CASE 6:  Pipa as a Window on Chinese Music

Since pipa music can contain so much historical, cultural, and biographical information, contemporary audiences need to understand it as comprehensively as possible. It is impossible for anyone to identify all the potential meanings of a particular performance with one critical listening. A better approach is to critically examine the music step by step. A reasonable and musical first step is to listen closely, noting what kind of sounds a pipa composition or performance produces. To understand the sounds in their musical and cultural contexts, the programmatic titles and subtitles of the pipa compositions need to be consulted as these provide important interpretive information. Then one needs to consider the cultural context in which the music was created or performed. These would include theories and ideologies of Chinese music, music histories, and the realities of Chinese societies, such as gender and class relationships. Above all, audiences of pipa music should realize that whenever they engage with the music, they are experiencing a distinctive and complex Chinese cultural phenomenon. Thus, they need to ask not only what that phenomenon signifies, but also how their non-Chinese approaches to music might be influencing their encounter with the pipa music.


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