CASE 6:  Pipa as a Window on Chinese Music

Pipa compositions constitute a distinctive genre of music. One subgenre of pipa music is its solo compositions, which are described as either military or civil music. “Ambushed from Ten Sides” is an example of a military piece, while “Flower Petals Floating on Green Grass” (“Feihua diancui”) is an example of civil music.Music example 3: Liu Dehai performs “Flower Petals Floating on Green Grass”. Pipa ensemble music—music that is performed with the pipa and a variety of Chinese wind, string and percussion instruments, such as flutes (dizi), mouth-organs (sheng), fiddles (erhu), and drums (gu)—is also widely performed and recorded. A representative and popular type of pipa ensemble music is the silk and bamboo music of central and coastal China (Jiangnan sizhu), which is now often performed as either concert music or background music. Music example 5: A performance of silk and bamboo music, the “Sixteen Beats” (“Shiliu ban”). Since contemporary composers are writing more and more concert music for pipa, with or without accompaniment by Chinese and/or Western musical instruments, a new subgenre of contemporary and concert pipa music is rapidly developing. A famous work in this subgenre is “Yi People’s Dance music” (“Yizu wuqu”). Music example 4: He Shuying performs “Yizu wuqu.” Pipa is also used in the instrumental, vocal, and operatic genres of traditional and contemporary Chinese music, all of which are known by their specific and technical names, such as Suzhou tanci (plucked and narrative songs of Suzhou), Nanguan (the music of Fujian and Taiwan), and Guangdong yinyue (Cantonese ensemble music). Despite the importance of pipa in these genres, they are not considered “pipa music” per se. This is because in China genres of music are classified according to where and how they are performed rather than by the instruments used to perform the music.

Currently, the most prominent subgenre of pipa music is solo compositions. Traditional pipa solo compositions are built up of individual tunes and themes, each of which is a section in a multi-sectional work. When a pipa composition features a number of substantive sections, it is considered a big piece (daqu); when it includes two or three short sections, it is considered a little piece (xiaoqu). As performed and notated by Lin Shicheng, “Ambushed from Ten Sides ” includes eighteen sections, each with its own sub-titles/subsections:

1) Setting up the camp;
2) Military drumming;
3) Sounding the battle signals;
4) Firing the canons;
5) The king’s entrance;
6) Inspecting the generals;
7) Inspecting the soldiers;
8) The ambush;
9) Small battle;
10) Big battle;
11) Battle cries;
12) besieged;
13) Sending signals;
14) Defeated;
15) Horn calls;
16) The king dies by the Wu River;
17) Victory is announced by his rival; and
18) The soldiers return to their camps.

This sectional structure is especially conducive to conveying the programmatic meanings and associations of traditional pipa music.

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