On harpsichords and white pianos: The challenge of music in China

B0009I8PWS.08.LZZZZZZZHit 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, 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, but there is no music more beautiful than this. Now, let me reiterate that I am not singling out this particular 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 classical music, and with that comes a refined and discriminating faculty.

A harpsichord shaped like a lute (built by Romanek Tihamer)

I latch onto the harpsichord as my starting point because of certain unique qualities to the instrument (and the body of compositions written for it) that allows me to make an instructive contrast with the piano. Do a Google or Bing image search and note 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 search for images of the piano. Apart from the obvious differences between the grand, the baby grand and the upright, 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 under “pianoforte”), 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 expanded over time, instrumental variety shrunk. The diversity of instruments in Europe 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 encompassed not only Europe but also North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The diversity of instruments in Western countries was far greater in centuries past than today.

There are exceptions to 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 expound on this instrument because so few people know anything about it or what it sounds like. Those familiar with the instrument probably know it only as the clangy keyboard that accompanies the recitative in Mozart’s operas. The harpsichord’s distinguishing characteristic is that its sound does not vary in volume. However you strike its keys, all the notes come out sounding equally loud. If you remove the plate unit strung with strings out of its 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 uniform. This unique feature gives its 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, its grade, the skill of the performer, the quality of the recording.

As the harpsichord’s fixed volume 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 the 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 orchestra in one’s home. Composers used the piano to sketch out ideas for their orchestral compositions.

Superficially, the harpsichord’s unvarying loudness 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, but the harpsichord is content with exploiting what’s possible within this miniature framework, how one note gets put before another, as one explorer’s 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.

Where the pianist is concerned with a composition’s over-arching architecture, with groups of notes as the building blocks, the harpsichordist is after something more modest, namely getting gracefully from one note to the next. 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.

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.

Richard Clayderman’s white piano

The antithesis of the harpsichord is the white piano: the epitome of bad taste. I don’t even know if they are to be found anymore apart from the odd nightclub in Nevada. They do a brisk business in China, and are a fixture in the lobby of many a five-star hotel. 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 reason why the color white should have a negative connotation. It is only the piano that does (perhaps the white suit too, unless you’re as successful a writer as Tom Wolfe). 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. While there need not be any negative connotations attached to the white piano, historically there are, and they are indelible.

Liberace at a white piano

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 colorful 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 it is designed for the TV, the audio reproduction being not that 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—the seamlessness being more important than the stream—the idea of music as opposed to actual music.

Lang Lang at a white piano

What keeps the audience hooked above all is the white pianist’s beaming smile. Classical music may be disliked for its puffed-up seriousness and dour pretensions, but it is no more pretentious than a rock star’s guitar solo, whose pinched expression is identical to the strained demeanor of the classical soloist. It is simply the face of concentration and exertion (Gustav Leonhardt was particularly known for his grave mien). The performer is respecting, disappearing into and becoming the music. The musician’s pained expression is also the same as that of people during sex, who scrunch their features to force out explosions of pleasure. It is the face in primal struggle.

Lang Lang at a red piano

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 having sex with someone who is smiling—so disarming because one cannot be enjoying sex while smiling; it means one is not enjoying it but only pretending to. A white piano performance is likewise not about enjoying music but only pretending to. Now, just as some people find sex funny and spontaneously laugh during the act, 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 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 (as Liberace did—to give the guy his due). 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?

Elton John at a red piano

In the West, the foundational difference between art and popular music still reigns, 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. The result was that artistic music became more available and accessible. Popular music would continue to recycle the usual drinking songs and rustic dances but was now pitted against “serious,” or as it was ultimately termed, “classical” music (which traditionally refers to the period between 1750-1820 but generically can refer to any music that the audience sits silent and 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.

Elton John’s “Million Dollar Piano”

What all music in the Western tradition has in common, however, is a profoundly historical consciousness. This includes popular music. Thus we have “classic rock,” for example, or 60s, 70s and 80s “retro” music, which many revisit nostalgically and each younger generation discovers anew. There is a deserved permanence to the best popular music for the simple reason that much of it is indeed outstanding, and which future generations can be counted on to preserve with loving care. Even some commercial pop rises up to classic status willy-nilly by being hammered into gold on the anvil of ruthless competition.

One of Liberace’s jewel-encrusted pianos

In China, all popular music (at least that which gets any airtime) is commercial and none of it is very good. It deservedly goes down the oblivion hatch after a month or two of airplay. With the notable exception of Chinese painting and calligraphy (a heritage predating the earliest Western medieval music), the Chinese arts are ahistorical. Chinese “classical” music—the canon of folk melodies played on traditional instruments; Peking and Kunqu opera—can be fixed historically only with difficulty, being an oral/aural tradition, originally without musical scores and passed down from teacher to student. It is not surprising that even today the concept that music or any artistic creations are intended to last and take on “classic” status is quite foreign.

The pained expression of the musician is also identical to the pained expression of people during sex, the face in primal struggle.

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 ways to classify music, the most common of which is into Soft, Loud, and Slow music, depicted in the Venn diagram above. Let’s start with the favored category of Soft music (aka Light music, reminiscent of yet distinct from the American associations of “light” with New Age, Adult Contemporary, etc.). This includes all of Chinese pop, certain sentimental Hollywood soundtracks (Titanic being a favorite), and two curious designations, Sax and Country Derry.

Sax is short for saxophone and refers to what we would call Smooth Jazz but stands almost exclusively for the music of Kenny G, who has astonishing popularity in China. Well, let’s qualify that. I don’t 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-heard tune in the history of this country. For decades it has been played in a continuous loop over and over again in restaurants, lounges, lobbies, stations, stores and shopping plazas to signal “closing time.” I’m sure many Chinese assume 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 and similar tunes for saxophone.

“Country Derry”: While the English on the box says “Excellent Songs of Europe,” the Chinese equivalent reads, “American Country Folk Rhymes”

Country Derry (no relation to 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, foreign songs were limited to Soviet army songs and perhaps “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music. In the footsteps of 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 to a 3-CD set, which you can find in any CD shop in China, all 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 a 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. Representing England is “Greensleeves.” 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 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, rarely 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 loud, harsh and unpleasant. The only explanation for why anyone would want to listen to such music is to be rebellious. It’s thus 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 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 has an interesting history in the communist countries, 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 to become the next Lang Lang and the family’s cash cow, only to discover they’re actually talented and enjoy the music—assuming they can tell the difference between Richard Clayderman and Schubert or Chopin, something most Chinese can’t. In general, though, old people listen to old music. There is an exception in the “light classical” or “classical pops” that Chinese families all seem to enjoy with the annual TV broadcast of the “New Year’s Concert” by the Vienna Philharmonic.

The Chinese musical universe

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. One might term it “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 to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. But the key thing is that the totality of Western classical music be made to fit into a package, potentially to be consumed at the end of a busy workday, and not for the purpose of listening but rather relaxing.

In all fairness, I can’t manage to get any of my friends, not just Chinese, to grasp the mind-boggling extensiveness of classical music, and this is worth a few words. The 1,200-plus years of music in the Western tradition for which we have surviving manuscripts only represents a small portion of the total amount of music originally written and all irretrievably lost. Of the surviving archives, only a 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 a single orchestra, the Mannheim Orchestra 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 composers today). Not all of this music may be distinguished enough to merit attention, but much of it 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, the challenge of music in China is merely a simpler version of the challenge of music everywhere.

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