Tag Archives: China

Drunken dotard refrain

Tablatures of ancient Chinese vocal music usually provide very little concrete information on rhythm, and few ancient Chinese writings on rhythms and time values in musical performance survive. One fortunate exception is the perceptive scholarly work of the 11th-century Buddhist monk Master Yihai, who was the only known person from early China ever to explain musical rhythm using a concrete example from guqin music.

Yihai analyzed a famous musical setting of Su Dongpo’s poem Zui weng yin (醉翁吟, Drunken dotard refrain). The earliest surviving musical notation of Zui weng yin dates from several centuries later; whether a tablature of 1539 actually preserves the music discussed by Yihai cannot be determined with full certainty, but there is indirect evidence to support an early date for the music.

This according to “The Drunken dotard refrain” by Marnix Wells (CHIME: Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research XX [2016] pp. 85–105). Above, an 18th-century manuscript; below, a 21st-century performance.

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A recovered text of Bai traditional songs

bai-edition

In 2015 Cambria issued Chinese ethnic minority oral traditions: A recovered text of Bai folk songs in a sinoxenic script, a new edition of a rice-paper manuscript from the early 20th century.

The MS was discovered in Yunnan by Xu Lin (1921–2005) when she was working there as a field linguist in 1958; dating probably from the early 1930s or somewhat earlier, it contains the texts of 208 traditional songs of the Bai people, written in Old Bai script (Hanzi Baiwen/汉字白文).

The task of transcribing and translating these texts was carried forward by Xu under very difficult circumstances through the vicissitudes of Chinese history until her death, and then completed by the other authors. This edition presents them in the original script with International Phonetic Alphabet transliterations and word-by-word glosses in Chinese and English, in English translations, and in a facsimile reproduction from the MS.

Below, scenes from a Bai spring festival.

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Turandot in China

turandot-in-china

Chinese presenters have made their bid for grand opera’s international ranks with the very piece that marks the end of that tradition—Puccini’s Turandot.

The irony reaches further. In the country where Chinese singers have the greatest advantage, these productions have primarily featured Western performers; a piece that had been conspicuously absent from the country where it purports to take place has wound up essentially becoming China’s national opera; and the original story was never about China in the first place—it came from a French translation of a Persian folk tale that was adapted by an Italian playwright and later reinvented by a German writer whose version inspired Puccini.

This according to “A princess comes home” by Ken Smith (Opera LXIII/12 [December 2012] pp. 1473–1479). Above and below, excerpts from Turandot at the Forbidden City, directed by Zhang Yimou.

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Taking Chinese music by strategy

Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy-1969

The so-called model works (yangbanxi)—ten operas, four ballets, two symphonies, and two piano pieces—monopolized China’s theatrical and musical stages for a decade.

Repercussions of these works can be traced in recent Chinese rock, pop, and art music. Contrary to the popular assumption that the model works were characteristic products of Cultural Revolution ideology, they are manifestations of a hybrid taste that calls for the transformation of Chinese tradition according to foreign standards, a taste which has for more than a century determined compositional practice in China.

One of the earliest and best-known works, the collectively written jingju Zhi qu Weihu Shan (Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy), is an example; its traditional Chinese and European musical and dramatic elements illustrate how the particular forms taken by musical modernization during the Cultural Revolution were—except in their degree of semantic overdetermination—typical of compositional practice in today’s China.

This according to “Cultural Revolution model works and the politics of modernization in China: An analysis of Taking Tiger Mountain by strategy by Barbara Mittler (The world of music XLV/2 [2003] pp. 53–81).

Above, a still from the 1970 film; below, an excerpt.

BONUS: CCTV host Bi Fujian entertaining friends at the dinner table with a rendition of a scene using chopsticks for percussion.

BONUS BONUS: An updated version from a 2013 variety show (Star Wars Opera Night/Quanneng Xingzhang Xiqu zhi Ye) with the renowned singer Sun Nan.

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Či Bulag and the morin huur

Či Bulag

Či Bulag (b.1944) has had a significant influence on the development of the Mongolian morin huur in the post-Mao era.

Bulag adapted the morin huur and its repertoire to the concert stage in the 1970s and 1980s to widespread acclaim. An analysis of his well-known and frequently played composition Wan ma benteng (Ten thousand galloping horses) and his efforts to adapt the morin huur to the concert stage shows how he reworked stereotypes of Mongols as simplistic nomads to represent them as both powerful descendants of Genghis Khan and participants in the modern world.

While many Mongols appreciate Wan ma benteng for its evocation of a Mongol spirit, Bulag’s morin huur model has received harsh criticism from the musical community in independent Mongolia as being too Chinese.

Mongol musicians in China have increasingly used the morin huur to balance their longing for a Western-style modernity, a project undertaken by Bulag, with recent desires to seek out a pan-Mongol (and non-Chinese) past through exchanges with the nation of Mongolia. Still, Mongol musicians continue to orient themselves around the work of Či Bulag as they debate the appropriate direction for the morin huur and Mongol music in the 21st century.

This according to “Driving change, sparking debate: Chi Bulag and the morin huur in Inner Mongolia, China” by Charlotte D’Evelyn (Yearbook for traditional music XLVI [2014] pp. 89–113).

Below, Wan ma benteng in a performance by Bulag and ten thousand galloping students.

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Marquis Yi’s instrumentarium

bronze-bells-marquis-yi-tomb

Dating from the 5th century B.C.E., the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Suizhou, Hubei, furnished some of China’s oldest musical instruments and earliest reliable musicological writings.

The instruments, found in two separate rooms, appear to represent two separate musical genres. Those in the large central chamber—65 bronze bells in graduated sizes ranging over more than five octaves, a large pole-drum and two smaller drums, seven large 25-string se (zithers), four sheng (mouth organs), two paixiao (panpipes), and two chi (transverse flutes)—match the description of a courtly ensemble described in the Shijing (551–479 B.C.);

The instruments in the smaller chamber containing the Marquis’s coffin—two mouth organs, one small frame drum, three se, and one five-stringed and one ten-stringed instrument—suggest a more intimate chamber genre such as that depicted in a 5th-century tomb in Shaoxing, Zhejiang. These two genres may correspond to the “old” music of the Zhou court (ca. 1050–256 B.C.) that Confucius preferred, and the “new” music of the surrounding states that he felt had a corrupting influence.

This according to “Different tunes, different strings: Court and chamber music in ancient China” by Jenny F. So (Orientations XXI/5 [May 2000] pp. 26–34). Above, replicas of the bells; below, a performance on the bell replicas and those of other instruments from the tomb.

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A guqin resource

The open-access online resource John Thompson on the guqin silk string zither presents extensive materials on the guqin (古琴, “goo-chin”) including classic handbooks and commentaries; organological details; depictions of the guqin in art, poetry, and song; notation and sound files; playing instructions; analyses of performance practice; history and ideology; and links to other resources. Detailed information on the author is also included.

Below, Tao Zhusheng performs Guan shan yue (Moon over the mountain pass) in a 1977 film by Robert Garfias. The work is an evocation of the Tang-dynasty poem of the same title by Li Bai.

Related article: Robert Garfias: Ethnomusicology

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Beethoven and Confucius

Beethoven has long been considered a cultural hero in the West, but to become such a figure in China his persona had to be made to fit into Chinese cultural categories.

The Chinese transformation of Beethoven’s character—first into that of a Confucian intellectual, then a Romantic poet, and finally a universal and national cultural hero—took place from the 1920s through the 1940s. This development involved the reception not of Beethoven’s music per se, but of his moral image: He had to be seen as having suffered to achieve both the goal of individual perfection and the larger goal of serving humanity.

This according to “Beethoven and Confucius: A case study in transmission of cultural values” by Yang Chien-Chang, an essay included in Musicology and globalization (Tōkyō: Tōkyō Geijutsu Daigaku, 2004, pp. 379–383). The book comprises papers presented at the 2002 conference of the Nihon Ongaku Gakkai/Musicological Society of Japan.

Above, the Beethoven monument in Qingdao. Below, Beethoven’s ninth symphony in Chinese.

Related articles are here.

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Waiting for qi

Houqi (waiting for qi) was a technique employed by Chinese authorities in the fourteenth century to determine the onset of spring by measuring the emanations of qi, the active principal of life. A set of standard pitchpipes, each corresponding to a specific calendar period, was filled with ashes and buried in a sealed chamber; when the sun entered the second two-week period of a given month the seminal force of qi was supposed to rise and expel the ashes from the pipe that matched the calendar period.

Unfortunately, the method failed to produce the desired results, and a great deal of discussion over the millennia as to what kind of soil to use, where to place the pitchpipes, and so on, failed to improve it. Ultimately the great music theorist Zhu Zaiyu (朱載堉, 1536–1611) criticized houqi as a poor example of scientific method.

This according to “Origins of the controversy over the houqi method (候气法疑案之发端)” by Tang Jikai (唐继凯) in Jiaoxiang: Journal of Xi’an Conservatory of Music (交响:西安音乐学院学报), vol. 22, no. 3:101 (fall 2003), pp. 27–31. Above, a calligrapher’s rendition of the Chinese character for qi.

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