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Review by Xu Jian
- See also the Response at bottom
Beijing Qin Report (Beijing Qin Xun)
April 1997 Volume 27
Printed and published by the Beijing Guqin Research Association
Review of the CD Music Beyond Sound
by Xu Jian, Emeritus Professor at the Central Music Research Institute, Beijing
translated by John Thompson
Praise for the CD by an American qin friend
Along with a discussion of guqin melody reconstruction
At the beginning of the year an American friend John Thompson mailed me his newly recorded CD called Music Beyond Sound. The 13 qin pieces recorded are the result of his reconstructions from the Ming publication Zheyin Shizi Qinpu (<1491; Qin Handbook with Music of the Zhejiang [School] Elucidated through Lyrics; [translator's note: this is different from the translation given in Music Beyond Sound]. After listening carefully, I am very respectful and appreciative of the sort of tenacity and vigor of his intensive study. At the same time it connects with several of the problems of reconstructing guqin music.
In America, Tang Shizhang (John Thompson) obtained his B.A. in musicology and M.A. in Asian Studies. In order to continue his research into Eastern culture he thought nothing of traveling the great distance to Asia, and began studying qin in Taiwan with Sun Yuqin, continuing on to Hong Kong to seek the help of such qin specialists as Tong Kin-Woon. (Thus) he has been persistently playing qin for over 20 years. Since 1988 (sic; should be 1980) he has worked with the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts, first as Editor, then as Artistic Coordinator. Meanwhile he has been working on Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425 AD; Handbook of Spiritual and Marvelous Mysteries), reconstructing its melodies, writing out the transcriptions, and recording them as about five and a half hours of music. The CD Music Beyond Sound is a continuation of this project.
Traditional qin tablature doesn't indicate pitches (notation); instead it records the string positions and playing techniques (tablature). One must repeatedly play according to this tablature in order to try to refine its interest and charm. This process is called "reconstructing" (dapu). If the over 2,000 extant qin melodies are not reconstructed, there is no way to revive old music. In order to listen to the music created by men of antiquity, the Chinese Musicians Association has assiduously organized information exchange meetings on reconstruction of qin melodies. Unfortunately, not many people can play qin, and even fewer are willing to immerse themselves in the excavation of old handbooks, so that a lot of valuable qin melodies are still now sleeping on old piles of paper. That John Thompson, as an American, can spend such a long period persevering in the reconstruction of melodies is really worthy of esteem. In order to give recognition to this assiduous and vigorous research of his, in 1992 the Chinese Musicians Association invited him to Beijing, especially calling together for him a "Shen Qi Mi Pu Information Exchange Meeting", in order together with Chinese qin players to advance a step in a mutual understanding of what has been learned a bout music reconstruction.
Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425 AD) is the earliest surviving collection of qin tablature. This book has many historically famous qin pieces, including Guangling San (Guangling Melody), Li Sao (Encountering Sorrow), Wu Ye Ti (Evening Call of the Raven), Jiu Kuang (Wine Crazed), Da Hujia (Long Version of Barbarian Reed Pipe), and so forth. Those undergone reconstruction by present day qin players have already revived music that is interesting to listen to. Zheyin Shizi Qinpu is about 50 years later than SQMP. Most of the pieces in it were already seen in SQMP, there being only nine titles seen for the first time here. (These) have particular historical value, and this is precisely the reason Music Beyond Sound included them in the recording. These nine pieces include: Guan Ju (Cry of the Ospreys), Nanxun Ge (Song of Southern Breezes), Tiantai Yin (Mount Tiantai Prelude), Si Shun (Thinking of [Emperor] Shun), Shi Xian (Respect the Virtuous), Yuge Diao (Melody of the Fisherman's Song), Yuge (Fisherman's Song), Qu Yuan Wen Du (Qu Yuan Asks for Advice), and Yangguan Sandie (Thrice Parting for Yang Pass). In addition there are four pieces which have the same titles as in SQMP, but are different versions. These are Yu Hui Tushan (Emperor Yu's Meeting at Mount Tu), Shanju Yin (Chant about Living in the Mountains), Wu Ye Ti (Evening Call of the Raven) and Zhi Zhao Fei ([Paired] Pheasants Fly in the Morning). Altogether there are 13 pieces. (Translator's note: the Chinese version had the numbers right, but mistakenly put Yuge Diao in the latter list.) This list of pieces recorded in Music Beyond Sound provides a convenient way for us to understand and research them.
"Music of the Zhejiang (School)" in the title Qin Handbook with Music of the Zhejiang (School) Elucidated through Lyrics points out that these are special pieces of the Zhejiang school. The Zhejiang school originated towards the end of the Song dynasty ( 960-1279) and flourished in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), (when it was) the most influential qin school. The editor/commentator of this book, although he was a man of Nanchang, would be better considered as belonging to the Zhejiang school. He tried to use words to explain qin melodies, taking a lot of solo instrumental pieces and managing to add lyrics in accordance with the melodies, so that it is called "elucidated through lyrics". However, the sense of the lyrics is common and superficial; they twist the mouth and are hard to sing, (and so) they have been subjected to reproach. For example, "The Zhejiang school is light, elevating popular customs; unfortunately the lyrics added to the melodies easily make them like indistinct new sounds." (Wang Tan in Qin Zhi [Qin Mandate, 1746]) "Indistinct new sounds" resulted from fine traditional works becoming distorted beyond recognition. And "light, elevating popular customs" introduced fresh flavors from among the people. These two conditions both receive confirmation through Music Beyond Sound.
Of course, reconstructing means reviving old pieces. Naturally one should strictly, in accordance with the old tablature, strive in a scientific manner; at the same time one must reproduce the original style and features, striving in an artistic manner. Because these are artistic recreations, one must of course encounter a series of problems in composing these pieces. For example, getting a melody while distinguishing the mode (? quyin biandiao); arrangement of the structure, organization of the themes , the charm of the style, and so forth. We can summarize the realizations in Music Beyond Sound and add a bit of critical comment.
We know that music pieces all have their own basic modal style, and the melodic sounds should come from the scale of that mode. This is a common rule in music. Qin music is not outside of this. If in a qin piece one discovers an altered tone outside of the basic mode, this requires making some distinctions. Can we distinguish whether (non-modal tones) come from particular needs? Or do they come from mistakes? If one is seeking a special effect, (one can look at) such pieces as Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (Water and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers) and Meihua Sannong (Three Repetitions of Plum Blossoms) in Shen Qi Mi Pu; just before the end of the piece the technique "hit in a circle" suddenly uses tones outside the mode, thereby giving people an experience of freshness. In other words, if when you listen it doesn't please the ear, the modal nature is confused, you don't know what was said, and there isn't the least bit of aesthetic feeling, then this is worthy of doubt. The data for finger positions in old tablature has been copied many times; during the engraving, it is common for errors to appear; and even in a rigorous (edition) like Shen Qi Mi Pu they can hardly be avoided. If (something) is really a mistake, (one must) decline rigidly adhering to the original tablature, (which would) use mistakes to transmit mistakes. This is clearly inappropriate. Some of the strange sounds one occasionally finds in Music Beyond Sound seem to belong to this circumstance.
We also know that music pieces all have their own structure. Several phrases make a section; several sections make the whole piece. In order to differentiate these phrases and sections, sometimes you make use of several of the gracefully phrased finger techniques, such as at the start using "hit in a circle" (da yuan); or at an ending using "pinch and gather three sounds"(taocuo sansheng); or at the end of a piece a coda in harmonics appearing, and so forth. In Music Beyond Sound these are all used very fluently, the hand doing what the heart wants. But apart from this there is the problem of the overall organization. In this matter it seems as though Music Beyond Sound didn't pay enough attention. In overall structure the compositions can generally be divided into several layers, including: a slow and free beginning; entering into the melody; gradually advancing; high tide; slow down; coda. What these express, in terms of speed changes within the whole piece, takes the form of: slow => fast => slow. This is precisely the opposite of the Western sonata form, fast => slow => fast. Qin players emphasize the slowing down, and often in qin tablature it is so marked. (For example,) in Shen Qi Mi Pu (the pieces) Qiao Ge (Song of the Fisherman), Wu Ye Ti (Evening Call of the Raven), (and) Zhi Zhao Fei (Pheasants Fly in the Morning) are all marked near the end with the sign "begin slowing down". At the same time, these same pieces in Zheyin Shizi Qinpu do not have this marking, and so we can see the lack of care and precision in this book. But as we specifically deal with a qin piece, we cannot ignore the organization. The speed changes of a piece are best able to express the soul of the composition. Loosely organized pieces have difficulty expressing an aesthetic sense, and have no way of forming a perfectly beautiful artistic form.
A qin piece also has its predominant melody; it has a clear nature, thereby forming the composition's style and appeal. It frequently and repeatedly emerges, sometimes in simple repetition, sometimes changing repetition, sometimes in change-form repetition, perhaps using a pattern-development style to lead into the high tide (climax). The front and back of the piece echo each other, the sequences link together, unifying the whole piece. All (of this) has a reliance on a rational use of the dominant melody. When reconstructing a piece one should pay attention to organization, and avoid being obscured by ordinary melodies, (which would) result in the composition flowing away into mediocrity, lacking any special characteristics.
The artistic merit of a work lies in its style. It is not (just) get-sound-differentiate-mode, (and) structure arranged in layers. Thematic organization should follow techniques for composition, and for the most part this depends on the interests and de sires of the person doing the reconstruction. However, one must (also) make every effort to be appropriate to the composition's purported artistic expression. (For example?), the theme of Yangguan Sandie (Thrice Parting for Yangguan) is reluctance to depart from a friend. If the melody is relaxed and light-hearted, obviously the words are not directed at the theme.
The interest and attraction is varied and manifold. An old man is subtle and profound, a young man enthusiastic and direct. These differences have individuality. Age can be considered one factor, even more is the factor of cultural mastery. As for traditional culture, youth versus age is more than a time difference. Reconstructing tablature means the reappearance of old pieces. Since we ought to make every effort to pursue the pattern of life of Chinese ancient literary men, in this aspect a Western qin player has a bigger disparity than a Chinese qin player; this is the disparity of national traditions. The creator of Music Beyond Sound also understands this point. Because of this he has spent a long time living and working in the East. This is just so he can minimize these differences and do this great amount of hard work. I hope that he continues with his persistent efforts, and goes up one more layer.
Performers, in order to enrich their own performance repertoire, when doing reconstructions can emphasize selecting the pieces they like. Academic research cannot be natural and unrestrained like this. In order to extensively master scientific research materials, even though he may not be satisfied with the composition, (a person doing reconstructions) also has no choice but to perform strictly according to the way (the materials) are. This is a kind of very tough work. The creator of Music Beyond Sound has for a long period enjoyed this without becoming tired, and has had outstanding achievements. He started entirely from a love of Chinese culture. With regard to this, we deeply express thanks, and have hopes for his painstaking and profound studies.
_____ _____ _____
Unpublished response by John Thompson
It is very flattering to receive such a long review by Xu Jian. He has three basic criticisms: sometimes transmitting notes which were wrong in the original tablature, instead of correcting them; sometimes not having a sense of overall structure; and not always heeding the mood of a piece.
As for the first, this is certainly in some cases true. Unfortunately it is very difficult to say where, and Xu Jian gives no specifics. I feel that with our current knowledge of early music it is best to record the music as is. Only after a sufficient amount has been recorded in this way can we start saying which notes must be mistakes.
As for overall structure, the pieces in Music Beyond Sound mentioned by Xu Jian do follow the slow => fast => slow pattern, and so in general do the other pieces, at least as often as do pieces in the current repertoire. In the absence of more specific criticism I cannot comment on this further, other than to say that virtually nothing has been written about structure of qin melodies.
As for heeding the mood, one must be careful not to assume that musical cliches which help establish mood were the same 500 years ago as they are understood today. In the absence of more information, I have felt it was more my task to follow the moods implied within the music, though at the same time paying attention to the stated themes of the pieces.
Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)
許健 Xu Jian (1923-2017;
Xu Jian was one of the leading scholars in guqin, author of the standard introduction to the history of the guqin, Qin Shi Chubian. He was also an accomplished qin player himself (example).
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