as soon as the Taigu ones came out, almost all players in Taiwan switched back to silk! The mainland didn’t because the main players (e.g. LXT, GY, etc) still advocated m-n.
7. When you finished playing, always loosen strings 5 to 7 [or just six and seven, keep the fifth at tension]. This will avoid them breaking.
8. Always hang your qin up vertically. This stops it from warping.
9. Some qins are more suitable for silk, mostly antique qins [because they were made with silk strings in mind].
10. The vacuum packing allows you to keep the strings fresh for over a century! You [only] really need five sets to last a life time! [Once opened, you must use the strings asap.]
11. [The] 4th string is [the] second [most likely] string to break because its core is the same as the thickness of the 7th string. [It isn’t???]
12. Buy the gauge that suits your qin, then only buy that gauge, otherwise you’ll have to buy multiple sets (you mustn’t mix [and match] zhongqing strings with jiazhong strings, etc).
Those are the main points you should know when using silk.
He talked a lot about the difficult process of making them as well. He had to gather a lot people in the know and had to do research on making the strings (a lot of research). One of the main difficulties is getting the best quality silk. The best is AAA [or 3A] and it costs a bomb in some countries. I think he went to Canada because good quality silk was cheaper there! Also, it is difficult to keep consistancy in the batch as the quality is sometimes mixed. The next difficulty is manufacture[;] half is done by hand and half is done by machine. Then there is the element of the weather as well! Third is quality as it is difficult to get the thicknesses of strings 1 and 7 adequate so 7 won’t break and 1 won’t be too coarse.
At first he gave out his silk strings [for free] to promote them and make people try them out and hopefully use them. At the end of the day, it has to make some money or it won’t be worthwhile anymore! So he hopes many people will [use] or switch to silk strings. Then there will be an adequate market and demand, then more silk string makers would emerge and try to get a better quality string so that there will be more study and research, therefore, resulting in even better quality strings. He said that some players don’t like m-n because it cannot replace the distinctive sound of silk, so they continue to use them. They consider m-n to be ‘bu gaoya’ (not [of] high elegance). To Fred Wong, m-n is for concerts and stuff like that, but if you are not a pro who continuously do gigs like such, then you really should use silk.
For me, I think that if you can play well on silk, then you are a better player/person coz it is hard to get a good sound out of silk strings. If you can play good on m-n and good on silk, then you are playing well, as for silk, you need to be extra relaxed and smooth on your playing. Silk strings can highlight your weaknesses in playing (namely, plucking too hard, wrong angle, etc). [Also, you need a different approach to playing silk to avoid scratchy sounds. You must also pluck more to the left for the sound to be more soft.]
I also heard some [anecdotes] about Wu Wenguang’s (and to a lesser extent, Wu Jinglue[‘s]) playing style. Since he is trained in Western music which tends for the musician to devote their life and soul to the instrument (i.e. play like your life depended on it), his playing is very lively and vivid. But Fred said that you easily get health problems by doing this [continuously;] you [can] get RSI, etc. He exampled this by describing a DVD which WWG made himself in an amateur sort-of way where he played like if it was his last performance. Understandably, he said that was the last time he will every play like that[; i.e.] to the brink! For normal qin players, such is too excessive and is not really the Chinese idea of what music is about. Of course, this [shows the] contrasts [of] different sides [and the various possibilities] of qin study, or what the qin is capable of.
At the end of the talk, he and his wife both played a piece. His wife played a melody which she didn’t name [(it was Qiu Sai Yin)] on Fred’s (silk string) antique qin. I think he said it survived a fire (I could see some fire scars). Had a nice finish to the qin as well, smooth but not glossy. Fred then played “Yuqiao Wenda” [Dialogue Between Fisherman and Woodcutter] on Dannong’s Qing dynasty qin (also silk). He said it had a nice sound, to the delight of Dan! [Dan’s qin opened up in 2007 and had a better sound but his lack of continuous play on it afterwards made the sound quality lower back down. This shows that a qin must be played continuosly in order to retain the sound quality.] Afterwards, there was no time for other players to play, but some tested out the qins.