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Qin music: composed or created? 1 "作"古琴音樂:甚麼意思?

The usual Chinese word, whether for creating or composing music, is 作 zuo, in general terms commonly translated as "make", but with music most often translated into English as "compose". The problem with this is that it evokes what might be an incorrect image:

In theological terms this distinction might be compared to trying to decide whether God is a "creator", giving people free will, or a "composer", whereby everything is predestined or preordained. And just as people might go to war over such theological points, they can also get very agitated about whether China also had "great composers" in the past.

Of course, such distinctions are not necessarily going to be clear cut. For example, musicians in the Western popular tradition who have created their own songs may also be considered as composers. Here a distinction can be made between the fact that we know quite well what some of them composed or created, even if others interpret it very differently, whereas with the "composers" of early qin pieces we often have little idea of what can actually be credited to them personally.

Making such distinctions is complicated by the fact that academically minded people, such as many traditional Chinese literati, wished at times to treat written materials as sacrosanct. Often not musicians themselves, they may treat the symbols one finds in qin tablature as though they are trying to define exactly how a piece should be played. Nowadays the tendency to do this is encouraged by an acceptance of the Western idea that this is the way "great music" should be. But this is not even typical of Western music outside the Common Practice Period. If applied, for example, to early Western music, where the written scores leave much to the performer(s), the results would generally be what people of that time would have considered unmusical performances.

In sum, "composer" is a very misleading term to use for the creators of most if not all qin melodies of the past. This seems to upset people who want to think of famous Chinese musicians of the past as being "as good as" famous Western musician of the past, and so they want to call music pieces attributed to them "compositions". This, however, implicitely accepts the idea that Western music of a certain music model is superior to traditional Chinese music. In fact, saying that they should not be called "composers" does not implay a value judgement. Rather it suggests that such comparisons are false analogies.

The original argument concerned whether Jiang Kui should be considered as a "composer". That argument is stated in some detail here. A summary to the argument that he should be considered a "creator" rather than a "composer" is as follows:

(C)ould he not have been a creative person who simply enjoyed making music with friends, especially with lady friends? He picked up inspiration from here and there (including old and perhaps exotic sources he may not have completely understood), and this resulted in his musical works, which he created and probably modified while playing. Also having intellectual interests, and perhaps a desire to be accepted at court and/or by respected scholars, he then justified his creations by trying to fit them into modes that they could approve of.

(This) scenario is never described in Song dynasty sources, but then there are also no descriptions to suggest that Jiang, like modern composers, sat down a desk and (perhaps based on thorough studies of how to compose in the correct musical modes) wrote out melodies in a way that others could play them just as he wrote them.

There is a very limited amount of specific information available to pursue this issue. At present, for example, one can point to comments made about Zhuan Zhenfeng and the pieces in his Qinxue Xinsheng. For example, what is meant in this comparison of music he apparently created to that of Dai Yong over a thousand years earlier? It is possible that the creations of either or both of those two men met the criteria suggested here for "compositions"; unfortunately they did not leave specific enough physical evidence to establish that as fact.

Comparing qin melodies with other written early Chinese music

Here is may be useful to compare qin melodies to what has survived of Chinese court music through the Japanese gagaku tradition, and also to Chinese ritual court music.

Japanese gagaku musicians apparently treat the music they play as though they were compositions from China that must be preserved note for note. In fact, although many of them are based on written documents (both tablature and notation but almost certainly intended as core melodies to be freely interpreted) brought to China over 1000 years ago, their current form was created by the Japanese musicians themselves by gradual modification apparently over several centuries. If this is correct perhaps they can be called anonymous Japanese compositions based on Chinese creations.

Chinese imperial court ritual music may have had the best claim to be called "compositions", as apparently it was very important that they be played precisely according to rules related to cosmology, ritual and so forth. Concerning these there may be comments regarding their effectiveness or lack thereof but I have not studied these. Otherwise, comments seem to suggest these melodies were never considered as appealing from an aesthetic standpoint.

Footnotes (Numbers refer to entries in Zhongwen Dacidian)

1. Creators vs. composers
This page began as my reaction to creative Chinese musicians of the past, such as Jiang Kui, being called "composers", or even "composers as good as Western composers". I have argued that "creators" is a better term; the core of my argument was originally stated in the page about Jiang Kui's songs, Songs of the Whitestone Daoist.

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