The Voice of Traditional China
by Brian Grosjean

Along with the flood of releases arriving from all over the world, there are a significant number of new releases of Chinese traditional music from China. Some were recorded in China, but most were recorded in Taiwan or the U.S., due to the strained relations between Chinese artists and their government. But never mind the politics, this music tears at the spirit and, in some ways, overwhelms the history of China by telling the stories in song. This incredible music is the result of a culture older than Rome and rich in the appreciation of beauty. The instruments are recognizeable to the ear, as are the melodies to anyone who has had dinner in Chinatown. But take your time. Let this music infuse your spirit as it was written to do.

Confucious taught the ancient Chinese that music is meant not to amuse but to purify one's thoughts. The single tone was more significant than melody and was an attribute of the substance producing it. Vocal melody is limited by the fact that, in Chinese, inflection affects a word's meaning, and also because rhythms are not easily adaptable to the language. Ancient Chinese hymns were slow and solemn, accompanied by large orchestras.

There are new recordings of a small but growing circle of scholar musicians who play the qin (ch'in), a long zither possessing a repertory calling for great subtlety and refinement in performance. A famous qin scholar once said, "Though the qin player's body be in a gallery or in a hall, his mind should dwell with the forests and streams."

Traditionally the Chinese have believed that sound influences the harmony of the universe and so the soul. Significantly, one of the most important duties of the first emperor of each new dynasty was to search out and establish that dynasty's true standard of pitch. A result of this was that, until quite recently, the Chinese theoretically opposed music performed solely for entertainment. Accordingly, musical entertainers were relegated to an extremely low social status. That is difficult to understand given the high level of expertise shown by these recordings.

In a series of releases from Wind Records recorded mostly in California, master Chinese musicians play traditional songs on instruments such as the Guqin ( a seven stringed plucked zither, also known as the qin), the Erh-Hu ( a two-stringed bowed instrument similar to the violin), flutes like the Di and Xiao and a great variety of percussion. The music fades and returns like a breeze from a remote Chinese lake. The recording quality is first rate, thanks to the production efforts of Kavichandran Alexander of Water Lily Acoustics.

Even the catalog from Wind is a joy to behold. It entices you with topical music such as Music For Tai-Chi, Music for Chinese Tea (what better way to enjoy your cup of jasmine), and, my favorite, Sheng Hua - Music to Invigorate a Dull Spirit. In addition, there are unlikely surprises, like Masterpieces of Chinese Traditional Music and orchestral music that will carry you along on its melodies like a wild pony. Other excellent releases of Chinese traditional music include Chinese Han Music - Zheng Melodies Above the Clouds by Rao Ningxin, Luo Dezai, Han Music - Zheng Melodies Above the Clouds by and Luo Lian (Interra). No liner notes here - just ravishing music. Unfortunately, in its purism, Interra neglects to give credit to the artists on some of its albums. The Guo Brothers are long known for excellent treatment of Chinese traditional flute music. With several albums of their own, and one with Shung Tian called Yuan (Realworld), they are a must for a serious listener. Guo Yue and Joji Hirota combine the flute and the Japanese percussion in 1995ís winner called The Red Ribbon (Shanachie).

See also: The Music of China


Brian is the World Music Director at WWUH Radio and writes for their Program Guide under "Voices of The Village." He can be heard filling in for the folk shows 6-9AM, Monday-Friday playing "Folk Music From the Rest of the World" where your ears are tickled and your idea of folk music is expanded. Brian listens mostly these days to Anitas Livs from Scandanavia and to any acoustic music from Vietnam. In April 1996, WWUH produced a concert of music from local diverse ethnic sources called "The Sounds of Hartford." A 12 track CD of that memorable concert is available from WWUH at 860.768.4703 or wwuh@uhavax.hartford.edu

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