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|Qin music: composed or created? 1||"作"古琴音樂：甚麼意思？|
"Zuo (作)" is the term most commonly used in Chinese when crediting someone with the earliest version of a qin melody. "Zuo" can broadly be translated as "make", but what does this actually mean when applied to music? It seems that in this context "zuo" is almost always translated into English as "compose". The problem with this is that it evokes what is most likely an incorrect image. Here an argument will be made that it might be better to consider such pieces as "creations" rather than "compositions".
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 of playing the music exactly as written would generally have been 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, implicitly accepts the idea that Western music of a certain music model is superior to traditional Chinese music.2
In other words, by the definition given here it is not making a value judgement to say that the creators of ancient qin melodies should not be called "composers". Rather it suggests that comparing people who create music with people who compose music leads to 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:
(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 Zhuang 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.3
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)
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.
Relevant to this was my work with Hong Kong's Festival of Asian Arts from 1980 to 1998. My aim there was, first, to show the beauty of the tradition, but just as importantly to show how training in those traditions can be relevant to contemporary expression. Why would traditional arts survive, much less thrive, unless they develop in ways relevant to contemporary expression?
With guqin, by the time I had learned the repertoire taught by my teacher (and most teachers at that time) I was already aware that the then contemporary repertoire of perhaps a few dozen pieces barely scratched the surface of the actual potential repertoire (based on the existing early handbooks). So, particularly as an outsider more aware of what didn't know that what I did know, instead of trying to do something new with the modern repertoire I decided to do something that seemed to me equally new: reconstruct as much as I could of the early repertoire: each reconstructed melody became a new relevation. One might say I have treated early qin tablature as though they represented compositions, trying as much as possible to re-create the way the tablature actually described what was being played. There is enough work to be done on this repertoire that it could could keep many people busy for several lifetimes. This is what is done with early/classical Western music, and yet that work encourages new music more than it competes with it. So it is also my belief that such work with early qin music is one of the best ways to provide a basis for making contemporary music out of a Chinese tradition, rather than simply applying Chinese music to Western structures.
In sum, although in my own work I have treated early qin melodies as though they are compositions to be played precisely, clearly in the past they were also treated more as creations, leading to the many later versions so well documented in later qin handbooks. My this process continue!
The test of time
Music teachers have often pointed to the survival of certain Western classical pieces as evidence of their superior quailty, whether it is over classical pieces that didn't survive or whether it is over melodies from a purely oral tradition that didn't survive. There are many problems with this argument. My personal experience is of reconstructing some melodies that have been actively played (and developed) for over 500 years and others that may not have been played at all for over 500 years. There is not necessarily an apparent quality difference between those that survived and those that did not.
Making "great music"
Here one might make a somewhat unkind comparison with what has happened more recently in some cases where oral traditions have met modern conservatories. In Central Asia the "classical" tradition of music is based on improvising on modal, melodic and rhythmic structures (called "makam"), much as is done with ragas in India. But Soviet control of this region led to the establishment of music conservatories that said that such oral traditions were primitive and needed to be brought into the Western classical mode (which, in the Soviet Union rather ironically idolized the 19th century bourgeois aesthetic). They then "improved" the instruments so they could be played faster, louder and in equal temperament, and wrote down the "best versions" of the exposition of each makam; they then had these orchestrated following their 19th century aesthetic.
In other words, by taking creations and turning them into compositions they took the heart out of the tradition and then blamed the tradition when so few people liked the new versions.
Return to the Guqin ToC or to miscellanea.