Monday, October 26, 2009

Breathing life into China's ancient instruments

If we put a microphone into the bottom half of our vocal cords, in that space before the larynx alters the transit of air into highly evolved sounds recognizable as language, what would we hear?

Literally speaking, not a whole lot besides air; but if this were a riddle, the answer you want may just be an unusual and wonderful wind instrument called the chiba, a stout bamboo flute from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that descended from the ancient xiao.

The 60 or so people who attended Dandeli Art Space’s “Blooming Youth and Ancient Melody” on Saturday were treated to a free performance of the chiba, along with the guqin, a seven-string plucked silk instrument dating back some 3,000 years. Lots has been written before about the latter, and a simple search on either YouTube or YouKu will yield dozens of results. The chiba, however, is a relative unknown.

A young musician who goes by Xing Zhe explained to us that every chiba goes through an exacting selection process. First a specific type of bamboo must be found that can be cut to the appropriate length (usually an eighth of a foot, which translates literally into the name of the instrument). It is then hollowed out and placed in a damp and dark environment for a year, not unlike the fermenting process for fine alcohol. A master will then cut a mouthpiece and play it, sans finger holes, for as long as he deems it takes for the right sound to emerge. Only then will holes be cut, four along the top and one on the bottom, and declared ready for use.

A low-shelf chiba runs for about 4,000 yuan, while high quality ones can go for 10,000 yuan – though who can really put a price on antiques? – which partially explains why there are probably no more than 50 chiba masters in China. The other reason is because the chiba virtually disappeared from this country for 700 years sometime during the Song Dynasty. It continued its evolution as the shakuhachi in Japan, imported there by a Buddhist monk in the 8th century.

Sitting in the same room as a chiba performance is like you’ve ascended 4,000 meters into a holy mountain and plopped yourself next to a meditating arhat. The instrument is capable of eerie, magical noises that are evanescent and transitory yet firmly grounded in our world. The sound is reedy, raspy and muted, about as natural as a spring, like a melodized sigh or exhale. Occasionally you will even hear a squeak or, quite literally, the sound of breath, quite unlike the pachydermal blare of Western-style trumpets and horns – which is to say, not metallic and cold but alive, arising from our lungs.

Because there are only four holes on the chiba, the tiniest finger movement makes a difference; likewise, the simplicity of the design makes it so that the slightest change in breath – in strength, volume or breathing angle – will affect the sound. There is much room for interpretation, and the result can be as artistic as the creator wishes, as hollow as a ditty or infused with melancholy as a pastoral. An old tradition in Japan held that a man and woman would play shakuhachi melodies in a field, at a remove from one another. If the tunes didn’t match, the two could not meet – a harsh penalty, indeed, though somehow appropriate because the instrument is, after all, an extension of the soul.

Upon failure the passionate shepherd, we can only surmise, would fall to writing poetry.

Here is a video of Xing Zhe playing the chiba on Saturday:

Also on Youku.

AND OKAY, JUST A FEW MORE PARAGRAPHS ON THE GUQIN: In any given performance, the seasoned guqin player’s hand will undergo an amazingly complicated series of maneuvers to elicit the desired sounds, a feat that you really get to appreciate when you see it up close. The fingers on the right hand alone have to perform eight designated movements, such as the pluck, flick, vibrato, strum and slide (those may not be the technical terms). Musicians don’t play the guqin so much as coax it, sometimes taking incredible pains to massage a certain effect out of the vibrating strings.

What you get are sounds that are never stagnant: notes always carry with it the sidewinding tail of a mellifluous twang or nictitating echo, with shadows of melodies lingering an extra second after each rest stop.

I should also note that Saturday’s guqin performers, a young couple who were not music majors, asked I not use their names because, in the guy’s words, “we haven’t achieved the level of competence to be considered musicians.” That’s humility for you.

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