Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy

WD 2011

Li Manshan, Wang Ding, and Golden Noble Delivering the Scriptures at the soul hall, 2011.

To follow my article on Pacing the Void hymns, what I didn’t attempt there was to discuss the musical style of modern renditions of the genre. It’s clearly important to document the soundscape of ritual: the most basic argument for taking it into consideration is that ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed.

However, I find it hard to find clues that might help differentiate styles within vocal repertoires (such as notional “archaic” elements), or to suggest how Pacing the Void hymns may be distinguished from other items—either among temple or household Daoists.

To illustrate the problem, here I’ll outline aspects of the vocal liturgy of the Li family in north Shanxi, based on chapters of my Daoist priests of the Li family, with examples from the complementary film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (for a roundup of many posts, see here).

In Chapter 11, “The ancestry of texts”, I noted:

Scholars of ritual tend to discuss whole segments and whole ritual manuals, rather than the individual elements within them. But it’s not just music scholars who focus on the detail: collections of musical transcriptions from current temple practice reflect the emic views of Daoists themselves (both temple and household) in documenting individual hymns. Since the same text is often used in different rituals, we may call such texts “floating” hymns.

I find more of the Li family’s Orthodox Unity texts in modern Complete Perfection temple practice than in the Daoist Canon or the Daozang jiyao; most come from the daily services and the yankou. At least nine of the texts sung by the Li family today appear in the “Orthodox melodies of Complete Perfection” (Quanzhen zhengyun) (cf. Rethinking Zhengyi and Quanzhen).

In a ritual corpus like this we have three types of text, some highly standard and national, others apparently distinctive and regional, even local:

  • ritual manuals: now hardly performed; few sources in the Daoist Canon or elsewhere, either whole or in part
  • individual hymns still in use today: few appear in the Canon, but many are found in modern temple sources like the daily services and the nocturnal yankou ritual—which are now known mainly in Complete Perfection versions
  • scriptures (jing 經) and litanies (chan 懺), which the Li family no longer performs: nationally standard, ancient, and found in both the Daoist Canon and modern temple sources.

In content, Pacing the Void texts can’t be neatly distinguished from those of other hymns. Many of the same hymns may now be used for several different ritual segments. As I explained in my previous post, the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn is performed at the central pole for Hoisting the Pennant (yangfan 揚幡) and just before the coffin is taken out of the house to be buried.

In structure and style there is no clear difference between song types, like hymns (zan 讚) , mantras (zhou 咒), and gāthas (ji 偈) (such as Hymn to the Three Treasures, Mantra to the Three Generations, Gātha to Water), so such titles provide few clues. Here the terms zhou 咒 and zhenyan 真言 (mantra) seem to be used interchangeably; and despite its title, Sanbao zan 三寶讚 isn’t a “hymn” in the classic six-line structure of 4-4-7-5-4-5 words, common to both Daoist and Buddhist ritual (for an extensive collection of such texts in the syncretic tradition of Lesser Huangzhuang village south of Tianjin, see here).

As to textual structure, some hymns are in regular verse with lines of five or seven words—such as Recitation to the Great Supreme (Taishang song 太上誦, our Pacing the Void hymn Taiji fen gaohou 太極分高厚) and Diverse and Nameless (Zhongzhong wuming 種種無名) respectively—but most are in verses of irregular lines. Some hymns are strophic, with a recurring melody for successive verses, though that of the opening line is usually somewhat different. Two textual structures with several different lyrics are sung to the same two melodies: the six-line hymns, and the Lantern structure. More often, one just has to learn them individually.

For the seven visits to the soul hall over the day to Deliver the Scriptures (songjing 送經) , some hymns are prescribed, others a free choice. The hymns sung at the five poles for the Hoisting the Pennant segment are prescribed, but their texts are not specific to the ritual; and those for Transferring the Offerings (zhuanxian 轉獻) are a free choice, with only the brief shouted instructions to the kin between the sequence of hymns relating to the ritual itself. Such flexibility might seem like an impoverishment, but we find similar versatility in the elite temples, where many of the same texts may be used within different rituals.

For contrasting reasons, the texts of both hymns and scriptures are barely intelligible to the human ear: whereas the former are sung very slowly with melisma, the latter were chanted very fast, isorhythmically.

In Chapter 14 of my book I went on to discuss the Li family Daoists’ vocal liturgy in some detail.

What the Daoists learn is not so much ritual manuals to be recited complete, as how to perform rituals—acquiring the building-blocks and learning how to put particular hymns together within the context of the ritual segments required.

Daoist and Buddhist traditions, both temple and household, use a variety of styles of vocal delivery along the continuum from speech to song. The Yanggao Daoists now distinguish only shuowen 說文 solo recited sections and zantan 讚嘆 sung hymns; they are all “recited” (nian 念), though for visiting scholars they may explain that the hymns are “sung” (chang 唱)—a word usually denoting popular secular singing. “Reciting” can mean singing a cappella, accompanied only by the ritual percussion; when a hymn is further accompanied by the shengguan wind instruments, they call it chui 吹 “blowing” (see Unpacking “Daoist music”)—the singing goes without saying. Before focusing on the sung hymns that are now the main content of the Li family’s ritual practice, we should note other vocal styles:

  • short chanted shuowen solo introits (film from 32.19)
  • fast chanted mantras (film from 35.00)
  • reciting documents (solo) (film from 1.02.55)
  • silence (rare!).

As an instance of variety within the seemingly narrow parameters of vocal liturgy, I analysed the Invitation (zhaoqing 召請) segment performed at dusk at the edge of the village.

Focusing on the hymns, most are sung in unison by the whole group—either all six Daoists (formerly seven) when singing a cappella with percussion accompaniment only, or three (formerly four) when accompanied by the shengguan wind ensemble.

Whereas the melodies of the shengguan ensemble are recorded in gongche solfeggio notation, vocal liturgy is not traditionally notated. But as I seek to identify a core melodic style in the latter,  the useful cipher-notation score (see here, under 3rd moon 4th), compiled by Li Manshan’s father Li Qing while he was recopying the ritual manuals upon the revival of the early 1980s, lists a group of several hymns with similar or identical melody. Of these, still performed are A Lantern (Yizhan deng 一盞燈, film from 27.30) and Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts (Guiku zhenyan 鬼哭真言, sung a cappella for Redeeming the Treasuries huanku 還庫, film from 1.03.58), as well as Diverse and Nameless, based on the same melodic material. Li Qing further listed four other hymns to the same melody that have not been performed since the 1950s. Also closely related in melody is the Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言), used to Open the Scriptures in the afternoon (film from 56.08).

Some hymns are only sung a cappella—I haven’t heard a shengguan version of the Hymn to the Three Treasures (Sanbao zan 三寶贊), first hymn to Open the Scriptures in the morning (film from 22.02) though Li Qing notated it. Li Manshan observes that the a cappella versions must be primary; and that “six-line hymns” are hard to sing with shengguan.

Conversely, some other items seem to be performed only with shengguan, like our Pacing the Void hymn Recitation to the Great Supreme; Diverse and Nameless is rarely sung a cappella; and A Lantern could presumably be performed a cappella (as are some other hymns with the same melody and textual structure), but the Daoists never do so.

To the casual listener it’s not at all clear how a cappella and shengguan versions of the “same piece” align. In my score below, the upper stave shows Mantra of the Wailing Ghosts, the lower stave A Lantern—they may look quite similar, but note that the latter is performed very much slower than the former!

Li score 1

Today one of few hymns still regularly heard in both a cappella and shengguan versions is Mantra to the Three Generations (Sandai zhou 三代咒). My film shows the contrast between the a cappella rendition sung at the gate on the return from the Invitation (from 1.06.08; cf. Playlist in sidebar, §§2 and 3, with commentary here) and the magnificent slow decorated version with shengguan in Transferring the Offerings (from 1.08.01); again, this is how the openings of the two versions align:

SDZ opening

In Chapter 14 I went on to discuss cadences and melisma; repeated words, text-setting and timbre; vocal contour, register, and tempo progressions. The percussion accompaniment on drums and cymbals follows the same rules across the sung hymns (for the melody and accompaniment of the opening of Diverse and Nameless, see here, and here).

If we listen again to the Li family’s Pacing the Void hymn (with the aid of my score), while it contains some phrases from the core melodic repertoire, it also uses phrases not heard there. The patchwork of melodic elements has to be learned hymn by hymn.

* * *

In sum, there are many sonic distinctions to be made within any Daoist ritual corpus: the sung hymns, fast chanted sections, and so on. But I find little to distinguish the Li family Daoists’ Pacing the Void hymn from their other vocal liturgy: it belongs firmly within the general stylistic parameters of their repertoire. Any distinctive melodic, or even textual, identity is elusive. So we should treat it not as some exotic ancient remnant, but rather as a part of a living ritual tradition.

At the same time, a reminder: ritual is about performance, and sound is the means through which silent texts are animated and ritual expressed!

For ritual traditions elsewhere in north Shanxi, see under Local ritual.

One thought on “Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy

  1. Pingback: Pacing the Void 2: styles in vocal liturgy – Dinesh Chandra China Story

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