5 Questions to Reylon Yount (yangqin player, Tangram Co-Director)

Chinese-American yangqin player Reylon Yount, currently residing in London, combines performance with songwriting, improvisation and diverse academic interests. With Alex Ho, he is co-director of Tangram, ‘a transnational Chinese music collective envisioning a future beyond the China-West divide.’ In Tangram, Reylon showcases his instrument in new contexts and provides a platform for artists of Asian heritage, but more than that, he is an eloquent commentator about Chinese transcultural identity and representation in contemporary music. On 22 April, Tangram are running an event, ‘Crossing Paths,’  for London’s Chinese Arts Now Festival, where music by Raymond Yiu, Sun Keting, and Alex Ho will be presented alongside a discussion on cultural identity hosted by Reylon. We ask him about his current activities…   

As a yangqin player, you’ve been a Silkroad artist since you were very young. How has Silkroad had an impact on you as a musician?

I probably would not be a musician without Silkroad.

Most kids in the US who grow up playing a Chinese instrument eventually give it up because they don’t have a destination to aim for. I was born and raised in San Francisco, so I thankfully was surrounded by a vibrant Chinese music community. I studied from age seven with wonderful teachers, Gangqin Zhao and Yangqin Zhao from Melody of China, and Huang He from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, who all helped me build a strong foundation.

One of my idols is Wu Man, a pipa master who paved a luminous path for Chinese instruments on the international stage. In high school, I saw a video of her performing with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silkroad Ensemble in Sander’s Theatre. This planted the idea in my head that Chinese instruments could exist on those big stages alongside Western instruments. A future for the yangqin felt more possible.

Three years later, Wu Man came across one of my videos and generously invited me to perform with her and percussionist Haruka Fujii on that same stage. It was a transformative experience. This began a journey of performing with Silkroad and Yo-Yo Ma that led me to places like Lincoln Center, TED, Xinghai Concert Hall and the GRAMMYs.

Silkroad made a huge impact by convincing me I had the right to be an artist. Witnessing the socially engaged approaches of musicians like violinist Shaw Pong Liu, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and gaita/piano player Cristina Pato also taught me that there was more to music than what meets the ear. Music could be a form of love and a force for social change.

At SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies, London University] you researched how music can shape transcultural identity. How have your thoughts about this developed over the years?

The yangqin (扬琴, Chinese hammered dulcimer) is a trapezoidal sound box with 144 steel strings that the player strikes with bamboo mallets. It has a beautiful, iridescent sound. A descendant of the Persian santur, and cousin to various hammered dulcimers around the world, its name used to mean “foreign instrument.” The yangqin is versatile, but not commonly played, which means it has a lot of untapped potential.

When I got to SOAS, I had an opportunity to examine my relationship with the yangqin through a master’s program in applied ethnomusicology. Guided by Dr. Rachel Harris and Dr. Angela Impey, I began to uncover connections between the yangqin’s transcultural history and my life as a mixed race, queer person—we were both born from cultural hybridity, outsiders with unshaped voices.

So I began to deepen my relationship with the yangqin by writing songs for the first time. I synthesised the Chinese and Western musical systems I grew up with to compose songs like “Weather Balloon,” in a style I call dreamfolk. This allowed me to explore my musical identity more intentionally, and I gradually approached the yangqin as an interface for rendering a particular Chinese American experience. This process enabled me to let go of the desire to fit into an American imaginary or an Chinese imaginary, and just create sound from where I actually was: a space between cultures and categories.

Now, I am finding new roots in my heritage by studying Daoist philosophy with my mother. I’m carrying those same questions about identity into a historical discourse around flow and self-transcendence. I wonder, what happens when we conceive of our identities as fluid? Is listening a mode of wu wei (effortless action) that can help us find balance between our souls and our surroundings? What happens when we let go of the idea of a ‘self’ altogether, and observe the influences that flow through us?

Improvising on yangqin has emerged as a rich way to sit with these questions, to be moved by them.

I hope this finds you well in these strange times – Vol. 3 by Reylon/mantawomxn

I loved your performance of Alex Ho’s Rituals and Resonances. How did you two come to form the Tangram collective?

Thank you! That piece is magical..

It started when I first moved from San Francisco to London in 2017 and had tea with Alex, one of the few British people I knew. Through our conversation, we discovered a common passion for exploring Chinese diasporic identity through music: he from the angle of a British Chinese composer, and I as a Chinese American yangqin performer.

We decided to collaborate, and Alex composed this haunting yangqin solo, Rituals and Resonances. The piece explores the body of the instrument almost like a lost landscape. To me, it expresses a paradoxical sense of nostalgia that is familiar to many children of diaspora. The piece reflects a ghostly longing we sometimes feel for the home country we never lived in.

Alex and I found that connecting through a shared question empowered us to make art with a shared purpose. We were beginning to build the transcultural space we longed to inhabit. So we grabbed hold of two more artists, the brilliant Philharmonia flutist Daniel Shao and Tan Dun’s outstanding percussion protegé, Beibei Wang, and launched Tangram in 2019 as part of the inaugural Chinese Arts Now festival in London.

Now eleven-strong, Tangram is a music collective sharing Chinese stories to inspire transnational community and collaboration. Currently, we are developing live and digital platforms for emerging artists to generate new cultural narratives and envision futures beyond the China-West divide.

Reylon Yount--Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Reylon Yount–Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Tell us about the event you’re hosting for the Chinese Arts Now Festival on 22 April.

I’m excited about the “Crossing Paths” event because we will hear from three extraordinary composers who have been taking the London new music scene by storm: Sun Keting, Alex Ho and Raymond Yiu. As a moderator (i.e. eager fan), I will talk to them about the intersecting/diverging paths they have woven across Chinese and Western cultures through their composition careers, focusing on the way they relate identity to music in their practices.

Raymond, Keting, and Alex have contrasting backgrounds and aesthetics, but there are certain shared questions I believe their work prompts us to reflect on: what does heritage mean in a transnational setting? How do we reimagine lost landscapes, and recover lost stories?

We will talk about these questions together and listen to some of the artists’ recent work, including two world premieres. Raymond Yiu presents Corner of a Foreign Field, a tender elegy to the Chinese Labour Corps of WWI, commissioned by Tangram and shortlisted for the RPS Chamber-Scale Composition Award (ft. some yangqin from yours truly). The first premiere will be a revision of Sun Keting’s evocative meditation on silence for solo guitar , and the second premiere will be of Alex Ho’s explosion for solo piano, Knuckleduster.

Come check us out, it’s going to be fun!

Reylon Yount--Photo by Zen Gisdale

Reylon Yount–Photo by Zen Gisdale

You’re also a City Music Foundation artist here in London. How do you see your life as a musician progressing in the next year or two?

The City Music Foundation audition gave me something to latch onto amidst the drift of lockdown. It was the only in-person performance I got to do last year. The audition process motivated me to practice yangqin like I haven’t practiced for a while, and that felt good–to be seen, to be pushed.

I’m grateful to the City Music Foundation not only for their support, but for changing their application form to include non-Western instruments after I emailed in asking whether I was eligible. I’m grateful to them for listening to me, and welcoming me into a community of artists who make me feel challenged and inspired. Similar to Silkroad, CMF reached out a hand and said: “Hey, you belong.” A lot of us need that. And I hope through Tangram I can be part of making more people feel like they belong.

I see my life as an artist continuing to progress as it has been–serendipitously, haltingly, ecstatically. In a year or two, I hope to be back on the road with the Silkroad Ensemble and performing abundantly with Tangram.

In terms of solo work, I’ve been exploring new forms of queer, audiovisual performance via my drag/dreamfolk alter ego, mantawoman. This exploration stems from a collaboration with the brilliant visual artist and director whalevein [Emma Henry Wolf]. I’m intrigued to see where this odyssey leads in the next two years.

And just because I’m Californian, I’ll throw in a few dreams: I hope to play a show at Outside Lands, perform an NPR Tiny Desk concert, and sign a record deal with a label like 4AD.

If there’s one thing my unusual career has taught me, it’s that dreams only stand a chance at becoming reality if they are heard. So, thank you for listening!


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or