Sunday, August 7, 2011

Big Gongs...

We’re back from our vacation in Lijiang. The return trip to the jungle was only an hour flight, but we got off the plane to temperatures that were a good 20 degrees hotter and to 100% humidity. The kids looked like something out of the movies as they shielded their eyes from the sun and immediately seemed to wilt. Within about eleven minutes of returning we had an extra five girls in the house, and by an hour later all of them had gone outside for the ritual afternoon mud and tropical rainstorm play.

One of the highlights of the trip for all of us was Friday night’s concert of the “ancient naxi music ensemble.” We chose Lijiang, as opposed to some other Himalayan destinations, because Manuel’s Chinese ping pong buddy suggested the music. .He was totally right. I found it fascinating both as a sound experience and as ethnography. It turned out that when they said kids get in free they meant kids don’t have seats, so all five of us sat in two seats—comfy. The kids were captivated for an hour and half and then got restless. The musicians averaged about 80 and the M.C. introduced them as “aged musicians” touting their ages with great pride. Seven were over 80, four looked to be under 60, and about nine were in-between. They all slowly walked (or hobbled) onto the stage wearing brightly colored silk clothing.

For some one who has heard very little traditional Chinese music, parts of it had that sonic shock value that one gets at a really radical new music concert; it’s just sounds that bend the ear. The instruments could all be described as “original” instruments, and many had been buried for safe keeping during the Cultural Revolution or made by the players themselves. They included bowed and plucked string instruments, bamboo transverse flutes, some double reed type and lots of percussion, especially cool looking gongs. They had a two hundred year old “ten chiming gong.” I liked the huquin that looked like a giant bamboo theorbo. The striking thing about the instruments is the pitch variability. They all tune to different pitches, and they tune to pitches that to a western trained ear sound almost impossible to tune to, like, for example, a D#. It’s like hearing early music groups tune to a 415 A; if you have perfect pitch it sounds out of tune. And to a western trained ear the radical heterophony is captivating. (that means that each player interprets the basic melody in a slightly different way) The result is an unpredictable melody that’s hard for the ear to capture. The line between melody and accompaniment also seems at times almost nonexistent. The players lean on the dissonances created by their separate tunes. It sounds corny, but it oddly reminded me of the waterways in the town itself, with little branches flowing away and then coming back together. The string players and singers favor a super-wide vibrato that makes the lack of equal temperament even more decentering; again, it’s hard for the ear to capture a pitch. Rebecca wanted to know how the singers made their voices do that and then said “don’t tell me we’ll need to find a Chinese musicologist to figure it out…” Jonathan thought they needed to tune up a little more.

The orchestra leader, Xuan Ke, addresses audiences each night with stories and historical lessons. And he makes it very clear that he intends to preserve a traditional art that, in the end, is not especially naxi. The groups repertoire is mostly based on Donjing music, that was used by the literati in the Tang and Song dynasties as part of musical rituals. He explained that many of the sounds and instruments came from the Han Chinese ethnic majority. That’s probably why quite a bit of it sounded familiar to me. I’ve heard Han music but had never heard of the Naxi until a few weeks ago. Until 1949 the music served religious ends, while now it is entirely secular. The group leader explained all of this even as he emphasized the Naxi ethnicity of the players and the Naxi “spirit” of the tune. So there’s a dissonant combination of the performance on an ethnic identity through the assimilation of dominant sounds.

I have to admit that part of what I loved about it was that it provided a refreshing break from the incessant irritating pop music I hear day in and day out here. There’s one song that has the words “darling darling darling darling” and uses exactly two chords for the full twenty minutes it takes to get through. I came to rural China expecting to find some really cool tunes; I’ve read about and taught traditional Chinese music. And I’ve heard plenty of it on CD’s. And I’ve read about, taught, and listened to plenty of Asian hip hop and rock sounds that really rock my world. But the truth is that out in the stix here mostly what I hear is heavily western influenced. Even so called traditional tunes or Red songs are westernized, accompanied by synthesized pianos and cellos with the occasional pipa for some accent. The homophonic texture once in a while gets a little polyphonic and singers give a nod to the wide vibrato of traditional music. I’ve never heard so many sequences in my life. Today in the cab I thought the CD was stuck. My smallest child is sadly obsessed with Celine Dion and the modulations of what I hear day in and day out pretty much sound like her.

And as it turns out, I’m exactly the target audience for Naxi Traditional Music. Lijiang is now a huge tourist destination for Chinese tourists and the majority of the audience was Chinese. But it also contained the most white people I’ve seen in one space in three months. And, given the combo of young euro backpackers and wealthy over sixty brits & germans (all toting around Lonely Planet), I’m thinking they, like me, had fantasies of a musical China that did not involve Darling Darling Darling or Lady Gaga. The orchestra bills itself as playing music that is “unchanged ancient dynasty”. English guide books suggest these events as highlights of a visit to Lijiang which stands as a “pure” and “untouched” city.

My hunch is that the music serves a similar role for Chinese tourists. Yunnan province is something of a minority heaven, with twenty five separate groups and, as far as I can tell, each and every one of them is portrayed as good at singing and dancing while their women are lovely in their brightly colored traditional garb. As long as they stay docile the Chinese (Han) government seems to like its minorities. My sense is that when it comes to minority arts the Chinese may even be more orientalist than Western tourists at this point. Every bit of state sponsored literature in translation presents minorities as an exotic other to a more staid and far less expressive Han majority. And every city in Yunan has an ethnic dance and singing group, usually featuring scantily clad women dancing to fairly western sounding orchestras with the same sort of “chinese color” as I hear in the pop music. The Chinese government comes by this naturally. Mao after all spent quite a bit of capital organizing ethnic groups and their musics and encouraging them to make their music “more scientific”

Despite the clear cone of silence around the cultural revolution, this particular orchestra clearly has an agenda. The leader worked as a conductor in Kunming when the red army entered and was eventually sentenced to re-education in a forced labor camp where he was tortured. We heard a story about the “very stupid history” of China as embodied in foot binding. (the kids are now obsessed with foot binding) Manuel thinks that was all code for the Cultural Revolution, and he’s probably right. Regardless of whether or not lurid details of uncles breaking the feet of four year old girls actually stand in for the persecution of artists and intellectuals, the group does present a stunning musical narrative of cultural preservation and survival. The “aged” musicians in their wire glasses could well be the intellectuals and artists pictured in any number of films and books about the torture of intellectuals. And, as we learned, many of the musicians in this group, hid their instruments during the Cultural Revolution, and a number of them were sent out for ‘reform’ as well.

But, despite all of this, I loved it and wish the kids had lasted through the entire thing. I’ve heard traditional Chinese music but I’ve never heard it live. And it’s like any other kind of performance; better, colorful and simply more arresting when heard live. That kind of completely unpredictable polyrhythm feels different when you hear it in real time because you really don’t know where it’s going next. The tunning song gave a real sense of the variabilities of pitch and of the way timbre invariably inflects pitch. And the musicians made mistakes, which is also part of the performance. At one point during a performance of “Yunnan” opera, the instrumentalists started playing the wrong accompaniment. And, indeed, the fact that the group leader had his fingers broken in a forced labor camp made the whole thing that much more poignant to me. It’s true that the group works hard to create a package of the preservation of an ancient tradition that, in some ways, never existed. But the package did not mute the sounds for me.

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