Ancient Resonance in a Modern World: The Guqin Zither

January 4, 2017
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It often surprises me to see the variety of music around the world, especially a completely new genre or instrument, with a unique voice and heritage of its own. 

 

In this regard, ever since my discovery of the Guqin (pronounced goo-chin), an ancient Chinese zither, I have realised that music isn't just limited to pleasing and descriptive sounds; it is a complete microcosm of the culture of a country, and the times its people have gone through- of every revolution and renaissance, victory and defeat. 

 

To give a small description, the guqin is made of two pieces of wood joined together, with seven strings stretched across its length. It is played by plucking and sliding with the right hand, and pressing with the left. Each component and playing technique is full of mythology and symbolism, which are too numerous to list. Its various parts have fancy names, such as 'Dragon's gums', 'Moon Pool' and 'Phoenix Pond'. In mythology, it is said to have a celestial origin, but it was most probably descended from an even more ancient instrument , the multi-stringed se. (Information courtesy of Wikipedia.)

 

The sounds it produces are difficult to explain in words- they are soft, vibrating, ethereal and strong. Once you get used to guqin music, you realise how each note is packed with feeling and atmosphere. It is quite different from Western music, placing equal emphasis on sound and silence, while harbouring many techniques such as scratching and pounding, all which may seem unrefined to the aesthetic, but are beautiful to those with open minds.

 

Traditionally the instrument of elites and scholars, who viewed it as the perfect art, it requires lots of patience and years of hard work to master, and even more hard work to convey. Interestingly, it was never meant to be a 'concert' instrument; but one played for self expression and close friends. All of these restrictions, combined with its complex philosophy and techniques, made it less popular than other instruments, especially in the modern world. However, its beauty has not decreased. Countless years it has seen, of popularity and isolation. 

 

One sees a lot of variation in style and emotion in guqin music pieces, many of which have interesting histories. Take ,for example, 'Wild Geese Descending on a Sandy Beach'. Meant to be a source of comfort in harsh times, it has a calm, reassuring aura about it, which brings to mind many images. On the other hand, 'Guangling San' is a tragic tale of a man named Ni Zan, and

towards the end fills with powerful sounds and emotion. (Information courtesy of Silkqin)

 

The world of music is so vast, and each country and culture has musical treasures of its own to cherish. You never know when you may chance upon an amazing discovery.






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