[NetBehaviour] the mythical return to the pipa

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Mon Jan 7 04:14:49 CET 2019

the mythical return to the pipa

http://www.alansondheim.org/pipaa.mp3 (earphones if possible)

-- which i haven't played in a while. i play without artificial
nails, plucking back and forth with my fingers in a 'wave'
movement. traditionally the pipa is played vertically with the
plucking from the back of the nails only (usually with physical
extensions) in a set rhythmic pattern. so what i'm doing is
wrong, but i transformed the wave movement from the traditional
way, something i now use on almost all my string instruments.
the pipa's about 3 1/2 octaves with an odd tuning, CFGC' so the
two central strings are only a whole note apart, but you have
parallel fifths CG and GC' as well as parallel fourths of
course. chording is odd. notes are bent by depressing a string
(the frets are very high) or sliding it sideways. scraping the
string surfaces results in an energetic percussive sound. i keep
hitting pseudo-appalachian rhythms. harmonics are almost
bell-like. the pipa is extremely heavy. it was held horizontally
centuries ago, played with a large triangular pick similar to
the biwa. the frets reflected a pentatonic scale. the instrument
is an import into china; the japanese biwa is an import of the
biwa, nothing is ever that clear. this particular instrument was
used in a music school in china; judging by the case, i think
it's from the 1960s. the frets are bamboo and horn. i find
myself 'rushing' the music, trying to avoid the insipid
| '|'|'|'|'|'|' ... rhythm i drop into. i feel the frets and
general tenor of the music i play keeps dragging me into more
and more untoward finger and modal/harmonic positions that are
increasingly difficult to get out of, both melodically and
physically. i try to work with note clusters, attempting to
keep them in mind them as i flurry on. everything is almost
banjo-like, sharp. the three lower strings are wound thick. the
upper string is unwound and almost bell-like. it also bends the
most; i could play on it alone. the deepest string is heavy,
almost qin-like; it passes for a bass banjo or some such. after
these pieces i was sweating heavily. the pipa is balanced on my
leg using a rubber mat to keep it from slipping. when it's
played vertically (again, the traditional way), it's easier to
hold, but much harder for me to play. the bamboo frets are
unmarked and can be confusing, especially if i'm playing
quickly. i'm usually thinking ahead five or ten seconds and
sometimes i'm repeating rhythmic modules for emphasis, for the
overall tenor of the piece, and for a kind of stalling of the
development so that tacit thinking in relation to the overall
sonority can process what's occurring. it's as if time curled
around the whole presence of music, player, and instrument, a
coherent habitus or home possessing a temporal elasticity unlike
anything i've experienced otherwise. it's as if everything
coherently evolves into a moment spread like a veil through a
landscape of our own making. it's as if we were multiple here,
among multiple heres, and multiple nows that were also multiple
pasts and multiple futures. it's as if we were no longer one.
it's as if we were we.

it's here i have to insist again, i would be considered a joke
by any trained pipa player, a clumsy oaf, an absurdity, a
dilettante. i'm not trying to play "properly" - that would take
years for me. i do what i can and want to do on the pipa, with
tremendous respect for the tradition itself. i could never do
that. did i say i do what i can?

(For insight into the tradition, how the instrument should
be played within it, and the music itself, see:

The Way of the Pipa: Structure and Imagery in Chinese Lute
Music, John E. Myers, Kent State, 1992

Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical
Culture, Liang Mingyue, Heinrichshofen Edition, 1995

The second is wonderful for an in-depth overview Chinese music,
including a great deal on the qin (the author is a qin player).
The first has an analysis of "The Ambuscade" or "Attacking from
10 Sides" - one of the best-known pipa pieces and the one I
like the best.)

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