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Silk and Bamboo

By Santiago Charry

I chose to attend a Chinese music concert at Hamline University on October 18th,
called “Silk and Bamboo: Chinese Music Untouched”. The title gives the initial impression
that the music played at this concert was going to be authentic Chinese music, with no
western influences designed to attract a mainstream audience, and I found this to be true.
The concert took place in Sundin Hall, a simple stage, easy on the eyes, that allows for the
focus to be placed on the sound. It was rather compact and cozy, amplifying the sounds of
any whispers in the audience. This was great for the projection of the music itself, however
the music played during the concert (especially the solos) was often so exposed and thinly
layered that it required absolute silence on behalf of the audience. Although much of the
audience consisted of mature adults looking for a cultural immersion or students
tentatively taking notes for class, it was clear some students had simply gone to have
something to do on a Friday night, and enjoyed speaking with each other and laughing
more than paying attention to the concert. This was extremely disruptive due to the
subdued nature of much of the music, and much of the audience wasn’t afraid to let the
violators of silence aware of this by turning around to give them a dirty look.
The first piece I had a chance to listen to was a di (bamboo flute) solo called “Zhegu
Fei” or “Partridges Flying”. The title in this song demonstrates the idea that the Chinese
music was often meant to evoke scenes through sound, whether the scene consists of
animals, nature, boats, or even conversations between two people. A young girl named
Chen Yawen played the piece. Like all of the music of the night, the piece was composed,
and did not involve improvisation. This piece didn’t have a distinct beat, with the main
body of the music consisting of long sustains broken up by quick ornaments or trills
between changes of pitch. This created an airy texture, clearly evoking the serenity of
gliding through the air. The ending of the piece consisted of a rapid, nonstop flurry of
virtuosic runs, without a single break for air. Interestingly enough, it required the young
girl two attempts to pull it off. The first time many of the notes in the run were not
projecting for some reason. The girl pulled out of the run with a small “oh”. She tinkered
with her instrument as the audience watched silently for about thirty seconds before
beginning the run anew. This time she was able to play through with every note gleaming
until the very end of the song. The audience applauded supportively as she gave a humble
bow. She gave a basic explanation of the construction of the di, and what had occurred to
the instrument that required her attention. This tidbit of education regarding the music
was also done by many of the other musicians.
Another piece played that night was called “Long Chuan” or “Dragon Boat”. This was
played by Li Jiaxiang, a lady far more elderly than the di player. This selection featured
Jiaxiang playing a pipa (a type of stringed instrument) solo. Before performing her piece,
Jiaxiang gave a description of how she evokes the scene described in the title during her
playing. “At the beginning of the piece you can hear the fire crackers,” she made a loud
cracking sound by snapping back the strings, “And also you can hear the water hitting the
boat, like this,” she gave the pipa a hard quick strum, with quieter plucks after the initial hit.
“And you can hear the melody. That’s the people singing,” she played a quick cheerful
fragment of a melody. “And you can also hear the people cheering,” she played a high-
pitched, exclamatory fragment that continued rising in pitch. “They’re very happy to be at
this festival.” Finally she began to play the piece itself. Just like she said, it began with a fury
of rhythmic attacks evoking drums announcing the festival along with spontaneous cracks
of fireworks. At one point she created the sound of churning water by rolling through the
high range of the pipa, which sounded remarkably like bubbles. The melody of the singing
crowds began to shine through, speeding up until it became a cheering uproar. It was
incredible how all of the parts of her music, each representing a different visual aspect of
the place, came together to create a vivid, lively scene. At the end of her piece the audience
applauded enthusiastically, as she stood and gave a humble bow.
Another piece that demonstrates an ensemble piece is “Huanle ge” or the “Song of
rejoicing”. This piece was performed by 8 musicians playing the di, two erhus (a two
stringed fiddle), pipa, yangqin, zheng, and a percussive instrument. Each of them briefly
tuned their instruments before performing. Between pieces, as they were warming up or
switching performers on stage, I would take a look at the concert program. When referring
to the pieces performed, they would give the Chinese title with English characters, the
English translations, and the title using Chinese characters. The descriptions of each of the
selections were incredibly in depth, giving a brief history and analysis of the theory of the
piece. It described the “silk-and-bamboo” genre of the concert as one native to Shanghai,
and Huanle ge as one of the “eight grand pieces” of the silk-and-bamboo core repertoire.
The selection began with a gock-block-like instrument setting a steady slow tempo.
The di and the ehrus then began to play the melody in unison. The pipa played the melody
with them but elaborated on it, adding ornaments and embellishments around it. The
yangqin played moving notes around the sustains of the other instruments, creating a full
ensemble sound when all were combined. As the piece went on the tempo increased from
slow, to a moderate tempo, to a finally very brisk tempo, but maintaining the same melodic
idea as the previous tempos, creating an excitingly frantic feeling. Suddenly all the
instruments ceased at precisely the same tonic note. The di played a lovely short excerpt of
the melodic fragment alone, with the pipa joining it on its final sustain, then the yangqin
added a short lovely harp-like roll to finish the piece off. The audience applauded as
vigorously as before as they all stood to give their short, modest bows.
This was truly an amazing experience that not only presented the beauty of the
musical performances in traditional Chinese culture, but it also highlighted the theory
behind many of the songs and demonstrated how instruments can be used to evoke natural
scenes in ways that can be even clearer than photographs.