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Historically Informed Reconstructions from Old Tablature:
A Path to New Music as well as Old
Most new music for qin has the qin with metal-nylon strings in mind, but it need not be so.
2 This presentation discusses three melodies I created with silk string qin in mind. Here they were intended to accompany a relevant paper; it is now here as a footnote. The presentation has links to relevant materials on this website. For the live presentation I played what is on the sound files here, while the transcriptions were projected onto a large screen. The recordings of these melodies are also linked to relative pages on my website.

  1. Wenjun Melody (文君操 Wenjun Cao) and Lovebird Blues
    The page Guqin improvisation discusses various types of improvisation within the guqin tradition, while Silkqin Blues and the section on guqin blues have Lovebird Blues as an example of how I have tried to learn to improvise within a known musical structure, 12-bar blues. Wenjun Cao was the first melody I adapted for this purpose. It is a song that I have reconstructed and play from its publication in 1539. Here I will first show (or viewers themselves can look at) the original lyrics, then the transcriptions linked here. The original Chinese lyrics have been added to the transcriptions above the original tablature. Tablature that does not have lyrics is the tablature added to alter the original melody so that it follows a basic blues structure. In a live presentation I might first play and sing the original Wenjun Cao; then play Lovebird Blues while participants look at the transcriptions, in this way seeing how the melody has been expanded into the blues structure.

    - Video in case live presentation is impractical; it uses these materials:
    - Original lyrics
    - Love Birds 1A         (1A+B)
    - Love Birds 1B
    - Love Birds 2A         (or 2A+B; 2A+B, on bottom line, was written so that it can be played together with 1A+B, on top line; both start before beat)
    - Love Birds 2B
    - Love Birds 3A         (3A+B and 4A+B; 4, on bottom line, can be played with 3, on top line; like 1 and 2 but start on beat)
    - Love Birds 3B
    - Coda, for both         (Wenjun Cao on top, Lovebird Blues on bottom)

    Some years ago I created a number of such guqin melodies in blues structures. They will not be fully developed until I start playing them together with other interested musicians.

  2. Water Tune Prelude (水調歌頭 Shui Diao Ge Tou)
    Shui Diao Ge Tou is the name of an old ci poetic form, meaning it was originally a melody but, although the melody is lost, people still write poems that fit the same structure. In theory, if the original melody were found they could sing the new lyrics to it. A Shui Diao Ge Tou by the famous Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo has been used as lyrics for a modern pop song, most famously sung by 鄧麗君 Deng Lijun. My reconstruction of the version published in 1687 was in part inspired by the rhythms used in the pop song. Here the idea is, first, there is often a connection between what might be called popular or folk music and what is considered as art music; and second, perhaps using the rhythms of the popular song version to perform the 17th century guqin melody could inspire further creative efforts using ci forms in somewhat the way one might use a blues structure.

    - Deng Lijun original (audio only)
    - Deng Lijun original, but the lyrics are shown with my transcription of the 1687 Shui Diao Ge Tou, thereby showing the rhythmic connection.
    - My performance of my reconstruction from 1687 (play and sing).
    - Shui Diao Ge Tou top half         (whole page)
    - Shui Diao Ge Tou bottom half

  3. Mozi Sings with Feeling (墨子悲歌 Mozi Bei Ge) paired with Matteo Ricci's 西琴曲意八章 Eight Songs for Western Keyboard
    Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who lived in China from 1580 to 1610, brought with him a "Western keyboard" to present to the emperor in Beijing. For this he created 8 Songs to go with keyboard. The original music is lost, so I paired Ricci's lyrics to my adaptation of the melody Mozi Sings with Feeling, which I reconstructed from a handbook published in 1609. I did this first to give an idea of what the songs might have sounded like had Ricci arranged them this way instead of for Western music. And second, I selected this melody because Mozi was a philosopher who had interested the Jesuits. I have plans for doing this music as part of a program called Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci, imagining Chinese and Western musicians getting together around 1600 for an elegant gathering. Although I made the setting of the Eight Songs so I could play it on a guqin, the intention is that this melody should then be adapted for singing with keyboard accompaniment appropriate to the era. Ideally it would be played by someone who has memorized the tune, since there is little evidence to suggest Chinese musicians were used to reading music as they played. For the singing I have always imagined a pure tone voice as found in early Western music (further comment).

    - Mozi and 8 Songs #1a
    - Mozi and 8 Songs #1b                       video comparing Mozi Section 1 and Eight Songs #1
    - Mozi and Eight Songs #2a
    - Mozi and Eight Songs #2b                 video comparing Mozi Section 2 and Eight Songs #2
    - audio of Mozi Sings with Feeling
    - audio of Eight Songs for Western Keyboard
    - YouTube from San Francisco (Songs 1 and 2: listen while reading the transcription)

    An internet search for "John Thompson" "Matteo Ricci" turned up these other recordings:

    1. This Vimeo recording from Hong Kong of Song 2. Like the previous recording it uses a harpsichord. For some reason it gives my name as "約翰‧湯普森 Yuehan Tangpusen" instead of "唐世璋 Tang Shizhang".
    2. This YouTube recording again of Song 2 (accompaniment on 笙 sheng).

    Return to my performances or to the Guqin ToC.

    Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

    1. Paper for the Bard conference
    This was planned as a "narrated musical presentation on the Chinese Silk-string Zither"
    Part of Ancient Echoes and New Sounds, Guqin in the 21st Century
    US-China Music Institute
    Bard College Conservatory of Music
    April 6-8, 2023

    However, my presentation started late and only the music part above was actually presented. The original paper would have been as follows:

    My guqin work for the past almost 50 years has been focused on playing music mostly from Ming dynasty tablature. On my website you can listen to over 300 pieces that I have recorded and transcribed from sources that date from about 1660 or earlier, with over 220 of them dating from before 1540. In this I have been inspired to a certain extent by my own background studying early Western music. Music we hear today from the Medieval and Renaissance periods of Western music is to a large extent a reconstructed tradition. In the 19th century when medieval and renaissance music was played at all, it was usually played on 19th century instruments, with the melodies and harmonies changed to fit 19th century tastes. In contrast, what we hear today from the Western medieval and renaissance periods is music that has been reconstructed by people who have done extensive study and re-interpretation of the early scores and instruments as well as of the many descriptions of there are of people and performances. As a result they have either created or re-created a beautiful music tradition that is enjoyed and greatly respected by many people, including as I said myself. It is also a living tradition, providing inspiration for new interpretations and new directions, as well as jobs.

    I believe that the same can be done with the music from early guqin tablature. Most people writing today about playing old guqin music from tablature mostly focus on how playing from old tablature is used as a way to make new compositions. This is certainly fine – there is nothing wrong with that. However, because I love very much early Western music, and know how important old written sources are to its modern development; and because I think that the information we have from guqin scores is comparable to the information that is in the old scores for Medieval and often for Renaissance Western music, because of this I have tried to focus on reconstructing the old rather than skipping the old to focus on doing the music in new ways.

    However, more than anything else I want to emphasize that this is in no way a contradiction to the aims of using old guqin tablature to create new music. Instead it is a different way of looking how this can be done: how this ancient music can be used to create new Chinese music. As I mentioned, I have so far reconstructed over 300 guqin melodies from old tablature. Some of these pieces have also been interpreted by people playing only in the modern tradition of guqin. In this case, will their inspiration be not so much from the ancient tradition as, by extension, from the modern tradition? Personally I find the ancient traditions more interesting and innovative, but that is a personal opinion, and is certainly not a criticism of those who are developing the modern tradition.

    Here my argument is not that it is better to have new compositions inspired by Ming dynasty music than it is to have new creations based on the current guqin tradition. My argument is that really what we should have is both.

    Since 1991 I have been attending guqin conferences in China. There I usually talk about some issues dealing with reconstructing old music. I have talked about how during the Ming dynasty modes seemed to be determined by tonal centers, melodic structures including things like couplets, extended couplets, repeated musical contours, variations on musical motifs and so forth. As for the rhythms, I have done my reconstructions with the idea that the music has regular rhythms that are freely interpreted.

    More about this in a minute, but first I would like to say a few things about how this kind of analysis could be important to creating new music, more specifically new Chinese music. Here I liked very much a lecture I heard recently from a Chinese calligrapher who is doing new style painting and calligraphy inspired by traditional Chinese techniques. He said that to do this, and to be sure that what you are doing is new art thoroughly based in the Chinese tradition, you need first to master the calligraphy and painting tradition well enough that you can be creative within that tradition. He might also have added that this was also how you could know when elements you add come from outside that tradition.

    This seems very reasonable, but how do you apply it to music for which it is not possible directly to experience the original – all you have is tablature; there is no one around who knows how the original melody which led to the tablature was actually played. So what could be the equivalent to this calligraphy example within the guqin tradition?

    Here I think the closest you might come would be if you could learn what the structures were in surviving early guqin music, and then make new music using those structures. New music that resulted from people learning these old structures would clearly be new music based in that tradition. Furthermore, new music based in that tradition could also result from people breaking away from these old structures but doing so in a way that showed an influence from having learned them.

    Such music might be described as music that is expanding the tradition. It would be music that does more than add some Chinese flavor, or guqin flavor to what are basically Western compositions. If you take little from Chinese idioms when making new creations, instead using basically Western composition techniques, then isn't the result going to be music in a basically Western idiom but with Chinese flavor?

    Once again, this is not a criticism of Western-inspired new Chinese music. Rather it is a suggestion that there are other ways to make new music that could be just as interesting.

    Another possibility is to be like a truly "modern" "serious" composer and try to create your own musical language. Then, of course, you will have the problem of first getting people to learn your language before they can truly appreciate your music.

    So now, perhaps what I should do is to talk in some detail about the structures I have found in early guqin music. But because I have done this a number of times over the past 30 years at conferences, mostly in China, and written about it extensively on my website, I would rather use this opportunity to give a few examples of some new music I have created myself.

    Perhaps, also, one reason for playing rather than analyzing is that I am still formulating my ideas about this. I can make observations that may seem true to me, and they may be appropriate for the music I have reconstructed so far, but there is still so much more ancient music out there waiting to be discovered. And here I have to say, for me it is much more fun learning some ancient piece of music that hasn't been played in 500 years or so, and reading about the people who created it, than it is trying to explain my understanding the structures that seem to underlie that music. Especially when I have it in the back of my mind that this analysis should be done not by me, but by someone who is an expert on music analysis.

    Finally, on structure the most fundamental issue here is, of course, the rhythm. I can talk about how the tablature can suggest rhythms, but basically the tablature itself does not directly indicate either note values (i.e., note lengths) or rhythm. The main argument about rhythm seems to be about whether there is none (otherwise why would the tablature not say something about it); or vvvabout whether every player can chose his or her own rhythm (nothing here is either right or wrong); or about whether then music has a pulse, in other words, perhaps a regular beat but not meter, 4/4, something like that. My own interpretations are largely based on the idea that the music does have a structure – perhaps I could add a structure logical enough that it helps you remember how to play the melody – but that the rhythms should be freely interpreted.

    To sum up, if we really would like to come to a better understanding of this ancient treasure of Chinese music, what is needed is for a number of people to do what I have done, independently reconstruct a number of ancient melodies with the idea being to learn as much as possible about how the melody was originally played. Afterwards we should then get together and discuss how we came to our own personal understandings, then see if, from this, one can come to a consensus about how the melodies actually sounded.

    As an afterword to the event at Bard College, during the gathering on the final day there was a calligraphy demonstration led by the college's calligraphy professor Li Huiwen. At the end he gave me the piece of calligraphy shown here. This inspired me to apply a qin melody to the words written for that piece. To me this is the straightforward sort of melody any calligrapher could enjoy playing before or after doing relevant calligraphy: subtly evocative, like the calligraphy itself.

    2. New music for silk string qin
    Some would limit "new music" to music that extends the language of music (others might define this as "music that requires the audience to learn a new musical language to appreciate it"). So in addition to not including the three pieces discussed here they would also dismiss such works as the compositions of 謝俊仁博士 Dr. Tse Chun-yan, which merely build on the qin tradition. An example of this is Dr. Tse's compositions on this CD (watch his performance of "The Oil Lamp Flickered)."