Date: 20 May 2001
Place: Shida's Apartment, Manhattan
Attending: Stephen Dydo, Matthew Flannery, Shida Kuo, Marilyn Wong, Jung-Ping Yuan
Guests: Chang Peiyou, Holly Grinnell, John Thompson
Minutes: Matthew Flannery
T'he meeting began with Stephen discussing the qin piece, "Pu'an Zhou"普庵咒. He noted its sacred character, but promptly qualified what constitutes "sacred" in East Asian contexts. Western cultures are more inclined to seal off music into distinct forms such as popular and classical, with sacred subsumed under classical and having musically conservative tendencies. In China, sacred works are casually appropriated by the worlds of what we would call popular or folk music. The concept of sacred as a type of music is less narrowly defined, less an independent idea. It might better be thought of as a thematic strain that runs through various types of music.
Stephen played "Pu 'an Zhou" ("Pu 'an's Chant"), then commented that the piece was widespread in Chinese music. He knows of versions for pipa 琵琶, zheng 箏, and erhu 二胡. Monk "Pu'an was supposed to have lived in the Song, but the earliest extant version of his chant is from much later. Its earliest historic appearance in a qin version was in the qin manual San Jiao Tong Sheng Pu 三教同聲譜 of 1592.
John commented that Francois Picard, who has studied the "Puan Zhou" 普庵咒 extensively, believes that deeply religious people, at least, do not play or sing such pieces lightly. This and similar pieces are invocations for specific purposes, and the custom is to perform the piece only on occasions when assistance is needed, not as a concert piece or for personal enjoyment. When Picard tried to persuade monks to record the piece, they refused because there was no appropriate occasion for performing it. John added that a peculiarity of this and some other sacred pieces is that their texts are largely series of characters that represent Sanskrit sounds. They are arranged in grammatical fashion and represent progressions of linguistic sounds in Sanskrit, but they lack apparent meaning in any language.
Stephen played tapes of several versions of "Pu'an Zhou" that differed in both organology and score. The first version was for pipa and titles "Xiao Pu'an Zhou" 小普庵咒 and was performed by Wu Man 吳蠻. It is an uncharacteristically simplified version useful in presenting the tune without ornamentation. Than followed a version taken from a suite for sheng and guan (a double-reed wind like the oboe) ensemble with percussion. Of it, Stephen commented, "It doesn't sound anything like the pipa version."
The third version was a recording by Pu Xue-zhai 浦雪齋, a brother of the last Qing emperor, on the qin. Stephen commented that this version has a lightness not often seen in western sacred music. It included an unusual number of double notes (two notes played simultaneously) that were perhaps intended as a sonic reference to temple bells. Pu's performance emphasizes the distinction between strong and weak beats, often emphasizing the weak beats where they fall on the low open strings. The latter habit lends a lively, almost jazzy spring to the performance. Pu's performance score is essentially the same as that used by Stephen, which was passed to him from Sun Yuchin 孫毓芹, Jung-Ping "s first master, through Jung-Ping.
Holly asked whether Stephen, when he played the "Pu'an Zhou tried to give it something that might be called a sacred character. Stephen replied that he did not. His interpretation emphasizes the melody by slowing the tempo and emphasizing the melodic line. This is unlike most Chinese performances, which treat the melody as more integral to the overall texture of the piece.
There was general discussion of qin music vis-a-vis western dodecaphonic, or serial, music, in which Stephen composes. Stephen noted that Chou Wen-chung 周文中 has commented that western serial composers use tone colors much in the qin tradition. In qin music, such sounds would include the noise of the fingers sliding up and down a string, thumps as the left hand hits a note, and the like. In recent western music, these effects might include strings snapped against the fingerboard, bows being drawn across a string upside down so that the bow's wood makes the vibrations, slides to indeterminately high pitches, etc. In both cases, such sounds become an integral part of the melody.
Stephen then played "Pu'an Zhou" in the version passed down by Sun Yuchin. Afterward, there was discussion about the relationship of the piece to another known as the "Shi Tangzhang. 釋談章" It is an invocation of 18 sections plus a closing. Its middle portion is supposed to be equivalent to (or the origin of) "Pu 'an Zhou." Others say that the entire "Shi Tangzhang" is today called "Pu'an Zhou." However, it is difficult to see any musical resemblance whatever between contemporary versions of the two | pieces. In any case, some version of the "Pu 'an Zhou" was heard by qin players of the sixteenth century, and they converted it into the qin work we hear today. John then took the score of "Shi Tangzhang" and sang its opening invocation.
Then Peiyou played "Pu'an Zhou" in yet another version, that of the Wu-men 吳門 school, that is, the version by Wu Zhaoji 吳兆基.
Stephen next displayed and discussed a new qin he is building modeled after a Ming 明 qin in Jung-Ping's collection. Still in pieces, it allowed society members a rare look at a qin's innards. Stephen used American woods in building it, accessing a U. S. Forest Service website to find equivalents of the Asian woods normally used in qin construction. By using the site's listings of the qualities of different woods, he was able to find close approximations of the original materials in terms of such factors as density and hardness. Stephen chose American cedar as an equivalent to the tong 桐 (paulonia) usually used for the top of the case. For the bottom, he used poplar as a substitute for catalpa.
His concern with appropriate woods reflects the traditional concern for wood quality in string instruments, not least in the lore of the qin. Tales of finding just the right tree or saving an ideal piece of wood from some other use or from fire or lightning abound in the literature. Those describing qin made from partially burned wood are common, and the drying effect that fire had on the wood may have had something to do with the high quality of tone claimed for them.
He passed around a copy of James R. Binkley 's translation of Chu Fengjie's 祝鳳喈 Yu Gu Chai 與古齋, a qin handbook that, unusually for such a handbook, is a text about the qin instead of being a collection of pieces for it. Its contents include unique material on the construction of the qin.
Stephen raised two center portions of the floor of the lower half of his qin directly below the dragon pond and phoenix pool because such " mountains" are supposed, in the literature, to reinforce the fundamental tones. Acting as baffles, they direct some of the sound back into qin's central cavity and thus blend and strengthen the sound before it leaves through pond and pool. Current theory, as advanced by John Thompson, is that this device is helpful in expanding the sound of silk strings, while metal strings do not require such support. There was some inconclusive discussion of the acoustical validity of the theories behind qin mountains. Another acoustical quality of the qin is that, traditionally, thin sides where top and bottom join are supposed important to producing a good tone.
Stephen hopes to provide an electrical option to this qin, and there was discussion of the problems of different types of pickup. He reported that an amplifying pickup bridged over the strings at the qin's right end produces a fine sound, but that it is something of a blend of qin and electric guitar. A pickup located at the extreme ends of the instrument tends to emphasize some timbral qualities over others. However, pickups near the center of the strings make playing impossible, and even Stephen's right-end bridge did this to a minor degree.
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