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Celestial Airs of Antiquity: Music of the Seven-String Zither of China.

Transcriptions and CD, ed. Bell Yung. 'Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music', v. (A-R Editions, Madison, 1997, $61.60 + $19.95 (CD). ISBN 0-89579-313-X.)

If it hasn't already, the music of the Chinese qin (pronounced 'chin'; also called guqin, 'ancient qin'), a seven-string zither, deserves to reach a wide audience of world and classical musics; though intimate and refined, it is instantly accessible, a kind of fusion of Bach keyboard music and Ry Cooder. This volume and its accompanying CD carefully document six substantial pieces from the influential 1425 qin score Shenqi mipu ('Wondrous and Secret Notation') as interpreted by one of the great masters of recent years, Yao Bingyan (192083), Bell Yung's teacher, to whose memory the publication is eloquently dedicated.

The book consists of an introduction; translations of and commentaries on the prefaces to the pieces in the 1425 score; transcriptions; and appendices, notably facsimiles of the score itself. The introduction, with sections on the instrument, the 1425 score, and detailed explanations of the notation and performance practice, is full of data that will be useful to both (the general and the specialist reader; the section on Yao Bingyan is particularly interesting. The appendices further explain issues in the interpretation of the notation.

As Yung says, by bringing together the original notation, recordings and transcriptions, 'this edition aims to present to the reader not only a body of music rarely heard outside of China [and, indeed, within China, I might add] but also essential material for an investigation of Yao Bingyan's dapu process'. In China, musical notation is mainly an aid to memory: master-pupil transmission is foremost. The complex qin notation, though unusually specific in its pitch and technical indications, is metrically rather subjective: in the absence of explicit metrical markers, clues are provided by players' experience of natural rhythms for plucking and fingering figurations. For pieces which have fallen out of the repertory, variant interpretations may thus proliferate. The six pieces that Yung presents here are among many preserved in early qin notations which had long fallen out of practice and were re-created from the notation in the 1950s by senior qin masters such as Yao Bingyan. Yung thus highlights the process of dapu, the qin player's process of realizing a piece - in particular a defunct piece - from notation: 'When a composition is no longer played as part of the living repertory, its notation becomes critical' (p. vii).

In fact, it may be worth reminding the outsider that this exercise can hardly be seen as the mainstream of qin performance: a rich, living repertory with a continuous tradition of several centuries has continued to be transmitted through to today. However, since the 1950s the 're-creation' of the music of Chinese antiquity has become a popular topic with both Chinese and Western scholars, something of a parallel, perhaps, to the historical performance movement in Europe - one thinks also of Laurence Picken's seminal work on the instrumental scores of the Tang dynasty preserved in Japan, a major repertory dating from the eighth century AD (the latest volume in the series Music from the Tang Court was reviewed in the previous issue of Music & Letters (Eds.)).

Thus the re-creation of the Shenqi mipu, one of the earliest surviving qin scores, has become a favoured pastime among qin aficionados. Apart from senior masters such as Yao Bingyan, Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, and distinguished younger players such as Li Xiangting, Lin Youren or Yung himself, more recently a qin scholar based in Hong Kong, John Thompson, has also devoted many years to the study of the Shenqi mipu score; a forthcoming CD of some of his own realizations will invite comparison with those of the senior Chinese masters. Yung, though far more modestly Confucian in that he prefers to transmit the interpretations of his master, has also much enhanced our wider understanding of the interpretative process in qin performance. I look forward to seeing comparative analysis of different dapu interpretations.

Yung's intended audience embraces the general reader and amateur musician unfamiliar with Chinese music; music scholars; and students of guqin. I will be happy, but surprised, if it reaches such a wide market: at such a price, and with this generous layout, including facsimiles and tablature beneath the stave, it will inevitably appeal mainly to the small but fervent coterie of qin specialists round the world. But Yung's comments on the nature of notation, and its limitations, will indeed be stimulating for musicians in general. The intention is noble, the scholarship careful, and ethnomusicologists and scholars of classical music traditions will indeed be much rewarded by studying it.

A minor comment: the final list of references might have been expanded to fill the page. Even a modest bibliography for such a useful work might include some major Chinese works (such as those of Zha Fuxi, the important transcriptions Guqin quji (Beijing, 1982-3) and the ongoing, multi-volume facsimiles Qinqu jicheng (Beijing, 1981-). The reader might also be grateful for a listing of a few of the more important CDs of the qin now available, such as The Eminent Pieces for Chinese Guqin (4-CD set, Taiwan: Wind Records, 1994), Guangling Qin Music, Wumen Qin Music etc. (CD series, Hong Kong: Hugo, in progress) and An Anthology of Chinese Traditional and Folk Music: a Collection of Music Played on the Guqin (8-CD set, China Record Co., 1994 - archive recordings by masters from the 1950s). In all, this volume and the CD make a valuable set, further illuminating one of the world's great traditions of art music.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Jones, Stephen
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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