The guqin zither

One area where the Internet has proven particularly helpful for me is developing a real appreciation for the music of other cultures. Almost without exception, it has been decisive in providing either a discussion forum or simply access to material. Recently, I have been able to obtain many recordings devoted to the guqin seven-string zither on Chinese labels, and this has enhanced my understanding of the instrument and its repertory a great deal. At one point, these were virtually inaccessible. As mentioned previously, the instrument has a very long history, and presents something of a microcosm on the issues surrounding historical performance in general. Here I want to concentrate more specifically on an orientation to the instrument itself and its performance styles & rhetoric. The music appeals to me strongly, providing some of the most finely nuanced ideas to be heard, and so thoroughly deserves a critical English discussion.

The guqin is an instrument rich in timbre, made with exposed strings the length of a single wood sounding board. There are no frets, but stops are marked by raised areas on the wood. The latter may be pearls or other precious materials in the antique instruments, and these instruments take on personalities of their own. The two-handed technique is highly varied, combining all manner of slides, touch & attack with an extensive array of harmonics. The instrument sounds clearly from bass to sopranino registers, with precise intonation throughout its range. The basic sonority varies from a strongly "twanging" plucked sound to a totally clear ringing pitch, and even to more subtle "whispers" through rubbing the strings. The range of timbre is used extensively in the historical repertory, as part of an elaborate & precise variation technique for the fundamental melodies. The changes in sonority combined with the delicate jewel-like quality of much of the repertory makes initial apprehension of the musical line extremely difficult for the first time listener. This barrier is overcome through exposure, especially as one begins to perceive a distinction between melody and ornamentation. Musical development can occur quite quickly, with a large number of ideas squeezed into the smallest space, making it essentially impossible to appraise a piece on first hearing. The latter is confirmed by the continued dominance of a handful of centuries-old, finely honed pieces over the repertory. The instrument itself is frequently exquisite, with distinguished modern practitioners using some a thousand years old and older, and might be compared in both its physical presence and in its repertory to the highly acclaimed Ming vases.

Different performance schools take different approaches to rhythm, making for subtle yet very well-defined distinctions in such an important aspect of performance. Some of these ideas can be suggestive for Western medieval performance, possibly allowing us to examine preconceptions. The "bar line" approach to rhythm with its clear beats is derived from dance music, as will be noted. Its extension in metronomic timekeeping need not be viewed as essential to rhythm, and indeed qin performance can adopt different paradigms. Division of time is integral to music as an art, but this division need not be linear. Simply stated, musical phenomena directly affect our perceptions of time, and although keeping a common reference to metronomic time is one straightforward way of communicating in this dimension, a more complex interaction can be sustained with the receptive listener. Especially in the Szechuan style of qin performance, this relationship is mediated by the heartbeat of the practitioner and so is modified prescriptively by the music itself. This is essentially a method by which to focus more strongly on the musical line, while stripping away incidental relationships to mundane time. It is extremely easy to produce gibberish by a naive application of these ideas, but the success of some examples forces me to consider them more carefully. Basically, even within the realm of metronomic time, lack of a bar-induced beat (as in most mensural notation) provides ample scope for rhythmic ideas expressed in the gait with which one moves from a note to the next. Such leeway can allow either direct cogency or more expansive approaches. Different "free" approaches to rhythm merit more analysis, and are especially relevant to pre-mensural notation (as the qin tablature happens to be).

Personal styles of vibrato are also highly variable, and this is emphasized in the use of two distinct concepts: the wider & slower "twang" called nao, and the tighter & quicker "buzz" called yin. There is a broad range of styles with respect to these two, with less vibrato generally considered more profound and more vibrato considered more memorable. As with Carnatic music, the explicitly acknowledged variations in vibrato provide for more subtlety of expression. The idea of dividing "vibrato" into two aspects is a good one, and so in retrospect I find that I often enjoy medieval music performances with a generous "buzz" but little "twang." The qin repertory is fundamentally relaxing music, driven by the smallest gesture, and it is elements such as vibrato which most closely reflect the performer's sense of interpretation. Indeed the highest praise for a performance is sometimes that it is "bland" or "colorless," implying an uninflected spaciousness, and making Chinese criticism difficult for a Westerner to understand. Confronting these concepts in new terms has been eye-opening, and the rhetoric surrounding the qin is particularly refined & insightful in this way. I had hoped to make more specific remarks on individual performance styles, but due to length constraints the reader should see the citations from my qin recording list for more remarks. I intend to expand upon this topic at a later date.

In many ways, the subtlety of articulation available from the qin is most comparable to that of the rudra veena in the hands of Z. M. Dagar. There is the same sort of concentration on the nuances of a single sound and finely sculpted variation of pitch. In both cases, a single stroke on the instrument is immediately recognizable and attractive to the ear. The main difference is the extremely compact musical treatments for the qin. And although its repertory is much smaller than the ragas available to the veena, the range in performance styles is correspondingly larger. In the hands of the best performers, the qin likewise possesses a grand intellectual perspective which can provide both glimpses of timelessness and an orientation for practical thought. What the music can project most clearly in such circumstances is a sense of harmony with one's surroundings, with the regional variations in style reflective of these changing physical landscapes. Ideas on musical performance thus link closely to those on Chinese naturalism in general.

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Todd M. McComb