Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Towards a Re-Merger in Music”


Eight pien, or mutable modes, each constantly mutating within itself, are constructed according to the concept of the eight images. These modes, as more fully developed in subsequent works, are based upon three disjunct segments of the octave that are either unbroken (a minor third) or broken (a major and a minor second, i.e., the minor third interpolated with a pien-tone). These segments are reciprocally mutable according to whether the movement is ascending or descending: the order of the two seconds also depends on the direction of movement. In other words, each segment in the ascending order is reflected in mutation in the descending order — the intervals being mutually exclusive. These modes, with similar coordination in duration and register, are woven into a fabric of the transitory and changing within a continuum of the timeless and unchanging — like the shifting patterns in a steadily flowing current, for example. This means that the contour of the work is the summation of modal interaction in space and time — a process of constant transmutation and superimposition. In principle, this process follows that of binary arithmetic, upon which the concept of change I Ching is founded.

It [the ch’in] is also the most characteristic of Chinese music. Over one hundred symbols (chien tzu) are used in its finger notation for achieving the essential yet elusive qualities of this music: subtle inflections in the production and control of its tones as a means of expression. They indicate the articulation and timbre of either a single tone or a series of tones; they specify the occurrence of variable microtones between fixed scale tones; and they control the rhythmic and dynamic organization within each tonal aggregate.

To make this clear, let us examine a short characteristic phrase in Yü Ko by Mao Min-chung (c. 1280). In the score, this phrase is indicated by a single chien tzu, which, in this case, denotes only one excitation of the string. Consequently, the changes in pitch and timbre are achieved during the decay. The finger technique involved may be described briefly as follows: as the right middle finger pulls the string inward, the left ring finger glides up quickly from the whole tone below the given note. At first, it glides very lightly, barely touching the string; then, when the finger is just less than a semitone below, it glides more firmly, pressing down on the string. This is referred to as “hiding the head (of the tone)” and is described as “a flying seagull touching down.” Once the finger reaches the given note, it pauses to ring out the tone, which should be “as pure as a pond in autumn, as bright as the clear moon, as resonant as waterfalls, as remote as echoes in a valley.” Then the finger again quickly glides up to the whole tone above and back “like a gust of wind.” It then glides down to the whole tone below and executes there a broad and accentuated vibrato, which is described as “the cry of a monkey climbing down a tree” and is expected to sound as crisply as “pearls rolling in a bowl.” Afterwards, the finger glides back to the given note once again, when the decay as well as this transitory musical expression of a “single tone” is completed.

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