Meet Calista Liaw, The Erhu Virtuoso Who Is Reinventing Traditional Chinese Music

The musician recently concluded her three-part multidisciplinary concert series, “The Art of War”
Photo courtesy of Hans Goh

Every issue, GRAZIA Singapore highlights a Game Changer who inspires, educates, and celebrates individuality, beauty and style. This month, meet Calista Liaw, the erhu virtuoso who is reinventing traditional Chinese music through her multidisciplinary concert series, The Art of War.

I picked up the erhu when I was 8, when I joined my primary school’s Chinese orchestra as a CCA (co‑curricular activity). Interestingly, my path to playing the erhu wasn’t a conscious choice; rather, it began when, during the first CCA session, the music conductor observed that I have long arms and suggested that I’d be well suited for it. This unexpected encounter marked the beginning of my journey with the erhu. Growing up in an environment that exposed me to Chinese culture, I naturally gravitated towards Chinese orchestral music. 

The timbre of erhu is often compared to that of a human voice because of the extensive range of inflections it can produce, depending on how you control it. That’s what makes the erhu such a versatile and powerful instrument. But there are a lot of misconceptions that Chinese orchestral music is too traditional and not for the younger generation, and I often get remarks that connect playing the erhu to elderly buskers on Orchard Road or outside MRT stations. It does get disheartening from time to time, but I’ve used that as a driving force to introduce more people to my instrument and my music, and show that Chinese music and music played on the erhu can be cool too! 

I love how versatile the genres I play can be, which takes me places as well as allows me to meet people from all walks of life and in various industries. I’ve played classical music in a concert hall, performed EDM tracks and partied with friends at Pasir Panjang Power Station, and even walked fashion shows with my instrument—I’m glad to be able to have so much fun with what I do. 

With each performance, my primary aim is to convey a profound emotional and artistic experience to both the audience and my fellow performing musicians. I believe that music has the unique power to evoke and communicate emotions and stories that transcend words. When performing, I emphasise the importance of active listening and respective communication with my fellow musicians, because music is a collaborative art. With audience members, it depends on the genre of music performed, which brings about different curations and energy levels. Through expressive playing and a strong connection with the music, I want to create a captivating and memorable experience that leaves a lasting impression on the audience.

I believe that music has the unique power to evoke and communicate emotions and stories that transcend words

My goal to create an artistic product that resonates with people from all walks of life led to The Art of War, my inaugural creative series inspired by the philosophies of Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu’s classic of the same name. All three chapters are an exploration of curated philosophies, offering a utopian fusion of contemporary Chinese chamber music, movement art and haute couture—it’s a visual spectacle unlike anything seen before in Singapore. 

Photo courtesy of Hans Goh

During the conceptualisation process, I drew significant inspiration from my prior experiences working with esteemed organisations such as The Teng Company and the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which played a pivotal role in shaping my vision for the project. My goal was not only to craft a unique concert, but also to pay homage to the diverse array of experiences that have led me to this point in my artistic journey. Hence, The Art of War features four trademark movements: “Laying Plans”, “Waging War”, “Introspection” and “March On”. They are a tribute to selected quotes from Sun’s treatise and a metaphoric narrative of my relationship with art and life, performed by an outstanding team of established artists from diverse disciplines.

In line with my philosophy, which revolves around consistently surpassing my prior achievements, I sought to elevate The Art of War to new heights. Through collaboration with esteemed artists, I brought different perspectives to and talents into the project, which enriched the creative process and adds depth to the overall experience. I also focused on refining the musical elements of the project, which entailed enhancing the composition, performance and production to ensure the highest level of artistic quality. Recognising the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and wanting to go beyond mere inclusion, I approached it with careful curation and a clear intention to ensure that each element contributes meaningfully to the project’s narrative and artistic vision. My approach was rooted in a commitment to continuous improvement, artistic excellence and purposeful collaboration.

Photo courtesy of Hans Goh

Creating The Art of War series has been the proudest highlight of my journey so far. It not only represents a dream that has been years in the making, but also marks the beginning of an exciting career post‑graduation. Of course, I would not have been able to achieve any of my successes without the support of my inner circle and the lessons imparted by my mentors. They believed in my vision and encouraged me through the toughest times to pursue the opportunities extended to me. These are very priceless memories that I’ll always cherish, above all accolades collected.