Voices and instruments

In my book (p.261) I glibly compared the Li band’s hymns to the arias in the Bach Passions, “where action and drama are suspended while we contemplate the deep meaning of a scene.” In most elite Daoist and Buddhist temples, liturgy is accompanied only by percussion, not melodic instrumental music. Many of the Li band’s hymns are sung thus, a cappella—including those used to Open Scriptures in the morning and afternoon.

Whereas Chinese studies of northern Daoist and Buddhist “music” often focus almost entirely on shengguan melodic instrumental music, in my book (ch.16) I try to put it within the ritual context. But does the shengguan accompaniment (notably the constant variations of the guanzi) express what the vocal text is unable to embody?

As usual, this is not a close parallel, but one thinks of Erbarme Dich:

“Language is not essential to this moment, or even adequate to it. A verbal penitence is expressed by the alto voice, but the violin expresses a more universal distress.” (Gardiner p. 422, citing Naomi Cumming).

But remember, I find nothing akin to word-painting in the Li band’s vocal repertoire (my book p.277):

I can find no matching of melody to textual content. There is nothing akin to word-painting, no illumination of the meaning of the text through music. Vocal liturgy is capable of arousing emotion, as for instance it should do in the Song of the Skeleton (see Yesterday…), but this is achieved through the general style of delivery rather than the specific text-setting. In musical style the Song of the Skeleton is no different from other hymns, and even its desolate text is not comprehensible when sung.

So expression is conveyed mainly through timbre. The more I listen to Li Manshan and Golden Noble, the more impressive I find the mournful nasal quality of their voices; I can sing some hymns, but can’t emulate this. They have utterly absorbed the meaning of the texts into their voices. And when the shengguan accompanies, Wu Mei complements them perfectly on guanzi, managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Anyway, both the decorations of a Daoist on guanzi and Bach’s oboe lines are spellbinding—an intrinsic part of the realization of the text. So I both demote and stress the shengguan accompaniment.

Beyond the transition of the Passions from liturgical to concert performances, the staged versions of recent years can also be compelling (for us):

And we’re already in tears (along with Peter) from the recitative of the Evangelist that introduces it. The shuowen introits of the Daoist also introduce arias…

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to avoid reading my Textual scholarship, OMG.

10 thoughts on “Voices and instruments

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