Meng Ou: Bonding with Seagulls
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05. Bonding with Seagulls
- yu mode ( 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 ) 2
Meng Ou
  Top right: a poem referring to bonding with seagulls      
This melody, the fifth of the five surviving from Wusheng Qinpu (1453), is as with the other melodies in this handbook generally said to have been created by the handbook's author/compiler, "Lan Xian", the "Lazy Immortal". However, the identity of "Lan Xian" is unknown, and there is no commentary accompanying the present tablature, and there is evidence that at least some other melodies may have been copied or modified from earlier tablature.4

Nonetheless, the title clearly expresses a wish a escape from society and bond with nature.

The melody itself is worthy of close examination for its use of mode (tonal center shifting from la to mi seeming to be the reason for many non-pentatonic notes, especially fa, fa sharp and ti). Sharpened do (transcribed as C#) seem to indicate a shift from what in Western terminology would be A minor to A major. It is perhaps also significant that this handbook has many "large vibratos" (猱 nao) but very few "small vibratos" (吟 yin); the present melody has only one (m.360): does this mean little variety in ornamentaion? 5

Interpreting the above factors has been quite crucial in the attempt here to reconstruct the melody. This is in part because in many sections of the tablature there is a lack of punctuation. Although this is a quite common problem in this handbook, with the reasons not being clear, it has seemed especially problematic here because of the nature of the melody. Thus, there are many clearly indicated non-pentatonic notes combined with quite a few mistakes in the given finger positions: these often make the difference as to whether a note fits into the pentatonic scale or not.6

Footnotes below have further information to use for backgraound.


Original Preface

Music (see transcription; timings follow my recording)7
Twelve Sections (untitled)

  1.     00.01
  2.     00.56
  3.     01.51
  4.     02.29 (harmonics)
  5.     03.23
  6.     04.10
        04.45 (second part of Section 6)
  7.     05.11
  8.     05.50
  9.     06.25 (harmonics)
  10.     07.21
  11.     08.15
  12.     09.35
       10.45 (harmonic coda; played here from Shilin Guangji)
       11.05 (End)

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Bonding with Seagulls (盟鷗 Meng Ou)
Also: Alliance with Seagulls; Seagull Alliance. Shi Yu has Making an Oath with Seagulls. References:

23553.26 盟鷗 meng ou,與鷗交遊,謂隱居也. To wander with seagulls. In the Qing dynasty it was also 吳肅雲之號 a nickname of 盟鷗堂 Wu Suyun as well as the name of a 閣 mansion in Fujian province.
It has one reference, to 《雨夜懷唐安》, a poem by 陸游詩 Lu You (1125 - 1210). It is the second line in the complete poem, which is,


7/1443 盟鷗 meng ou adds references to poems by 戴复古 Dai Fugu (1168–1250?) and 吳鍈 Wu Ying (Yuan dynasty) and mentions someone who 押盟鷗 signed a alliance with seabirds as 伴侶 companions. The Dai Fugu reference is,


The phrase 盟鷗鷺 meng oulu, also meaning "bonding with seagulls", occurs in this short poem by 趙孟頫 Zhao Mengfu (1254 - 1322).

Boundless are the mists and ripples around the solitary boat,
      The west winds lower the wooden (oars) in the Five Lakes during autumn.
Bonding with sea birds, defying proud princes,
      It does not matter whether the fish take the bait.

This poem has been inscribed on the painting above by 王翬 Wang Hui (1632–1717) or one of his four students. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (q.v.).

In general, all the references suggest reclusion. None mentions music.

2. Yu mode (羽徵調 yu diao)
For more on this mode see Shenpin Yu Yi. However, compared to yu mode melodies in other handbooks the melody here seems particularly complex. This can perhaps be seen in the following chart giving note and pitch counts for Meng Ou section by section:

      \ Pitch
Section \
A A♯ B C C♯ D D♯ E F F♯ G G♯ Total
1 32   4 15   10 1 18     11   91
2 23   3 18   32   19 2 2 16   115
3 18 10 15 17 1 2 9 72
4 28 4 12 9 22 9 1 85
5 26 3 13 14 16 2 1 8 83
6 19 5 6 9 15 4 6 64
6A 10 7 3 10 6 2 38
7 22 6 8 1 15 9 1 3 65
8 21 4 4 15 12 1 2 59
9 27 1 2 9 12 14 4 69
10 16 1 13 25 27 1 10 1 94
11 35 9 12 4 20 32 1 15 128
12 41 7 19 3 21 28 1 3 3 1 127
Total 318 1 55 142 8 207 1 235 8 14 98 3 1090

Comments on the chart:

  1. Section 6 has been split in two based on my feeling for the music.
  2. Section 8 has four gunfu (down and up glissandi) of 14 notes each; only the first and last notes are counted, as they seem much more significant than the others; for other glissandi here all notes are counted.
  3. In the transcription I try to give an indication of all the notes I felt I had to change as well as the phrasing I tried to clarify through punctuation (explanation).
  4. As to be expected, the notes of the standard Chinese pentatonic scale (do re mi sol la, transcribed above as C D E G A), are the most common ones, with A and E the most common, as to be expected from a la mi mode melody.
  5. All sections end on la and almost all end either on either la or mi. The exceptions seem to be,
    • D (at m.20 [D over A], m.66, m.167, m.179, m.223, m.234, m.246, mm.298-300, m.336 and, perhaps most notably, at mm.406 at 410, where it seems to be setting up the end on A).
    • G (at m.56, m.64, m.122, and m.313.
    • A# !(m.268).
    More precise data on this is not yet included in the above chart.
  6. It is very rare for all 12 notes of the chromatic scale to occur in a single melody, as happens here.
  7. The C#s that appear in Sections 11 and 12 create what ears trained in Western music would feel as a switch from an A minor to an A major mode. This characteristic is further discussed here. Is it significant that this occurs near (but not at) the end of the melody?
  8. The A# in Section 9 (m.268) is very striking: on the basis that this is intentional I emphasize this note, whereas other people will often play it quickly, as though glossing over it.

The relatively large number of occurrences of the note transcribed here as B, as well as a few other issues seemingly involved in the modal complexity of Meng Ou are discussed further here and here as well as elsewhere on the present page (especially Problems interpreting the tablature).

4. Earliest?
The only melody here with original commentary is #3 Xian Shan Yue. See comments with footnote to #1 Chun Yu and #3 Xian Shan Yue.

5. Ornament symbols not used
In addition to the use of 猱 nao (slow/large vibrato) but lack of 吟 yin (fast/tight vibrato), there are numerous 分開 fen kai (left finger goes up and down split by two right hand strokes) but only one 撞 zhuang (m. 8: the left finger goes up and down on one right hand stroke). A "zhuang" might also be written in its separate parts, i.e., simply as "slide up then down (上 shang then 下 xia), but that only seems to occur once here (m.308), and there it is actually said to be a half slide up and down. In other places where there is a slide up and down it is part of a longer slide process (e.g. mm.310-1 and mm.330-1). On the other hand there are numerous examples of the reverse (down then up) as well as of 往來 wanglai (like several zhuang together).

6. Problems interpreting the tablature (see also the note count chart above)
For discussing these issues it is most convenient if I can refer to my own transcriptions. Here several conventions in these transcriptions are worthy of particular note in the Meng Ou transcription. These have been outlined here under Wusheng Qinpu. I have been using conventions such as those since my earliest transcriptions.

Further regarding pentatonicism, in Ming dynasty tablature, when non-pentatonic notes appear in qin melodies it often seems that they result from a change in tonal centers. Meng Ou is in yu mode, where the primary tonal center is yu and the secondary tonal center is jue (a "la-mi" "minor mode" in Western terminology), with the scale in theory becoming 6, 1, 2, 3, 5, (6). However, in yu mode melodies the note 7 often appears, perhaps as an upper tone to 6, but also as a fifth above 3 (i.e., the secondary tonal center). More rarely, but strikingly here in several places, 1 (C in my transcription) becomes 1# (C#), giving the impression to Western ears of a switch from the minor la-mi mode to a major mode.

Thus if a finger position calls for a non-pentatonic note one must try to determine whether it is a mistake, an indication of tonal center change, or perhaps a flight of fancy.

However, in this context it is important to consider the argument presented here as to whether these pieces are "composed" or "created". I prefer the latter term because I think the melodies were created by players who instinctively feel the modes but are simply playing, not consciously trying to follow and/or break/expand rules, as with the Western concept of composition. This should be kept in mind when, for example, listening in the following places;

  1. Section 7, m.224, has a C# instead of the expected C♮. Given two other tablature problems in that line:
    • In mm.221/2 the original position 12 on the fifth then sixth string gives the sequence G - B♭ that I felt I had to change;
    • The call for open fifth string in m.225 also does not seem appropriate;
    It may thus seem reasonable also to change this C#. However, the C#s that so strikingly indicate a modal shift from what could be called modal A minor to A major in mm.347-8, 356-7 and 372-5 together suggest that C# may also be intended here.
  2. Section 9, mm.267/8 has an octave-plus leap from D up to a just intonation F# (explanation). This is so striking that many players encountering it will either change it or play it very quickly; my inclination is to see this as a deliberate flight of fancy and so emphasize it, usually by drawing out the sound of the two notes.
  3. Section 9, mm.273/4 has first a Pythagorean E then an ever so slightly lower just intonation E. Some modern Chinese writers have gone to great lengths to explain how through tuning one can avoid such dissonances, but experiences here and elsewhere suggests that qin players of former times actually liked this sort of variety in tonal color.
  4. Section 11, m.321: the position "四五" in the old system simply means "between positions 4 and 5". On the recording you can hear that I play 4.6=F# rather than the G shown in my transcription, but I then play G in continuing the phrase (m.322). Perhaps the old system did not have a way to specify this because players were flexible in such passages, sometimes playing it one way, sometimes the other.

Virtually all instrumental qin melodies in the Ming dynasty have or call for a harmonic coda. In this handbook only the third of the five melodies includes such a coda; the others say only, "入本調 : go into the coda". This practice is not uncommon on other Ming dynasty handbooks.

Regarding the musical structure, the first issue to note is the number of sections that begin with an upbeat (see 2, 3, 8, 11 and 12) as well as the number of passages within sections that begin on an upbeat. There are quite a few more than one finds in interpretations of the contemporary repertoire, and also compared to my own interpretations from other Ming publications.

Phrases that begin similarly are often connected to each other by measure number (e.g., compare m.17 and m.8.). These phrases help give an identifiable structure to the melody but can also lead to memory errors (e.g., jumping backwards or forwards to similar passages).

The transcription here includes are many passages with four four-bar phrases; other passages can easily be heard as variations (especially extensions) of this. This is in part based on my feeling from much of Chinese "folk music"; however, it is also connected to my feeling that guqin music, at least during the Ming dynasty, was fundamentally structured but freely interpreted. In some places I may find myself tapping my feet to the rhythm; in others the structure should provide a coherence without being at all obvious.

7. Music
For examining in greater detail the structure of a qin melody it is good to look at differing interpretations. For this one can compare the transcription above with my earlier transcription. Perhaps more interesting is to compare it with a completely independent interpretation. For this there are the recordings and transcriptions of the reconstructions of all five melodies in Wusheng Qinpu by Shi Yu, as mentioned here.

Listen to Meng Ou as played by Shi Yu (10'38")

The difference in tonal color is due to Shi Yu playing on a guqin with composite strings whereas mine has silk strings.

Section 1 of Shi Yu's transcription is shown on this 2 page pdf. In the transcription Shi Yu gives Chinese numerical notation as well as staff notation. His pitch is different from mine both in the recording and transcription. There are two reasons for this:

  1. He tunes his open first string to Western concert pitch C, in line with current Chinese conservatory practice. I tune my open first string to approximately Bb because silk strings tend to be unstable and to break more easily when tuned up to Western concert pitch.
  2. He treats the open first string as the relative pitch 1/do (played and transcribed as Western pitch C) whereas I treat it as the relative pitch 5/sol (played as Western pitch Bb but transcribed as G [rationale]) as this is most useful to my analysis of mode.

Shi Yu puts his changes/commentary on the tablature alongside the transcription in red type. I put mine below each line, as explained above.

Return to the Wusheng Qinpu ToC or to the Guqin ToC.