Liu Fang's Passionate Pipa
Traditional Chinese Music is in Her Heart and Soul
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• Part 7: Musical Goals
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Paula: What are some definining characteristics of Chinese classical music that you convey in your music?

Liu Fang: First, Chinese music is somehow related to the Chinese language. Unlike the western languages, Chinese language has tonality: the same pronunciation with different tones represents different meaning, depending on whether it is a flat tone, or sliding from a lower to higher pitch or from the higher to the lower, or a combination. The same thing for music, except that there are more possibilities in tonality which is more sensitive and subtle. Thus, it is very important to master the technique for both left and right hands: the right hand produces the sound by plucking the strings while the left hand gets the right tonality by acting on the string, such pressing, pushing or several other actions that are difficult to translate into English. Without having properly mastered these skills, it is impossible to interpret classical Chinese pipa music. Just as Prof. Tran Van Khe put it: "The right hand gives the sound, but the left hand gives the soul to the music". Therefore, one phrase in Chinese classical music is not simply a string notes, but each note has its own life and meaning, depending on how you play it in the context.

Secondly, Classical Chinese music refers to the art music closely related with Chinese poetry. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of the classical pieces have very poetic and sometimes philosophical titles. Traditional classical music in this sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation. Therefore, it is very important to understand the meaning and set the mind and the heart in the right mood that is in "in tune" with the music, particularly when playing the repertoire of the "literary style" or civil style, which are mostly slow and meditating. It can be very dull when just giving the sound without a meaning.

Thirdly, Classical Chinese music and traditional Chinese painting are twin sisters. Take, for instance, the traditional painting for landscapes: there is no obvious focus in the picture, but each part seems to have its own focus in such a manner that the variety of local character is in harmony with the whole picture, including the empty parts. In traditional Chinese painting, the empty parts are very important too in order to give the whole painting life. When everywhere is painted, there would be less freedom and imaginations for the viewers in appreciating the painting. In another words, the appreciating of painting is an interactive and dynamic process between the viewers and painting. The same is true with classical Chinese music. Each phrase is one sentence followed by a certain silence in such a way that the variety of pipa sounds and the silences (and sometimes noise) are combined harmoniously in forming the sound poetry, creating a kind of dynamic link between the performer and the audience. A good performer can create such a link so that the listeners can experience the power and the beauty of the music in a way like enjoying a beautiful poem and painting. To achieve this, only technique is not enough. It is a heart-to-heart process.

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