T of C 
Qin as
Qin in
/ Song
Analysis History Ideo-
Personal email me search me
John Thompson     My Guqin Work (short version) 中文     首頁
My Guqin Work
Detailed Version1
Relaxing in Cheung Chau (Photo by Lincoln Potter

Early Background

My parents, both teachers, put a strong emphasis on education, ensuring that I attended the best possible schools. But until I graduated from college my education was almost completely Western. While growing up in Tampa, Florida, I studied piano and violin. During my three years at the Asheville School, a college preparatory school in North Carolina, I was not able to continue music studies, and I entered Haverford College, near Philadelphia, as a mathematics major. However, Haverford is a small liberal arts college and I took a great variety of courses. It turned out that my first year math course was among the least interesting. I first changed my major to classics (especially Greek), then to religion.

My first year in college I took a music course which strengthened my belief that, as much as I loved music, I should not focus on it professionally. At that time studying music meant studying what is often called "serious music", meaning Western classical music with emphasis on 19th music (Romantic period) and its modern descendants. My musical interests were elsewhere. The guiding principle was that I liked "new music", but not the so-called "serious new music" of the "classical" tradition (i.e., the late Common Practice Period); it always seemed artificial and/or overly intellectual. I enjoyed rock music and jazz, but to me new music really meant music I had not heard before. This led me increasingly to early music.

Fortunately at Haverford, and especially at its sister college Bryn Mawr, it was possible to study early music, and so in the end I majored in music. My senior thesis was on late 16th century Venetian music.

Introduction to Asia

At that time, 1967, the war in Vietnam was at its height. My whole senior year I knew upon graduation I would be drafted into the army. I was not in favor of the war, but the reality of it made me realize how limited my education was: I knew virtually nothing about Asia, much less about Vietnam. To be drafted meant serving two years in the army, with no choice of branch (most likely: infantry). Enlisting in the army meant three years, but choosing the branch of service. I was told that by enlisting for military intelligence and expressing an interest in a language for which they needed specialists (i.e., not a common language like French or German) I would have a good chance to go to army language school. So I enlisted for military intelligence and said I wanted to study Chinese, about which I knew nothing.

In the end, I went to Vietnam and not to Army language school. But my work in Vietnam was mostly clerical, and I had quite a bit of time for reading and for travel. I read a lot about Asian history and culture and traveled to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore. This in turn led to a desire to learn more. Having served in the army, I could return to university on the G.I. Bill, a government program for people who have served in the military that paid a stipend for up to 36 months of study. So in 1970 I went to graduate school at Florida State University. In 1972 I earned an MA in Asian studies, emphasizing China and India.

At that time I still had 18 months on the G.I. Bill, and I wanted to learn something about Asian music. So I enrolled in the University of Michigan, where I could take courses in ethnomusicology. I was still studying Chinese, but no Chinese music courses were available. In general I was finding it very difficult to get reliable information on traditional Chinese music. There was a lot of information about Chinese music theory, but it seemed to have little to do with the Chinese music I was able to hear. Recordings were almost always disappointing. The Chinese music I liked was usually traditional music for solo instrument or small ensemble. Many recordings said "solo instrumental", but this almost always meant "solo with orchestra". The program notes would say "ancient melody", but I could easily tell that the recording was by a Chinese orchestra imitating the 19th century Western orchestra.

As a result, my music focus at the University of Michigan became Japanese music. I began playing the samisen, a banjo-like Japanese instrument which I enjoyed very much. In 1974, when G.I. Bill ran out, I still felt the strong need to continue my education about Asia. I seriously thought about going to Japan to continue samisen and to learn Japanese. Instead I went to Taiwan, the deciding factor probably being that I had friends going there. My main aim was then to improve my Chinese, but also to find out more about what I was hoping would be the "real" Chinese music - music I felt I had not yet heard. And although the guqin was central to this, it is difficult to say how strong this interest was: according to my recollection I had by then heard only one or two guqin tracks on a cassette recording of bad fidelity. I was not strongly impressed.


When I arrived in Taiwan in 1974 I found that, by walking the back streets, I could sometimes hear people playing Chinese music in their homes, usually solo or small ensemble. I found that I enjoyed this music very much. It seemed much more interesting and beautiful than the orchestral recordings I had heard in graduate school. As mentioned, those seemed imitative of 19th century Western music, and thus to me did not seem particularly distinctive.2

In the army I had read Dutch Sinologist R. H. van Gulik's Lore of the Chinese Lute, which describes the origins, history, legends and philosophy connected to the Chinese silk string guqin zither. However, in addition to having heard only a very few recordings of bad fidelity, I had found out that very few people still played the guqin, and that apparently only a few dozen pieces had survived through teacher-to-student transmission. On the other hand, I knew from Van Gulik's book that at least I could find the guqin intellectually interesting. And fortunately, from a professor at Michigan I had an introduction to one of the leading Chinese musicologists in Taiwan, Chuang Pen-Li.3. Prof. Chuang then introduced me to a guqin teacher, Sun Yü-Ch'in.

Sun Yü-Ch'in (Sun Yuqin, 1915-1990), a guqin master from Hebei province, went to Taiwan in 1949 and in 1989 became one of the first people honored as a Living National Cultural Treasure ( by the Republic of China). I studied with Master Sun for two years. Late in my studies, when we had become friends, he told me that he had originally not wanted to take me as a student, since it didn't seem quite proper to teach the guqin to a foreigner. But at the time he had no serious students, only (as he put it) young women in the local art college who would invariably stop playing once they got married. Today there is a revival of interest in Chinese music, but at that time everyone seemed interested only in Western music. Perhaps, he said, if they saw a Westerner studying Chinese music they might reconsider the potential of their own music.

As soon as I began playing the guqin I found I enjoyed it very much. Part of the reason was probably that during my two years of twice-weekly sessions with Master Sun he was invariably patient and encouraging towards me. Another part of the reason is certainly that, with its quiet sound, I could play whenever I wanted without having to worry about bothering other people. I was also very intrigued by its glorious past combined with its rather obscure present. Most important, though, I also found that the music itself and the philosophy behind the guqin were very much to my liking.

Master Sun did not encourage me to build a large repertoire. In fact, part of the tradition says that all cultivated people should play the guqin, but that they need not play many pieces. This is one reason why there was such a small number of current pieces in the available guqin repertoire. However, I found the more I enjoyed guqin music, the more I wanted to hear more pieces. Having learned the 17 melodies that Master Sun then taught, this meant that to increase my repertoire I would have to find another teacher, or learn to play other pieces myself.

I was thus fascinated to learn that thousands of currently-unplayed old melodies existed in manuscript form, some perhaps dating back 1,000 years or more. The old tablature describes in detail how one moves the hand to play a piece, but it does not directly indicate note values (i.e., how long to hold the notes, forming the rhythm). In the long run the only way to gain access to most of this early music was going to be to learn to play directly from the original tablature. However, some of the old melodies had been reconstructed in China during the 1950s, and I found that recordings and transcriptions for these were available in mainland publications.

In order to find out whether I could learn to play from the original tablature I devised a four-step process.

  1. Learn some of the reconstructed melodies for which there were both staff notation and recordings.
  2. Learn some of the melodies for which there were only recordings or staff notation, but not both.
  3. Learn melodies for which there were no recordings or staff notation, but for which there were related versions still in the active repertoire.
  4. Try to work out melodies simply from the tablature alone.

At that time the most accessible old tablature as well as modern transcriptions were those in the book Qin Fu, a collection of handbooks and essays published in 1971 in Taiwan by Tong Kin-Woon. While studying in Taiwan for a degree in Chinese archeology (emphasis oracle bones) Tong Kin-Woon had studied guqin with Sun Yü-Ch'in. He was now back in Hong Kong, but by virtue of his work on Qin Fu he seemed to be the only person outside of China who had worked extensively on early guqin tablature, not simply the tradition as handed down continuously to the present.

However, I still wished to continue traditional guqin studies, so when in the summer of 1976 I told Master Sun that I had decided to move to Hong Kong, he not only put me in touch with Tong Kin-Woon, he also gave me an introduction to Madame Tsar Teh-yun (Cai Deyun, 1905 - 2007), the leading guqin teacher in Hong Kong.4

Just then, however, I was given the opportunity to live in England for five months. Having no teacher there, I immediately began the process of making the old tablature into my teacher. Naturally I looked first to the oldest surviving melody collection, Shen Qi Mi Pu. Ming dynasty prince Zhu Quan had published it in 1425 CE, but according to him the book was a collection of old melodies for which he had been able to find tablature.

Focus on Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425 CE)

In 1976 the most available recording and transcription I could find was that of the exciting and famous melody Guangling San. It was also the longest piece in the repertoire, but I decided to begin by trying to learn it from the recording and transcription of the melody as played by the famous master Guan Pinghu. Having also the original tablature as well as the transcription, I discovered that there were some differences, but at first I simply followed Guan.

By the time I actually moved to Hong Kong, in December 1976, I had begun the second stage, learning pieces for which there were recordings but no transcriptions, or transcriptions but no recordings. Here I first learned Guan Pinghu's Chang Qing and Huo Lin; for these there were no recordings available, but I had transcriptions; they were based on Fengxuan Xuanpin (1539) but the tablature was almost the same as that in Shen Qi Mi Pu. I also learned Li Sao, for which I had a recording by Guan Pinghu, but no transcription.

The next stage was learning melodies exclusively from tablature, starting with the three pieces in Shen Qi Mi Pu which have maintained a recognizable form into the modern repertoire: Liu Shui, Meihua Sannong and Xiao Xiang Shui Yun. Initially I made the note values of the early versions come as close as possible to those of the 'modern' versions which I had learned from Sun Yü-Ch'in. Gradually, however, I changed them. I also revised the pieces I had learned based on Guan Pinghu's recordings. I decided that in places where it seemed he had changed the tablature, perhaps believing the original tablature was in error, I would try to play them according to the way they actually had been written.

Although I had begun by studying the interpretations of Guan Pinghu, and continued to look to Tong Kin-Woon and elsewhere for help on problems of note interpretation, I now began as much as possible to work out my own rhythmic interpretations, with minimal reference to those of others: since note values are not directly indicated in guqin tablature, independent interpretation seemed very important. Once I had learned a piece I would start on several others, rejecting those which looked too difficult, accepting the ones which seemed to have the most likely potential for success. Occasionally, perhaps inspired by the theme of a piece, I would decide "this piece I must try to work out". Pieces which initially seemed more problematic often turned out to be particular favorites.

Since arriving in Hong Kong I had been studying the current repertoire with Madame Tsar Teh-Yun, but late in 1977 she went for a few months to live with her son in Japan. By the time she returned I was so focused on reconstructing early melodies that I did not resume studies with her. This was also partly because I had begun to look for work in China. In Taiwan and Hong Kong I had been supporting myself by teaching English as a foreign language. I hoped to do similar work in China, at the same time continue my guqin studies there. This idea became stronger in 1978, when Tong Kin-woon left Hong Kong to do a doctorate in the USA.

My plans all changed when in 1979 I applied for and then in 1980 gained a position with the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts, run by the Urban Council, Hong Kong's municipal government.5 At first I was editor of publications, but at the time no one person was one responsible for artistic direction of the festival -- the Council generally asked regional governments to nominate the participants. Thinking that this was treating Asian arts too much as folkloric arts, I decided to do some travel between festivals, hoping such practical knowledge, along with what I learned from studying ethnomusicology, might put me in a position to recommend programs. As the Festival started taking some of my advice, this in turn committed me to staying in Hong Kong.

By this time I had learned about 20 pieces from Shen Qi Mi Pu and was becoming more confident of my understanding of early guqin repertoire. But I still didn't know to what this might all be leading. Some pieces seemed quite beyond my grasp. Also, I was now spending a lot of my spare time traveling to meet performers and arts organizers, and I made little progress with the guqin. Meanwhile the festival office was taking more and more of my programming suggestions and in 1986 they made me the festival's Artistic Consultant. At the same time the festival started taking place every second year, and so I had more time to spend working on the guqin research.

It was around this time that I decided I would be more systematic in my approach to Shen Qi Mi Pu, and I drew up a formal plan for my Shen Qi Mi Pu Project. The plan included starting from the beginning of the book, reviewing the pieces I had already learned, and studying in order those I had skipped over previously. Pieces which had previously eluded me now seemed to make sense. In 1988 Tong Kin-Woon, now Dr. Tong, returned to Hong Kong and I was again able to consult him. And as China continued to open up I was able to consult guqin experts either there or when they were visiting Hong Kong.

In 1989 I completed my initial hand-written transcriptions (about 350 pages/2,000 lines of staff notation), and in 1991, a complete set of cassette recordings, about five and a half hours of music: all the music in Shen Qi Mi Pu. Guqin players in China were becoming aware of this work and in 1992 the National Union of Chinese Musicians invited me to Beijing as the focus of a seminar on studies of Shen Qi Mi Pu.

Having completed my initial Shen Qi Mi Pu recordings I also began to examine other players' interpretations of the same melodies. Working with the same clues, it is interesting to note our similarities and differences, which often reflect the attitudes players take towards the manuscript. Some interpretations are very faithful; at other times, if the musical language varies from current practice, players assume there is a mistake. In keeping with guqin tradition, some players are mainly using the pre-existing music to inspire their own 'new' music. And by now players in China had largely abandoned silk strings in favor of the nylon metal strings first introduced during the Cultural Revolution. My own attitude has been to try to be creative without exceeding the parameters prescribed by the original tablature.

On several occasions I had the opportunity to discuss my transcriptions in some detail with several experts on gagaku (Japanese court music, said to contain elements of Tang dynasty Chinese music). Their comments on my recordings have encouraged me to continue to look for possible connections between the music of my research and that of theirs, though concrete opportunities have not yet occurred.

Meanwhile I began learning music from sources later than Shen Qi Mi Pu. Here Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (<1491), being the second major guqin handbook, loomed large in my thoughts. The surviving version of Zheyin Shizi Qinpu originally had 42 melodies, all with lyrics, of which 28 had tablature identical to that of the same pieces in Shen Qi Mi Pu. However, it also has many textual problems - obvious mistakes in the tablature as well as some missing pages. Because of these problems -- probably the reason no one else had yet made recordings of any of its music -- at first I found the prospect of working on it particularly daunting, instead looking to some of the 16th century handbooks.

However, because of my familiarity with the repertoire at that time, based on my reconstructions from Shen Qi Mi Pu and other handbooks, I felt perhaps I should at least make an effort with Zheyin Shizi Qinpu. And when I did so I found I could indeed come up with solutions to most of the problems, recover to my satisfaction most of the errors, and bring to life music which gave me as much pleasure as the music in Shen Qi Mi Pu had. So I plowed ahead.

In connection with my understanding of the music both from Zheyin Shizi Qinpu and Shen Qi Mi Pu, I made charts tracing all their melodies through later handbooks; some of these can be seen online at the bottom of introductions to the relevant melodies. There are a number of gaps in most charts due to the fact that they list all the handbooks but those from later periods had at that time not yet been republished. For a while these handbooks were gradually being republished in China in the compilation Qinqu Jicheng (Collection of Qin Pieces), but that ended with Volume 17 (having omitted Volume 15), which takes us to about Ziyuantang Qinpu of 1802. By the time the complete 30-volume set was issued in 2010 I had already put online (or set aside) the incomplete versions of many of the charts; hopefully these will be completed at some time in the future.

During the 1990s, although the fact of my reconstructions had become fairly well known in the guqin community, few people had heard much of the actual music. Live guqin performances are a major problem in China. To convey the music well one needs a quiet hall with good acoustics and, if necessary, a superior sound system. Instead the performances are generally in noisy halls or gardens, where the subtlety of the sounds, particularly when playing with silk strings, becomes lost.

At guqin conferences in China I began presenting papers on my reconstructions. Some of the ideas expressed can be found in pages on this website. These include Rhythm in Early Ming Qin Tablature, which discusses techniques for determining note values in old qin tablature; and Modality in Early Ming Qin Tablature, which discusses how modes seem to be treated in the early tablature.

This type of research is all aimed at making my recordings accurate according to the information provided in the original tablature. (The page dapu has a discussion of "accuracy" versus "authenticity".)

Stimulus for the recording Music Beyond Sound, together with a book of transcriptions

In 1994 a recording company that I was visiting in connection with my festival work asked for a demo recording and subsequently offered me a contract to make a CD. They said they could only commit to one CD. By then I had learned most of the 14 melodies from Zheyin Shizi Qinpu that are not in, or are different from the versions in, Shen Qi Mi Pu. So I proposed a CD based on these 14 melodies. Having made preparations for the recording, though, I found I was unwilling to give up control of my "babies" to this company under the terms offered. On the advice of several non-mainstream musicians I decided to make the recording myself and try to license it. I selected the title Music Beyond Sound based on the nickname of the compiler of the handbook.

In 1995 I applied for funding from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council to do the recording and was given the advice that my prospects for this would improve if I presented it as an academic project, expanding it to include publishing transcriptions and analysis to be sent to academic institutions. I tailored the proposal accordingly, and received the grant in February, 1996.

With the grant money I hired a studio to do the recordings, but the result was unsatisfactory. In the end I did the recordings at home, using equipment I had bought and borrowed. This process is outlined separately. The results were much better than from the studio recording, and in 1997 the CD was published, with the book of transcriptions following in 1998.

Although I believe that my work on Shen Qi Mi Pu made me uniquely qualified to unravel many of the problems in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, I am not a specialist in classical Chinese literature, and thus felt on quite unsure ground in working with its lyrics. And although I feel I have been able to get some idea of the rhythm of these lyrics, in general I have been told that the lyrics are not of particularly high quality, and don't fit the music very well. Nevertheless, it includes at least two melodies that are clearly intended to be sung, Yu Ge Diao and the long version of Yangguan Sandie.

The Music Beyond sound transcriptions were sent, under terms of the grant, to various academic institutions in the hope that this would prompt some feedback, particularly on the origins, style and quality of the lyrics, as well as their relation to the music. This could then lead to more general publication.

Recording and transcription of Shen Qi Mi Pu

Meanwhile I had begun making digital recordings of my main project, Shen Qi Mi Pu. The process here was quite similar to that for the Music Beyond Sound recordings and transcriptions. These were published in 1999 and 2000 as a six CD set and three books of staff notation.

Although this brought my major guqin project to a sort of conclusion, in fact, all of my transcriptions and recordings are tentative. I make no claims that they are definitive interpretations. Quite the contrary, it is very important that a number of other people systematically and independently reconstruct these and other melodies from early guqin tablature. After this had been done, and much comparison has been made, we might be able to begin saying that we have an understanding of guqin music as played during the Ming dynasty.

Connections between my guqin work and arts organizing work

From 1980 to 1998 I worked with the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts. During those years I spent considerable time traveling in Asia to see performances and to meet artists and organizers. At that time I lived on Cheung Chau, an island with no cars one hour by ferry from central Hong Kong. Reconstructing guqin melodies usually began with copying out the tablature under staff notation, then writing in the notes without indicating their note values. I did a lot of this copy work on the Cheung Chau ferry,6 as illustrated below, and the relative quiet of the island provided a pleasant atmosphere for working out actual note values as well as practicing the melodies. This combination of organizing arts and playing music I found quite congenial.

This combination of organizing and playing also helped develop my underlying attitude towards guqin, as well as towards Asian arts in general. Most people think of Western arts as simply "arts", while they think of non-Western arts as "ethnic"; I completely disagree with that. At music conservatories in China, Western music is taught in the "music department", while Chinese music is taught in the "ethnic (minzu) music department". Isn't this backwards? There is the perception that Asian people can understand Western arts, but Western people cannot understand Asian arts. However, the fact is that both East and West have performances that cannot be appreciated outside of their cultural context, especially ritual performances; and they both also have many more performances that, if presented properly, can be appreciated by people who have little knowledge of this cultural context. In addition, while it is true that one can appreciate an Asian art deeply only by understanding the culture behind it, this is also true of Western arts. Thus, the reasons for considering non-Western arts as "ethnic" may have their logic, but these reasons are primarily political and economic, not artistic.

This applies to the guqin as follows. There are certain aspects of the guqin which cannot be appreciated outside of their cultural context. And the more you know about Chinese literati culture, the more deeply you can appreciate guqin music. But even without this background guqin music can still be very much enjoyed, if presented properly. The problem is that it usually is not presented properly.

The other underlying attitude I developed while working at the Festival of Asian Arts is that it is important to preserve Asian artistic traditions, but that most of them will not survive in the modern world unless enough young artists see that training in those traditions can be relevant to contemporary expression. For example, if contemporary Chinese artists can see that training in Chinese traditions will be good for modern expression, won't more of them study the traditions? And if more study the traditions, won't more be done to preserve these traditions?7

I recommended performances for the Festival of Asian Arts with these factors in mind. For the purposes of the Festival, I defined Asian arts as arts with a significant input from people with training in traditions developed in the Asian region. My main guideline was that the Festival should present, alongside traditional Asian arts (i.e., arts with a fixed idiom from the past), contemporary performances with a significant input from people with training in these traditions. The aim was to show not just the beauty of the tradition, but also to show that training in these traditions could be relevant to contemporary artistic expression.

Perhaps this idea is in part inspired by the fact that I myself play an Asian instrument and that my interest in the instrument is as much musical as cultural. There is much music, both East and West, which is difficult to appreciate outside of its cultural context. And one's appreciation of any music can be improved through knowledge of this context. However, I have always been bemused by the attitude that of course anyone can play Western music, but only members of the respective cultural group can play music from non-Western cultures in an authentic manner. And although I spend most of my time trying very carefully to reconstruct ancient music, I have also experimented with some new music that I consider compatible with this ancient music.8

Work since moving to the New York area

On 6 January 2001 I married Suzanne Smith, who since 1997 had been Director, Infrastructure Finance Ratings Asia Pacific in the Hong Kong office of Standard and Poor's. In March 2001 she was posted back to her headquarters near Wall Street and we moved to New Jersey. With the Festival of Asian Arts I had help arrange performances for other artists involved with Asian Arts. In the USA I have used my time to focus on my own guqin activities: to try to arrange my own career in guqin.

This work has at least six aspects:

  1. Reconstructing old melodies
  2. Analyzing the melodies for their unique musical characteristics
  3. Researching the literary background to the melodies (mostly translating texts from classical Chinese)
  4. Making this information available, mainly through my website www.silkqin.com
  5. Playing melodies, in particular, preparing them for recording and performance
  6. Arranging and giving performances

Since leaving Hong Kong I have reconstructed over 80 further melodies from a number of later handbooks, but most particularly from Xilutang Qintong (1525). These have been added to the list under My Repertoire, and much of it can be heard via links at my recordings.

The results of musical analysis can be found in the discussion of individual melodies, but also in the section of this website called Guqin Analysis.

Researching the literary background has been more difficult here in the US, as I have not had the invaluable advice that I was able to get in Hong Kong from Dr. Tong Kin-Woon. Fortunately, as a result of his guidance, I developed a few skills of my own in this direction, but I am still not a specialist in Chinese classical literature, and so must often depend on advice from others.

Work on this website has been constant, almost like a blog. In 2006 I made a relatively soundproof room in my basement and began recording again. After putting about 70 .MP3 files of my recordings on my website I found that these were being accessed a lot from China, so in 2007 I began adding a number of Chinese pages. This is a slow process, but one made more urgent by my web statistics, which show that my site is being accessed every day on average 5,000 to 10,000 times, mostly from websites in China.9

The process of preparing performances is partly organized in terms of arranging melodies according to theme. Some of the possible themes are indexed at Performance Themes. Many of the melodies I have learned in the past few years were selected because they could help fill out a possible performance theme. Of particular interest at present are the East-West programs Music from the Time of Marco Polo and Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci.


Guqin music is one of the world's few written music traditions. However, the music was not composed as written music: students learned it orally and remembered the melodies, so it was not necessary to record the note values. The tablature described the way a particular master interpreted a melody. Without written indication of note values can these now be recovered?

In the West a whole repertoire of medieval music has been recreated from sources less complete than those for guqin music of a similar or perhaps earlier period. As soon as we hear medieval Western music we know what it is - if only because the instruments are quite distinctive - though analytically we may wonder whether what we hear in fact relates much to the actual sounds heard in that period. I think one reason I like medieval music is that to me it has a contemporary spirit in the guise of antiquity.

There have been no important physical changes to the guqin in at least 1,500 years, and so it is more difficult to convey the distinctive qualities of earlier guqin styles. With neither European nor Chinese early music can accuracy be verified. The sources for the guqin may be better, but suspension of disbelief seems often to be more difficult.

What is musical accuracy, and how important is it? Chinese sources traditionally credit many guqin melodies to mythical or historical figures in the past, disregarding the fact that the music may be played on modern instruments, or that there may be dozens of seemingly unrelated versions of those pieces. Here, poetic connection to the past is more important than historical accuracy.

Music, to communicate, must be alive and, in that sense, contemporary. Reconstruction - dapu - is part of a creative process. The question is, at what stage does one cease copying one's teacher (here the tablature) and simply play? My analytical side tells me to do whatever I can to learn a tradition as accurately as possible. But I must also build on that, so that the past remains alive.

In the past one would learn by copying a master precisely. After one had thoroughly internalized the master's teachings, one was free to develop on them. One of my aims in learning more and more "new" pieces from these books I consider my masters has been to internalize not just the notes as written, but the style behind them. Once their music, to my ears so different from the music played today, becomes my own, then I will be comfortable with freedom in my interpretations. I am not just getting communication from the ancients, I am passing it on.

It is an exhilarating feeling to turn a collection of symbols unplayed for centuries into music which to me has beauty. How much of this is the original beauty? In the transcriptions the aim has been to recapture as much as possible the music of the surviving texts. It is very difficult to determine exactly how successful this has been, and in any case the recordings are somewhat freer. When I play to myself or a sympathetic friend the interpretation is likely to be freer yet. But still it remains, I believe, within the parameters of a style inherited from the past.

Historical analysis is both a help and a hindrance to suspension of disbelief. Important truths are always beyond words. Beauty in music is always beyond notes. This is the meaning of Beyond Sound.


1. Detailed biography
For a Chinese comment see 美國音樂家的中國古琴緣 by Wang Bu.

2. Other Taiwan studies: Peking opera
In Taiwan I also had the chance to study Peking Opera. I had heard it before and could tell it was a great art. I cannot say I had much appreciation for it, but I wanted to understand why it had such a good reputation. Every week on Taiwan television there was a one hour broadcast of Peking opera. I found a teacher who worked on the production. Every week he would help me translate the script for the upcoming week's recording for broadcast. Simply by being able in this way to follow the story while watching the opera I came to enjoy Peking opera very much.

3. Chuang Pen-li (莊本立 Zhuang Benli, 1924 - 2001)
See online bio.

4. Madame Tsar Teh-yun (蔡德允 Cai Deyun, 1905 - 2007)
The detailed biography is Bell Yung, The last of China's literati: the music, poetry, and life of Tsar Teh-yun. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008 (Project Muse). Online Chinese references include those in Baidu and Chinese Wiki.

In 1998 a group of Madame Tsai's students formed the 德愔琴社 Deyin Qinshe (Deyin Qin Society; 愔 yin = peaceful). They give performances (sometimes under the title 德愔琴韻 Deyin Qinyun) and have other activities promoting guqin.

5. Festival of Asian Arts 亞洲藝術節
My festival experience included working with the 5th, 6th and 8th through 17th (and last) Festivals of Asian Arts. I did not work on the 7th festival, instead working as a producer presenter for 香港電台 Radio Television Hong Kong. During that time (and for several years after), I produced and presented a program called Music of Asia.

6. Dapu and the Cheung Chau Ferry In 2012 reliving a Cheung Chau ferry trip        
The essential tools for making the first step in dapu, as illustrated at right, were:

  1. A photocopy of the original tablature
  2. A finger position chart for determining notes (in the absense of an actual qin)
  3. Blank staff notation paper (its contours make it better for me than Chinese number notation [Wiki])

Making a basic staff notation version from the original tablature is a relatively straightforward task: the tablature indicates finger positions and relative tuning as well as stroke techniques, ornamentation and (usually) phrasing. From the finger positions and relative tuning alone it is easy to figure out the exact notes (in relative pitch). The interesting work is then, based on the musical contours, melodic structures, modality and so forth, to try to determine the note lengths and rhythms which transform the tablature into music. However, the original task of writing out the notes, often just whole and half notes, can be rather tedious (especially as I have done this with over 200 melodies). The other particularly tedious task is copying out the original tablature underneath the printed score once the reconstruction is complete and printed from the computer program (I use Encore). Much of both these chores I did during the regular one hour ferry trips I took during a period of over 20 years.

7. "Contemporary" Chinese music
Regarding "contemporary" performances, another observation I made was that, in music at least, this often means "19th-century Western". For example, many people consider the Chinese orchestra to represent a form of modernization. The Chinese orchestra was developed in the early 20th century by taking a traditional Chinese music ensemble (Jiangnan Sizhu) and expanding it so that it would resemble the 19th century Western orchestra. To me, though, the traditional Jiangnan Sizhu ensemble has more modern characteristics than does the orchestra, whether Western or Chinese. Traditional Jiangnan Sizhu has many characteristics one can find in jazz, while the orchestra still strongly shows its connection to 19th century Western bourgeois culture. Freedom of interpretation was a basic characteristic of Chinese traditional music, as it is with such modern Western music as jazz and rock music. And yet at music conservatories in China, instead of encouraging this sort of modernity, the emphasis is on the old-fashioned Western attitude that makes musicians subservient to a composer and conductor.

Related to this, in my opinion, one of the major problems in adapting Asian traditions to modern expression is the fact that performing arts academies in Asia very often have a 19th century Western aesthetic as their ideal. This seems to be particularly true of music conservatories in China.

8. My original qin music
This music has been largely of three types:

  1. Film music (see also My film music; compare Guqin in film)
    My main effort at this has been the 90-minute Cantonese feature film House of the Lute (慾火焚琴, 1979), for which I did most of the music
  2. Blues
    I have taken traditional qin melodies and motifs and put them into a form of blues structure. Examples include the blues melodies under New Qin Melodies.
  3. East-West music in an early music style
    These are the East-West pieces I created or modified for use in the program Music from the Time of Marco Polo.

9. Web statistics
Although these statistics show that my site is being accessed every day on average 5,000 to 10,000 times, mostly from websites in China, the stats suggest that most of the hits are apparently from people listening to my .MP3 files through intermediate servers that provide links directly to .jpg files. Often (or usually) they probably have no idea who is playing. I have seen some online comments from people who have heard and liked something, asked on the internet who is playing, then were rather taken aback when they were told it was a foreigner.

Return to top or to the Guqin ToC