The beauty of the mouth-organ

Li Qing on sheng, 1991.

This is a tribute not just to the sheng mouth-organ, but to the late great Daoist master Li Qing, and to the whole tradition of wind-playing and liturgy among Daoist bands in north Shanxi.

I have already compared the role of the sheng, accompanying the guanzi oboe in north Chinese ritual bands, to that of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters. And we’ve met sheng tuners and players in other posts. Meanwhile, for historical studies on the instrument, from ancient times right down to today, you can’t beat the works of Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, my old fieldwork companion. Here I approach it not as historian but as musician and ethnographer.

Apart from its exquisite noble tone, one of the beauties of the sheng  is the way the monophonic notes of the melody are harmonized with fifths and octaves in a kind of organum (unlike the cluster chords of Japanese gagaku—surely “going too far“!).

Only now does it occur to me that the position of the pipes around the bowl, seemingly confusing yet brilliantly designed for practical convenience by some ancient genius, is a prototype (“Typical!“) for the layout of the alphabet on a typewriter or computer.

Sheng invariably have seventeen pipes, but the Zhihua temple in Beijing is one of few traditions where they all have sounding reeds; in most groups they have fourteen, or even eleven. The full complement was useful when they needed to play all four scales of the earlier repertoire, but today, now that they play in only two or three scales, fourteen suffice for most genres.

So the sheng of the Daoist bands in Yanggao, including the Li family, have fourteen sounding reeds. With their distinctive curved mouthpiece, evoking the sheng depicted in temple murals of the Ming dynasty, the instruments are made by the hereditary luthiers of the Gao family in nearby Gaoshantun village, friends of the Li family for many generations. Their sheng have the most exquisite sonorous tone—on our 2013 tour of Germany they filled churches like a huge organ.
sheng diagram
Source: Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu ch.4.1.

Fingering
Home base is the various doso (he-che, in gongche solfeggio) pipes at the back, played with the third and fourth fingers of both hands (pipes 15, 14, 13, and 11 in the diagram), giving a nice full chord. The middle fingers of the right hand are hooked inside to give access to the inner holes of pipes 3 and 4 (re and mi). The Li band (and many others in north Shanxi) vary the usual position of the ti and its harmonising  fa ♯ (dafan 大凡 and gou 勾, pipes 5 and 6)—playing this distinctive chord (featured sparingly in melodies, as it’s not part of the pentatonic scale) with the two thumbs stopping adjacent holes right in front of the player’s face. It’s a great feeling.

As the fingers glide effortlessly from pipe to pipe, it’s really tactile to play, and utterly comfortable to listen to and watch. Sheng players are at ease with their instrument—none so much as the late great Li Qing. You can admire the fluent mastery of his disciples in my film too.

Li Bin 2011

Li Qing’s grandson Li Bin on sheng, 2011.

With frequent use the pipes are soon gilded with a patina where the fingers have worn them down.

sheng closeup

Tuning
The sheng is a bugger to maintain, though. Like a harpsichord, it needs tuning regularly. Most players can do a rough tune whenever necessary. Whenever we return to the scripture hall between ritual visits to the soul hall, while Li Manshan busies himself writing the next set of documents for the upcoming ritual, Li Bin or Golden Noble try out the tuning of the various sheng at their disposal.

After going through the cycle of fifths and octaves, depending on his aural diagnosis Li Bin pulls any errant pipes individually out of the metal wind-chamber (“bowl”) in which they are held. Sounding the pipe by stopping its hole while blowing through the bottom, he then takes a droplet of hot red wax with his soldering iron and applies it carefully to the tiny metal tongue (the “free reed”) to “dot” (dian 點) it, or scrapes off a tiny sliver of wax. He replaces the pipe in the bowl and tries out the fifths and octaves again; then he makes sure the two sheng needed for the next ritual segment are in tune with each other too. It’s a long patient process. Still, at least once a year Li Bin takes all the group’s sheng to Gao Bin in Gaoshantun for a thorough overhaul.

47 wind instruments

The wind instruments, 2003.

The dizi flute has fallen out of use since then. The curved trumpet can be admired in “catching the tiger” in my film.

This kind of insider detail I aspire to here is surpassed by Ciaran Carson in Last night’s fun.

Stamina, mastery, and virtue
For some rituals they may be playing continuously for nearly an hour. Since the sheng sounds while both blowing out and sucking in, the two players can, and must, maintain an uninterrupted wall of sound for the guanzi oboe to bounce off. Even while accompanying the shorter hymns of around 15 minutes, they use the brief percussion interludes between verses to empty the bowl of all their accumulated saliva onto the ground—and to empty their own noses and throats too. Playing the sheng, apparently so effortless, is a feat of stamina—the guanzi still more so. They have to play all day long, often till after midnight—both seated, standing, and on lengthy processions, outdoors through winter cold and sweltering summers; and they’re busy most days. It’s rather like doing seven cantatas and a few motets over a day, interspersed with three or four Mahler symphonies. Every day. All for little pay. No wonder they no longer want their sons to take up the trade.

Among all Li Qing’s disciples the standard of sheng playing is amazing. Li Bin is the anchor; Golden Noble, when he’s not on vocal duties, is dependable; Wu Mei, when he’s not enchanting everyone on the guanzi oboe, is also a fine sheng player; and Erqing, though often busy doing migrant labour outside the area, is fantastic too. Of the deps, Yang Ying (also a fine guanzi player) is great, as is Li Sheng, in his more folksy, restless way; and Daoists from other lineages who regularly dep with the Li band, like Yan Xuewen and Yuan Xuedong, are also accomplished.

But when they recall Li Qing’s style on the sheng, everyone—pupil or not—is in awe of him. Even urban professional musicians concurred: that was why he was selected for the state troupe in the regional city of Datong in 1958. An old colleague of his from their brief years there together recalled, “He was the greatest musician I ever met”. Li Qing played guanzi too, but spent most of his time leading from the drum, singing the vocal liturgy.

You don’t necessarily get to hear Daoists playing for their own satisfaction outside the context of performing ritual, but sitting in Li Qing’s house while he accompanied Liu Zhong’s guanzi on his sheng, I was in the company of true amateurs, master musicians.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

And there was another reason why everyone revered him—his gentle benevolent nature. Not all folk artists live up to their obligatory Communist image of selflessly “serving the people”—but Li Qing did. His local reputation was immense. His mastery of ritual complemented his musicianship and his kindly heart.

OK, I’d better say this again:

The Li band may be outstanding instrumentalists, but they’re not “Daoist musicians”! They’re yinyang—household Daoist ritual specialists.

However important the melodic instrumental music may be for the efficacy of their rituals, it’s always subsidiary to vocal liturgy and percussion. And the shengguan players perform those fluently as well: they’re all versatile. Not just the chief vocal liturgists Li Manshan and Golden Noble, but the others sing too. And they all regularly take turns on the various percussion instruments. That’s what it means to be a yinyang; that’s the main thing they know about doing ritual.

10 thoughts on “The beauty of the mouth-organ

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