Qin music: composed or created?
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Qin music: composed or created? 1 "作"古琴音樂:甚麼意思?
Plus: Analogies with calligraphy and poetry  

"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".

Can copyright law be called upon to help clarify this attempt to distinguish between "create" and "compose"? It might at first seem that the distinction I have tried to make here suggests that, at least in contemporary commercial terms, "music compositions" could be defined as "copywrited musical creations", while "musical creations" by itself refers to music that is not copyrighted ("contempory" is used here to avoid the issue of copyright expiration). In commercial music it is not uncommon for someone to copyright their music, or to use recordings of their music to argue that they have a copyright on melodies or even musical phrases they have created. Is it the copyrighting (or copyrightability) of a music passage that changes the passage from being a creation into being a composition?2

In theological terms the distinction between the two is quite different. Here it 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 sue over the above-mentioned commercial issues, or even 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 composers of the past, and so they want to label music pieces attributed to these musicians as "compositions". This, however, implicitly accepts the idea that Western music of a certain music model is superior to traditional Chinese music,3 and perhaps for this reason better able to pass the test of time.4

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:

(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 the issue of traditional Chinese music creation/composition processes.5 At present, for example, one can point to comments made about Zhuang Zhenfeng and the pieces in his Qinxue Xinsheng. But what should one make here of this comparison by one Wang Shilu between music Zhuang apparently created to music said to have been created by 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 yayue (court music) through the Japanese gagaku tradition.

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. This is also interesting in terms of the concept of "Great Music".

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.

Analogy with calligraphy

Compare these two versions of "幺". As suggested in particular by these comments, althoough no analogy here can be very precise, it might be useful here to try to make a distinction between a skilled calligrapher dashing off his work when in an appropriate mood, and one very carefully writing a character, being very conscious of every detail, either simply for the result, or with a consciousness that someone might wish to copy it.

Analogy with poetry

Once again, analogies here will not be very precise, the distinction being between someone who very carefully thinks about what goes into the poem, perhaps re-writing it several times, and someone who dashes off poems as though by instinct. As with music, though, the process of recording this might be a limiting factor. Little is known about how qin tablature got written down. How often might it have been as in this description by the Song dynasty poet Yang Wanli of how he suddenly increased dramatically the number of poems he was writing?

試令兒輩操筆於予口占數 首, 則瀏瀏焉, 無復前日之軋軋矣.
I tried having my son hold the writing brush, while I orally composed several poems, and they came gushing forth without any of the earlier grinding. (Zhang Chen, Learning to Write Naturally, p.129

On op.cit., p. 136 Zhang writes that Yang "attempted to strike a balance between the casual approach to writing poetry and the ideal of careful crafting." Reading an individual poem it may not be clear which tactic was used. Likewise with ancient qin melodies, though here perhaps a better comparison could be made if one could find out how the poems might have sounded if read aloud, and whether this was considered important.


The final results for the works above might all be considered "compositions". Confusion may result from trying to use the terms "create" and "compose" to distinguish two different appoaches to "making" these compositions, but it is still worthwhile to try to make this distinction.

Footnotes (Numbers refer to entries in Zhongwen Dacidian)

1. Creators vs. composers
A literal translation of the Chinese title of this article is "'Zuo' guqin music; what does this mean?". Some possibly related terms include (beginning with ones that involve the character "作 zuo"):

  1. "述作 shuzuo"
    This is an ancient term sometimes used today for "compose". 39650.12 述作 says, "修述制作也(禮記,樂記)作者之謂聖,述者之謂明;明聖者,述作之謂也。" (Legge: "The framers may be pronounced sage; the transmitters, intelligent. Intelligence and sagehood are other names for transmitting and inventing." (Transmitting a creation?)
  2. "即興作 jixing zuo" I do not know when the term was first applied to music.
    This is an apparently modern term commonly used for "improvise". 2904 即 = 2925 卽 , but 卽興 2925.xxx; it seems quite common today: a new term?
  3. "譜曲 pu qu"
    This may be another modern term (36833.xxx; combinations with "譜 pu" seems mainly to concern "譜系 pu xi writing geneologies"). With regard to music, "譜 pu" by itself is described as "樂歌之音節,皆先製譜以定符號,故編曲亦曰譜", suggesting pu means transcribing music rather than composing it. Pu is sometimes used in this way in qin literature; though here it is sometimes translated as "compose", there is no way to know what was actually done by the person who did the "pu".

There are certainly other terms to consider as well.

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" might be 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 my developing this point of view 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? But to be relevant to contemporary expression do they need to be analyzable in traditional Western (or Eastern for that matter) terms? For example, to appreciate performers of "classical" Indian music do we need to consider the players as "composers"? As interpreters of "compositions"?

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 I 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 then say I have treated early qin tablature as though it represented compositions, trying as much as possible to re-create the way the tablature actually described what was being played. Western music analysis generally puts great emphasis on structure, lauding or criticizing composers based on their skill and creativity with structure. Western classical music being to a great extent a written tradition has emphasized complex yet logical (through analysis) structures. In oral traditions the manipulation of structures is quite different: perhaps more intuitive than deliberate, but still there. Perhaps then what I called "creating" could in some ways also be called "intuitive composing".

So just as I do my reconstructing by trying to find and highlight deliberate and intuitive structures in the music, the way students follow the tradition of copying their teacher exactly means that if they are also trying to underatnd the structure of the music, rather than simply doing rote memorization, they are treating those melodies as though they were compositions (unless the teacher constantly changes the way the melody is played). This is correct procedure, but does not mean that these "compositions" themselves might not better be considered as "creations", or as originating as "creations". The language of the music includes the structures, and in a musical tradition these structures would naturally affect any free treatment of the melodies.

Perhaps related to this, one might say that, within a written tradition, any musical period, such as Baroque, begins with people having new structures to work with and they can naturally be creative within those structures; the period ends when people become too obsessed with either following or breaking those structures. Music becomes more "composed" and less "created" until new structures appear that people can intuitively follow without being overly self-conscious about it.

As for the guqin repertoire itself, there is enough work to be done on early manifestations of this repertoire that it 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 (or: leads to new melodies, though perhaps not a new idiom.) 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, one might ways that in my own work I have treated early qin melodies as though they are compositions to be played precisely; here I may take inspiration from Zhu Quan, who wrote that through his handbook Shen Qi Mi Pu he hoped to revive music from the past. However, tracing the way almost all surviving melodies have changed over time, as so well documented in later qin handbooks, also shows clearly that in fact they were treated more as creations than as compositions.

May this process continue!

2. Copyright issues in "creating" vs "composing"
Perhaps copyright lawyers (as yet none have been consulted) will argue the two issues are unrelated: my definition of the difference focuses on the intent of the person who created or composed the music, whereas the law does not make such a distinction. Nevertheless, perhaps one could say that once the melody, or even the motif, has been created, it (or the unique part of it) has become a "composition"; and if this has been adequately documented it is protectable by copyright law.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Composing process?
This ignores such issues as whether perhaps Jiang spent a lot of time on each melody, as a result refining what he wrote to the sort of degree that one attributes to "composing". But if this is true, it still seems likely that he never wrote down such specifics, and so we have no knowledge of the parameters within which he would have considered the result his own. Had recording devices been available at the time, perhaps we could with confidence say he was a "composer"; in the absence of this calling him a "composer" is (by the definition given here) very speculative.

Return to the Guqin ToC or to miscellanea.