Monday, July 6, 2009

Chinese music

Watched the July 4 Boston firework with music show. Feel a little down with the wonderful American music. America has about 500 years of civilization vs 5000 for Chinese. Our music is just behind in quantity and quality. Is it due to our lacking of the 2 extra half tones (5 vs 7) - my music knowledge is limited so I could use the wrong terms or we do not have a language to record music like the west does.

My friend Steve had an answer. Steve said that Chinese invented the two half tones and used by Europeans and Chinese forgot the whole idea.

There were many such great ideas in China and also in India. If we do not improve them, we would let others use them and pass us by. Many modern inventions such as oil drilling… were re-invented by the west from a documentary on TV. Luckily Chinese had written language to record such inventions.

There are several great comments.

Faster to go to YouTube other than from Irene's comment.

二胡 维也纳 中国艺术家 Vienna Chinese artists Wonderful and miserable 二泉映月

Serenade 小夜曲 (二胡) with Chinese artist playing a 2 string Chinese violin


  1. Irene:

    二胡 维也纳 中国艺术家 Vienna Chinese artists Wonderful and miserable 二泉映月

    Serenade 小夜曲 (二胡) with chinese artist playing a 2 string chinese violin

  2. Bing Ding says,

    Music cannot be judged by their complexity nor their quantity. It is a form of arts and arts (such as poetry, painting and cooking) are from the needs of the people. They are subjective. People in different cultures have different needs.

    Music is either bad or good but no such things as better or worse. Music is either well written or poorly written, well played or poorly not. That's all. Of course, music is not just a chain of sounds. The King who just died did not produce music. His stuff is entertainment. It is a exciting show. Not music.

    Chinese' need of music is different from the West. Their cultures and spoken languages are different. The late Leonard Bernstein was excellent when he compared the world's musics in his lectures at Harvard. He was right about their difference as well as their commonality. The difference is cultural but the commonality is music. In other words, the difference is their sounds, the melodies and the scales. The commonality is they all follow the same music theory. The tone A is physically universal: 440 cps. It is science.

    Chinese music are basically pentatonic. i.e., the scale is structured based on Do Re Me So La, and not the Fa and the Ti, the so called half steps. It doesn't mean we don't have these half step tones in our music. It is just that they become accidentals. That's the way we've been used to hear for thousands of years. Anything else won't sound like ours.

    Classical Music was folk based too but it came into well developed forms much, much earlier than ours. In the West, music was more democratically available and was developed freely by many artists and musicians. Their materials soon extended to beyond folk tunes. Our music was monopolized by a handful of elites. Tu Fu wrote "此曲只應天上有,人間那得幾回聞". The 天上 was the imperial court. Therefore they were restricted in development. Until 1949 when the Communist took over, they decided to make a big jump. To jump over a 300 hundred year gap, they employed the Western techniques directly into Chinese Musics. Melodies are still Chinese and folksy but the harmony is all Western. Sorry I don't want to bore you guys too much now.

    Let me just comment on these two switched pieces:

    They were bad. The Serenade was written for the violin and the 二泉映月 was written for the 二胡. They were very well written respectively. But when they were written for their respective instrument, the composer knew the tonal quality, the range and the expressiveness of each. When switched, those qualities could not be displayed. 二泉映月 must be played with an 二胡 and it must be a low voice one. When I play it, mine was tuned at A (inner string) E (the outer string). The limited range (there are only 2 strings) forced the musician to slide up and down and that creates a very special voice-like melancholic tone. Like a weeping human. 鞋鞋聲. The Violin cannot reproduce that at all. Same for the other way round. The Serenade is a serious, meditative tune. The 二胡 was limited in its range and too much sliding. The vibratos (the vibration of the left hand) on the 二胡 is not majestic because it is too free. It becomes too sad (like moaning) instead of romantic (like singing). That is the difference.

    Of course, a violin can play any Chinese music and vise versa because as I said before, the tone A is an A no matter on which instrument. That's their commonality.

    One piece is an exception. The Butterfly Lover 梁山伯與祝英台 was all Chinese operatic materials but particular written for the Violin. Only a Violin can play and express this piece in full. You can't use an 二胡 to play it as good. That's an exceptional masterpiece. But it was not a traditional one. It was written in the late 50's by two graduate students in the Shanghai Conservatory. They were condemned during the Cultural Revolution. They didn't write any more. And this becomes the only great Chinese piece in the last 60 years. Here we go again.

  3. Steve of FM says:

    Years ago, I was reading a book about Chinese inventions that most Chinese don’t even realize China invented and one of them was the first “modern” scale. Before that time, a pure scale was used with no flats or sharps. Have you ever heard Buddhist monks chanting? If you close your eyes, you can imagine they are Gregorian chants; the scale is the same. Meanwhile, someone in China (I believe it was south China but I’m not sure) had created a scale with flats and sharps that the Europeans coming to Canton heard and brought back to their continent, where it caught on and from it developed Baroque music. However, this scale never caught on in China proper and gradually disappeared. Eventually, it made its way back from the western world to China where these days, many of the world’s premier classical musicians are Chinese.

    Let me go back to my local library and see if I can find that book again. Rather than do it from memory, I’d prefer to copy the exact passage since it’s been close to 20 years when I read it so I might have some of the details wrong.

    Speaking of oil drilling, the ability to drill deep wells was invented in China over a thousand years ago but not for oil. It was for salt! In Sichuan province, salt was very valuable and a state owned monopoly. Because it was buried so deeply, the Chinese developed the ability to drill depths of, if I remember correctly, well over 1000 feet. The advantage they had over the rest of the world? Bamboo! Bamboo sections could be sealed in long lengths and were very strong. The rest of the world was not able to drill to such great depths until the invention of carbon steel pipe.

  4. Steve of FM says:

    Most of the great classical works of the Central and Eastern European composers started off as Slavic folk songs that were then developed into full symphonies. That’s where the cultural values of the country play such a large role in its musical library. However, the modern world doesn’t really run on classical music, it runs on rock, folk, jazz, rap, etc. There will always be a market for classical instruments but its really a niche market these days. New instruments, electronics, and a desire for new sounds constantly push music development.

    Currently, the music most Chinese actually purchase and listen to is either pop ballads or classical. Eventually, this will expand into new genres and we’re witnessing the very beginnings of that expansion. Every generation wants their own sound, their own style and their own unique singers and bands.

  5. The serenade is quite similar to 12 Girls Band’s fusion of Chinese instruments playing western music.

    It seems every Chinese instrument has a western equivalent. It could be the Silk Road brought the cultures together.

  6. Bai Ding says:

    Tee Butterfly Lover could have been a great, world class symphony. The movement where it describes how 祝英台 is trying to resist her father's demand is very emotional. The Violin is 祝英台 and the Brass Section (the trumpet, etc.) is the father and they crash each other leading to the climax when she jumped into the open grave. And the part about the two lovers meeting (樓台會), where the Cello plays 梁山伯 is quite touching too. But it is still not as profound and heart wrenching as Classical Music or Operas. And you have to find one that's played really well.

  7. The following from Bai Ding is off from the topic. I included here otherwise I may forget this interesting observation.