Taking it on the qin

Following my tribute to Lin Youren, I should explore my ambivalent relation with the qin zither. Such a dominant image of Chinese musical culture, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord.

In my first few years studying Chinese music I was obsessed with the qin, practising constantly while seeking out the Great Masters of the day—Wu Jinglue, Zhang Ziqian, Wu Zhaoji, and so on. Later I came to feel less involved with it, partly because I found less time to devote myself to playing—not exactly that I no longer felt worthy, rather that my studies of local folk culture and ethnography gradually distanced me from elite culture (see also here).

Immersing myself in the culture of shawm bands—by far the most common form of instrumental music in China for many centuries—performing for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I found myself among poor people, many disabled and former opium smokers—virtual outcastes, like gypsies. See my

  • “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan eds., Gender in Chinese Music (University of Rochester Press, 2013), 112–26.

But their music too was always played at the behest of the imperial elite, even if the latter wouldn’t dream of playing it themselves; the musicians often consider notation superfluous, but it was of great complexity, sophistication, and, well, antiquity. So too for the vocal liturgy and shengguan ensemble of ritual specialists.

In China at least, I don’t find terms like “classical” (or “art”) and “folk” very useful. “Classical” musics are somehow old and prestigious, favoured by social elites, and often handed down partly by means of notation; folk music (like herpes, as observed in Molvania) is largely handed on by oral transmission.

Our image of Asian culture is still largely based on the “art” traditions, like sitar in India—at the expense of local folk traditions. In China the qin is represented by several hundred CDs and a wealth of material online. But however wonderful we may find it, in imperial times, despite its prominence as an image for poets and painters, there were never more than a few hundred people who could play it. A solo amateur tradition, its main life, still today, is not on the concert stage but in gatherings of amateurs, called qinhuiqin meeting” (perhaps “qin wag”), and there are lively little qin communities all round the world.

Great—but in China and elsewhere a lot of music (like folk-song or ritual opera) is presumably “old” too, although it never stands still, and it’s dangerous to make assumptions about the superiority of one or the other: any music is valued, or not, within its social context. But if you think how many people there must be in China who sing folk-songs—at least a few tens of millions, at a conservative estimate. So how many CDs are there of genuine Chinese folk-singing (he asked polemically)? Putting aside vast numbers of recordings of conservatoire-trained performers on stage, and apart from several CDs of ethnic minority singing, I know of precisely two. The diverse repertoires of the shawm bands are similarly under-represented.

When we know so little about most Chinese musical cultures, it seems fair to say that the qin is one topic that is over-subscribed.

Of course, elite culture is clearly part of the whole fabric, but—until recently—it has naturally dominated the discourse of the elite. In most social groups in the West, few people have heard of Bach. And when qin scholars do study the social background of the qin, they describe not temple fairs or funerals, but poetry, painting, calligraphy—the inner life of the imperial literati and their modern evolution. But its sanitized image, and the lack of broader social context, seem to feed into the whole patriotic spiel about the glory of ancient Chinese culture.

So I now find the qin something of an autonomous zone, even a fetish. We have plenty of recordings, and its distinctive notation (a form of tablature) is of course a rich historical treasury. But I’m somewhat disturbed by the slavish adherence to the reified text. As with Daoist ritual studies, scholarship concerns texts more often than social ethnography. The process of dapu, recreating early scores whose performing tradition has long been lost, has become popular since the 1950s. The qin’s codification and fetishization of timbre, too, is overestimated; folk-singers, shawm players, and so on, are just as sensitive to timbre.

“Just saying, like…” Still, the qin is a wonderful way into the elite culture of the imperial literati, and its music is mesmerizing. I explore this issue in musical detail here.

Sources
It gets ever harder to give a succinct outline of sources, so I’ll just mention a few that I have found useful. One place to start is John Thompson’s comprehensive site, including a section on Zha Fuxi’s 1956 fieldwork and recordings, one of the most numinous resources for the sound-world of bygone generations, partly found on the 8-CD set An anthology of Chinese and traditional folk music: a collection of music played on the guqin (China Records, also reissued in Taiwan).

There are fine CD sets of archive recordings from Wind Records, ROI, and Hugo; and the qin features impressively on YouTube, under guqin.

The regular coverage in the CHIME journal is accessible.

Bell Yung writes well not only on music and notation but also on social change:

  • “Music of qin: from the scholar’s study to the concert stage”, ACMR Reports 11 (1998): 1–14
  • and his chapter in Andrew Weintraub and Bell Yung eds. Music and Cultural Rights (University of Illinois Press, 2009).

A classic is Robert van Gulik’s The lore of the Chinese lute (1940).

See also Spiritual and marvellous mysteries.

A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life. [1]

Picken

I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realize where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu, Huang Xiangpeng, Ren Erbei, and Yin Falu were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence.

MTC

Having helped him out with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. My initial reason for going was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to play his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting to one side what we might call historical musicology in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD), it reminded me that very few (Chinese or Western) have done any serious analysis of Chinese instrumental music—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analysing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess— within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use, was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves” [3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence remained committed to the qin after his initial studies in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

“The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty”

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from Laurence’s chamber music gatherings, another cherished memory is him playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.

* * *

And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for the memorial service:

Music from the Tang court: Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

lp-memorial
Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the Tang court music of the early 8th century. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in 1986 in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small changgo drum, a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu, and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese, if not necessarily Tang Chinese…

[1] Just a few partial references:
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/jun/06/guardianobituaries.booksobituaries
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17411910802343803
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/ybltn8wbquzycmf/AAAK8MU1jp2hk5SpTTv3QNR2a?dl=0&preview=CHIME+Journal+4+Autumn+1991.pdf
On film, a charming interview from 1983:

See also
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr1irFTGjQk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DWzh-1WOwc
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV3tg3GF-Ok

[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.

[3] Ibid. p.221.

Remembering an old friend 憶故人

That’s the title of one of the most soulful, and popular, pieces in the qin zither repertoire—unusually, not documented until 1937.

lyr

You can find tributes to my mentor Lin Youren (1938–2013) online, including the delightful

and as part of the fine article

So here I’ll just add a few of my own memories of Lin Youren.screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-12-20-31

Excerpts from my liner notes with the CD:

Lin Youren is a true eccentric. [Here I’m thinking of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove]. His story contains intriguing contrasts, since he learned and taught the qin under the conservatory system, but came to find the juxtaposition incongruous, quietly subverting it from within. […]

His preferred way of playing is alone with a few friends—and, in another ancient tradition of the qin player, a bottle or two of Shaoxing wine. […]

If his playing roams the clouds of Daoist selflessness, his conversation is quirky, cryptic and full of puns.

The CD is very fine, but one unusual feature is its inclusion of his “Improvisation for Michael Owen”. More from the notes:

I’m not sure you really want to know this, but the musical germ of this fantasia was the singing of exhilarated English fans in my local pub after we relished Michael Owen’s superb goal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. Lin found the famous football song reminiscent of the singing of Miao tribespeople in southwest China (“Not a lot of people know that”, I mused as we emerged from the pub), but by the time we got to the recording session he had wholly internalized it for the intimacy of the qin.

Actually, since he was staying with me, he tried it out for the first time as soon as we got back from the pub. A couple of days later we took the train for the recording session at Nimbus’s fine studio near Monmouth. To help him feel at home we plied him with Shaoxing wine; and he felt it would further help the vibe if I sat with him as he played, so he would have a real, and empathetic, audience. He improvised for much longer than the version on the CD, which is edited down—not quite to his satisfaction. Still, this CD was his favourite among all his recordings.

LYR in field

At Nimbus, 1998.

lyr-and-zzq

With qin master Zhang Ziqian, 1987.

lyr-and-wzj

Qin gathering, 1987. With beard is Suzhou qin master Wu Zhaoji.

For the Beijing qin scene, see here; and for my own mixed feelings about the qinhere.