THE MAJOR INSTRUMENTS
The PIPA, a four-stringed lute, has long occupied a central place in Chinese music. It is an instrument of great flexibility and dynamic range and sounds somewhat like a mandolin. It is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments appearing in Chinese written texts of the second century BC. Xi Liu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) described in his book, The definition of Terms on Musical Instruments, that the name of the instrument pipa originally refers to two finger techniques. The two Chinese characters pi and pa stand for the two finger techniques, i.e. plucking the strings forwards and backwards. In the Qin Dynasty (222-207 BC), there had been a kind of plucked-instrument, xiantao, with a straight neck and a round sound body played horizontally. In the preface to his verse Ode to Pipa, Xuan Fu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) wrote: "...the pipa appeared in the late Qin period. When the people suffered from being forced to build the Great Wall, they played the instrument to express their resentment".
By the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the instrument developed into a form of four strings and twelve frets, plucked with fingernails and known as the pipa or qin-pipa. In the Western Jin Dynasty (256-316 AD), the qin-pipa was named after the famous scholar, Ruan Xian, who was a virtuoso in such an instrument. This instrument is still called the ruan today.
During the Northern and Southern Dynasty (420-589 AD), a similar instrument, the oud with a crooked neck and four or five strings was introduced through the Silk Road from Persia. Known as the hu pipa, (hu meaning "foreign") the instrument was played horizontally with a wooden plectrum. By combining the original Chinese lute and the hu pipa the present day pipa gradually developed. Meanwhile the playing method developed and repertoire increased. One of the greatest developments was that the left hand became totally free by holding the instrument vertically, i.e. the pipa rests on the thigh of the instrumentalists in an upright position, and was played vertically with five fingers of the right hand instead of horizontally with a plectrum. By the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the pipa was one of the most popular instruments, and has maintained its appeal as a solo instrument as well as in ensemble ever since.
The Tang pipa was larger than the modern instrument. It usually had four or five strings and fewer frets (compared to the present day pipa). Probably influenced by the hu pipa, the Tang pipa was often played with a wooden plectrum, a technique still used by its Japanese descendent, the biwa. Since the mid Tang Dynasty, and particularly since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the instrument gradually developed into the present form of a lute played with fingernails while the techniques with the plectrum were totally abandoned. The strings of the instrument were made of silk and musicians used their real nails of the right hand to pluck the strings.
The modern instrument is half-pear-shaped, with a short, bent neck, and has 30 frets which extend down the neck and onto the soundboard, giving a wide range and a complete chromatic scale. The usual tuning is A - E - D - A (La - Mi - Re - La). Since early last century, steel strings began to be used by some musicians while most still kept using silk string. Since the 1950s, the making of the pipa was standardized in measure and the strings were made of steel wrapped in nylon. The real nail became almost impossible to use, instead, a little plectrum (or a fake nail) is attached to each finger of the right hand. The plectrum is usually made of turtle shell or plastic.
Notation for pipa combines symbols for pitch (Kung-ch'e system) with abbreviated characters for special finger techniques. Today, a simplified version of music score is commonly used in which numbers represent pitch and symbols represent finger techniques. The standard western music score is increasingly used because it is more practical for ensemble pieces and in particular for pipa concertos.
A huge repertoire of pipa music has existed through many centuries, but most of the compositions were lost. Some pieces were handed down from one generation to the next by artists and scholars. Other pieces were preserved in Japan while musical scores were discovered along the Silk Road in Gansu Province, China, around 1900. These scores, known as the Dunhuang scores, triggered great interest in China and overseas. However, their content remained a mystery until the early 1980s, when the scholar, Prof. Ye Dong from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music successfully "decoded" 25 pieces. The beauty and elegance of these pieces were first revealed to the public after a thousand years.
Today the pipa is one of most popular instruments in China. Many of the compositions that make up the traditional repertoire, date back hundreds of years, while others are part of a growing body of modern compositions. In recent decades, composers have explored the possibilities for pipa and other Chinese and western instruments including a full orchestra.
The playing techniques consist of the right hand fingers plucking the strings and the left hand fingers touching the strings in a variety of ways to create melodies, ornaments and special effects. The fingers that pluck the strings move outwards, opposite to the guitar. The frets are set quite deeply, which allows a string to be pushed, twisted, and pressed. There are over 60 different techniques that have been developed through the centuries.
The technique for playing the pipa is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics and noises are often combined into extensive tone-poems vividly describing famous battles or other exciting scenes, such as the Ambush which describes the decisive battlefield fought in the second century BC between Chu (Xiang Yu) and Han (Liu Bang).
The instrument is also capable of more lyrical effects and has long been considered as having the most beautiful of sounds. In his poem, the Pipa Song, Bai Juyi, one of the leading poets of the Tang Dynasty, vividly described this beauty. "... The thicker strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain, the thinner ones hummed like a hushed whisper. Together they shaped strands of melody, like larger and smaller pearls falling on a jade plate."
Another of the most popular folk instruments is the ERHU, now used in both classical and folk music. Erh means 'two' while Hu means barbarian, so a rough translation is the two-stringed barbarian fiddle. It is made in a number of sizes and is used in solo, ensemble and theatre orchestras. There are very few ancient pictorial sources depicting the erhu, indicating it could be a relatively recent instrument or more likely had a low status. Some scholars date the erhu date back some 3,000 years to ancient Persia. While the forerunner of the erhu traveled west to become the violin in Europe, it traveled east along the silk road to China. The erhu was originally an instrument of the minority peoples in northwestern China, who developed a similar instrument. The two strings were originally made from sheep intestines, although nowadays they are made from steel. The bow is made from horse hair.
There are as many as forty types of erhu today. The most representative of these include Gaohu, Jinghu and Zhonghu, all with a resonance box covered with snake skin, and Banhu and Yehu, with a wooden resonance box made from the native Chinese Tong tree. The instrument has a long, round hardwood neck with two tuning pegs at the upper end which is often intricately carved with a dragon head. The lower end of the neck is inserted into a the resonating box, often hexagonal or octagonal in shape. The two steel strings run from the pegs through a sliding upper nut over a bridge on the snakeskin to the underside of the resonator. The erhu is about 80cm long. The instrument is held vertically, supported on the left thigh. The left hand fingers press the strings lightly, never touching the neck, and the right hand operates the bow. The erhu is considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to play, as the bow fits between the two strings, and can play different notes on the up and down strokes. Exceptional bow control is therefore needed, made all the more difficult by the distance the bow is held from the instrument. Its capacity ranges from lyricism to dazzling virtuosic displays.
Various types of transverse flutes are used as the solo or lead instrument in folk ensembles and theatre orchestras. The DIZI is closed with a cork at the blowing end and open at the lower end. It has six finger holes and usually a membrane over an extra hole that gives the instrument its characteristic nasal sound. The player uses tonguing and fingering techniques and the most skilled, circular breathing. The xiao is a long (about 75cm) end blown bamboo flute with five finger holes, one thumb hole and two or more dorsal holes at the lower end. It has a range of two octaves.
Another folk instrument, the SHENG is a mouth organ played especially in central and northern China. It has a bowl shaped wind chamber with a short blow-pipe. Seventeen bamboo pipes are arranged on the base. At the bottom of each reed, enclosed by the wind chamber is a free-feating copper reed. The sheng is played by closing finger holes on the outside of the pipes and by inhaling and exhaling rhythmically. It is one of the few wind instruments that can play more than one melodic line simultaneously.
The zheng, commonly known as GUZHENG, (pronounced "goo-zheng") is a plucked string instrument, part of the zither family and one of the most important traditional classical instruments. It is one of the most ancient Chinese musical instruments according to documents written in the Qin dynasty (before 206 BC). Zheng is the forerunner of Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatag, and Vietnamese dan tranh. Since the mid-19th century, guzheng solo repertoire has been growing and evolving towards an increasing technical complexity.
The Chinese character for "zheng" is composed of two parts: the upper part meaning "bamboo" and the lower part "argue". According to a legend, there was a master of se, a 25-stringed zither, who had two talented daughters who love playing the instrument. There came a time when the master became too old, and he wanted to pass his instrument over to one of them. However, both daughters wanted to succeed him. The master felt miserable and finally, out of desperation, decided to split the instrument into two - one got 12 strings, and the other 13. To his amazement, the new instrument sounded more mellow and even more beautiful than the original. The happy master gave the new instrument a new name "zheng" by making up the character with the symbolisms representing "bamboo" and "argue". The origin of the Chinese character representing this instrument seems to indicate that the early version of the instrument was made of bamboo, which is different from today.
The guzheng is built with a special wooden sound body with strings arched across movable bridges along the length of the instrument for the purpose of tuning. In ancient times the zheng had five string; later on developed it into twelve to thirteen strings in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD) and sixteen strings in the Song and Ming dynasty (from the 10th to 15th century). The present day zheng usually has 21-25 strings.
The pitch of a given string is determined by the position of the bridge, therefore, the guzheng can in principle be tuned to any desired scale. Traditionally, a pentatonic scale is used. The instrumentalist plucks the strings with the right hand and touches the strings with the left hand to produce the desired pitch and create subtle tones and ornaments. A full scale can also be obtained by skillfully applying pressure on certain strings from the other side of the bridge with the left hand.
The guzheng player attaches a little plectrum to each finger using tape. For traditional repertoires, the instrumentalist mostly uses three fingers of the right hand for plucking whereas the left hand presses the string from the other side of the bridge to create tonalities and ornaments. For some contemporary repertoire, both hands are needed to produce complicated harmonies using four fingers of each, which means that even the fingers of the left hand need to have plectrums worn.
Music for the QIN (or guqin meaning ancient), an unfretted zither with seven strings survived among a small group of scholar musicians. Its harmonics, glissandi, vibrati and resonance created an expressive and contemplative sound that was much loved by literati, including Confucius and Emperors, who played it for self cultivation. The qin has several thousand ancient manuscripts associated to it. The notation is perhaps the world's oldest written solo instrumental music, yet despite over 3,000 pieces surviving, few are played today. In 2004, guqin music was designated as a 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity' by UNESCO.
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