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Guqin Improvisation
From personal interpretation to free improvisation 1

How freely should guqin music be played?

Some people argue that guqin music should be played accurately according to the tablature; others say it should be played freely. Some argue for improvisation, and there is even a movement suggesting that at best guqin music should be recreated during each performance through free improvisation. More generally speaking, there is a long tradition of saying that the guqin and or guqin music "should be this" or "should be that", or even that the guqin is this or the guqin is that.2

Unfortunately, all such claims are usually applied using selective reasoning: history and experience show that the guqin tradition is very broad. It has been described as an instrument for scholars and recluses but clearly it has long been played in society. It is generally considered to be largely as a non-professional tradition but it has always included professionals (teachers, in particular). It may be said that the ideal is to play only for oneself, as a form of self-cultivation, but many of the best known players today are trained in conservatories, where the focus is public performance.

Similarly, the tradition has always included people who tried to play old melodies from old tablature, people who tried only to copy the music they heard from their teachers or other contemporaries, people who consciously changed the music they knew, and people who created new melodies. Together all their efforts, plus the appreciation of informed listeners, have given the guqin its rich tradition; take away any part and it is poorer.

On the other hand, it is quite legitimate to ask, "If (insert condition), how freely should guqin music be played?" For example, "If the intention is that the music provide more than superficial communication between the player and a listener, how freely should guqin music be played?" (Of course, within the tradition of playing only for oneself this is not a particularly relevant question.)

In order to try to answer this particular question it is useful to discuss the relatively new term "audiation": 3

Audiation is the process of mentally hearing and comprehending music, even when no physical sound is present. It is a cognitive process by which the brain gives meaning to musical sounds. In essence, audiation of music is analogous to thinking in a language....(Wikipedia)

This concept, developed for use in music education, means that in order to understand an unfamiliar melody a listener must be able to predict patterns within it. This is of course relevant to the question of how freely music can be played and there still be communication. (It also ignores the question of music, such as New Age music, that apparently tries to communicate purely through color.4)

In discussing this it is also relevant to mention glossolalia, 5 defined as,

The vocalizing of fluent speech-like but unintelligible utterances, often as part of religious practice. (Wikipedia)

Glossolalia is sometimes called "nonsense talk". However, in a religious context this may be an inappropriate description. Similarly, musical composition may be so unstructured, or improvisation so free, that no communication is likely to occur. However, to call such music nonsensical would require defining what sort of communication is meaningful.

Boya (see below) is said to have been a great musician. If I see a painting of him playing the guqin and this prompts me to imagine music that is to me beautiful, does that mean Boya is communicating beautiful music to me? Likewise, if I attend a concert and enjoy hearing a musician play apparently random sounds, how much does my enjoyment have to do with the musician?

Thus, if a poet/performer and listener do not share a language, how much beauty can be communicated?6 If you do not know the language of the poet, you cannot fully appreciate the poetry; much of the beauty you find in it may come from you yourself, not from the poet. If you do not know the language of the musician, your appreciation of the music may likewise have little to do with the specific music conveyed by the musician. As with glossolalia, such appreciation may require a leap of faith.7

Another comparison with poetry is as follows. In the Chinese tradition there was a strong value put on extemporizing poetry: on the spur of the moment dashing off poetry, often writing beautiful (hopefully) calligraphy. But what were the limits to such freedom of expression? One of my teachers of classical Chinese put it this way. She spent so many years learning the rules of classical poetry that whatever she wrote was correct, but it had no beauty. Only when she drank a little to much and forgot the rules would she create anything with beauty; it was her training that made the spontaneity possible. Developed systems of music improvisation work exactly in this way. So-called free improvisation tries to break out of such structural requirements. Often, however, what the musician actually does is devise new structures, creating a sort of personal improvisation.

This, then, recalls the original question: How freely should guqin music be played? It would seem that the best answer may be, it depends on what you wish to communicate.

Creating new music: from free to fixed

Within the Western classical music tradition, particularly during the common practice period, new melodies have generally been created by someone sitting down and composing a complete piece designed to be played by someone else. In most oral traditions new melodies are usually created by performers themselves through the trial and error of actually playing them. They may begin with what might called free improvisation, but the players then continuously refine their creations. Perhaps they never stop changing the melodies, in other cases eventually the melodies become fixed.

The survival of over 100 handbooks of guqin tablature combined with the relative lack of commentary on free interpretation suggests that most players wished to copy the tradition. The more or less gradual change of many melodies within those handbooks over time, and the appearance of new melodies, document the types of changes that were most common. Unfortunately, these changes have not yet been studied very systematically.

Throughout history some players have probably been deliberately very free in their interpretations, changing a melody each time they played it. It is difficult to say when such free interpretations can be called "improvisation". It is equally difficult to say when improvisation might be called "free improvisation". But even though it seems very likely that many gradations of such interpretation existed in the past, it is even more difficult to cite specific historical evidence in support of any particular method of free interpretation.

What is the historical basis for guqin improvisation?

Today some people are strongly advocating improvisation on the guqin, saying that there is historical information proving that before the Song dynasty it was an important part of the tradition. Li Xiangting, the most famous advocate for improvisation on the guqin, has given what he says are some historical examples proving this. He further suggests that it must have followed rules similar to those he follows in his own improvisation. Some observers call Li's type of improvisation "free improvisation", but his own description suggests that a better term would be (using the terms as defined below) "creative improvisation". Thus he says that in order avoid being aimless and actually have communication there must be some rules to follow; ones that he cites include rhyming, leading figure repetition, parallel development, recurrence and so forth . Li seems to have developed his own system for this, making his improvisation rather like what I have called "personal improvisation".

The most common early story cited to advocate creative improvisation is the legend of Boya playing High Mountains and Flowing Streams while Zhong Ziqi listens. Legends are often intended to express a particular point of view, and here it has been suggested that this legend expresses a view not just supporting creative improvisation but free improvisation. The story says that when Boya thought of high mountains, he expressed this on his guqin. But what is there to say Boya was instinctively expressing this in a new form, rather than either improvising on a melody that had been created earlier, or simply playing an existing composition? The original point of this story was not that Bo Ya could improvise; rather it was that Ziqi was a good listener.

Likewise it is claimed that the story of Cai Yong thinking about a praying mantis as he played shows that he was doing creative improvisation. But nothing in the story suggests he was playing anything other than an unrelated melody while thinking about the praying mantis. The point of this legend is not that Cai Yong could improvise; rather it is that if you are a skilled player then your play reveals your inner character or even your subconscious thoughts.

A third fable says that Zengzi once dreamt about a headless fox; when he woke up he tried to describe this on the guqin. Perhaps he was improvising, but it is also quite possible this was simply inspiration for creating a new melody. The classical Chinese source is actually very vague on time. It could also be suggesting that after he woke up he began working on the melody through trial and error. The listener then heard him before the melody had become a fixed composition.

The claim that creative improvisation stopped after the Song dynasty is presumably based on there being no similar stories from after that period. And yet a story told within the 虞山 Yushan school relates the following about the school's founder, Yan Tianchi (中文):

"According to tradition, One evening Yan Tianchi and friends of the Qinchuan Society were visiting Cold Mountain Temple. Based on the poem Maple Bridge Night Anchorage by Zhang Ji of the Tang Dynasty, (Yan) calmly created (the melody Qiujiang Yebo).

This would seem to be clear evidence for creative improvisation, at least more so than the earlier stories. However, the fact of the matter is that Yan Tianchi's Qiujiang Yebo is clearly based on an earlier melody, Yin De (this website has my recording of both melodies).

Nevertheless, although with the Chinese music tradition in general there is nothing that can definitely be called "creative improvisation", and although it is very difficult to cite specific evidence for any particular method of creative interpretation or improvisation on the guqin, there is considerable evidence that these did exist.

Structured improvisation has long been a common part of traditional Chinese music in general. This tradition usually features a soloist freely playing variations on existing melodies, or small groups playing melodies in such a way that each performer can on the spot add his or her own interpretations. In this aspect, guqin and xiao duets as played today have generally been disappointing. Chinese tradition usually calls for what might be considered a dialogue when two instruments play together, but in guqin and xiao duets nowadays the xiao usually simply follows the guqin. In other genres of Chinese music this style of play would have been considered quite boring.

There are also suggestions in classical literature of specific occurrences of structured improvisation for guqin. For example, in the novel Hong Lou Meng, Granny speaks of a young performer who at least once combined old guqin melodies to form a new one. Although there is no way to know how freely she did this, the use of existing melodies recognized by the audience suggests her music had a kind of structure.

In sum, all the passages that so far have been quoted as suggesting creative improvisation could also be interpreted to mean free interpretation, structured improvisation or the gradual creation of a new composition. There may well also have been people who did some sort of creative improvisation, or even free improvisation, but such music would have survived only if it subsequently was developed into a more formal composition.

HIP improvisation 8

Whatever kind of improvisation is being considered, the question of how it can or should be described is quite important. Take someone who has studied the contemporary guqin tradition and has heard a lot of Western music. If that person simply sits down and improvises, then the result will certainly be a kind of modern improvisation. It may be interesting, or it way be not be. It is not an HIP improvisation.9

An HIP improvisation, whether it is "structured improvisation", "creative improvisation" or "free improvisation", requires first understanding the early guqin idiom. If we wish to improvise in a way that evokes how guqin players might have improvised during the Ming dynasty, then we must first learn the rules of guqin music of that time. Web pages such as Rhythm in Early Ming Qin Tablature and Historically Informed Qin Performance concern my own attempts to discover such rules. Western musicians playing music of the European Medieval and Renaissance periods had to go through the same sort of process: first study very carefully the existing music of that period, then play it freely and/or improvise within the rules. Only in this way will there be no conflict between the ideas of improvisation and those of HIP.

As of 2014 I had myself reconstructed over 200 melodies from Ming dynasty handbooks: about 200 is the number of them I have recorded, while about 50 more so far exist only as transcriptions. In the scheme of Ming dynasty guqin music this is only a small beginning. In order to have a proper understanding of guqin music during the Ming dynasty, many other people must also systematically study and play from the old tablature. There must be independent interpretations of the same melody; there must be distinct interpretations of the same melody in different handbooks. Once this has happened, we can have some chance of correctly analyzing these melodies and their development. Only then will it be possible to do not just "improvisation" but also "improvisation in Ming style". And only then will the early guqin movement realize its true potential and rival the creative achievements of the early Western music movement.

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Musical Improvisation (「音樂即興演奏」或「音樂即興創作」)
Musical improvisation has been described as "the spontaneous creative process of making music while it is being performed" (
Wikipedia). There are, of course, many different gradations within "the spontaneous creative process of making music while it is being performed". Terms for these gradations as used on this website include:

In contrast to the above is "rote performance", where the musician simply repeats what he or she learned. Rote learning is an important part of learning within almost any music tradition, but throughout history most developed music traditions have had improvisation (or at least free interpretation) as a natural part of the music. In a way improvisation needs special mention only because the Western classical tradition, particularly during the common practice period (ca. 1600/50-1900), generally emphasized the creativity of the composer over that of the performer. This emphasis on the composer now dominates conservatories, and music teaching in general, in many parts of the world.

Li Xiangting and extemporizing 李祥霆與即興演奏
For guqin the English term "extemporizing" is largely used in connection with the improvisations done by Li Xiangting. An article he wrote about improvisation in 1989 is included with his CD 李祥霆﹕唐人詩意 Li Xiangting: Collection of Extemporizing Works of Qin and Xiao (Polo NMS 10021-2); the recording is double tracked, with Li playing both qin and xiao. The rather awkward English translation uses the word "extemporize" where in English "improvise" would normally be used. However, the totality of the article suggests that "extemporize" refers specifically to what might better be called "creative improvisation". Li gives a description of more conventional improvisation, but does not have a separate word for it. What he does has also been described as (or compared to) "free improvisation", which seems to be most commonly translated as 「自由即興」, i.e., a literal translation. However, I do not find that term in Li's article, and what he describes for his own improvisation sounds rather like what I have just described above as
personal improvisation. Li says that extemporizing was very important from the earliest days of qin play until the Song dynasty, when it stopped. Li may create beautiful music when he extemporizes, but the present article questions the historical basis for the claims he makes for this practice. It should also be noted that Li exclusively uses nylon-metal strings (more recently composite strings), so that the improvisations cannot be considered historically informed performances, which require silk strings.

Li Xiangting's improvisation is praised by American guitarist Henry Kaiser on Li's second improvisation CD: 李祥霆﹕宋人詞意 Li Xiangting: Inspiration from Poems of Song Dynasty (Polo NMS 10090-2); the recording, like the first, is double tracked, with Li playing both qin and xiao. Here Kaiser goes so far as to say that the most valuable and authentic guqin music must have been freely improvised. He seems to accept the questionable accounts for its history and asks, "Was improvisation crushed by some cultural establishment because it was dangerous music? Perhaps dangerous in the way that the sometimes suppressed Taoism had been, at times, suppressed?" This, of course, says more about Kaiser than it does about Chinese culture.

2. Prescriptive attitudes towards the qin
The earliest attempt to prescribe attitudes to the qin seems to come in the statement "
the qin signifies restraint“ (琴者禁也 qinzhe jin ye). Many people like to quote this. Some see it as a wonderful quote showing an essential part of the qin tradition; others point to the broader qin music tradition and see this as rather akin to religious fundamentalism.

For more on qin rules and their observance see Rules for when and where to play the qin, then also see The qin in popular culture.

3. Audiation楊道鑌聽想種類
This term (see Wikipedia) was coined by music educator Edwin E. Gordon in Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns (1997). Here he wrote,

Although music is not a language, the process is the same for audiating and giving meaning to music as for thinking and giving meaning to speech. When you are listening to speech, you are giving meaning to what was just said by recalling and making connections with what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you will be hearing next, based on your experience and understanding. Similarly, when you are listening to music, you are giving meaning to what you just heard by recalling what you have heard on earlier occasions. At the same time, you are anticipating or predicting what you are hearing next, based on your musical achievement. In other words, when you are audiating as you are listening to music, you are summarizing and generalizing from the specific music patterns you have just heard as a way to anticipate or predict what will follow. Every action becomes an interaction. What you are audiating depends on what you have already audiated. As audiation develops, the broader and deeper it becomes and thus the more it is able to reflect on itself. Members of an audience who are not audiating usually do not know when a piece of unfamiliar, or even familiar, music is nearing its end. They may applaud at any time, or not at all, unless they receive clues from others in the audience who are audiating. Through the process of audiation, we sing and move in our minds, without ever having to sing and move physically.

4. Music without melody
Some writers have suggested that melody is not important in qin music: it is all about color. I think this is a clear misunderstanding of the qin tradition: having a beautiful melody is a given; the art is in the colors one adds to it.

5. Glossolalia (說方言、舌音方言)
After defining glossolalia as "fluent speech-like but unintelligible utterances", the
Wikipedia article discusses a specific type of glossolalia called xenoglossy, also often associated with religious practice:

Its use....sometimes also embraces xenoglossy - speaking in a natural language that was previously unknown to and that is not understood by the speaker.

Another interesting aspect of glossolalia is its use in musical vocalization. When people sing melodies without words they may simply repeat a syllable, e.g., "la la la la la....". However, they often do it using a variety of syllables that have no meaning to anyone, "Dum diddle dee dee do...."

6. Beauty
Comparing poetry with music allows one to say that just as poetry is sometimes called beautiful speech, music is sometimes called beautiful sound. But with beauty there is no such thing as an objective standard: to some people ugliness is the absence of beauty, to others it is just one type of beauty. In general, judging music in terms of beauty rather than communication probably is about as helpful as judging other people in terms of (your own perception of) their beliefs (or motives) rather than in terms of their actions.

7. Music education
To a music educator the questions should be these: For a person to be able to learn to create music what musical language skills are helpful? For a person to be able to appreciate music, what musical language skills are helpful? Often, however, the questions are phrased somewhat differently: For a person to be able to learn to compose music that I consider good music, what musical language skills must I make them learn? For a person to be able to appreciate what I consider good music, what musical language skills must I make them learn?

8. HIP improvisation: a personal note
Improvisation was never a part of my own training nor is it now one of my strengths. I justify to myself not trying harder to improvise by hoping that my work in trying accurately to reproduce music from old tablature will eventually lead to people being more understanding of that style that thus play more freely within it.

9. Non-HIP improvisation
This discounts the argument that in the past musicians were not knowledgeable about the history of their sources, so to be HIP one should be similarly ignorant. Since I do not consider HIP to be a value judgement, I find this argument irrelevant.

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