Killer sounds: cadential patterns in Chinese melody

zisha

A drôle recent Languagelog post on “Pineapple suicide” somehow put me in mind of the shasheng 煞聲 in traditional Chinese music. I’m a bit like that.

A useful little item in the 1985 Zhongguo yinyue cidian 中国音乐词典 (pp.335–6) crams in considerable arcane ancient scalar theory, whose practical application remains obscure. Anyway, in the Northern Song dynasty Shen Kuo 沈括 (1031–95), in his Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談, defined shasheng as a final cadential note (biqu suoyong zhiyin 畢曲所用之音, also glossed as jiesheng 結聲). Shen Kuo seems to use 煞 and 殺 interchangeably here, and later folk scores do indeed use homophonous characters quite freely.

Outside WAM the final cadential pitch of a melody is not a very useful guide to its melodic structure, and it’s hardly a concern of most performers. To identify the shasheng of a melody, rural musicians in modern north China sometimes name a pitch in the gongche solfeggio system (such as yi chezi sha 以尺字殺 “cadencing on the pitch che”). More illuminating for us are modern Western techniques like note-weighting, including the cadential notes of individual phrases (cf. my detailed analysis of a shawm-band suite). While neither ancient theorists or modern folk musicians shared such concerns, at least we can identify their use of the term shasheng.

As the great Yang Yinliu explains (Zhongguo  gudai yinyue shigao, pp.554–60), in the zaju drama of the Yuan dynasty the sha 煞 may be a series of final sections within a suite.

qin cadence

Qin melody Yuqiao wenda 漁樵問答, end of §4,
from Guqin quji 古琴曲集 (1982).
Among many recordings, this piece opens Lin Youren’s wonderful CD for Nimbus.

Related topics are extended ostinato cadential patterns as punctuation between melodic phrases (see my Folk music of China, pp.126–9). Decorated cadential patterns on the qin zither, with the left thumb repeatedly striking the soundboard to voice the upper note, rather remind me of early baroque cadences in Italy. And in the shengguan ensemble of northern temple and folk ritual (see under Three baldies and a mouth-organ), 4-bar ostinatos on two adjacent notes are common:

JZJ

Gongche score, 1947, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian, Hebei.

The gongche score above shows versions of Jinzi jing and Wusheng fo in fandiao scale, a whole tone below the “basic scale”. Ostinato cadential patterns appear in lines 2 (wu wu yi wu wu yi wu) and 3 (che che gong che che gong che) of Jinzi jing; and in the following Wusheng fo, in lines 1 and 2. For more, see my “The Golden-character scripture”, Asian music XX-2 (1989).

One might go on to consider the ostinato-based peiqu 配曲 “supporting pieces” of northern ritual groups, and the “tassels” (suizi 穗子), a more popular style used by northern wind bands (Folk music of China, pp.146–8; cf. #8–9 on the first CD of China: folk instrumental traditions).

suizi

A separate theme is the sha 煞 baneful influences in Daoist exorcistic ritual, which are to be exorcised by means of talismans and visualisation techniques (see e.g. here)—“but”, digressing still further from pineapples, “that’s not important right now” (see under Solfeggio, again).

Daoist sha

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