CASE 6:  Pipa as a Window on Chinese Music

Pipa, or a piece of pipa music, can be read—which is to say experienced, examined and interpreted—in many ways. The instrument itself, for example, can be read as a musical, cultural, social, economic, and technological product. Constructing a pipa with wooden materials, for instance, involves very specific knowledge and a developed tradition of craftsmanship. A pipa can also be a highly sought after work of art. This is especially true when a pipa is elaborately decorated, or has been owned by famous musicians or patrons.

Similarly, a piece of pipa solo music can be heard and interpreted in many ways: as a series of skillfully constructed and pleasurably performed sounds; as a musical depiction of a historical or biographical event; as a musical comment on Chinese history or culture; and as a sonic expression of universal feelings or emotions. One can read “Yi People’s Dance Music,” for example, as a contemporary expression of Chinese music and ethnic harmony, one that was composed by Wang Huiran 王 惠 然 (b. 1936) in 1960. This pipa composition attempts to sonically evoke the music and dance of the Yi people, a minority that lives in the mountainous land of southwest China. The piece features chromatic plucking, double stops, and polyphonic counterpoints, which produce lovely melodies, exciting rhythms, and contrasting timbres and dynamics that create a musical soundscape clearly different from the traditional pipa music of Han Chinese people. At the same time, the piece is dependent on Han musical aesthetics and compositional techniques: its sectional structure and its variations on a basic motive/melody are standard pipa features.

How one reads a particular piece of music depends a lot on the circumstances in which it is performed. “Yi People’s Dance Music,” for example, is performed all over the world, and in each place it is performed it has a different audience, which interprets the music with reference to their specific ethnic identities. When performed in urban China and for Han audiences, the piece might be understood to contrast Han ethnicity with that of the (non-Han) Yi people. When the piece is performed outside China and for non-Chinese audiences, however, it might evoke Western notions of rural Chinese peoples dancing and singing to celebrate their lives. When performed among Chinese minority peoples or those who are familiar with ethnic conflicts in China, the piece’s representation of the Yi people and their culture can quickly lead to contentious debates.

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