NYQS Meeting, 2 September 2006

Yuan Jungping, Rebecca Flannery and Peter Reis.
On Saturday afternoon and evening 2 September 2006 the Society held a meeting at the home of John Thompson and Suzanne Smith.

Members attending were:

Jim Binkley.
Chang Pei-you
Stephen Dydo
Rebecca Flannery
Peter Reis
John Thompson
Yuan Jungping

Guests were

Jim Binkley
Carol Liu
Renee Ren
Suzanne Smith
Stephen Walker
Eva Wu

This meeting was held to coincide with a visit to New York by Jim Binkley, who was passing through on his way back to Portland from Europe. Jim, who is one of the few qin builders in North America, has a translation of qin construction information in the famous Yuguzhai qinpu (1855; see his website). He is an interesting qin player who has composed new melodies as well as playing traditional ones.

Also at this meeting John Thompson introduced his new Studio for Seeking Solitude.

John Thompson and his qins.
Studio for Seeking Solitude

In hopes of recording some of the more than 70 melodies he has learned since making his earlier CDs, John has re-furbished a room in his basement for this purpose.

In Hong Kong he lived on Cheung Chau, a small island with a bustling harbor but no cars. In his apartment John dedicated one room of his rooms for keeping his qins away from the damage that could have been caused by the changing humidity and salty sea air from the nearby ocean. He put double pane windows here and it was quiet enough at night that he could record his CDs here, generally between 2 and 4 in the morning. He called this room his Studio for Seeking Solitude. The name suggests a connection with the qin melody Zhao Yin (Seeking Solitude). There is further information about this on his website in the footnote Studio for Seeking Solitude under General and Technical details of the recordings

By putting some acoustical materials in the walls and ceiling of this room, John has managed to make it quiet enough that he should be able to do some recording when there are no major external sounds nearby. He also keeps his qins here. John had found that in spring and summer, with the changing humidity, the silk strings on his qins would break too often. He hopes that the dehumidifiers in the basement will solve this problem.

He demonstrated the room by playing a recording he had made of himself singing the Daoist chant Qingjing Jing, playing the qin melody at the same time. The room seems rather resonant for singing, so some acoustical tiles may be needed for the ceiling in particular; for playing qin it may be acceptable as it is.

The Studio for Seeking Solitude is adjacent to the main basement room, which can also be used for playing qin. For this meeting there were Chinese paintings hanging on the back wall (as well as a woven cotton Chinese portrait of Karl Marx.) Here members played qin and listened to the presentation by Jim Binkley.

Jim Binkley

Jim Binkley began by crediting John for three decisions he had made concerning Chinese music. First, when they first met, in 1975, Jim was studying zheng: John persuaded him to study qin. Next, when John went to visit the qin maker Ye Shiqiang (who made John's first qin), Jim came as well, and they ended up taking some lessons from Mr. Ye in qin making. (Mr. Ye, who had learned qin making from Sun Yuqin, made most of his instruments in the style of a Tang dynasty qin preserved in Japan; there is an illustration facing page 192 of Lore of the Chinese Lute.) Third, in the late 1990s John suggested to Jim that he put his translation of Yuguzhai Qinpu online. The process of doing that has helped contribute to Jim's continuing commitment to the qin.

Jim then discussed art of qin making, saying it can be divided into three steps,

    1, Selecting the wood.
    2, Making the basic instrument.
    3, Adding the lacquer.

Jim discussed art of qin making. Jungping look at the copy of Yuguzhai qinpu.
He first discussed lacquer. The techniques for lacquering a qin are closely related to techniques generally used in the Chinese lacquer industry. For example, for qin the lacquer is made tougher by adding a powder. Traditionally the best powder is from deer horn, but many other substances have also been used. The lacquer is applied in many thin coats. Thin coats are crucial: if the outer surface of a layer of lacquer dries too quickly, air can never get underneath it and so the underlying lacquer can never dry. And as each layer is applied it must been rubbed smooth; this process is called "wet sanding', as water is involved. All cracks and other defects must be filled in and smoothed, as any irregularities in the surface can cause a buzzing sound when the strings vibrate. At the end the finish is smoothed even further by rubbing it with a substance such as sesame oil mixed with deer horn powder.

The lacquer, often called in English by its Japanese name, urushi, is the sap of a lacquer tree. Chemically it is similar to poison oak, and hence highly toxic when wet. As a result some attempts have been made to use substitutes. (Here there was some discussion of possible substitutes, such as a Japanese synthetic lacquer called cashew oil, though it has no connection to cashew trees, and even epoxy.) A factor in determining how effective such materials will be has to do with how tightly they cling to the wood. The wood must move in order to resonate, but when the lacquer is applied it clings very tightly to the wood, inhibiting its ability to resonate. This lacquer apparently loosens its grip on the wood over time, this being one reason older instruments often sound better.

As for selecting wood, when doing this one has to keep in mind the shape of the raw wood as well as its sound properties. This is because qins generally consist largely of two long boards about four feet in length, with the bottom board generally flat, but the top board rounded to varying degrees. Also made of wood is the main bridge (yueshan), which must be angled to the contour of the top board.

Tradition says the top piece should be of lighter wood, the bottom of heavier wood. Here the Chinese yin and yang tradition comes into play. The lighter wood is said to be yang, the heavier wood yin. (The lacquer and the deer horn are also said to be yang, making the top very yang.) The bridge should be of the hardest wood available (e.g., rosewood). The archetypal wood for the top is tong (paulonia, but there are many types), while for the bottom it is zimu (catalpa). However, many other types of wood have been used in the past, and even more so in the present. Today the quality of the woods called wutong and zimu is often not very good. At the same time, many other woods seem to have appropriate qualities.

Jim played Qingshan Yeyu 青山夜雨.
Much experimenting is being done with different woods, and ancient wood, such as from old buildings, is often prized for its natural dryness. Consequently there are a variety of techniques used for drying the wood, such as storing it away for some years, either in a dry room or in a flowing stream; less patient techniques include heating it over a fire or in a kiln, or even to using a blow torch or microwave oven.

Jung-Ping said that a method he had seen in Taiwan for drying qin wood was to put it in a liquid such as water mixed with lime. In Beijing, the qin maker Wang Peng is said sometimes to use salt water from the ocean.

There are a number of old stories about selecting wood. One of the most famous has a person using the wood from a tree that has been struck by lightning; in these stories the wood has excellent sound properties. Other stories have qins made from coffins; in these stories the person buried in the grave is likely to appear when the qin is played.

Jim said that he has so far completed four qins. The first one he actually repaired from an instrument that had been made in Taiwan for Rong Tian-Chi (who taught in Fengshan, near Kao Hsiung, for many years).

Later in the meeting Jim played one of his own compositions, which he had developed through improvising within a blues structure. It was called Qingshan Yeyu (Night Rain on Blue Mountain) and used qiliang tuning (raised second and fifth strings). He also played the Zui Yu Chang Wan. that he learned from tablature handwritten by Zha Fuxi, and from a tape recording of him playing it.

After Jim's talk several of the guests introduced themselves and there was a lot of qin play. This was interspersed with dinner and then desserts, most of it prepared by Suzanne.

Stephen Walker.

Stephen Walker, who just graduated from Harvard University and is now doing graduate studies at Columbia University in early Chinese intellectual history, studied qin in Boston with Yang Shinyi. Ms. Yang primarily teaches guzheng, but she also learned guqin from Wang Hai-Yan in Taiwan and Dr. Tong, Kin-Woon in Hong Kong. A graduate of the National Taiwan Academy of Arts (now called National Taiwan University of Arts), and the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, she identifies her style as Mei-An. Stephen also has done qin improvisation with Indian musicians.

Carol Liu, who graduated from Stanford University, is studying film at New York University. She was a prior student of guzheng and is now pursuing guqin with Chang Peiyou. She is preparing a short film to be shot in January concerning the guqin in a story about a father and daughter relationship which has spanned many lifetimes.

Renee Ren studied qin in New York with Jung-Ping for three years, and this fall is going to Nanhua University in Taiwan, where she plans to continue studying with him.


John began by mentioning that at the upcoming conference in Beijing this October he was scheduled to present a paper entitled "Blues structure as a model for new qin music". He has recordings of some of the related music he has written on his website under New Compositions. Here there is also some commentary on why he has composed these. He played and sang Lovebird Blues, which is based on the traditional melody Wenjun Cao.

Jung-Ping played and sang Yangguan Sandie.
Later John played a traditional melody from Xilutang Qintong, Feng Qiu Huang (A Phoenix Searches for his Mate); it uses a tuning called wumei: lowered 3rd and 6th strings.

Peiyou recently learned the qin song from the Mei'an Qinpu, 秋風詞 Qiu Feng Ci. She first played it without singing, then with singing. Mei'an Qinpu seems to attribute the melody to the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai. In fact the lyrics to the first part are a famous poem by Li Bai. The lyrics of the second part, however, are anonymous. This song is not in any earlier surviving handbooks.

Stephen Dydo.
"Stephen Dydo played Yu Lou Chun Xiao and Qi Yanhui. The former first appears in Mei'an Qinpu (1931), while the latter is published in the Jinyu Qinkan (1937; see Tong Kin-Woon, Qin Fu, p.1377). Some people have said that it was arranged from a pipa melody by Xu Yuanbai."

Jung-Ping played and sang Yangguan Sandie. He also played Xiao Xiang Shui Yun and Shishang Liu Quan.

Stephen Walker played the traditional melodies Shuanghe Ting Quan 雙鶴聽泉 (Two Cranes Listen to a Spring), Oulu Wang Ji and Fan Canglang.

During a meal break Renee played 3 pieces, Mei Hua Sannong, Liang Xiao Yin and Ping Sha Luo Yan. Peiyou also played these 3 pieces for Renee, but most members didn't hear this.During a meal break Renee played 3 pieces, Mei Hua Sannong, Liang Xiao Yin and Ping Sha Luo Yan. Peiyou also played these 3 pieces for Renee, but most members didn't hear this.During a meal break Renee played 3 pieces, Mei Hua Sannong, Liang Xiao Yin and Ping Sha Luo Yan. Peiyou also played these 3 pieces for Renee, but most members didn't hear this.


There was discussion of having a meeting at the end of October, after members came back from China trips, and a general agreement that we should try to schedule the annual meeting at Greenwich House Music School around the time of Chinese New Year.

The meeting ended at 9.30 PM with thanks to Suzanne for her hospitality.

John Thompson

John Thompson speaking, Stephen Walker, Eva Wu, Peiyou Chang and Renee Ren.

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