On harpsichords and multicolored pianos: The challenge of music in China
January 11, 2012 § 26 Comments
Hit your pause button for the day, slow down, clear your head. Splurge on a bottle of good Bordeaux and listen to some music to match, like the opening track of the recording pictured at right, the master harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt (1928-2012) playing a pavan in A minor by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd (ca. 1543-1623). I could have come up with countless other examples of music as beautiful as this (including tracks on the same CD), but there is no music more beautiful than this. Now, let me reiterate that I am not singling out this piece by Byrd as the greatest thing ever composed; only that like any music of the top caliber, of which it is but a mere instance, there is a concentration of talent and energy resulting in a perfectly realized, diamond-like creation that cannot be improved upon in any way.
“How do you know this?” I am typically asked.
Music appreciation is a highly subjective affair, and we all of course have our favorites. You simply have to trust that I speak from long acquaintance with Western music, and with that comes a refined and discriminating faculty.
I latch onto harpsichord music as my starting point because of certain unique qualities of this instrument (and the body of music written for it) that allows me to form a sharp contrast with another instrument, the piano. Do a Google or Bing image search of “harpsichord” and notice the incredible variety of harpsichords. No two are alike. They have various shapes and designs, including elaborately painted or decorated artwork on the outside casing and under the lid. Now do an image search for “piano.” Apart from the obvious differences between the grand, the baby grand and the upright, and gradations in quality and price, all pianos look the same. Why is this? In fact, the piano in its early development (late 18th-early 19th c.) also varied greatly in form and appearance (search “pianoforte” for images of the early piano), though never to the extent of the harpsichord or the harpsichord’s cousins, the virginal, spinet and clavichord. Something happened in the 19th century, after the harpsichord’s demise in the 18th, which pressed the piano into its assembly-line uniformity.
What happened was mass production. Not only the piano, all the instruments of the orchestra became standardized during this period. As the size of the orchestra has grown larger over time, instrumental variety has significantly shrunk. The diversity of instruments in Western countries was far greater in centuries past than today. If we go back to the medieval era, there was even no clear distinction between European and Arab instruments, because the myriad instruments in general circulation occupied a much larger territory, encompassing not only Europe but North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
There are exceptions mass production: every modern pipe organ (like those in the past) is a unique creation designed for the architecture of the church or concert hall where it is built. The rebellious freedom of rock music has engendered an endless proliferation of guitar types and drum sets. And we are seeing the piano getting restless again. While it’s still holding its shape, it’s increasingly sloughing off its black-finish straightjacket – more on which later. Back to the harpsichord. I need to expand on this instrument because so few people know anything about it or what it sounds like. I do not speak of the exoticness of such an instrument in China, with which we shall be concerned shortly, but in the entire world of classical music appreciation. Of the small portion of classical lovers anywhere who are into “Early Music” (pre-1750), those familiar with the harpsichord probably know it only as the keyboard that accompanies the recitative in Mozart’s operas.
The harpsichord’s distinguishing characteristic is that its sound cannot vary in loudness. When you strike its keys all the notes come out sounding equally loud no matter how you vary your touch. If you remove the plate unit holding the strings out of the harpsichord’s box and stand it upright, you have a harp. But whereas you can pluck the strings of a harp lightly or forcefully, the harpsichord’s indirect plucking mechanism takes this out of your hands and renders the notes uniformly. This unique feature gives the harpsichord’s timbre a monochrome quality which affects people variously as monotonous or exquisite, harsh or sensuous, depending on a host of factors – the listener’s familiarity with the instrument, the skill of the performer, the grade of the instrument or recording.
As this was ultimately felt to be a limiting feature, the pianoforte (literally the keyboard instrument that can play both “soft and loud”), or the piano for short, was invented to provide this missing dynamic range (the harpsichord’s contemporary, the clavichord, could do this as well but had its own limiting features that also drove the invention of the piano). Together with the expansion of the orchestra over the course of the 19th century, the piano grew in size and amplitude. It sought the symphony’s grandness, an instrument that could mimic the effects of the orchestra in one’s home. Composers relied on the piano to sketch out ideas for their orchestral compositions.
Superficially, the harpsichord’s lack of volume control might seem a disadvantage or defect, accounting for its demise. But by taking something away, we gain something. With dynamics equalized, the remaining musical variables are reduced to pitch and rhythm. When all the pearls are the same size, we better understand their relationship on the string. The harpsichord concentrates our attention on the essentials of the music: how a mere handful of notes artfully arranged can burst into melody. All music is concerned with this alchemy, of course, but the harpsichord is content with exploiting what’s possible within this crippled framework, how one note gets put before another, as one foot is put before the other. Harpsichord music doesn’t build up to anything. It is seldom dramatic or suspenseful; there is no Beethoven-like crouching before the leap. What happens at the outset is everything. Not that we would want to, but stop the music after three notes and it’s enough. It is as if the essence of music lies not in the entirety of a work but at any point between the notes. Thus how one navigates from one note to the next is crucial. Where the pianist is concerned with the over-arching architecture of a composition, what holds the totality together, with groups of notes as the building blocks, the harpsichordist is after something more modest, namely getting gracefully and effortlessly from one note to the next and by that means pulling the whole thing off. This is something no more easy to do than it is to write a line of poetry, because the longer one stares at a word or a note, the stranger it becomes. It’s why it is hard to find harpsichord recordings that distinguish themselves from the pack, but those that succeed define for classical music the epitome of taste, or if that sounds elitist, discernment, the art of distinguishing the good from the bad.
The antithesis of the harpsichord is the white piano: the epitome of bad taste in music. I don’t even know if they are to be found anymore apart from the odd nightclub in Nevada. But they do a brisk business in China, where they can often be seen in the lobby of 5-star hotels. If you want to understand the fresh appeal of the white piano in China, think of the fanatical frenzy for the white iPhone as soon as it was offered as an alternative to the black. After all, there’s no logical reason why the color white should have a negative connotation for the rest of us. It is only the piano that does (perhaps the white tuxedo too, unless you’re as successful a writer as Tom Wolfe). Of course, our distaste for the white piano stems from certain associated stars of the Easy Listening school (Liberace, Clayderman, etc.), music, that is, for people who don’t like music. In other words, there need not be any negative connotations attached to the white piano, but unfortunately there are and they are for all practical purposes indelible.
If the harpsichordist is a dancer or fencer of music, the white pianist is a cook, a confectioner. He gathers the notes together in swoops and flourishes, blending them into a delectable mousse of white noise. His too is a sport, though it’s a performance more physical than cerebral, a gymnastics of the keyboard. The white pianist dresses up for the occasion, usually televised, since the white piano is designed for the TV, the audio reproduction being not particularly important as the gist is conveyed by what you see on the screen. You can even turn the sound off for distraction-free appreciation of the gestural acrobatics, the attack and sweep of the hands and the arms, and the engaging smile. I don’t mean the music has to be fast – it may dribble along in a leisurely manner – only that the impression conveyed is of a seamless stream of music, a going through the motions of music, the idea of music as opposed to actual music.
What keeps the audience hooked above all is the white pianist’s beaming smile. Classical music is often derided or ridiculed by those who hate it for its puffed-up seriousness and dour pretentiousness. This is completely mistaken. It is no more pretentious than a rock star’s guitar solo, whose pinched expression is exactly the same as the strained demeanor on the classical soloist. It is simply the face of exertion and concentration. The performer is respecting the music, regarding it objectively and subtracting out his personality, even as the style of the playing is inevitably infused with his personality (Gustav Leonhardt was particularly known for his grave mien). He’s trying to draw attention away from himself and to the music, to disappear into the music. The pained expression of the musician is also identical to the pained expression of people during sex, the tight, focused expression intent on extracting the maximum release of pleasure/beauty from built-up tension, the face in primal struggle. What’s pretentious is the white pianist. When he beams and smiles along with the music, he’s drawing attention away from the music to himself. It’s like the disarming experience of having sex with someone who is smiling – disarming because one cannot actually be enjoying sex while smiling; it means one is not enjoying it but only pretending to.
Exception: some people find sex comical and laugh during the act, a completely genuine reaction. Similarly, some popular songs are properly sung with an energized smile, to channel the exuberance of the music’s lyrics. Because popular music makes no pretentions to art music status, it has free rein to be flamboyant and extravagant. The white pianist could surmount all his phoniness by the simple expedient of singing along to the music. Once fully immersed in the carnivalesque realm of the popular, though, why stop at white pianos? Why not pianos in a rainbow of colors and shapes? It’s precisely with popular music that the rules don’t apply.
In the West we have the foundational difference between intellectual and popular music, an historical distinction going back over a thousand years. Pitted against each other in the Middle Ages were sacred and secular music, the music of the Church and the music of everyone else – the carefree songs and dances of villagers, minstrels and troubadours. Eventually some secular musicians affected artistic airs, or church musicians took their music home with them for informal experimentation, however you want to look at it, and artistic music became more available and accessible. Popular music would continue to regurgitate the usual drinking songs and rustic dances but was now pitted against “serious” or as it was ultimately termed, “classical” music, which strictly speaking refers to the period between 1750-1820 but generically refers to any music that the audience sits immobile for. Even today they remain as compatible as oil and water, despite trendy “crossover” experiments (mainly to shore up the declining market for classical). As a rule they hate each other, with jazz acting as uneasy intermediary.
What all music in the Western tradition has in common, though, is a profoundly historical consciousness. This includes popular music. Thus we have “classic rock,” for example, or music of the “60s,” the “70s,” the “80s” and so forth, retro music everyone likes to revisit for fun and remembers and cherishes and each younger generation discovers anew. There is a deserved permanence to the best popular music for the simple reason that it’s really, really good, indeed unforgettable, and future generations can be counted on to preserve every bit of it with loving care, whether we now unanimously like it all or not. Even the occasional commercial pop, not destined to become classic because it’s not designed to, rises up to classic status willy-nilly for being hammered into gold on the anvil of ruthless competition.
In China, by contrast, all popular music (at least that which gets any airtime) is commercial, none of it very good, and all deservedly going down the oblivion hatch after a few weeks or months of radio and TV play. With the strange and notable exception of Chinese painting and calligraphy and its storied heritage and larger-than-life artistic personalities going back as far as the earliest Western medieval music, the Chinese arts are ahistorical. Chinese “classical” music (Peking and Kunqu opera and the canon of folk melodies played on traditional instruments) can be fixed historically only with the greatest difficulty, having been a largely illiterate tradition, originally without musical scores and passed down aurally from teacher to student. Today, in a country where nothing has permanence, where modern buildings (commercial and residential) aren’t designed to stand, according to official reckoning, for more than 30-35 years, where new subway stations start falling apart not long after being built, where the subject of history is not taught in the schools except as propaganda and is universally regarded with derision by students and teachers alike, where the capacity for memory and intelligence is marshaled into short-term exam and test-taking, the concept that music or any artistic creations are intended to last and potentially take on “classic” status is quite foreign.
Music is categorized differently in China than in the rest of the world. There is no primary, decisive separation into “serious” and “popular,” as this is an historical, and therefore Western, distinction. The Chinese have come up with their own fresh way to classify music, three handy overlapping categories encompassing the totality of Chinese and Western music: Soft, Loud, and Slow music (depicted in the Venn diagram below). Let’s start with the favored category of Soft music (aka Light music, reminiscent of yet distinct from the American associations of the word with New Age, Adult Contemporary, etc.). This includes all of Chinese pop, certain Hollywood film soundtracks of the sentimental sort (Titanic being a favorite), and two curious designations, Sax and Country Derry.
Sax is short for saxophone and refers to what we call Smooth Jazz but in practice stands almost exclusively for the music of Kenny G, who has astonishing popularity in China. Well, let’s qualify that. I don’t really think the Chinese truly pay him much heed, for don’t genuine fans tend to collect a pop star’s every song and album? Except for one other piece occasionally offered for variety, his version of the traditional Chinese melody “Jasmine Flower,” the Kenny G repertoire in China consists of the single instrumental number, “Going Home.” It has probably been the most oft-played melody in the history of this country. For two decades, roughly 1990-2010, it was played relentlessly in a continuous loop over and over again in restaurants, lounges, lobbies, stations, stores and shopping plazas. Perhaps due to the Starbucks revolution in China – the international coffee chains don’t play it – its frequency in recent years is dying down and fading, being replaced by other forms of white noise (The Chinese Art of Noise). I’m sure many Chinese assume by now it’s a traditional Chinese melody and haven’t the slightest conception of who Kenny G is or that it is actually American music. In any case, the term Sax can be said to boil down to this single tune.
Country Derry (not to be confused with Derry County in Ireland) is a grab bag category of popular Western songs that have broken into the Chinese Soft canon. I should revise my previous claim that the Chinese lack the patience to cultivate a list of “classic” popular songs that are not immediately forgotten after their initial airplay. Before John Denver’s groundbreaking concert tour in China in 1992, bearing Deng Xiaoping’s imprimatur, popular foreign songs were basically limited to “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music and Soviet army songs. Following Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” some 50-60 songs have made it into this VIP club of select foreign musical hits. They originally fit on a single CD, but over the decades have expanded in number to fit typically onto a 3-CD set, which you can find in any CD shop in China, virtually identical compilations bearing the titles “Country Derry,” “American Country Folk,” “Country Folk Classical Music,” and the like. It’s not exactly country music but a haphazard, cheesy collection of mostly American and some English popular numbers from the 1960s-70s, including country & western, folk, light rock ballads, children’s songs, and corny pop, familiar and unfamiliar. The Carpenters are strongly represented (“Yesterday Once More” is the favorite), along with the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” While Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” passes muster in an obscure cover version, there is nothing by the Beatles (though “Greensleeves” makes the cut). Every few years a new hit makes it into the club, e.g. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” Madonna’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Houston is the only Black performer of the lot, and unless I am missing something I have not yet discovered any songs written by Black Americans in these compilations, nor anything in the way of authentic jazz or the blues.
Of all the thousands of worthy Anglo-American hit songs of the past decades that are available to choose from, they had to choose these. Yet it is telling that in the Chinese Soft music category, the only songs that seem to stick and which are not routinely forgotten and replaced by the latest cheap commercial hits, are Western songs. This explains why there are any Western songs at all in the category: they are the only good songs. Meanwhile, it must also be pointed out that the Chinese are little interested in the cultural context or origin of these songs, still less in the songwriters or musicians who wrote them. Routinely only the titles of the songs are listed on the CD box, never the names of the performers.
Loud music refers to all music that has been excluded from the Soft category and is not in the Slow category: Western pop, rock music and jazz. The music itself need not actually be loud – there is after all much pop and rock that can be enjoyed at low volume – but to Chinese ears any kind of music they are not used to or familiar with is automatically “loud,” harsh and unpleasant. The only valid reason why anyone would want to listen to such music is to be rebellious. It’s thus mainly music for youth and social misfits who haven’t outgrown their naughty phase, the kind of youth who smoke cigarettes and may not be reliably patriotic, boys with long hair and girls who’ve lost their virginity before marriage, and none of whom is likely to be a Communist Party member. Western pop occupies a middle ground, overlapping the Soft category but kept suspiciously at arm’s length, until the occasional song wins the lottery and gets a leg in the Country Derry Club, as explained above. We mustn’t forget Chinese rock music, but only a tiny radical minority of the population wallow in this. Jazz for most Chinese is simply incomprehensible, or the term itself is confused with Sax and the music with rock. (Jazz incidentally has an interesting history in the communist countries more generally, where it was traditionally banned for its disturbing erotic pulse.)
Slow music is by definition any music that old people listen to, which includes Chinese and Western classical music proper. True, some younger Chinese enjoy classical music too, but they tend to be music majors or children forced to play the piano for the purpose of becoming the next Lang Lang and the family’s cash cow, only to discover that they’re actually talented or enjoy the music – assuming they can tell the difference between Schubert or Chopin and Richard Clayderman, something many Chinese can’t. In general, though, old people listen to old music. There is an exception with the “light classical” or “classical pops” that Chinese families listen to once a year when the annual Vienna Philharmonic “New Year’s Concert” is broadcast on TV.
Many Chinese are indeed unaware of the difference between “light” and “serious” classical music. To them, all of Western classical, like Chinese classical, can fit onto a few CDs, those endless compilations of “famous classical melodies,” with the composers’ names removed as with Country Derry compilations, what might be termed “chocolate box” music, because classical music goes down best in small dainty selections with slightly varied flavors. We wouldn’t want to confuse things by suggesting the composers are important; we should be grateful enough that more and more Chinese are taking an interest, any interest, in Western classical. For the more sophisticated, there are bigger boxed sets with several CDs devoted each to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, etc., but the key thing is that the totality of Western classical music be made to fit into a manageable package. More than that is not necessary, for the simple reason that the music is not intended for listening but merely for relaxing. There should be just enough variation in the background that one does not notice the music is in repeat mode.
In all fairness, I can’t even manage to get many Westerners’ heads around the mind-boggling extensiveness of classical music, and this is worth a few instructive words. The 1,200+ years of music in the Western tradition for which we have surviving manuscripts only represents a small portion of the total original music preserved in notation (not to mention the vastly larger amount of unrecorded music), the rest having disappeared through destruction or disintegration. Of the surviving archives, only a tiny fraction has been singled out for study, performance and recording in our times. To give you some idea of the extent of these archives, we have, for example, the 8,000 surviving trio sonatas from the middle-late Baroque era (ca. 1650-1750), or the 12,000 symphonies written for the Mannheim Orchestra alone in Germany during the middle decades of the 18th century. I don’t know the figures, but there are surely more than 100,000 surviving manuscripts of Western classical music (with countless new works continually being added to the pool by contemporary composers of serious or quality popular music from around the world). Not all of these works, of course, may be distinguished enough to merit attention, but many of them could be. Yet even the number of LP and CD recordings already in existence, while a small portion of the unrecorded whole, is substantial, in the many thousands (I refer to distinct works, not multiple recordings of the same works).
As all this exhausting variety is too much for most of us, Chinese or not, and we increasingly let others do the work of sorting, recommending and compiling for us (iTunes “Genius,” Pandora, etc.), I can affirm that the challenge of music in China is merely a simpler version of the challenge of music everywhere.
Philip Glass and Tan Dun (on our two great contemporary composers)