January 1, 2008, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Instrumental | Tags: , ,

JW over at Excavated Shellac has posted a great Cantonese Opera recording this week, so I decided to post some Chinese music that isn’t opera. Here are two records of instrumental music.What would Confucius play? The Guqin, a 7 string zither, is a very old instrument that was associated with philosphers and scholars, and played by Confucius 2500 years ago! The music is very different from the Chinese Opera we’ve been listening to, which is essentially folk music, while the Guqin played meditative art music. This was probably the first instrument to use tablature notation, some of it was written as early as the 12th century. Pretty amazing. A nice cd of old guqin recordings by Lo Ka Ping is available here.


>CHINA 3-1589a

The Sanxian is basically a banjo. It has 3 strings, usually tuned DAD, and a fretless neck. The lack of frets allows for all kinds of great slides and unusual intonation. It’s body is covered with a python skin. Sanxian is used throughout China and there are variations all over South East Asia.


>BEKA 22777


Blind Musicians from Shanghai. Sanxian player in the middle.





The first time I heard Chinese Opera I was really shocked. I’ve listened to a lot of unusual music, but nothing seemed further from the western concept of music. I knew I was hooked immediately and had to look into this stuff…

I soon learned that there are two main types of Chinese Opera, and I’m talking about the 78 rpm era here, Peiping Opera (aka Peking or Beijing) and Cantonese Opera. Peiping Opera is a bit more “classical” while Cantonese style is a bit more “folk”. It’s good to keep in mind that the history of opera music in China, which was more or less their theater, folklore, and music all rolled into one, is a long and complicated story going back hundreds of years. I’m definitely not qualified to make any definitive statements about which style is older or the tangled webwork of influences.

Peiping Drama, which is what this record is labeled as, usually consists of a fiddle-like instrument called Erhu or Jinghu, or one of the variations on it, and a handful of other stringed instruments. The general cacophony is provided by a rhythm section consisting of gongs, cymbals, woodblocks and such. The singing is in an unnaturally high voice, often sung by men performing the role of a woman (qingyi) and using stylized, archaic words with special pronunciation. This style tends to be much more wild than the Cantonese, with a lot of percussive effects that would be used to accompany physical action on stage such as acrobatics, elaborate fight scenes, hand gestures and general posturing.

Here, then, is a pretty typical example of this style, I’m guessing from the 1920’s. It seems to me that Pathe recorded the most records in this style while other labels tended to record more Cantonese.

The singer is the “Opera King”, Mei Lan Fang, the internationally famous male singer known for qingyi roles. See the film Farewell My Concubine for some nice depiction of this.

Here he sings the prelude to his famous Ba Hwang Bia Gei, meaning Emperor Ba Hwang Bids Farewell to his Concubine. (thanks to Seneca Chew for translation!)

This is the strange story of a famous emperor who is despondent over the loss of his men in battle. The opera culminates with a famously complicated, stylized sword dance performed by his concubine as she commits suicide to express her loyalty to the emperor!

> PATHE 35165 A

Mei Lin Fang