China: Time To Listen
Ellipsis Arts (elliarts@aol.com)

CD cover I keep telling myself how fortunate I am to be living at this time. The music of the rest of the world is becoming more and more available. This is no more true than with the music of the oldest and most populous culture on earth Ė China.

Ellipsis Arts has done us a favor by collecting the work of professional and talented Chinese artists together on this set of three CDís packaged with an informative booklet. There is much here to be heard, and the abum puts it at our fingertips. A Westerner listening to this music for the first few times may find it simple and like a lullaby. This is due in part to the relative passiveness of the acoustic instruments, as compared to the forcefulness of Western instruments. This passiveness imparts a subtlety to Chinese music found rarely outside China.

This history of Chinese music is important because of its complexity. Every Asian listener is hearing this music through the filter of their culture. Chinese musical tradition is ancient and, up until recently, very structured and purposeful. Then came two historical disconnects which changed Chinese traditional music in momentous ways.

Originally, Chinese music served the purpose of the soul. Melodies played on the pipa, flute and drum evoked the energy of oneís heart, and brought grace to oneís life. The ancient Chinese court philosophers Laozi and Mozi downplayed music in general, feeling it added little to oneís own life or productivity. Confucius disagreed and felt that a people could achieve a universal harmony through music. Confucius also believed that music should be used to worship a deity, praise a benevolent ruler, or simply to celebrate everyday life. This opened up the creation of music for special occasions, such as weddings, coronations, and funerals. The music was also used to record events. The fact that no singing was used is part of the amazing genius of early Chinese music to portray the feelings of an event.

Pitch and timbre were linked to life forces or energy - Qi. Qi was thought to produce twelve pitches that corresponded to the months of the year, as well as the Chinese Zodiac. The Chinese people have derived great strength and wisdom from their musical culture, and this compilation is a testament to the dedication of the artists who created it.

Sounds of Our Stories

The first CD tries to evoke the wonderful expansiveness of Chinese instrumental music. Most of the music is peaceful, airy tunes reminiscent of Chinese watercolor paintings of tiny people and huge landscapes. Songs such as "Ode to the Autumn Wind" and "Xiang-Yu Removes His Armor" do more than provide a setting. They tell an entire story. And like some orchestral western music, these tunes can move the listener along in the story itself. The CD features mostly popular folk and modern tunes from the entire country. In this way, one can discover what it is like to feel Chinese, growing up listening to these tunes.

Many Faces

The second CD called is much more varied and, for my money the most entertaining of the three. The percussionist troupe "Thundering Dragon" perform two awesome pieces featuring many different drums, cymbals, gongs and chimes. This CD features exotic sounds from the many peoples who make up Chinaís nationalities. Dolqun Sapar and Abuqasim Qadir playing Islamic rhythms from the west, throat singers from Mongolia, and traditional dance tunes of the Yi minority related to the Tibetans are all here.

Spirit and Wisdom

The third CD expands the horizons of traditional music to todayís mixture of cultures. Sisi Chenís marvelous playing of the yangqin, Wu Man on the Pipa, and Li Xinchenís shuang guan playing illustrate the high degree of competence in a new breed of Chinese musicians. Indeed, even the occasional melodramatic synthesizer does not seem out of place. Tibetan music is presented by Dadon, a leading singer-songwriter of pro-independence Tibetan pop music. One after another, like a good travelogue, the music does not get tiresome or annoying (I noted the lack of Chinese opera, of which I still have not developed a taste). - Brian and Melissia Grosjean


A Primer On Chinese Instruments

The Pipa is a four stringed, pear shaped, fretted lute. It has six wedge-shaped frets with 26 smaller bamboo frets. The pipa came to China from Central Asia around the Han Dynasty and became highly popular around the Tang dynasty.

The Yangqin is called a hammered dulcimer in the US. It came to China from Persia in the seventeenth century and has become a central part of many regional styles of Chinese Music.

Bianzhong: A set of tuned bronze bells.

The Ruan, also known as the moon guitar, comes in a variety of different sizes and pitches, and is fitted with four strings.

The Dizi and the Bawu are wooden reed instruments that resembles a horizontal flute, though one reed is attached to a blowing hole.

Percussion
Like many other oriental musical ensembles, the classic Chinese orchestra uses a wide variety of percussion. Some examples are the Paigu, which is a set of seven, small, tuned drums, together with drums of all pitches and sizes. Used are the yunlo (tuned gongs), the Dagu (a large drum), quings (tuned bronze bowls), and the jingluo, a small gong used in Beijing opera. This last is recognisable for its characteristic rising tone. Also used are cymbals, gongs, bells and hand bells, wooden bells and hand clappers, claves and temple blocks.


A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this album go to The China Youth Development Foundation

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