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Chime Reviews of CD Music Beyond Sound

From Chime #10/11, Spring/Autumn 1997 (but publication delayed until March 1999)
Reproduced here by permission from
CHIME, the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research
P.O. Box 11092,
2301 EB Leiden, The Netherlands.
chime@wxs.nl

John Thompson's guqin CD Music Beyond Sound

Music Beyond Sound - The Silk String Zither. Guqin music from the handbook of the 'Beyond-Sound Immortal' (1491), played by John Thompson. Recorded in Hong Kong, 1997. 1 CD, total music time 68'53". Toadall Sound, TDS 10001.

John Thompson's CD of qin pieces 'Music Beyond Sound' was considered sufficiently important to merit three independent reviews. They are presented below. The first one is by Cheng Yu, a pipa and qin player and Chinese music scholar currently based at SOAS in London; the second one is by Julian Joseph, a guqin aficionado from Chippenham; and the third one by Frank Kouwenhoven, editor of the Chime journal.

1. By Cheng Yu
SOAS, University of London, UK

The qin (also called guqin), an unfretted zither with seven strings, has an unbroken history of over 2,000 years. Historically, the instrument plays an important role in the traditional literati's process of self-cultivation, along with activities like Chinese chess, calligraphy and ink-painting. Perhaps even more remarkable than the large number (3,000 or so) of surviving ancient qin notations is the fact that so few of them (less than 300) have been brought to life in recent times. The 13 pieces of qin music recorded on John Thompson's CD fill an important gap in this respect. They were selected and transcribed from the first volume of the twenty-four-volume set The Complete Collection of Qin Pieces, containing the early Ming (1366-1648) period qin score Zheyin Shizi Qinpu ('Qin Handbook Transmitting Lyrics with Music of the Zhejiang School'). This score was rediscovered in 1956 by qin master Zha Fuxi (1895-1976) at Chongqing Library, during his fieldwork in Sichuan province at that time. John Thompson, a qin player and arts organizer in Hong Kong, is the first scholar to recognize the importance of this early Ming notation and to actually reconstruct and record the music.

Generally speaking, 'Music Beyond Sound' is a successful and courageous endeavour. Firstly, the accompanying 35-page booklet to this CD is very impressive. It contains a thoroughly documented introduction to the sources, the instrument and the performer, and the information is well-presented. Each piece is introduced separately, with its origins, lyrics and section titles in both English and Chinese. Secondly, the sound quality of the silk-stringed guqin as played by Thompson on this CD is truly outstanding, certainly in comparison to previous recordings of the silk-stringed guqin. Apart from a few re-issued, pre-Cultural Revolution, recordings of qin with silk strings, John Thompson's CD is about the second commercially released recording since the 1960s on which silk strings are used. (The other is by Lau Chor-wah, published by ROI Productions in Hong Kong.(1)

It is rather sad to see that in China today, traditional silk strings are no longer even in production, and that almost all modern qin players use metal strings. True enough, good sound recordings of silk-stringed qin are very hard to achieve. There is an aesthetic tension between, on the one hand, capturing the full resonance and full tonal clarity of the silk strings and, on the other hand, trying to keep within reasonable limits the buzzing and other noises caused by rubbing the strings and scraping them with the fingernails - the fact is that silk strings are thicker and less smooth than metal ones. Mr Thompson's efforts to tackle this problem are highly successful, enabling him to produce a CD that, in terms of sound quality, far surpasses any other recordings of a silk-stringed qin with which this reviewer is familiar.

On the whole, John Thompson's sustained interest in qin music and his longstanding devotion to the instrument over a period of twenty years are most impressive. Being a qin player myself - though not a very regular practitioner - I'm aware of the fact that the process of learning and memorizing a single piece of qin music in certain instances may require hundreds of hours of practice. To decipher and reconstruct old qin scores is an even harder task, and a real test of human tenacity and endurance. This very circumstance may go some way in explaining the declining number of qin players in recent times, compared to the (growing) number of players of certain other Chinese instruments.

Generally speaking, most qin players tend to play those pieces which have already been transcribed. Few performers have the ability to reconstruct pieces from ancient scores, which may be one reason why so few of the ancient notations have been brought back to life. John Thompson's achievements are all the more impressive if one realizes that, to date, his total activities in this field - of which the music on the CD represents a small part - account for approximately one quarter of all the existing reconstructions of old qin pieces. Thompson's recorded interpretations (so far) include more than five hours of recordings of qin pieces from the 15th century collections Shenqi Mipu (64 pieces) and Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (28 pieces). (Most of these recordings have not been issued commercially.)

I would like to discuss in more detail John Thompson's work in the field of dapu - the process of reconstructing qin music from ancient notations - and his abilities as a musical performer.

Dapu is not just a technical activity but, within the limitations set by the existing scores, a creative and artistic process. Qin notation has a unique and elaborate tablature system, based on fingering and string positions. It does not record actual pitches and there are no indications of rhythm, tempo, musical expression or divisions of phrases and sections in the scores. While the practitioner of dapu is required to stay as close as possible to the original score, he is still allowed a measure of freedom and flexibility in the arrangement of the music and with respect to such elements as key, mode, layers of music and thematic structure. As a consequence, the results of dapu vary from one individual to another, and one particular original score may give rise to many different interpretations. The results of dapu are to some extent a reflection of a player's musicality, artistic spirit and individual understanding of the aesthetics of qin music. To master the work of dapu one must be a competent player, because the process can only be completed in playing. Even so, an excellent qin player is not necessarily capable of doing dapu. Apparently, few people in China have succesfully mastered both activities. John Thompson's CD demonstrates his ability to combine both dapu and playing. Moreover, he has proved himself to be a critical scholar: he has corrected mistakes in the original scores where some notes were found to be physically unplayable.

The compositional arrangements on John Thompson's CD are generally good, though in some pieces the melodies, the changes in rhythm, as well as the tempi and the gradations in the music lack variety and are not sufficiently pronounced. The structure of qin music can largely be compared to that of classical Chinese poems. A qin piece often has the following basic components: qi (start/intro) - cheng (continuation) - zhuan (shifts) - he (coda). Qin pieces such as 'Flowing Water', 'Three Variations on Plum-blossom' and 'Mist and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers' are good examples of this structure. A clear sense of this kind of structure is missing in some of John Thompson's performances.

A further important aspect is the discernment of the correct key and tuning when transcribing an old notation. These are often not indicated in the manuscripts. It requires a strong sensibility on the part of the transcriber to discern the right key and tuning. Needless to say, any misjudgment may lead to drastically deviating results - for example if one applies a tuning of C-D-F-G-Bb-c-d in the key of Bb (which requires raising the 5th string by a semi-tone based on the common tuning of C-D-F-G-A-c-d in F key) to a piece in the G key tuning C-D-E-G-A-c-d (lower the third string by a semi-tone). Such a policy may result in the superfluous appearance of semi-tones in a piece - an unusual phenomenon in traditional qin aesthetics. The ninth piece, 'Fisherman's Song' on John Thompson's CD, appears to be a case in point.(2)

Apart from the sensible compositional arrangement of a qin piece, a performer's expressive abilities also constitute an important factor. A good performance is not merely a transmission of a series of sounds; it is a vehicle for expressing human feelings, so that a piece becomes a medium of personal communication between the player and his audience. The subtle expressive possibilities of qin music are manifold; they provide the performer with the means to put his own characteristic stamp on each piece, for example via changes in dynamics and tempo, or via contrasts between phrases or sections, or in variations in the rise and fall of a melodic line. Sometimes, the performances on 'Music Beyond Sound' simply lack musical power. 'Thrice Parting for Yangguan' (Yangguan San Die) should express a reluctant parting of intimate friends, but in John Thompson's interpretation, the tempo is fairly fast, and the melody light and cheerful, which is obviously not consistent with the theme of the music.

Generally speaking, 'Music Beyond Sound' remains an impressive CD. Not only does it provide a rare example of qin music played on silk strings, with most of the pieces previously unheard, but it also reflects the player's considerable skills in dapu, his affinity with qin aesthetics, and his respectable talents as a performer. The artist's persistent devotion to the study of qin music, this sophisticated musical art of the traditional Chinese literati, must be an inspiration for qin players everywhere. We look forward to follow-up publications of John's recordings of qin music.

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2. By Julian Joseph
Chippenham, UK

John Thompson is an American guqin player in Hong Kong who specializes in -reconstructing the music in early guqin handbooks. He has his own World Wide Web Site with information on his activities in the field of qin music research (http://www.iohk.com/UserPages/thompson). In October 1996 he issued some of his qin reconstructions on a CD entitled 'Music Beyond Sound'. The CD consists of all the pieces in the 15th century collection Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, excluding the ones which are also included in the earliest known guqin handbook in existence, the Shenqi Mipu (A.D. 1425).

When I first heard John Thompson's playing on CD it seemed so utterly different from any style of guqin playing with which I was familiar that I was not sure what to make of it. Most of the pieces on 'Music Beyond Sound' are premiere recordings, which precludes the possibility of comparing them with alternative recorded versions. Thompson's Yangguan San Die ('Thrice Parting for Yangguan') is so different from the music usually played under this title that a comparison is not very instructive. The only pieces previously issued commercially are Wu Ye Ti ('Evening Call of the Raven') and Qu Yuan Wen Du ('Qu Yuan Asks for Advice'), but even these sound quite different in Thompson's interpretations, partly because he plays them on traditional silk strings (rather than the metal strings which most qin players prefer at present), and partly because his style of playing is more restrained than that of many of his Chinese colleagues. Perhaps Thompson's approach most closely resembles the style of playing heard in some pieces by Guan Pinghu, a great qin master of the first half of this century, or in some of the recordings of Wu Zhaoji, a qin master now well over 80 years old. Perhaps Thompson plays in an even more subdued fashion. His style may well represent the Ming ideal of extreme restraint. His speed of playing is generally faster than what present listeners to qin music may be accustomed to. His playing technique is excellent.

It took me a long time to become familiar with all the pieces, some of which may not have been played very much since the 15th century. I find that I can listen to the unusual and intriguing repertoire over and over again, without tiring of it, my favourite pieces being Yu Ge ('Fisherman's Song', but not the piece usually played under this title) and Zhi Zhao Fei. The music is played with little deviation from the original tablatures, and is of enormous interest as a historical record.

The sound of the CD is very clean, well balanced and spacious, with very little or no external noise or tape hiss audible. It is far superior to some commercial CDs of guqin music. I did occasionally notice a very slight buzz from one of the strings. This is a feature of the instrument, a qin built in the Song Dynasty, and it does not detract from the overall effect, indeed even enhancing it.

The accompanying booklet is well produced and very thorough. Unlike any other qin recordings I have seen - and I have seen most - this CD provides the names of sections of pieces in both English and Chinese. It also gives English and Chinese versions of the original prefaces to the pieces in the Zheyin Shizi Qinpu, and is written in natural and correct English. John Thompon has now published a book of his transcriptions of the music in the Zheyin Shizi Qinpu - a project to look forward to. (3)

This CD is almost the only high-fidelity recording published of a guqin using silk strings, making it difficult for me to comment on this aspect of the instrument. I am beginning to form an impression that metal strings are perhaps better suited to certain pieces (e.g. Guangling San) and silk to others. Certainly, this recording is proof that it is possible to make high-quality recordings of silk-string zithers, despite opinions sometimes heard to the contrary.

'Music Beyond Sound' is an excellent recording in every respect and a 'must' for anyone seriously interested in guqin music. From the time when I first became interested in guqin, I have been waiting for someone to start publishing systematic recordings of all the pieces in the major guqin handbooks, especially those in the Shenqi Mipu. The good news is that John Thompson's next publication will be a complete survey of the music of Shenqi Mipu. I am eagerly looking forward to it.

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3. By Frank Kouwenhoven
Chime Foundation, Leiden, Netherlands

On his CD 'Music Beyond Sound', John Thompson has unearthed a veritable treasure house of qin pieces from the 15th century and earlier. For each piece he documents its context, meaning(s), occurrences in other existing handbooks of qin music, and provides the Chinese and translated versions of prefaces and section titles. This turns the CD into an eminently useful introductory guide to the Zheyin shizi qinpu (the handbook from which the music on the CD was taken). In October 1998 Thompson published an accompanying 120 page book with his transcriptions in Western music notation (ISBN962-85279-24)."

It is not hard to echo other qin lovers' praise for John Thompson's efforts as a qin scholar and music historian. His trump cards are his analytical insights, his immense professional curiosity and his attempt to be complete in his coverage of the old scores - he goes where few qin players in China have ventured to go, far beyond the thirty-odd pieces played over and over again at qin meetings and on recordings produced in China. But I also feel that his interests, in this respect, are different from those of qin players in China, and that his scholarly approach to guqin music turns the CD into an undertaking with specific aims and limitations.

Many - though certainly not all - qin players in China primarily view the seven-stringed zither as a tool for spiritual and bodily self-cultivation, not as an object for musical adventurism, academic challenges or archival explorations; this would almost be more like a Western approach to the instrument.

Qin players in China do acknowledge the importance of transcribing old scores, but few see it as a primary activity, and still fewer are likely to approach the old notations with a purely historical interest. Qin players' work of 'reconstruction' normally involves a fair amount of re-composition. It is inherent to the qin tradition that players change notes, omit complete sections if they feel like it, and add new elements, in addition to providing their own rhythmical interpretations. A 'reconstruction' will be considered successful if, apart from taking account of the original score, it is convincing as an artistic product. In this respect, 'Music Beyond Sound' may fail to impress some listeners. John's achievements as a musician, though very respectable, are not on a par with his accomplishments as a scholar.

He spends a tremendous time learning pieces by heart, and probably surpasses many qin players in China in terms of actually memorized repertoire. But in some of his performances it is the conviction of a single powerful statement that I find lacking. Sometimes there is a sense of restlessness in the music - perhaps not so much due to the fast tempi - which seem close to what some of the old masters were doing on recordings from the 1930s to 1950s - but to the absence of sufficient elasticity in the rhythmical phrasing, a lack of 'breath', so to speak.(4)

However, I don't want to detract from the attractive points of John's playing. Many of his phrases are beautifully realized, the sound of his qin is always warm and spacious, and the CD as a whole is still a first-rate intellectual adventure, enabling listeners to explore note by note these unfamiliar, sometimes odd-sounding pieces.

From an orthodox point of view, the artistic aspect makes 'Music Beyond Sound' a difficult project to judge. In the Chinese qin tradition, scholarship and musicianship are so much intertwined that they have become inseparable. Qin aesthetics may have undergone many changes in the course of time, but qin performers do recognize good arguments expressed in music: from time to time a real qin master turns up who becomes a new trendsetter. John Thompson's aim is not, and never has been, I believe, to compete musically with qin masters in China or to set new musical standards, nor would it be fair to judge his achievements in such terms.

A number of (notably middle-aged and young) qin players in China seem to cherish the idea of superbly controlled rhythmical 'breath' as a principle which gives unity to entire pieces. On the whole they tend to play slower and with much more dynamic and rhythmical contrast than their predecessors (made possible to some extent by the use of steel rather than silk strings). This may not be in line with historical trends, but it has earned them authority as the master players of a new generation. I hope that some of them will take up John's reconstructions, because it would help to do full justice to his work as a qin explorer. It would not result in historically more reliable interpretations, but it would be a fitting homage to one of the few Western qin players who is literally investing a lifetime in this repertoire.

The question of authenticity remains a tough one. We can indicate where qin players in present-day China change pitches or omit parts from written scores, and to some extent such deviations can be explained as concessions to current musical style, (e.g. when Guan Pinghu turns an essentially heptatonic score into a largely pentatonic one, claiming that it sounds more 'natural' that way). But we don't know what the predecessors of these players did when they, in turn, tried to bring the same scores alive, how much they deviated, or indeed were expected to deviate, from what was written in their own time. There is room here for much speculation, but limited certainty.

John Thompson's CD offers, in audible form, a hitherto almost unexplored chunk of China's ancient qin repertoire, if only in 'schematic' interpretations. His performances are unique in their near-total attempt at faithfulness to the notations, and they are presented in actual sound, with a directness that no scholarly paper could ever achieve. We are now perhaps in the initial stages of an exciting new era in guqin research, involving full-scale historical exploration of the qin repertoire along the lines of comparative research already embarked upon by scholars like Yoko Mitani, Lin Youren, Chen Yingshi and Bell Yung. For this kind of adventure we need the artistry of master musicians as well as the thoughtful opinions and analytical insights of scholars like John Thompson.

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Footnotes:

1. In 1998 the HKU Music Department published Qin Music on Antique Instruments (HKU001) with silk strings on most tracks.
(Return)
2. My introduction explains why I think the "odd" notes in Yu Ge are deliberate. Other tunings yield bizarre dissonances.
(Return)
3the book was published in 1998.
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4. My teacher, Sun Yuqin, said that a qin player will play the same piece in different ways, depending on the listener(s). When playing in a more relaxed environment (see my comments on recording details), I may play more slowly, include more pauses at the end of phrases, or both. (Return)

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