Listening Log- [Pt.1 Proj.2] – ‘Baisha xiye’ 白沙细乐 traditional music of the Naxi people of China.
WORLD MUSIC IN A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY
‘Baisha xiye’ 白沙细乐 traditional music of the Naxi people of China.
I have recently researched one out of two types of traditional music of the Naxi people of China, the ‘Baisha xiye’ 白沙细乐 tradition. Historically ‘Baisha xiye’ was performed at funerals and in relation to death and the migration of souls. These days the tradition has become mainly aimed at tourists and is very much in danger of becoming ‘museum’ music. Nowadays it is almost solely performed by the Naxi Ancient Music ensembles for visitors in the theatres of Lijiang.
The Baisha Xiyue suite supposedly describes a historical event. Legend has it that the Kublai Khan gifted half his orchestra to the village of Lijiang (and the village of Baisha which is just outside of it) after they had helped him cross the treacherous local river. To this day the few remaining Baisha musicians like to practice their music by the river in Lijiang. The songs and instruments aim to guide and release the spirits of the deceased so they can return home. Traditional Chinese instruments were classified according to the materials that they were made from; metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, clay, leather, or wood. These materials were seen as corresponding to the elements and controlling them in the spiritual realm.
The ‘Naxi Ancient Music ensemble’ orchestra consists of Chinese and Mongolian musical instruments along with several voices, which may or may not, be sung by the musicians. The instrumentation used is the dizi (flute), Bulbuq (flute), Shuqggvddvq (lute), Pipa (plucked lute) Zheng (zither), Sanxian (Chinese lute), Huqin (bowed fiddle), Erhu (bowed 2 string violin-like instrument), Jinghu (bowed violin like instrument playing an octave higher than the previous two) and several singers.
I am currently working on a piece of ‘processional’ music which has some striking similarity to ‘Baisha xiye’. I believe that I can resolve some of my own questions and problems with finishing my ‘processional’ piece by studying how the Naxi people structured their music and what devices they used to develop their pieces and keep their compositions evolving and remaining interesting over a long stretch of time without the use of harmonic development. Last year I attended a five-day masterclass with the composer Gavin Bryars. My processional piece is what I worked on during the class. When initially presenting it, both Gavin and several of the other students perceived certain ‘hypnotic’ or ‘trance like’ similarities to Eastern music like Gamelan. Gavin then encouraged me to try to extend the piece, to last at least 30 minutes. My main obstacle was the fear of and struggle to prevent the piece from ending up too boring, simplistic or repetitive.
discovered in ‘Baisha xiye’ (which is largely heterophonic) is that it is
structured around 24 set melodies called ‘qupai’. These melodies are then
elaborated on, developed and ornamented by the performers. These variations can
evolve into something quite distant from the original kernel and therefore the
music in effect becomes a combination of the composed piece and individual
The piece I focused on is from a collection of the remaining ancient songs ‘Suite Of Baisha Xiyue’ and is titled ’Ying Fe Shu’. It is played using the Chinese pentatonic scale starting on F. It is 101 bars long and in a 2/4-time signature at a tempo of approximately 68 bpm (quarter note). The Dizi (flute) can be considered the lead instrument although the various instruments do indeed play the melody line. The Shuqggvddvq (lute) imitates the bird call of a bird called ‘Daoyang’ which migrates through Lijiang in September. The main melody is characterised by numerous grace notes and trills which often deliberately start on an undefined pitch to land perfectly on pitch and conversely start on the right pitch and end blurred. This is done for effect to imitate a weeping sound and is one of the aspects of ‘Baisha Xiyue’ that gives it it’s mournful, sad flavour. This ‘Yi Feng Shu’ melody, at first introduced by the Dizi, keeps repeating and is elaborated on, developed and ornamented through numerous variations.
Another distinctly ‘Baisha Xiyue’ ornamentation device is the use of a sustained long note without any vibrato whatsoever, particularly at the end of phrases. This is quite alien to Western Art music. Contrastingly there is also an unusually highly active, fast oscillating vibrato used on slow notes. There are many more distinct types of vibrato which are in use, such as the pulsating vibrato resulting from the fingers rocking on the string of a bowed instrument. The Naxi trills often use much wider intervals than what is the norm in Western Art Music. A common motif being a jump of a minor third, descending back to a semitone above the original pitch and then repeating the motif faster and faster into a trill.
In conclusion, compositional devices I will attempt to use in my own work are things like extensive ornamentation, trills, vibratos and innovation in terms of pitch whilst also incorporating sections of improvisation on a theme or melody in different instruments and voices. Thus, I hope to maintain emotional and musical interest whilst keeping a steady, almost static or churning element to the underlying music. Things will remain constant at the core of the piece whilst the ornamentation flies wildly on top. I can easily see why many modern Western Art Music composers such as Debussy, Messiaen, John Cage and many more looked to the East to find ways of developing music without using standard harmonic progressions. There is much that still can be learned from other musical traditions and many new and interesting ways in which they can be combined and developed into new and unique styles.
Yunnan Minority Orchestra (2003) ‘Ancient Music Of The Naxi People: Suite Of Baisha Xiyue.’ From; Ancient Chinese Music: Autumn Reflections By The Dongting Lake. China: China Record Corporation. 2006 CRC Jianian, Inc. ASIN: B001LG69RK