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Early Music 1 / Historically Informed Performance 2
Performance attire 3                
"Early music" and "historically informed performance" (HIP) are terms potentially applicable to describing and/or playing any part of the past qin/guqin repertoire played on a silk string guqin according to tablature rather than oral tradition.4 Here, as in the West, it generally refers to music published before 1700, but because my guqin repertoire includes over 200 melodies, the titles of my own programs generally reflect the great variety of performance themes actually possible. In fact, though, whether it is a program consisting of the earliest versions of the melodies I learned as a student,5 or a program of melodies currently played by no one else,6 almost all of these could be given the title or subtitle "Early Music" and/or "Historically Informed Performance". Thus, performances that do use "HIP" in the title tend to be ones in which I include explanations of some aspect of reconstructing early guqin music, either live during the performance or through program notes given the audience.

The most obvious characteristic of HIP on the qin is the use of silk strings. The qin was strung only with silk strings for at least 2,000 years, and the rich color only these strings can provide is an essential part of the traditional qin aesthetic. Nevertheless, since the Cultural Revolution players in China have almost exclusively used nylon-metal or composite strings, many believing that silk strings simply cannot be used in public performance. However, my performances, when presented in an appropriate venue, have convinced many of the unique beauty of silk strings, leading some again to use silk themselves. Thus, although use of silk strings is the aspect of a HIP that should need the least commentary, it often requires the most.7

The other most outstanding characteristic of HIP on the qin is the variety of music that it makes available to modern ears.8 The qin repertoire handed down to today through oral tradition is rather small, with the result that in most performances the same melodies turn up again and again. However, by application of HIP techniques I have been able to recreate a very large repertoire of beautiful early music, most of it played by no one else. As people become more familiar with this music it will certainly increase the audience for it.9

Compared to the instrumental melodies, applying HIP techniques to qin songs is much more problematic as, although there are quite a few old qin songs, there is very little information about how these songs would have been sung. Today in China there is a tendency to sing them in bel canto style, presumably based on the prejudice that this is the way the "great" Western music is sung so this should be the way the great Chinese music should be sung. However, this style seems to me the least appropriate for qin songs. A plain vocal style goes much better with the rich but subtle sound of the qin, and a number of experiences (but as of 2011 not yet performances) have convinced me that, at least for my taste, the "artlessness" one can find in early Western music singing would make it a natural complement to early qin songs.

Since 2007, when I put over 60 MP3s of my reconstructions online, my website has received on average about 8,000 hits a day, mostly people in China accessing the MP3s. Live performances should not only make people curious about this music, but also have the effect of encouraging more of them to play these melodies themselves. Thus HIP not only provides entertainment, it encourages others to look more deeply into the qin tradition.

When my HIP events focus on specific aspects of the uniqueness of the early music, they usually include some of the explanations found in my article Some Issues in Historically Informed Qin Performance.10 The performance may also includes melodies which specifically demonstrate issues discussed in that paper, such as the following.

  1. Yin De
    This melody first surviving from 1425 reappears in 1614 with the title Qiujiang Yebo. A comparison of the changed modal characteristics gives clues important to the treatment of mode in early qin music.

  2. Dongting Qiu Si (1525)
    Versions of this melody played today were usually reconstructed by selecting from the versions in several different handbooks. In this way some of the distinctive early modal characteristics are obscured. At present the need is to play the different versions separately and faithfully, thereby revealing aspects of changing tastes over the years. Understanding these differences is an essential part of historically informed performance.

  3. Zhongqiu Yue (1614)
    This can be played first as a simple melody in rather strict duple rhythm, then in a freer interpretation. Although the latter better evokes the atmosphere suggested by the title, it may also make the melody seem unstructured or complex. Playing the two versions in sequence allows the listener to become more aware of the underlying rhythmic structure, which even while hidden serves to give the melody form.

  4. Yi Lan (1425)
    Yi Lan begins with two different harmonics on mi. Since the melody uses standard tuning, the first mi is a Pythagorean third (81/64 in relation to the tonic do), the other is a just intonation third (80/64=5/4). Such slight dissonances do not appear in the traditional repertoire has handed down to the present, but they were an essential part of early qin music. Pointing this out helps listeners open themselves to the unusual colors of early qin music.

  5. Zui Weng Yin (1539 and 1571)
    Both of these versions of Zui Weng Yin apply lyrics to a melody following the common pattern within qin songs of attaching one character to each right hand stroke. However, while the contours of the former closely follow that of the melody as it would normally be sung, the contours of the latter leap around considerably. Playing the two back to back shows something of the varied approaches within the song repertoire.

Western performances of early music usually do not include explanations of how the music was reconstructed or technical details of music of that time. Instead they usually include information on historical, literary and artistic associations, such as I have given for qin melodies on the various pages of my website. Thus, although as written at top my performances specifically called HIP usually include some explanation of this, I think the technical information is less important than the broadly contextual. In fact, even for a general audience, more than the bare minimum of this latter information is often unnecessary.

Performance and performance venue 11

The guqin is an excellent medium for introducing people to Chinese culture. And the music can be very relevatory for its similarities and differences from that of the West. The more one studies this, the more one can bring to one's appreciation of a performance.

As for the actual performance, the venue should be appropriate, allowing the performer to forget his or her surroundings, and forget about the rules or even the historical context. Likewise the listener should be able to suspend disbelief, enter this fantasy world, and come away with a desire to learn and experience more.

Then the music will be able to stand by itself

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Early Music
Although the term "early music" commonly refers to Western music from before around 1700 CE, a broader meaning is used here. This is (as quoted from the Wikipedia entry Early music),

"any music for which a historically appropriate style of performance must be reconstructed on the basis of surviving scores, treatises, instruments and other contemporary evidence."

The amount of detail provided by guqin tablature makes the task of reconstructing its early melodies comparable to the work that has been done in reconstructing the Western medieval and renaissance repertoires. In fact, the detail provided in seventh century tablature for You Lan makes guqin music arguably the world's oldest music tradition that can be reconstructed through the methods of early music.

2. Early Music / Historically Informed Performance as a program title
Two of the earliest programs I did using this title came in September 2003, when I performed and lectured at the Tartu Early Music Festival; and that November, when I also took part in a program called "Music of the Middle Ages, East and West" with the Trefoil Ensemble. The main program I have done tying HIP from East and West has been the ones called Music from the Time of Marco Polo. I have also prepared a program called Music from the Time of Matteo Ricci, but as of 2011 this had not yet been presented.

3. Image: Performance attire   embroidery for lapels on the above        
In general I have preferred to perform wearing modern clothing with Chinese characteristics: Han Chinese, since that is the source of the music I play. This has not been easy to find. As I imagine it, it would best come from clothing designers who would learn as much as possible about traditional Han clothing, try to empty their minds of Manchu and Western clothing, then design something appropriate for modern society. Although to my knowledge this has not been done, the images above and at right suggest a possible choice: a modern jacket but with a black lapel having Chinese embroidery at the bottom of the lapel. It originally had embroidery from an ethnic minority but I persuaded the store to switch to Han embroidery (label: 五色土/FCL).

"Chinese clothing" (Wiki)
This, in theory, includes all clothing traditionally worn by Chinese of whatever ethnicity, or modern clothing inspired by this. Qin players performing today, as with many people who consciously or unconsciously wish to wear Chinese clothing, usually wear clothing inspired by the dress worn by Chinese during the Qing dynasty: a style imposed on the Han Chinese by their Manchu rulers. Since I play music almost exclusively from pre-Qing sources, and in doing so try to avoid Qing period influences, I feel that Qing dynasty costume is not appropriate to my performances. I do, however, sometimes wear modern interpretations of such clothing.

Han Clothing (漢服 Han Fu)   (Wiki)
This is also sometimes called 漢裝 Hanzhuang (but 18531 has no entry for either). The terms sometimes refer to Han dynasty clothing but more commonly to the traditional clothing of the Han people, i.e., not ethnic minorities such as the Manchu (or clothing that may have been imposed by them). Recently there has been an increase of interest in Hanfu, with some people advocating traditional Hanfu for ordinary street wear, others suggesting it for special occasions. As I understand it, the specifics of traditional Hanfu are now quite well known. These come from a variety of sources: literati and folk paintings, illustrations from the literati and folk traditions, actual surviving/excavated clothing, instructions/descriptions in written sources, and so forth. There is also quite a bit of information prescribing how and when certain types of clothing should be worn. How closely these prescriptions were actually followed through time and place, as well as how they can be applied to modern society, might still be debated. (E.G., Would someone acting on Daoist inclinations always follow a dress code?)

Illustrations of qin players can be found in various places on this website. From them what can we learn about clothing. For example, this early 20th century fan painting shows a qin player in clothing no longer actually worn. On the other hand, one can see very similar clothing in the following illustrations of players connected to early Ming dynasty handbooks:

  1. Yuan dynasty?
  2. 1511
  3. 1525
  4. 1530
  5. 1539
  6. 1562

This was presumably intended to show the correct attire when playing, and there is no mention of alternate clothing; but it is difficult to say that no other clothing would ever have been worn.

4. Applying the terms "Early music" and "historically informed performance" (HIP)
The above sentence is something of an oversimplification. For example, the study of tablature should be backed up, when possible, by historical information on performance practice. HIP reconstructions of performances of the recent past could be based on recordings or even oral tradition rather than tablature. And one of the most challenging questions is whether any qin music that might have Tang dynasty origins can be helpful in doing historical reconstructions of music from the Tang court (further under gagaku).

5. Earliest versions of melodies learned as a student
All of the 17 melodies I learned from Sun Yü-ch'in when I began studying qin in 1974 are still in the active modern repertoire. In fact, until the 1990s very few other melodies were still being played and even today they might be seen as the core of the modern repertoire. Since then, however, the repertoire has expanded quite a bit, both through reconstruction of old melodies and the recovery of melodies that had been in the modern repertoire earlier in the century, whether preserved in old recordings, in transcriptions, or in the memories of teachers and/or students of the living tradition.

As for me, once I began doing my reconstructions in 1976 I gradually stopped playing the melodies I had learned from my teacher, only later going back to learn the Ming dynasty versions, when available. A program featuring these could be selected from the first 11 melodies on this list.

6. Melodies not performed by others
At least half of the approximately 200 melodies in my repertoire are played by no one else; as for the specific earliest versions, at least three quarters are played by no one else.

7. Silk strings
Since the beauty of the silk string sound is clearly self-evident, problems of their availability form something of a scandal.

8. Enlarging the repertoire
This is not a suggestion that rebuilding the old repertoire is more important than creating a new one. In fact, the more I play and listen to the original versions of melodies published during the Ming dynasty, the more I think that today creating new melodies should be much more interesting than following the Qing dynasty tradition of largely emphasizing the refinement and/or reinterpretation of melodies already in the active repertoire.

9. The role of familiarity
As with most traditional Chinese music, the qin repertoire does not have familiar overall structures that make it easy for an audience to place it within a preconceived framework. However, there are structures in the music, and my HIP events may include my playing a melody twice, pointing out some of the structures during the first playing. People who have my publications can also quickly intuit these structures by looking at the transcriptions while listening to the CDs.

10. Some Issues in Historically Informed Qin Performance
The online version of that paper has been modified somewhat since it was originally presented at the meeting of the ACMR (Association of Chinese Music Research) in Detroit, October 2001.

11. Performance Venue
Here the issue of venue is similar to that with early Western music performances. Early music instruments tend to have a softer, more subtle sound: they were not designed for flashy performances in large concert halls. For the subtlety and even the flashiness of early silk string guqin music to be appreciated in live performance, one needs either a quite intimate surrounding, or good quality modern technical equipment that can help create the illusion of intimacy.

A typical example from my experience has been a presenter saying, "The qin should be played in nature, so we will have the performance in a traditional Chinese garden" (compare Playing Qin in nature). Then the garden is noisy, with the result that the people can open their eyes but if they wish to imagine an expression of the traditional aesthetic of self-cultivation, then they have to close their ears and imagine the music. Much better would be a concert hall where the audience, though they may wish to close their eyes, can at least open their ears. However, achieving that intimate sound in such a venue requires excellent equipment and considerable technical skill on the part of the venue.

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