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Tsun-Yuen Lui Retiring After Thirty Years in Ethnomusicology at UCLA

From the Spring/Summer 1991 edition of the Ethnomusicology Newsletter

[Tsun-Yuen Lui, who taught performance and lecture courses on Chinese music from 1960 to 1991 in the UCLA Department of Music, died on January 8, 2008].

Anyone who has seen Tsun-Yuen Lui approach the p'i-pa or ch'in and has heard him draw from their strings sound unlike any others is profoundly grateful that in 1959 he decided he "would rather be a poor musician than a rich merchant." With this decision, Mr. Lui's personal story and his eventual connection with the ethnomusicology program at UCLA were set. And now, after thirty years at UCLA teaching, performing, and teaching others to teach and perform Chinese music, Tsun-yuen Lui is retiring from the Department of Ethnomusicology and Systematic Musicology.

Mr. Lui was born in Shanghai to a family of music lovers, but not into a family tradition of music performance. His grandfather had been a physician and his father a merchant, and Tsun-yuen himself was not expected to devote his life to the musical arts. Nonetheless, he and his brother (also a well-respected performer), were tutored privately on both p'i-pa and ch'in. After completing college in 1954 with a degree in general education, Mr. Lui left the People's Republic and went to Hong Kong to work. It was there in 1957 that he met C.C. Want of New York City, who eventually would alter the course of his life. First, however, he moved to Brazil in 1957, where he worked in the firm of a family friend for two years, performing Chinese classical music as an avocation and making appearances at music festivals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Encouraged by C.C. Wang, Mr. Lui came to the United States in 1959 to play a series of concerts. thanks to Mr. Wang, Tsun-yuen was given the opportunity to debut in the Interval Concert Series at Carnegie Hall on September 21, 1949, a concert hailed by the New York Times and the Herald Tribune as virtuosic. He also recorded his first LP with Lyrichord that same year. This auspicious launching of her performing career in the U.S. was followed by signing on with an agent and arranging a coast-to-coast tour in 1961. Following East Coast appearances at Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan, Brown, Howard, and Columbia, among others. Mantle Hood, then the director of the Institute of Ethnomusicology, recognized what Tsun-yuen had to offer a world music program such as the one at UCLA, and he therefore asked Mr. Lui to stay in Los Angeles and to establish the Chinese music program for the Institute. Before accepting this offer, Tsun-yuen was obligated to complete his previous commitments: playing in the "Oriental Holiday" stage show in Las Vegas and London. In March 1961, Mr. Lui joined the ethnomusicology faculty and has since taught uninterruptedly at UCLA.

In the three decades he has been at UCLA, Mr. Lui has been active in many aspects of the ethnomusicology program, the university, the community at large, and the country. Not surprisingly, he has taught Chinese music performance (and dance) both to individual p'i-pa and ch'in students and to the Chinese music ensemble, one of the department's popular performance organizations. His lecture courses have included one on the literature, major sources, paleography, theory and philosophy of the ch'in, and equivalent course for the p'i-pa; and the comprehensive survey of Chinese musical instruments, classification systems, staff and cipher notation, and their use in the context of Chinese society. He has also taught the history of Chinese drama, from the Shang Dynasty to the present. Having been a member of several M.A. thesis committees in the music and dance departments, Mr. Lui this year was appointed to his first Ethnomusicology Ph.D. dissertation committee.

Over the years, Mr. Lui has concertized extensively in venues as widely varied as the Guggenheim Museum, Hollywood Bowl Museum, Library of Congress, and the University of Hawai'i; his European tours have included London and Paris. Not only has he been an active composer and recording artist with five albums to his credit, but he has also written and performed background music for seven Hollywood and numerous Chinese films. His broadcast appearances have included programs on Pacifica Racio and performances on Public Broadcasting System's KQED in San Francisco, as well as the Steve Allen show.

As the longest-serving faculty member in the program, Tsun-yuen and ethnomusicology have been closely identified over the years. True to form, Mr. Lui conducted his ensemble in a full evening of Chinese music and dance on June 1, 1991 - a concert in commemoration of Tsun-yuen's years of dedication to his department. His present and former students honored him with their playing and the university with a gold medal for distinguished service.