To Sense the Traditional Charm of “Yun (Rhymes and Lingering Charms)” in Chinese Instrumental Playing Techniques
It is a step not to be ignored for contemporary composers in to carefully study and research on Chinese instrumental playing techniques and understand the traditional charm of “yun” in their creation work of traditional Chinese instrumental music.
It is very necessary (for composers) to understand and be familiarized with the basic structures, features and playing techniques as well as the effective music ranges and different phoneme of Chinese instruments. Otherwise, composers will feel difficult to start their work without anything in mind. However, composers’ knowledge should not be limited to above things either. Otherwise, their works will not be complete and many regrets will appear. Therefore, we need to experience and standardize various elements contributing to the “yun” and steps for forming “yun” in researching and analyzing various (especially those representative) playing techniques, which are normally complicated but interesting. We need to further feel and master the most lively and fresh part of Chinese instrumental playing techniques. This might be where researches of Chinese instrumental techniques differ most from those on western orchestra instruments.
We admit that Chinese composers have created many successful traditional folklore instrumental works (including folklore orchestra music works.) However, it is very rare to see works which can fully activate and utilize the lively and rich functions of Chinese traditional instrumental playing techniques in the ensemble performances and achieve good effects. I think contemporary composers should pay more attention to cultivate the charm of “yun” which are embedded in traditional playing techniques and other related elements, and to entitle them with more vitality so as to create a new era of ensemble performances.
[I] Pay Attention to Observing, Experiencing and Standardizing the Traditional “yun wei (pleasing quality of tones)” and “yun lu (music rules which create pleasing quality and rhymes)” in Chinese Traditional Performance Art
There are not only different kinds of language systems in Chinese ethnic groups, but also various kinds of local dialect traditions which differ from each other very much in singing rhythms. Language environment extends its in-depth effects on the original formation and development process of folklore instruments and local music types, which are natural and inherent (same as what it has influenced on other performance types such as folklore songs, rapping performances and opera), and which decides the popularity and regionalism of the singing rhythms in folklore instrument performances. Feng Guangyu once listed in his work “Zhongguo Tongzong Minge (Chinese Folk Songs of Same Origins)” different styles and colors of five types of “Moli Hua (Jasmine Flowers)”, six types of “Fang Fengzheng (Flying the Kites)”, and eight types of “Xiu Hebao (Embroidering a Pouch)”. Meanwhile, we can also find many performances of same qupai (titles of repertoire songs) such as “Xiao Kaimen”, “Liu Qing Niang”, “Yin Niusi”, “Jiangyun Ling” and “Ku Huangtian” among over 260 local performance types which are still actively played on stages all over the country. They either have more differences than similarities, or more similarities than differences. Wherever they are different, they are affected deeply by the language environment and aesthetical philosophy of different regions in their process of development.
So-called “yun”, “yun wei” and “yun lu” originally, in poetry, refer to those harmonious rhyming words, embodying meaning and a variety of sweet tones and syllable schemes. However, they, in music, can be understood as the comprehensive impressions of factors in singing voices, tones and rhythms which are formed in a playing. It might be the representation of the decoration for a single tune, but can also be that for the combination of a series of tunes, and in a further sense, that for some music features in its formation process such as high or low pitches, densities, strength, and speed or the rhythm and cadence of the music. The special timbre of Chinese folk woodwind and stringed instruments and their complicated and subtle playing techniques create unique and rich “yun” and “yun lu” of traditional folk music in its development. Even in the ensemble of various single tunes played with Chinese folk percussion instruments and their beats there exist unpredictable rhythms.
There are over 100 traditional playing techniques for guqin (heptachord: seven-stringed plucked instrument in some ways similar to the zither), but if classified in simpler way, they are actually utilizations and combinations of three most basic timbres—“‘san yin (loose sound), “fan yin (floating sound)”, and “an yin (definite sound)”. Players use their fingers of right hand to make such basic actions as “supporting, mopping, plucking, rubbing, pushing outward, hooking, picking and beating…… *to achieve acoustics of different qualities; and use fingers of left hand to make such methods as “rolling upwards, rolling downwards, marching on, withdrawing, singing, rubbing, catching quickly with thumb and the first finger, using more strength to play …… ” to decorate lingering sounds so as to achieve different effects. It is believed that guqin players of different dynasties have created and accumulated complicated and lively playing techniques based on their own explorations for “yun.” There are not only rich playing techniques but also wide ranges of subjects in the three thousand traditional guqin works inherited from the past. There are all depictions of music themes that are necessary, including farewell, love, depression, generosity, anger, depth and serenity, luxury, solemnity…charming mood of poetry and painting, and natural sceneries. I think traditional Chinese music with guqin as the representative is always in exploration for “yun” in the combination and development of various music components. It seems to give us such impression that various presentations of “yun” not only have their regularity but also have considerable improvised elements, which is the liveliest part of the presentation method of Chinese traditional music art. Without such improvised elements, the presentation is considered to be dull, colorless and boring.
There are rich music elements contributing to “yun” in Chinese traditional folklore music requiring us to understand, classify, develop, innovate and comprehensively utilize. Many excellent performers and artistic works are normally praised as possessing “romantic charm”. What is “romantic charm”? The dictionary explains this word as “amiable and radiating disposition”. But this is very superficial explanation of its artistic meaning. There are more in-depth connotations which are internal and can only be felt by the heart but not easy to be explained by words. The fastmindedness, smoothness and excellence of music works and their performances present those artists’ wide and in-depth understanding and accumulation of techniques and knowledge of art.
[ll] Co-existence of Chinese Traditional Instrumental Playing Techniques and Elements of “Yun”
In traditional instrumental performances, some normal regularity and flexible improvising of “yun” and its presentations are obviously connected with natures of different instruments and of players themselves. Different types of instruments offer different objective conditions for the formation of “yun”. However, in the process of purposeful creation of “yun” when people play different instruments, there is phenomenon where players create similar “yun” and copy each other or exchange with each other despite of their different personalities and instrumental conditions.
In Chinese woodwind instruments’ performances, let’s take bamboo flutes and a kind of suona, a Chinese brass trumpet as examples. Techniques such as “hua yin (portamento)’ upwards or downwards can differ greatly in ranges and speeds. They are not simply used for ornament, but represent rich expressive connotations. Similarly, all kinds of playing techniques such as short “huashe”’ (rolling the tongues to create unique sounds) and long paragraphs of ““‘huashe” (rolling the tongues to create unique sounds), “duo yin (suddenly stopped sounds) ” of upper fourth pitch and that of powerful seventh pitch, powerful and rough flexible “die yin (repetitious tunes) , various kinds of “tu yin (sounds produced when players purposely stick the tongues in and out) ” and created by trembles of fingers, bellies and waving sounds are all closely related to the expressiveness, styles, personality and regionalism of the music. In order to create the power of tunes of a “heitou”—a male character in traditional Chinese opera, players of suona utilize the technique of “hou yin (sounds created by the resonance of throats)which creates double resonance effects and power normally achieved in “whistle music” and “throat music”??? of low and middle- pitched phoneme in Bejing Opera. People use various techniques in playing “Bainiao Chaofeng (Hundreds of Birds Paying Tributes to the Phoenix)” with suona which vividly copy the chirping of birds, and also create music with natural and sensible music structures. We also notice the continuous breathing technique that suona players use to make super-long tune in high pitches when playing “Bainiao Chaofeng (Hundreds of Birds Paying Tributes to the Peony)” and “qudi flute (a kind of flute mainly used for accompaniment of Kun opera) players use to play the long-reaching and continuous paragraphs of sonority in “San Wu Qi (Three, Five and Seven)” both displayed praise-worthy power of performance art.
Besides, some techniques of traditional sheng (including high-pitched sheng with keys) are also very unique. The simplified technique composed of smoothly flowing music of tunes in fourth, fifth or eighth pitch features a traditional Chinese origin. “Die yin” which features the technique of using fingers to rapidly touch and mop a group of randomly selected music holes to stress certain tunes can achieve strong musical and beat effects; Some mouth-playing techniques such as “hu she, “hua she” and “rou yin (sounds created when instruments are rubbed)’, and “bochan yin (sounds like trembling waves)” have considerable ornament and beautification effects for acoustics. Player Hu Tianquan first used portamento techniques in high-pitch zones of sheng, bringing new rhymes and charms to this traditional instrument.
There are over 70 traditional techniques with the left and right hands for playing pipa, one of the traditional Chinese pluck-and-stroke instruments. Besides the basic techniques for right hand such as “tan (stroke), tiao (pluck), gou (hooking), mo (mopping), lunzhi (rolling fingers), ban lunzhi (semi-rolling fingers, yao zhi (rocking fingers), gun zou (rolling strokes)” many other interesting techniques derive from different combinations of those basic ones, such as “clasper, sweeping . rowing, brushing”etc. When dense individual tunes form threads of music, effects of such different techniques as “lunzhi, jiatan, gun zou and yao zhi’on music qualities also differ from each other very obviously. The left hand can not only use “shi yin (very definite and clear sounds ), fan yin (not definite and somewhat floating sounds), and yin rou (continuous rubbing)…… ” etc. to create some basic phonemes, but also realize various kinds of portamento, which is richest in “yunwei ”, by using different techniques such as pushing, pulling and …… *to change the pitch of benchmarking tunes. Besides, there are other methods for portamento such as by using sounds such as. It is worth mentioning that there are some special playing techniques for pipa to create noises; for example, “Jiao xian (twisting the strings)” with different pressure and“pai (patting, ti (carrying up), zhai (picking), xu’an (slightly touching)’etc. create different acoustics and charms. (Those are some non-standard techniques that ancient players created in their own playing experiences.)
People usually use plectrum to play liuqin (a kind of pipa–like instrument in shape of willow leave) and ruan, and there are not so many complicated techniques for the right hand. However, techniques for the left hand can create much elegant and refined “yun wei’, same as those of pipa. For the same reason, guzheng, yangqin and sanxian, etc., all have very rich playing techniques which are different from each other, but most of those techniques are related to traditional “yun wei” or “yun lu”.
There are many kinds of stringed instruments of huqin (hu fiddle) category in China with erhu, gaohu, jinghu and banhu as most popular one, obtaining powerful status in local music types and opera music. The laws of fingers and bows of left and right hands for stringed instruments are not very complicated, however, their clever combinations extend direct effects on presentations of different natures and styles of music languages. In general, there is much space for free cultivation and exploration of the “yun wei” and playing techniques of instruments of huqin category. But some of those instruments (such as jinghu, zhuihu and banhu, etc.) are endowed with special localities in playing habits and utilization trend of techniques due to their close relationship with local opera music in the process of development. Of course, any music instrument has its limitations due to its natural shape and structural conditions; however, in relative limitations, people can concentrate on certain aspects of the instrument so as to create unique and powerful techniques contributing to “yun”. This reminds me the long development process of Chinese traditional folklore instruments in which ancient players not only absorbed exotic instrumental features and made courageous integration and innovation, but also fully understood the necessity and reliability to make better use of the advantages and avoid the disadvantages of those instruments within their respective natural ranges.
Chinese traditional percussion instruments can be classified into drum category, gong category, ba (cymbals) category and ban (panel) category and qing (percussion instrument usually made of metals) category, etc. They are various in types, wide in locations for their popularity, rich in combination methods, and colorful in expressiveness. Various bands of percussion instruments are always important parts that folk people use for self-entertaining celebrations.
Percussion music, as the base for folk dancing music rhymes and the pillar for “kungfu-related (martial art related) music chapters” in local operas, has always been extending irreplaceable effects on people’s life. Percussion music is widely used in operas and has many functions. It is with no exception that people use percussion music to pre-announce and depict any roles’ stepping on and off the stages, the sudden face-turning to the audience on stages, stage pose, dancing, stage walking, singing, acting, reading, and fighting, and to express people’s emotion and psychological movement, and to create stage atmosphere and various kinds of audio effects.
In traditional Beijing opera pieces, the drums and gongs’ sounds for pre-announcing roles’ stepping on or off stages, though being of somewhat formalities, are worth praising for the excellence of the utilization and exactness of the depiction. For example, if one lady with high social status is to be staged, usually it is the lento of “Xiaoluodan Shangchang (Xiaoluodan Enters on the Stage) that is played with bangu and small gongs due to the necessity to depict the lady’s sedateness and steadiness. If it is a lively girl to be staged, the music is usually the lively “Xiaoluo Changsitou”. If a teetering old grandpa is to be staged, slow drums of somewhat instability are to be used. If kings, emperors or generals are to be staged, combinations of “Yi Cuiluo ” 5 “Guiwei (Return to the Position)” with certain complexity in structures will be used to display their status and disposition. If some characters of clowns’ kind with lame legs or humps are to be staged, “tuxing luo (gongs stricken humorously as a timid rabbit jumping)” will be used. If devils or other ferocious and rough personas are to be staged, then short and quick drums and gongs in tunes of “Jiu Chui Ban (Nine and Half Hammerings)’, “Yin Luo (Feminine Gongs)” and“Ji Ji Feng (Dashing Wind)” will be used. If some personas 1n anxiety and restlessness or defeated generals, who have lost their helmets and armors, dragging their spears behind in failure are to be staged, then “Luan Chui (Chaotic Hammering)” played with three consecutive tunes and unstable beats will be used to depict their confused and agitated mien……. Percussion music has developed over long history on the stages of Beijing opera with thousands of experiences and innovations, and formed many classical models, which are of wonderful achievements though of somewhat formalities. This is the so-called “Luo Gu Jing (Bible of Gongs and Drums)” which is consisted of almost one hundred ways of playing drums and gongs. Much of the music played by such methods and the deviations and combinations of beats all display the colorful and abundant “yunlu” embedded in traditional cultures and traditions and folk people’s aesthetical philosophies. We may believe that the derivation and development of Chinese classical and traditional folklore music and playing techniques are always connected with musicians’ search for and explorations on “yunwei” and “yunlu’”. We need therefore carefully observe, feel, research on, summarize those traditional artistic materials and achievements and enlarge our eye-scopes so as to increase our abilities for comprehensive utilization and innovation.
[III] To Better Extend Functions and Advantages of “Yun” in Traditional Orchestra Ensemble Performances and Cultivate Potentials of “Yun.”
Elements related to “yun” are almost everywhere in Chinese traditional instrumental playing techniques. The individualized features of the timbre of many instruments, personalities of players and differences of various music schools, as well as the effects of localities are enough to bring strong individualism to the presentations of “yun” which is related to music language and playing techniques. Such features make them feel like ducks to water in the performances of local music or some traditional instrument ensembles, but are hard to enjoy themselves to the full in some large-sized contemporary orchestra performances. It is obvious that problems and situations in such performances are more complicated.
If current structures of traditional orchestra bands are talked about, we should say the innovation of Chinese instruments has been successfully increased their capacities for utilization and artistic expressiveness, and fortunately, has not had many effects on the utilization of “yun” in traditional playing techniques. If the composition work for ensemble performances and current performance situations are talked about, we should say it is not impossible for players to fully activate the functions of “yun” of the bands and group performance chapters. Currently, many music conservatories have almost reduced the inter-restrictions of different traditional schools, lessen the effects of primitive formations and regional ties of folklore music types on professional and technical education in traditional music instruments. In their professional teaching and learning, large amount of traditional techniques have been selected or removed and standardized, and the concept to unify and standardize performance techniques have been further acknowledged and strengthened in training and performances of professional music bands. This will surely restrain the technical individualism and personalized performance of players, and lay beneficial conditions for the unification of the group performances and bands. It is one important achievement that we should fully acknowledge. However, we should also admit that we might have, without any intention, lost some invaluable elements of traditional music in this process, which calls for our thinking and consideration. Why it 1s easier for our compositions and performances to be closer to western traditional concepts than to our own tradition in which Chinese “yunwei” and rhythms are everywhere has long caught our attention in the development process of orchestra bands of traditional instruments. This is obviously a contradiction full of doubts and guessing. Of course we can attribute this contradiction to factors such as the technical trends and basic disposition of the works and levels, and the endowed abilities to deal with any changes of the bands. However, the problem can’t be answered so easily. It must have involved many factories relating to the background and concepts.
We have made many exciting and inspiring achievements and also accumulated lots of experience and lessons in the past years in the composition work with traditional Chinese instruments. Many composers (especially some young composers) have conducted a series of successful experiments in artistic and technical fields, taking both the tradition and modernity into consideration.
In the fields of solo performances and concerto, Liu Dehai considerably innovate and expand the concepts of traditional playing techniques and elements of “yun” in his compositions of pipa pieces “Tian’e (Swan)”, “Lao Tong (Old Man)” and “Dishui Guanyin (Drip-Goddess of Mercy)”. Wang Zhongshan utilized man-made tunes to adjust the keynotes and fully made use of modern playing techniques in the guzheng piece “Ming Shan (Sea-Wave Mountains)”. Other examples include two pieces of “Erhu Kuangxiang (Erhu Rhapsody)” by Qu Wang Jianmin, three pieces of “Erhu Concerto” by Zheng Bing, huqin concerto “Huo J (Agnihotra)” by Tan Dun, band concerto ” Shen Qu (The Divine Comedy)” by Qu Xiaosong, flute concerto “Chou Kongshan (Sorry for Empty Mountains)” by Guo Wenjing, pipa piece “Chun Qiu (Summer and Autumn)”, erhu concerto “Ba Que (Eight Chapters)” and flute concerto ’Fei Ge (Flying Songs)” by Tang Jianping, zhong ruan (middle-sized four or three-stringed plucked musical instrument, named after Ruan Xian, a poet of the Western Jin Dynasty) concerto “Yunnan Huiyi (Memory on Yunnan)” by Liu Xing, and erhu concerto “Zhuimeng Jinghua (Search for Dreams in the Capital)” by Guan Naizhong.
Some works have been eye-catching in the field of bands’ ensemble performances, such as He Xuntian’s “Dabo River Caprice”, Yan Huichang’s “Soundsof Water”, Jin Xiand’s “Glimpses of Taklamagan Desert”, Guan Naizhong’s “Touring in Lasha”, Lin Lepei’s “Insects World”, Qian Zhaoxi’s “Searching for a Dream in West Lake’, Jing Jianshu’s “The Golden Sands”, Tan Dun’ s “Suite in Northwest”, Tang Jianping’s “The God of the Earth”, and Liu Yuan’s “Music Poetry of Uygurs”. Composers all have conducted explorations of different levels on the innovation of techniques and expansion of traditional rhythms. We seem to feel that composers are trying hard to catch the elements of “yun” in the traditional Chinese music and cultural treasure-house behind them. They also have in-depth considerations and successful innovations on the structures of impulses, compositions of motives, moving-about tonality as well as changes of timbres and acoustics and beats, and free exchange of horizontal and vertical structures. In this process, they have made beneficial experiments on some abnormal performance techniques in order to cultivate some new timbres.
I think our composers need to do more explorations and application work to cultivate and utilize traditional instrumental playing techniques more deeply and widely. Based on this, they can combine and integrate some useful concepts of modern and contemporary composition methods into their basic ones, and try to find a better cutting point or common platform between effectively expressing ideas by traditional techniques and upgrading the aesthetical consciousness of the audience. In that way, we can make another step on to open up a new era.
It is insufficient for people to physically feel astonished when they perform or listen to any types of music. It is the result to astonish and move their minds that composers dream of.
Finally, I want to list several subjects on the composition (including rehearsals) for ensemble performances of traditional Chinese woodwind and stringed instruments. Those subjects interest me as well very much and they are listed here for your reference.
Composers should try hard to study, research, utilize and develop“yunwei ” and “yunlu” of traditional playing techniques of Chinese instruments, and to integrate the modern and contemporary composition methods with most valuable experiences of ethnic and folklore people as well as the most effective artistic methods. We need to continue inheriting the past and making innovations courageously, and set words to music in a rational, convincing and reasonable way. Let’s work hard in the field of ensemble performances of traditional woodwind and stringed instruments, making fresh seedlings in the hope of having rich and abundant harvests in the spring of new century.
Liu Wenjin is both composer and conductor, and former Director of China Theatre of Dancing and Singing Opera.
This article was a speech made by the author in March 2003 in the Hong Kong Conference of “Modern Survival Environment of Chinese Music and Its Development.”