Fine China

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.

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