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Wu Man discusses bringing together music from folk villages, music conservatories, and scholars.
Interview with Wu Man © 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation. Footage of Dong people excerpted from Dong Folk Songs: People and Nature in Harmony, courtesy of Mediafusion Creations Publishing, Hong Kong.
Known today largely as a solo instrument emanating from the conservatories, the pipa has links to ancient courtly and folk ensembles. A pear-shaped fretted lute with four strings, the pipa, like so many instruments, seems to have arrived in China from Central Asia and was already popular by the Tang Dynasty (618–907), scene of the first great world music boom; medieval poems and frescoes sing its praises. As higher frets were added, it has been held increasingly vertically, though some local folk traditions like nanguan of south Fujian, and the pipa of blind bards in Shaanbei, still maintain early traditions.
Like the qin, for all its links with Confucian “civil” ideals of harmony and moderation, the pipa is capable of expressing extremes of mood. The majority of the repertoire displays the delicate touches of the “civil” style, but a couple of celebrated “martial” pieces, imitating the sounds of battle, point the way to a more gritty percussive avant-garde use of the instrument. The more earthy folk style relates to the pipa’s role in regional folk ensemble music (notably the “silk-and-bamboo” ensembles still thriving in the Shanghai teahouses) and in accompanying narrative-singing (where it is less common than the unfretted sanxian).
Most solo styles originate from the Shanghai region. Wu Man and her late master Lin Shicheng, a renowned exponent of the Pudong style, are part of a galaxy of modern pipa players that includes Liu Tianhua, Li Tingsong, Wei Zhongle, and Liu Dehai—and younger generations continue to emerge.
The Dong Singers
Though perhaps more famous for its cultivated singing styles, China is also rich in a wide range of traditional folk song. Common among the Han (comprising more than 90 percent of the population), as well as China’s various minority populations, is a long history of unaccompanied—or lightly accompanied—singing directly connected to various rituals of life and calendar events.
The Dong people, one of China’s 55 acknowledged non-Han minorities, have long been considered one of the nation’s most musical minorities. Numbering more than 2.5 million, the Dong live mainly in the Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangxi provinces in southwestern China, maintaining a way of life geographically and culturally removed from the Chinese mainstream.
Both solo and communal singing has long been an active part of Dong life, from casual drinking songs to formal gate-barring rituals—a 1,000-year-old tradition where festive-clad villagers confront prospective visitors with local rice wine to ensure that their intentions are peaceful.
In any case, what has made the vocal tradition particularly important to the Dong has been the people’s lack of a written language. Until the 1950s, when the Chinese government imposed pinyin Romanization on their spoken language, the Dong had remained a strictly oral culture.
Dong singing remains most distinctive today in its ensembles called da ge (or “big song”), named not for a song’s duration, but for the forces required. Though much of the texture is in unison—especially in children’s choruses—the most characteristic sonorities emerge from Dong polyphony, where techniques of sound imitation feature singers vividly illustrating the sounds of nature. From pipa ballads and hearty drinking songs to solemn historical narratives and courtship rituals, Dong music still recalls a pre-literate culture in which every aspect of life was expressed in song.
The Qin Zither: Solo Music of the Literati
In contrast to the noise and bustle created by other folk instruments, the seven-string plucked zither known as the qin (or guqin) has an intimate feel and a prestige that far outweighs its tiny minority of players. In ancient China the qin was an essential component of the culture of the imperial literati, along with chess, calligraphy, painting, kunqu opera, and the pipa, or plucked lute. The qin’s scholarly detachment and union with nature have made it a favorite subject of poets and painters for over 1,000 years. Though still studied by conservatory students as well as amateurs, it can most typically be found at gatherings of aficionados, who take turns playing while sipping fine tea and admiring paintings, calligraphy, and exquisite old instruments. In recent years the qin has gained a new global life in concerts, CDs, films, and on the internet, and new players have emerged to replace the generation of older masters who kept the qin alive through the troubled years of Maoism.
The structure of the instrument has changed little during the past 2,000 years; however, the majority of works performed on it today date back only a few centuries. The contrast in timbre created by such effects as open strings, stopped pitches, expressive slides, and ethereal harmonics creates a mesmerizing soundscape: The ebb and flow of free tempo often confounds any sense of metre. Though soft in dynamic, the qin is capable of a wide range of expression: In addition to meditative, it can sound zany, inebriated, or even violent. Notation, otherwise of minor importance in most Chinese genres, has a long tradition in the case of the qin, which requires a complex system of tablature.
Ba Da Chui and Percussion Ensembles
Large percussion ensembles are another major feature of rural life, with amateur groups accompanying yangge dance and ritual processions in places like Shanxi in the north or Chaozhou in the southeast. Ba Da Chui, a virtuoso and innovative quartet of state professionals, incorporates polished arrangements of local percussion pieces (notably from the Shaanxi province and the Daliuzi of the Tujia minority in Hunan, also one of Tan Dun’s influences). Their main inspiration, however, is the complex percussion that accompanies opera, notably Beijing opera. A variety of drums, cymbals, gongs, and woodblocks create complex patterns in irregular meters. The opera percussion is led by a small, high-pitched drum and clappers, with a large barrel drum that is also featured. Some items use varied cymbal techniques to imitate ducks and tigers.
DONG FEMALE SINGING GROUP
“The Beauty of the Mountains”
“Song of the Cicadas
“The Cuckoo Announces Spring”
BA DA CHUI, Percussion Quartet
Regional Festive Pieces
“Roosters Coming Down the Hill” (Jinji chushan)
This piece, arranged by Tian Longxin from the daliuzi percussion of the Tujia minority in Hunan, exploits the effects of gongs and cymbals.
“Squabbling Ducks” (Yazi banzui) and “The Tiger Bares its Fangs” (Laohu moya)
These two pieces are arranged from the ritual percussion of peasant groups around Xi’an province.
ZHAO JIAZHEN, Qin, and WU MAN, Pipa
Pipa and Qin: Classical Works
“Lanterns and Moon Competing in Brilliance’ (Dengyue jiaohui)
This folk piece is influenced by the ensemble styles of Shanghai region and inspired by New Year’s festivities, with syncopations, short repeated phrases, and additive rhythms.
“Recalling an Old Friend” (Yi guren)
Among the most intimate pieces in the qin repertoire, this song did not become popular until the early 20th century.
“Crows Cawing at Night” (Wuye ti)
This evocative piece was reconstructed in modern times from the 1425 score Shenqi mipu.'
DONG FEMALE SINGING GROUP
Courtship song with ox-leg fiddle
“Playing the Fool” (the only way a spurned lover can conceal the pain of rejection)
Song with bic bac lute for the evening courtship session
ZHAO JIAZHEN, Qin
Qin: Ancient Echoes
“Nie Zheng Assassinates the King of Han” (Guangling san)
This bleak piece evokes the ancient legend of a son avenging the murder of his father. Reconstructed in the 1950s from the 1425 score, it has become a popular song.
“Flowing Waters” (Liushui)
With its use of swirling arpeggios and rippling harmonics, this ancient piece may seem unusually virtuosic; played with taste and sensitivity, however, technique remains subordinate to imagery.
BA DA CHUI, Percussion Quartet
This piece was arranged from the percussion ensemble of the Jiangzhou region in Shanxi.
“Deep in the Night” (Ye shenchen)
This is a popular melody from Beijing opera, with drum/clappers and a pipa part newly arranged by Wu Man.
“Making the Palace of Heaven Resound” (Nao tiangong)
This percussion piece was adapted by Wang Jianhua from a Beijing opera based on the story of the Monkey.
DONG FEMALE SINGING GROUP
China is rich in a wide range of traditional folk song. Ironically, the cultures of the ethnic minorities attract more attention than those of the Han Chinese who comprise over 90 percent of the population. The Dong ethnic group is located on the southern province of Guizhou. The recent mixed blessings of urban migration and tourism can only partially offset the chronic poverty of such mountainous areas, while posing new challenges to local cultures.
Solo singing is common, but the Dong also have choral songs called al laox, “big songs” (Chinese dage), their unison sometimes varied with polyphony and imitation of the sounds of nature. Singing—for work, courtship, drinking, ritual, narrating history—is largely of a formal ceremonial nature. With no written language, their songs embody their history. Some songs are accompanied by the Dong’s distinctive plucked lute (bic bac, Chinese pipa), as well as a local bowed fiddle oh is (known as ox-leg fiddle for its tapering shape, not its material), remarkably like a medieval rebec.
BA DA CHUI
Percussion is the engine-room of Chinese music, accompanying storytelling, opera, ritual processions, and even political campaigns. Large percussion ensembles are a major feature of rural life. Ba Da Chui, a virtuoso and innovative quartet of state professionals based in Beijing, incorporates polished arrangements of local percussion pieces. Its main focus, however, is the percussion that accompanies opera, notably Peking opera. A variety of drums, cymbals, gongs, and woodblocks create complex patterns in irregular meters. The opera percussion is led by a small high-pitched drum and clappers; a large barrel drum is also h. Programmatic music is actually a rarity in Chinese instrumental folk music; like the highly programmatic pieces found in the more literate world of qin and pipa, Ba Da Chui also includes several items that evoke the world of nature.
Elite Solo Traditions: The Qin and Pipa
The seven-string plucked zither qin (pronounced “chin”), or guqin, is an intimate solo instrument whose prestige far outweighs its tiny minority of players and its soft dynamic. The qin was an essential component of the culture of the imperial literati, along with Chinese chess, calligraphy, and painting. Its scholarly detachment and union with nature have made it a favorite of poets and painters for over 1,000 years. Though now at home in the conservatories, its typical social life is in amateur gatherings of aficionados. The qin has recently gained a new global life in concert, on CDs, in film, and on the internet; new players continue to emerge, replacing the stellar generation of senior masters who kept the qin alive through the troubled years of Maoism. Though it is largely associated with old white-bearded men doing taiji, female players (like Zhao Jiazhen and Mingmei Yip) are becoming more common.
The form of the instrument has changed very little for more than 2,000 years. The contrast in timbre between open strings, pitches stopped with the left hand, sliding expressively, and ethereal harmonics creates a mesmerizing soundscape; the ebb-and-flow of free tempo often confounds the sense of meter.
Soft in dynamic, the qin is capable of a wide range of expression—not only meditative, but also zany, inebriated, and even violent. Notation, otherwise of minor importance in most Chinese genres, has a long tradition for the qin in a complex system of tablature. Though evoking ancient stories back to the time of Confucius, most pieces have a history of several centuries.
Like Wu Man and the “Class of 1978” composers at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, Zhao Jiazhen studied with revered masters Wu Jinglue and Zhang Zijian. She has since become a professor at the conservatory, while also touring internationally and recording for CD, TV, and film. In her current role, she is able to further cultivate a new generation of qin players. Zhao Jiazhen performs pieces handed down from master to pupil, as well as works reconstructed from early scores by such masters as Guan Pinghu and Yao Bingyan—notably the 1425 Shenqi mipu, itself containing many pieces that were already considered to be ancient.
Wu Man’s own instrument, the pipa, serves as a bridge between literati and folk traditions. Known today largely as a solo instrument emanating from the conservatories, the pipa has ancient links with courtly and folk ensembles. A pear-shaped fretted lute with four strings, the pipa was already popular during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the scene of the first great world music boom; medieval poems and frescos sing its praises.
Repertoire for the pipa dates back to the 18th century. Much of it displays the delicate touches of the “civil” style, but a few celebrated “martial” pieces that imitate the sounds of battle point the way to a gritty percussive avant-garde use of the instrument. The more earthy folk style relates to the instrument’s role in regional ensemble folk music (notably the “silk-and-bamboo” ensembles that are still thriving in the Shanghai teahouses) and in accompanying narrative-singing. For this concert, Wu Man occasionally plays in duet with the qin, a new musical experiment.
© 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation.