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Instruments of Intrigue

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Music From China

Old Town School of Folk Music,

April 1

Music From China performs music that doesn't follow Western rules. But during a recent performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music they showed me the similarities: the way musicians East and West use fast tempi for urgency or joy, slow for sorrow or contemplation; composers indulge in scene painting and steal peasant folk melodies; bent strings signal change or deepening of emotion; harmonics (the chiming sound achieved by lightly touching a string at a certain point) indicate delicacy or happiness.

Music From China, a group of five Chinese musicians from Beijing, Guangdong province, and Shanghai who met and began performing in New York City, features men and women playing both folk and classical pieces, solo and in various ensembles. Their instruments are as wonderfully strange as they are similar to some Western instruments: two-string fiddles of different ranges (erhu, gaohu, and zhongu), raspy double-reeded pipes (houguan), zithers more wobbly and tinkly in their voicing than the wildest Teutonic equivalent (the 21-string zheng and bridgeless seven-string qin), and the closest thing to a Western instrument, a four-stringed lute (pipa).

The pipa correlates most to Western instruments because it has a fingerboard with frets. To produce a note, pipa virtuoso Tang Liangxing presses the string against the wooden fingerboard, and the note is determined by where the string is interrupted by a fret--the same process used to play the Western guitar, lute, or mandolin.

Western violins are fretless; the point where the fingertip presses the string against the fingerboard determines the note, giving the fiddle less predictable notes, but giving the musician more freedom to play with them. Chinese fiddles and 21-string zithers, in contrast, are played on air. The fiddle has no fingerboard, and the note is produced by the pressure the fingertip applies to the string. The only Western instrument I can think of that uses this technique is the washtub bass used in jug bands. A Chinese fiddler can play with the notes in a way a Western fiddler can't. While a Western fiddler can only slide along the string or bend it in two directions, a Chinese fiddler can pretty much wiggle away at will.

Chinese fiddles and the pipa are played upright with the fiddle's small resonating drum or the lute's shallow, rounded body resting in the player's lap--a technique used by some Western folk fiddlers playing badly made instruments at dances for eight or ten hours at a stretch.

The zheng, which looks like a giant cousin of the dulcimer, is the most orchestral of the instruments used by Music From China. It's more than six feet long and rests horizontally on two horses--the zheng player's position is similar to that of a pianist, with gestures more like those of a harpist.

The zheng is less playful than the fiddles because its strings are held away from its body by wooden bridges that determine the note. A zheng player can change pitch or add vibrato, however, by pushing down on the string beyond the bridge. In addition, the player wears finger picks on one hand to perform mandolinlike tremolos and bluegrasslike picking patterns, while the pickless hand can alter notes beyond the bridge and pluck bass notes in accompaniment. Either hand can sweep the strings in lush glissandi.

Chinese string instruments don't seem as loud or aggressive as Western ones, and weren't designed to compete with modern brass instruments. Chinese string music can sound incomparably delicate and romantic a la Satie, but an ebullient Tchaikovsky or Wagner might not dig sounds so thin and wavering. Even the evening's martial pieces had a feminine serenity completely alien to the 1812 Overture.

The members of Music From China dressed smartly in Chinese fashion--the men in modern Mao jackets, dark slacks, loafers, and patterned socks; the women in traditional long, pastel silk sheath dresses with floral needlepoint ornaments. The ensemble quickly set up for an opening quartet (the bridgeless zither appeared only as a solo instrument) and slipped into a pair of folk songs from the "silk and bamboo" genre. The presentation was similar to jazz or folk tunes, with the melody played in unison--a more difficult trick than nonmusicians suspect--and then decorated when replayed.

The group's artistic director, Tien-juo Wang, led the way on gaohu, and proved an expressive two-string fiddle player. All the musicians are conservatory trained.

The opening ensemble left the stage to bridgeless-zither player Liu Li. Her first qin solo was entitled "Flowing Streams"; the classical "painted scene," written sometime between the fifth and the eighth centuries BC, was filled with demanding slides, harmonics, and riffs, some of which found Liu's playing on the tentative side, though she hung tough and finished strong.

Qin technique looks like pure torture, a physical therapist's nightmare. The right hand plucks away harp-style at the tabletop instrument, vaguely similar in appearance to a Western zither, though larger than most I've seen. But the left hand must frequently be inverted at the wrist, top of the hand facing the strings, so the thumb or thumbnail can be used as a slide to produce a sound like that of zither, bottleneck guitar, or Dobro. Both this and the following busy showpiece entitled "Intoxicated by Wine" sounded kind of like the slide guitar work of John Fahey and his student Leo Kottke, which derived from older slide blues styles. Bluesmen took it easy on their hands by using a bottleneck while playing interminable dance party gigs, but Liu's energetic and evocative solos were physically demanding. While some find Chinese music painful to hear, absent as it is of Western notions like major and minor keys, I found these pieces delightful to the ear but painful to the eye.

A highlight of the evening was Tang, a superb showman whose assured pipa playing often anchored the ensemble work. The physical demands of the four-string lute were only slightly less frightening than the bridgeless zither's. With the lute upright in his lap, which put his left hand roughly parallel to the stage, Tang's left little finger often pointed nearly 90 degrees down at the floor. Fretting was the same as a classical guitarist's--with the wrist in front of the fretboard rather than behind it, like that of a blues or rock guitarist. The main reason rockers like their wrists back is that it makes bending strings so much easier, but Tang frequently employed string bending nevertheless.

After a lovely warm-up of folk songs, Tang pulled out "Ambush on Ten Sides," in which he did everything but eat the lute. The extended, dramatic martial classic had him hitting the pipa and the strings, flourishing across the strings flamenco fashion, picking intricately like a bluegrass banjo player (using finger picks like one, too), and generally having a ball. After bending the string he frequently plucked it, then relaxed it to bend the note flat instead of sharp--a technique I had previously heard mostly in blues music on the sliding bridgeless zither.

After a lilting duet of bridged zither and fiddle, "The Fisherman's Night Song," the ensemble returned for two party tunes used in operas as musical settings for banquets and other fiestas. Here we got the full blast of Chun Yi Chen's instruments, a long houguan and a short houguan, the little one sounding even more raucous, and both double reeds blatting like kazoos on steroids. If an evening of unaccompanied houguan music might be torture, the pipe provides the necessary balance to the spiderweb strings, with occasional help from the two-string fiddle, which in its lower register can sound oddly like a bagpipe.

These folk pieces played by the group have been altered in the classical way, the original rough peasant folk song scrubbed up for mandarin society, but they maintain a heartiness beyond the classical context. The music in those moments feels more like the Chieftains than the Kronos Quartet, with whom Music From China have played.

The visually dominant zheng was saved for the last solo, and young Yang Yi proved a soloist of skill and energy rather than of guile and evocation, traits that tend to develop with age. While I thought she was technically competent on "Song of the Mulberry Tree," I felt her interpretation was only sometimes focused on Shanxi mourning music. She was in her element, however, during "The General's Command," another martial blisterer. There were times when the 21-string zither was made to sound like an ensemble--intricate picking, including sparkling tremolo passages, interwoven with glissandi and sure-fingered left-handed plucking on the andante passages, left no question about Yang's or the general's command. She sold the audience right through her last abrupt note and dramatic, frozen expression.

After the ensemble's finale, the dreamy, eight-part "A Moonlit River in Spring," on which Tien-juo switched to zhonghu, a two-stringed viola, I was impressed by what Music From China was able to compress into an hour and 15 minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Corky Lee.

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