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: Can you list and describe some of the most popular Chinese musical instruments?

Josef: Sure! This is the perfect follow-up question which will lead us to the truest representative instrument of ancient chinese culture...the gu-qin (pronounced goo-chin) of the oldest Chinese instruments that was originally a ritual instrument with Five Strings, corresponding to you guessed it, The Five Agents. I don't know exactly how old the qin is but some that were unearthed date back to the Warring States period sometime between 475-221 BC. The gu-qin today, now has seven strings as two more were added to the five around the 11th Century by emperors wishing to establish a linkage between themselves and their subjects etc..etc..The original gu-qin, by the way, had a length of 3.66 chinese feet - corresponding to the maximum number of days in a year and a width of 0.60 chinese feet - representing the 6 universal entities. The Qin is considered to be the "supreme" instrument of the scholar and today it still is the supreme musical instrument of China's literati.

I would like to boast that HUGO has the most extensive and comprehensive recording of qin music. We have more than twenty-five CDs that represent the important schools and styles of the art of qin..such as Shu (Sichuan), Wumen, Min, and Guangling. As a matter of fact, our July release features a CD of Guangling Qin music. Quite lovely. Very deep and very resonant.

Another is the Xun (pronounced shoo-in) - one of the most ancient instruments of China with a history of more than 7,000 years. It is usually made of baked clay and some are made of stone. It is very much like the ocarina.

Xiao - an end-blown woodwind consisting of a vertical tube usually made of bamboo.

Pipa - a four-stringed pear shaped lute - it came to China from Central Asia around the time of the Han Dynasty and became very popular during the Tang Dynasty, which is often thought of as the golden age of Chinese civilization.

Erhu - Two stringed bowed-lute. Er-meaing "two" - hu-meaning "barbarian" believed to have been brought to China around 140 BC or so...

Dizi - a transverse bamboo flute with an extra hole covered with a thin resonating membrane made from the inside of the bamboo. A moderately high range with a very distinctive nasal tone...

Sheng - a mouth-pipe organ - it has a gourd base and bamboo pipes of different lengths. All of the pipes have reeds, and the sheng is considered by many to be the ancestor of the accordian and today it is getting a lot of attention from people who are into the "reed" family of instruments. Many are discovering the sheng and I have recently sent some HUGO CDs to various free-reed organizations so they can further their knowledge of this instrument.

Suona - A double reed shawm - mostly used in operas and folk music and it has a very high and bright tone.

Yangqin - familiar to many cultures as a dulcimer (England), Hammered Dulcimer (U.S.), santur (Iran), Cimbalom (Eastern Europe).

Zhongruan - the chinese guitar.

Yueqin - often referred to as the "moon guitar" - as its circular body is shaped like the moon.

And of course, tons of percussion instruments...

A thing to remember: There are 56 nationality groups in China with an aggregate population of 1.2 billion-plus people. The majority nationality, The Han, comprise nine-tenths of the population and the other 55 minority nationalities comprise one-tenth of the population (80 million-plus) and each nationality has their own unique musical traditions, instruments and styles. Different places have different instruments and even today we are still finding instruments that we did not know about before...There are over 700 instruments that are "native" to China and over 500 were created by ethnic groups.

Musical instruments in China were divided into eight categories, based on the material from which they were made: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd (calabash), clay (earth), skin (hide) and wood. Over time, some fell by the wayside while others evolved. This is known as "The Eight Sonorous Bodies."

I cordially invite the audience to check-out our July 2000 release which features many of these traditional instruments:

1. White Snow in Early Spring - Features the pipa - played by the virtuoso WONG Ching.
2. Infatuation for Dizi - Performed by ZHANG Wei-liang - who is also one of the elite performers of the xun and xiao.
3. Favorite Hu-qin Pieces - performed by LIU Ming-yuan. One of the best on the instrument.
4. Copper Idiophones over the Drums - by percussionist WANG Yi-dong. A very different percussion CD.

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