Dateline: July 21, 2000
|American ethnomusicologist Josef Bomback has a special interest in the traditional and contemporary music of China. In addition to being an accomplished musician
in his own right, as a jazz pianist he accompanied the likes of Peter Frampton and Al Jarreau, he is also the Executive Vice President of Hugo Production,
a label specializing in the traditional instruments and sounds of China.
I spoke to Bomback about the intricacies of Chinese music -- what makes it unique, and about the Hugo recordings.
Paula: What are some of the unique characteristics of Chinese music that sets it
apart from Western music? For instance, scales? Tones?
Josef: The primary differentiator is the pentatonic scale which began at least two thousand years before the west even had music.
It is still the basis of Chinese music today. So, let's tie this in with the above question regarding ontology, OK?
Since traditional Chinese thinking considers the universe
to be one living interactive system - this can apply to the
music where the artificial abstract world of "notes" is interwoven
with the natural world of "sound" and cosmic laws, with music being
one of the "connecting links" between heaven and earth - as the origin
of music, is too, divine.
The ancient sages always considered that the overall goal of human
beings was to establish inner and outer harmony, and music, they
believed, had the capacity to bring peace and harmony as it is
inseparably linked to the lives of the people.
Lets begin with:
1. The Tao - or the all-one, the source
The Tao gives birth to
2. The Qi (pronounced chee) or the universal power - life-force, the wind of heaven. These two operating factors,
The Tao and The Qi work together to create and maintain the
universe and everything of organic and non-organic matter.
There are two forms of Qi that we commonly know as yin/yang. Yin being cosmic female,
represented by earth and has the characteristics of yielding, indulging, cold, moist
etc..etc.. Yang, being the cosmic male - representing the universe and has characteristics
of creativity, warm, dry etc..etc..
The mutual increase and decrease of yin/yang
are responsible for the 5 Developmental Phases
which constitute the whole of cosmic life - They
create what we commonly know as the Five Agents:
1. Earth - corresponding western tone - 1st Tone - Do
2. Metal - " " 2nd Tone - Re
3. Wood - " " 3rd Tone - Me
4. Fire - " " 5th Tone - Sol
5. Water - " " 6th Tone LA
There is a cosmic unity which makes it impossible to separate church
from state, spiritual from mundane as well as corresponding "values"
such as the Four Directions - N, S, E, W plus Center (5), The five
governmental functions, the five principal colors, the five key
personal virtues, and what we are interested in, The Pentatonic
Scale...Do, Re, Me, Sol and La are the Chinese characters; Gong,
Shang, Jiao, Zhi, and Yu. Before Western society was introduced
to China, the music was written out with these characters which
stood for the "notes". This has "shaped" the music and gives it
the unique sound and character that it has. Much of the traditional
music, too, is unison and does not have the harmonic density of western music.
Page 1 Page 2 More About Chinese Music - Instruments