Professor Jeff Roberts Combines Chinese Instrumental Tradition with Western Improvisation

On Saturday, April 21, Jeff Roberts, Visiting Associate Professor of Music, performed traditional and contemporary music on his Chinese guqin at the Williams College Museum of Art.

A 4th century A.D. sculpture of a bodhisattva guqin musician

The guqin is a plucked string instrument that, according to legend, the Chinese have played throughout the past 5,000 years. Roberts explained that the guqin’s history is intimately connected with Confucianism and Daoism. A Chinese philosophy reputedly begun in the 4th century B.C. by Laozi, Daoism emphasizes the role of the individual voice of an artist or scholar in art and urges its adherents to reconnect with the dao, or the universe, through his or her intuition. Daoist art thus often seems impressionistic: the artist sets down on paper his first impression of a natural scene rather than attempting to depict a narrative. This artistic philosophy is carried over to the musical realm as well, and Chinese musical scores often include notes such as “fall tall air crisp,” attempting to capture within the music the artist’s instinctive feeling about a natural scene.

Roberts’s first piece, “Geese Descending on a Sandy Bank,” came directly from this ancient guqin tradition. However, many of Roberts’s other pieces incorporated aspects of Western music. Roberts, who had composed many of the pieces on the program, has recently begun to incorporate the Western tradition of improvisation into his guqin music. Although the guqin, in its impressionistic traditional use, is an easy instrument with which to improvise , Chinese tradition has avoided improvisation, and only Roberts and his controversial teacher Li Xianging have begun to explore improvisation within traditional guqin themes. Roberts has also experimented with performing his guqin alongside modern instruments: Professor Ronald Feldman played the cello during Roberts’s “Twelve Landscape Views,” and in his most radical piece, “Song of the Roosting Crows,” Roberts even incorporated the use of computer programs.

Roberts discussed at length why he chose to combine these two seemingly different musical traditions in his work. Originally trained as a jazz musician, Roberts has increasingly become involved in the Walden Percussion Project, a part of the found object musical movement that has gained popularity in recent years. This movement, Roberts explained, has roots in New England Transcendentalism, a 19th-century philosophy endorsed by writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson that valued an “intuitive understanding of oneself and one’s own creativity,” said Roberts. Roberts highlighted the similarity between this Transcendentalist philosophy and Daoism, and explained that his improvisation on guqin themes played on these similarities.

To learn more about Roberts’s work, visit