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New Qin Melodies

My own original qin music has been largely of three types:

  1. Blues
    I have taken traditional qin melodies and motifs and put them into a form of blues structure. Examples include the following MP3 files,
    1 which contain my "Opus 1-4". These put traditional melodies and motifs into a new structure. Is the structure recognizable? Comments are appreciated (all copyright John Thompson).2

    1.   文人 China Scholar 3:19 3.05 MB Accompanied version available 3 (聽加吉他、口琴本)
    Basic melody (.50), three variations, then coda
    2.   古風 Olden Ways 3:52 3.54 MB Compare 古風操 Gufeng Cao
    Basic melody (.39), then five variations
    3.   朝雉 Morning Birds 3:38 3.33 MB Compare 雉朝飛 Zhi Zhao Fei
    Basic melody (.46) twice, three variations, then coda
    4.   鳳凰 Love Birds 5:40 5.33 MB Compare Wen Jun Cao recordings #1 & #2 (聽 文君操 錄音 #1#2)
    Basic melody (1.20) in two parts, each 12-measures, then one variation;
    then repeat basic melody on beat, play variation on beat, then coda

  2. Film music (see also Qin in film)
    This has included:

    1. House of the Lute (慾火焚琴, 1979). I did most of the music for this 90-minute Cantonese feature film directed by 劉成漢 Lau Shing-Hon
    2. (tongue tongue stone) G.W. Leibnitz, by Ellen Zweig (2002; "rock music", not for qin)
    3. (unsolved) Robert van Gulik, by Ellen Zweig (2003; purely traditional qin music)

  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.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Reduced here from the original .aif files, which were about 10 times larger.

2. Guqin Blues 古琴布魯士音樂

These melodies, which I created and/or arranged in 1997 and 1998, have a structure based mainly on 12-bar blues. The reason have I used this structure is related to my appreciation of that music and to my interest in improvisation.

In the past, most Chinese music was passed on by an oral tradition, much of it allowing or requiring flexibility of interpretation. The qin has the world's oldest surviving detailed written instrumental tradition, and there is much commentary suggesting that music had to be played precisely as written, preserving its antiquity; but there is also commentary approving the changes players made to melodies, as well as further evidence for improvisation. In general, the student would learn a melody not from the tablature but by copying the teacher; later he or she could make changes. Ensemble music was generally played heterophonically. With heterophony, considerable freedom is allowed for, or required of, the individual performers. This means that much of the music was more or less improvisational. To my knowledge the improvisation in Chinese music was within entire melodies; there do not seem to have been structures such as in Western 12-bar blues or Indian ragas.

Since the 1920s, when the first Chinese orchestras were formed by taking traditional Chinese ensembles and patterning them after the Western orchestra, and particularly since the 1950s, when Russian advisors were dominant in Chinese conservatories, much of this improvisational skill has been lost; it was not regained when the Russians departed. The Chinese music establishment often seems to have the idea that since classical Western music is composed rather than improvised, classical Chinese music should be the same. I have met a number of Western jazz musicians who have become frustrated trying to work with conservatory-trained Chinese musicians who cannot improvise. The exposure of Chinese music students to Western music is mostly confined to 19th century music and pop music. If Chinese conservatories began teaching jazz, perhaps there would be a renewed interest in the Chinese tradition of improvisation.

Many people have suggested that traditional qin music has an affinity with some types of Western guitar music, in particular with blues. Characteristics the two types of music seem to have in common include the modal nature, sliding effects, general playing around with tones, and even the mood (see comments on the Chinese word bei). I have sometimes thought about this, but do not think my enjoyment of blues directly affected the way I played qin.

In 1994 I was offered a recording contract from a producer inspired in part by the affinity he felt between the qin melodies I sent him (we didn't agree on terms, but the music became the CD Music Beyond Sound) and one-string blues as he had heard them. Then in 1997, when I met guitarist John McLaughlin after a concert in Hong Kong, I asked him whether he had ever considered working with Chinese musicians (I was then arranging programs for the Hong Kong Festival of Asian Arts). He said he could easily work with traditional Indian musicians because of the rhythmic (tala) and melodic (raga) structures in their music. He knew of no such structures in Chinese music.

Inspired by such factors, I decided to see what would happen if I took some qin melodies or melodic motifs and put them into a framework related to the classic 12-bar blues structure, which is as follows:8

Bar #   1 2 3 4   5 6 7 8   9 10 11 12
Chord   I IV I I   I IV I I   V IV I V
C major   C F C C   C F C C   G F C G
A minor   A D A A   A D A A   E D A E

As for the chords, "I" stands for the tonic chord; "IV" for the subdominant; "V" for the dominant. It should be noted that there are no chords in traditional qin music; instead there are tonal centers. Thus, on the qin, IV becomes a tonal center a fourth up from the main tonal center.

The Chinese pentatonic scale is gong shang jiao zhi yu, today usually written as 1 2 3 5 6 (equivalent to do re mi sol la; compare C D E G A). The modal structure of most early Ming dynasty qin melodies is either 1 - 5 (1 as the main note, 5 the secondary note; 4 is avoided) or 6 - 3 (6 as the main note, 3 secondary; 2 is not avoided). As a result, when adapting Ming dynasty melodies to a blues structure, melodies in modes such as the yu mode (which is 6 - 3) seem to require less modal change than modes centered on 1 and 5, which mostly omit 4.

My first effort was China Scholar Blues. For that I took a variety of qin music motifs and tried to put them in a 12-bar blues structure, but when I then added lyrics (which probably appeal only to someone studying Chinese) it came out as 13-bar. This done, I took a some actual melodies I had reconstructed, Gufeng Cao and Zhi Zhao Fei, and altered their melodies to fit the 12-bar blues structure. The mode of the original melodies is 6 - 3, and when I played my new arrangements for some Chinese friends they did not realize that these were not old qin melodies. However, when I next did Wen Jun Cao, the original of which is in a 1 - 5 mode, the result was more clearly outside the early qin modes.

Although I have enjoyed very much listening to improvisational music of many types, my personal music training and experience were first Western classical then early qin, neither of which demands much improvisation. So my idea has been that I would create and learn these blues-structured melodies and their variations so well that I could improvise on them. I would then have structures that would allow jamming with musicians who didn't know Chinese music.

Since then I have created some more melodies using this structure, but have not developed them as much as the four mentioned above. And I have not yet found anyone with whom to play any of these. Since I enjoy very much what I normally do, it will probably take some further outside impetus to get me to focus more on the blues.

3. China Scholar Blues: silk string guqin with guitar and harmonica
A friend in England, Stephen Darbyshire, sent me several trial runs where he added guitar and harmonica accompaniment to this track, which I had recorded solo. One of these is now online. (3.15MB/MP3; turn down treble EQ for best result.)


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