NYQS Meeting, 18 May 2008

From left to right: Matthew, Stephen, Tomoko and Wu Na.


Peiyou Chang
Stephen Dydo
Matthew Flannery
Bo Lawergren
Marilyn Wong Gleysteen
Tomoko Sugawara


Wu Na
Ye Chingqin (Pamela)

Our principal guest was Wu Na, a qinist from Beijing. She graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music (Beijing) in 1991, majoring in qin. Over time, her principal teachers were Zhao Jiazhen, Li Xianting, and Wu Wenguang. In 2005, she founded Qin House, a school devoted to teaching qin and its ancillary arts. The school has a faculty of three and some 100 students. Some students pay tuition, university students do not. The Asia Foundation provides the school with supplementary financial support. While principally teaching the qin, the school also sponsors one lecture a week on poetry, calligraphy, and other arts associated with the qin.

Wu Na.
Wu Na commented that, when she began to learn qin in 1988, there were perhaps 100 players in the country. This number has expanded rapidly in recent years, not least with the 2003 declaration that the qin was a cultural heritage instrument. Small private schools, such as her own, have multiplied, too, with their number being in excess of 1000, at present.

Bo discussed the construction and design of several lyres he has reconstructed from excavated remains in Assyria and Greece. The form of an 11-string lyre of about 2450 BCE was preserved by injecting plaster into a hole formed when the instrument decayed. Bo made a wooden model based on the cast. He discussed King David’s “harp,” a seven-string lyre (knr; pron. kinnor) of about 800 BCE. It was played with the flat of the left hand damping all the strings except that being played. Bo also reconstructed a Greek lyre of 500 BCE with three strings whose remaining components were a metal brace and tortoise shell elements. Based on these, Bo reconstructed a purported wooden arch on which the existing components were apparently mounted.

Wu Na opined that it is best to practice on a “strong” instrument with metal strings to develop the reserve power and strength needed for free expression. This follows the pattern adopted by some sports teams, whose players practice with weighted limbs. It then becomes possible to play fine instruments with silk strings with greater strength, assurance, and reserve power in concert.

Stephen and Wu Na played his qin intabulation of Lao Junzi, “Old Gentlemen” — also known as “Young Gentlemen.” The qin version was written for John Thompson. Stephen discussed the history of this piece. His composition is based on a Tang dynasty melody which exists in solo parts for pipa, flute, and sheng, dating from the thirteenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth centuries. This is one of many ancient melodies extant in Japan as part of the Togaku repertory, a subset of Gagaku court music, which originally came from the Tang court, and which is still played today. Laurence Picken and a group of other scholars, including our Rembrandt Wolpert, brought the manuscripts to light in a series of editions. Typically, the sheng part has the simplest version of the melody with the other instruments exhibiting slight variations and more ornamentation. Stephen also noted that contemporary performances of this piece are quite slow. A performance from 1910, for example, is perceptibly faster than current practice. Rembrandt estimates that original performances were 12 to 18 times faster than today’s. We know this is true because of records of performance in ancient times; a suite of pieces that was performed in the Tang in a single afternoon would, if done at modern tempi, take many days to play. He also pointed out that in Japan there is an argument over ornamentation, one side maintaining that the old ornamentation was lost just after the Muromaki period (around 1600). He added that current ornamentation seems quite Japanese in style, which would support the idea that the Chinese embellishments may have been replaced by revisions more to Japanese taste.

Wu Na then played Xiao Xiang Shui Yun, “Mist and Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers.”

To complete the evening, Tomoko played a pair of pieces on konghou (Japanese kugo), an instrument reconstructed by her and Bo using two sources: (1) a Tang dynasty instrument in the Shōsōin, Japan’s ancient imperial museum, and (2) a painting on a reliquary box found on the Silk Road by the Japanese Otani expedition a century ago. The first piece was an improvisation on #249 of the “Cantigas” of King Alfonso X of Spain. Bo explained that Alfonso’s “Cantigas” are a collection of over 300 pieces on the Virgin Mary dating to about 1250. According illustrations from northern Spain, Alfonso wrote for the kucha, or angular harp, of Arab origin in Central Asia around 600-700. Since Spain was half-Arab, half-Christian from circa 800 to 1492, an Arab influence on northern Spain would have been natural. Tomoko concluded the meeting by playing Wang Zhaojun, “Princess Zhaojun.” This piece was also written by Stephen from a Tang manuscript; this one was a group of pieces for 5-stringed pipa which was transcribed by Rembrandt. Stephen’s version uses the style of the original ornamentation as a starting point for reconstructing ornamentation for the konghou.

Photos by Bo Lawergren

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