Recalling my travels to China conjures up images of bicyclists in Beijing, skyscrapers in Shanghai, and seemingly never-ending misty landscapes along 800 miles of the Yangtze River, where you may stop to see tortured stone statues at the Temple of Hell or climb a staircase in one breath to assure immortality. I also recall how meals begin with meat dishes, then vegetables are served, and soup follows.
In a recent conversation with Guo Yue, we didn’t discuss Lao Tzu’s poetry, exquisite calligraphic scrolls, or delicate celadon pottery; we spoke of a different side of China. Guo Yue grew up during the Cultural Revolution; his educated mother was taken away when he was eight. He illicitly played with a homemade kite, and learned to perform songs of the Cultural Revolution on his bamboo flute, during this horrific time when food was scarce, traditional music was taboo, and old thought, old culture, old traditions and old style were eliminated by force.
Guo Yue’s primary instrument is the Chinese bamboo flute, which he plays exquisitely (along with the silver flute and bawu—a reeded wind from Yunnan province) on his recent CD Music, Food And Love. This is also the name of his book, written with his wife, arts writer/editor Clare Farrow. The book and CD comprise a memoir inspired by the images and sounds of his childhood in China.
Guo suggests people listen to the recording like tasting a refreshing melon for dessert, after reading about his boyhood in the back alleys of Beijing as a main dish. He feels this combination will leave listeners calm, and aid in their sleep. In his book he also explains: “Chinese believe that your thoughts and enjoyment of chopping and cooking can influence the food you are preparing, that your mood can even influence the taste of your dishes.” (Curiously, this is the same advice I’ve received from a master herbalist in Tuscany, Italy.)
Nature and art inspire Guo, who speaks about bamboo as though it is a precious jewel. He occasionally plays a white jade flute, but particularly honors the versatility and flexibility of bamboo as both a food and a flute. “Bamboo is flexible. It represents the nation of China. People hunch over, carrying water buckets on a bamboo stick. Like the bamboo, they hold onto sadness, but still try to stand straight,” says Guo.
He rhapsodizes about bamboo used in building, as a beautiful wrapper for food, and about its fantastic aroma when it encases rice cooked over an open fire. He also loves the taste of young shoots, sliced and fried with bean sprouts or flat bamboo shoots chopped very thin with pork, tofu, and a cucumber-like vegetable. Guo’s mother also connected with bamboo and in his book he quotes her: “I want to be buried beneath bamboo. I love the music it makes as it bends in the wind. I would like to be in the same earth.”
Although he has never worked professionally as a chef, Guo is passionate about cooking. He cooks at home every day, unless he is on tour. During our interview he delicately munches on homemade dumplings filled with chopped prawn, minced pork, ginger, scallions, and white cabbage. He enjoys listening to music while he cooks, and his choices are surprising.
“When cooking, I love listening to film music: The Mission, Out Of Africa, The Piano. I want to relate to music that is current, and film music does that,” he says. Guo has played on a number of film soundtracks, including The Last Emperor and The Killing Fields and is always open to musical collaboration.
The music on his new album is primarily original, ranging from solo flute pieces to ensembles of instruments from various cultures to a full string orchestra. It was recorded in Beijing, Budapest, and Bath, England. Some of the strings are overly lush, but many of the other tunes have a haunting beauty. When he was young, Guo dreamed about strings, because the sound was associated with<