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The Qin in Poetry and Song 1 琴詩、琴歌

In modern performance qin songs are often sung by a professional using a heroic quality (since the qin is "great music"); from a historical perspective this is quite inappropriate. Much more interesting are performances by refined singers in a traditional style, such as that of the old opera form kunqu.3

My own concept of a program of qin songs, or qin songs with poetry, comes from my imagination of the traditional aesthetic, which suggests that in the most common presentation of qin songs either the singer would have been by a scholar without an obviously trained voice (though for performance hopefully with a skilled and expressive one);4 in a situation when the lyrics were recited along with the music rather than sung;5 or when the lyrics were simply read by the listener (or sung silently by them if they were familiar with the song).6 It can also be interesting to play existing melodies to the accompaniment of poetry that has not been set specifically for a qin melody, and one can imagine that this was done at times as well.7

"Qin Poetry and Qin Songs has details about the material that would be used for a performance focused on qin songs, their texts and other related poetry. I have reconstructed a number of these (partial list) and have included them in a number of my performances. In addition, Qin Songs has some information about how these might be sung (or recited). As yet, though, I have not done a program focused on qin songs.

One reason for this is that, although many "qin songs" were written down, there was little discussion of how they should be sung. Instead there was considerable argument about whether qin music should be sung at all. From looking at some of the music and lyrics, it is not at all clear that all of them were intended to be sung (see, for example, under Zheyin Shizi Qinpu). And I have not yet seen any actual descriptions of qin songs being sung.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. The Qin in Poetry and Song
The people who created the surviving qin melodies came from the same class of people who created what survives of China's traditional painting and wrote the surviving poetry. Thus, it is not surprising that, just as the qin is the music instrument most often seen in Chinese painting, it is also the instrument most often mentioned in Chinese poetry, nor is it surprising that the texts of qin songs are similar to Chinese poetic texts.

Many of the relevent poems and some song texts, or poems used as song texts, have been translated into English, but this is somewhat obscured by the fact that there has been no consistency about whether to translate qin as zither (which is the most correct, though there are also other Chinese zithers), harp, lyre, lute or something else.

3. Singing with kunqu or other traditional song forms
Some people insist that one should use such a style. The logic is similar to that used in the argument of singing bel canto: qin music is great music and should have appropriate presentation. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact the qin music was generally an amateur tradition and we do not know whether (or which) songs were expected to be sung by the players themselves or by an accompanying singer.

4. Singing with a skilled amateur
On several occasions I have been accompanied (informally) by a singer trained in early Western music vocal technique, which attempts to give pure sounds, without much vibrato. This sounds to me very appropriate, particularly if the singing can be done heterophonically - i.e., with the vocal line interwoven with the qin line, rather than the two going along in unison.

5. Reciting the lyrics while the song is played
Qin music is generally very delicate, and thus anything played or sung on top of it may largely hide its distinctive qualities. On the other hand, recitation of a tonal language like Chinese can be very musical, and if done appropriately can complement nicely the music, enhancing it rather than obscuring it in the way unison singing might.

6. Reciting the lyrics while the song is played
The tonal nature of Chinese seems to make this particularly appropriate. See further under qin songs.

7. Reciting other poetry while the song is played
I have done this during lectures on poetry.

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