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Bach from the brink: Meet Taiwanese musician Ethan Lin

An exclusive with 'neo-Baroque' maestro shaking up Taiwan’s classical music scene

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Ethan Lin plays the violoncello da Spalla -- a five-stringed Baroque-era instrument that boasts the bassy sounds of a cello a...

Ethan Lin plays the violoncello da Spalla -- a five-stringed Baroque-era instrument that boasts the bassy sounds of a cello a...

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Is it a violin? A viola? “No,” says Ethan Lin (林逸軒), “it’s a violoncello da Spalla!”

Fiddling this five-stringed mongrel from the ancestral depths of the string family, Taipei’s boldest young Baroque composer is on a mission to give the historically inspired performance an Eastern twist. He wants to revive the great tradition of exchange that first brought the musical worlds of East and West together centuries ago.

There is just one problem — Taiwan’s classical music scene is stuck in a rut.

“It’s like we are still stuck in the 19th century… there are these endless loop cycles,” Lin says.

The composer says the scene is suffering from serious “inflation” that is “overpopulated” with teachers who cannot make a living by performing their art. Yet music is pointless, he believes, without live performance that can stand on its own merit.

“It’s bad, it’s really bad,” he says. “Someone’s gotta do something about it.”

The muso’s sense of mission has been years in the making. Before bursting onto the performing scene, Lin went on a coast-to-coast odyssey of musical training in the U.S., covering New York’s Julliard School, the University of Texas in Austin, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, collecting Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral degrees as he went.

Lin says his venture into the fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions was born from a fascination with the "Sino-Baroque research project" — a research project that unearthed the history of classical Western music’s journey to the far East.

“They (Jesuit missionaries) actually brought instruments to the Qing court,” he says. “They taught them music theory, history, etc.”

“Just imagine you see Western classical music manuscripts in Chinese court documents,” he says. “There is classical Chinese written alongside the manuscript… and there is ‘Ut, re, mi, fa, so…” Lin says, recalling seeing the historical documents for the first time.

“That was fascinating the first time I saw it,” he says.

True to form, Lin pushed to get the word out about this historical treasure trove. On Lin’s recommendation, one of the authors translated the Classical Chinese text into contemporary Mandarin vernacular and published it as a book for modern Chinese speakers.

Now back in his native Taipei, Lin aims to shake things up on the stage.

“I just feel there’s a new approach to be done here,” Lin says. “People should get out of their comfort zone to find new ingredients.”

Ever keen to sample history’s smorgasbord of sound-makers, Lin experiments with cornettos (an antique S-shaped oboe look alike), baroque trumpets (twice the length of modern horns), and lutes when he gets a chance. He has now found his tribe after assembling an unlikely outfit of talented baroque loyalists who are equally enthused about the promise of rebirth.

“I am so obsessed by baroque,” says Chu Yi-ning (朱奕寧), a lead violinist in the troupe.

Lutenist Chuang Cheng-ying (莊承穎), shows off a double-necked, 14-stringed super-lute whose head hangs high above him.

“This is called a theorbo,” he beams proudly.

“It’s such a wonderful chance that Ethan invited me to join this project,” says harpsichordist Chu Yu Sen (朱育陞), poised on a beautifully gold-gilded period chair as he delicately taps the wooden keys. “In the future, maybe we can do a baroque opera in Taiwan.”

That may be awhile away yet.

Ethan Lin leads a troupe of Baroque musicians, including a harpsichordist and theorboist, in rehearsal. (Taiwan News photo) 

Ethan Lin leads a troupe of Baroque musicians, including a harpsichordist and theorboist, in rehearsal. (Taiwan News photo)

With ongoing pandemic restrictions, Taiwan’s music scene is hurting. There is not enough exchange of musicians from abroad, making it even harder than usual to stage performances.

“We see musicians all around the world suffering — it's sad to see,” Lin says, lamenting the current situation.

After coming back from the U.S., he feels it is very difficult to try new things here, and that classical music has become more ossified and hierarchical than it needs to be. Lin says before delivering music to an audience, musicians must first inspire themselves, but that is becoming harder under these conditions.

Lin yearns for a time when the borders are open in the future, amateur and professional musicians are not segregated and talented people from all over can come together and give people a taste of something they don’t hear every day.

“That’s the magic right there,” he says.