Date: 7 September 2000
Place: China Institute, 125 65th Street, New York City
Minutes: Matthew Flannery
Attending: Stephen Dydo, Willow Hai Chang, Matthew Flannery, Shida Kuo, Bo Lawergren, Yuan Jung-Ping
Events: John Thompson has announced that his reconstructions of the earliest extant qin handbook, the Shen Qi Mi Pu 神奇秘譜 (1425), are now available as a set of six compact disks and three photocopied ring-bound volumes of transcriptions into staff notation. Details may be had from his website at: http://www.iohk.com/UserPages/thompson.
John expects to move to New York City in March.
Guest speaker John Thompson stood before a splashing fountain in the garden's northwest comer and spoke about what survives of early written music for the qin. The earliest record is the manuscript copy of the melody "You Lan" 幽蘭in the collection of the National Museum, Tokyo. It is also the only surviving example of longhand tablature, which preceded modem shorthand tablature, which was developed in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and is still used today. Curators of the museum have determined that the " You Lan " document must have originated in the sixth or seventh century.
At present, John has recordings ready for publication, transcriptions available in draft form, and most of his analysis on his website (noted above). Having completed the recordings in 1998, he has continued with related research, including translation of various associated texts and the reconstruction of later pieces for comparison.
In Zhu Quan's preface of 1425, he claims that the pieces in his book were already old. Although their original dates remain unknown, if research can substantiate claims that they date substantially from the eleventh or twelfth centuries, this would mean that the music represents the world's oldest surviving written solo instrumental tradition.
In the west up to the twentieth century, old music was usually played in the style current to the times and on current instruments. This is also generally the attitude toward reconstructing old qin melodies (e.g., using metal instead of silk strings; changing notes not consistent with contemporary thought on the proper modality of qin music). The early music movement in the west strives to re-create the ways in which music might have been played at the time it was created. In China and amongst ethnomusicologists, little attention has been paid to the possibility of a similar re-creation of early qin music.
Because tablatures detail relative tuning, finger positions, stroke techniques, and ornamentation but do not include the note values (rhythm), most of John's work has focused on reconstructing rhythms. It is commonly claimed that rhythms were not written out because rhythm comes from within. However, most players use rhythms learned from a teacher, instead. The personal teaching of rhythm is one reason why, once the living transmission of a performance tradition is broken, it is difficult to reestablish it from written records alone.
Once a sufficient body of the music has been sufficiently reconstructed, John hopes that, by playing this repertoire exclusively as written, he can begin to make arguments about how the styles of qin performance of the times when the music was written may differ from those of today. After moving to New York, he hopes to work with Western specialists on early music, comparing the materials available for early Western music with those for early qin music.
Even with fountain throttled, the ambient conviviality of New York's noise was too loud for a qin, so the party moved inside the lower room of the China Institute just off the garden. Here, John played on a new qin he had brought from Hong Kong. The qin had silk strings, yet the volume of sound was quite adequate for the room.
His first piece was "Da Hujia" 大胡笳 ("The Nomad Flute," long version). It tells of the abduction circa 195 CE of Cai Yan (Lady Wenji) by a central Asian tribe. Married to one of their chieftains, she bore him two children. Ransomed twelve years later, she returned to China without her beloved children. A number of poems have been written concerning this event, including one by Liu Shang, entitled "Hujia Shiba Pai" 胡笳十八拍("Eighteen Songs on a Nomad Flute"). There were also handscrolls telling the story, the most famous being one commissioned by the first emperor of the Southern Sung (1127-1280), Gaozong 高宗(r. 1127-1162). Gaozong began his reign after the Jin 金, a non-Han people from the north of China, had conquered most of north China, ending the Northern Song dynasty. Gaozong spent 1127 to 1138 establishing military and political stability for the Southern Song dynasty, whose capital was Hangzhou 杭州. As part of this effort, he commissioned handscrolls on patriotic subjects, including an illustrated version of " Hujia Shiba Pai. Accompanying each of the 18 scenes in scroll is one of the 18 sections of Liu Shang's poem. Four fragments, presumed to be of the original, are in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, while the earliest complete copy, apparently from the fourteenth century and formerly in the C. C. Wang collection, resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; these were published by the museum in 1974 in a book entitled Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute.
John has scanned the 18 images from the Metropolitan's book and has recently been performing the " Da Hujia " from the Shen Qi Mi Pu (it has 18 sections and is the ancestor of the piece later called " Hujia Shiba Pai ") before projections of these images. Unfortunately it was not possible to include these images during his performance at our qin meeting.
The fifth version, from the Taigu Yiyin Pu 太古遺音譜 of circa 1607, has lyrics. John played and sang this version, which is a drinking song relating the pleasures of drinking. The main motifs of the melody remain almost the same as those of the 1425 version, but with some interesting changes and additions.
John commented on the differences between silk and metal strings. According his measurements, both types of string produce a similar volume, but silk produces a more rounded tone, while metal strings are more penetrating, have more carrying power, and sustain sound longer. They also break less frequently and are less susceptible to humidity: if the player's fingers are at all damp, the sound on silk strings becomes distinctly scratchy. With metal strings, the player may simply oil his fingers.
Metal strings were developed during the Cultural Revolution in part to make the qin a less elite instrument. By making it more audible, metal strings helped free the instrument from its elitist tradition of being played for oneself or a few like-minded people. Increasingly today, qin performances are held in public fora. Most people think that the soft, intimate sound of the instrument is unsuitable to public contexts. However, John suggests that modern amplification can overcome many of these problems.
The biggest difficulty in removing the qin from its traditional literatus environment is playing it with other instruments. There is a tradition of qin performance involving ensemble playing, but it involves a different repertoire and techniques. In the literatus environment, playing the qin with other instruments was rare). For group playing, the qin which John used in New York is fitted with two contact microphones and a plug to connect it with an amplifier. He reported that the sound of this arrangement is quite good, although not as good as using external microphones. He recommends amplification only when playing with other instruments, something he hopes to do once he moves to New York. John has arranged traditional qin melodies and melody types into blues structures; unfortunately, there was no time for him to play some of these.
Members: Alex Chao, Stephen Dydo, Matthew Flannery, Willow Hai, Shida Kuo, Bo Lawergren, Gopal Sukhu, Yuan Jung-Ping
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