[skip to content]

Department of Music

Lessons for Schools: 1 China

Pipa

Silk-and-Bamboo (Sizhu) is a genre of music associated with the teahouses of Shanghai. The music is played by an ensemble of plucked lutes, fiddles and flutes. The Shanghai musicians are generally amateurs, and typically elderly men, whose music forms the background sounds of the city’s famous teahouses, while other patrons chat over cups of tea, melon seeds and games of Chinese chess.

The ‘silk-and-bamboo’ refers to string and wind instruments; silk being the traditional material for the strings, and bamboo being the material for Chinese flutes. The term sizhu by extension also refers to instrumental genres.

There is a short clip showing the traditional teahouse setting for sizhu at this link: youtube.com/watch?v=dbf7DUgdX7k or search for: China-Sizhu (Silk and Bamboo) Music. Posted by WorldMusicVideo.

The ensemble consists of: dizi (transverse flute), xiao (end-blown flute) erhu (two-string fiddle), sheng (bamboo mouth organ), sanxian (three-stringed plucked lute), pipa (four-stringed plucked lute), and sometimes the yangqin (hammer dulcimer).

The metre is marked out on the ban, which is actually two separate percussion instruments: wooden clappers held in the left hand, and a wood block placed on the table, beaten with a wooden stick held in the right hand.

Sheng

There are good images of some of the instruments played in the sizhu ensemble, and brief explanations at this link: www.paulnoll.com (The sizhu instruments are spread over three web pages; follow the links to p2 and p3 for sanxian and dizi)

As in an Irish traditional music session, the instrumentation is not fixed. Usually only one of each instrument is used, but the ensemble may range from two to ten or more musicians depending on who turns up. In fact there are many similarities between sizhu and Irish sessions (except the Guinness!)

These days, professional musicians also play this repertoire on the concert stage. Here is a link to a professional ensemble performance of a whole piece, ‘Joyful Song’ (Huanlege). Their performance stays reasonably faithful to the traditional aesthetic but it is more slick and less characterful than the teahouse rendition. In this clip you can hear the structural principle of ‘metrical variation’ discussed below.
youtube.com/watch?v=Z89uwV1dYNA (title in Chinese characters, I’m afraid 欢乐歌 江南丝竹 申韵江南丝竹队, posted by chinesecivilisation, 2 Oct 2008)

At the heart of the sizhu repertoire are the Eight Great Pieces (ba daqu). The repertoire is based on simple old melodies such as ‘Old Six Beats’ (lao liuban), which are elaborated in performance to create larger-scale complex pieces which begin in stately and elegant mood and accelerate to a breathless conclusion.

Gongche notation

This is one of several traditional Chinese notation systems. It is used in many different types of instrumental ensembles, of which this Shanghai teahouse genre is only one, and also sometimes in opera. It has a history of a few 100 years (very youthful for Chinese notations). The symbols are based on the Chinese writing system, and they denote the pitches of a seven-note diatonic scale.

Chinese Scale

A brief look at this notation puts paid to a popular myth: Chinese music is not pentatonic! The scale includes neutral 4th and 7th notes. Admittedly these are mainly used as passing notes, so we can talk about a pentatonic (anhemitonic pentatonic to be precise) core for this music.

Note also that this style of notation gives relative, not fixed pitch. In practice the sizhu repertoire is pitched with do on D.

Exercise:

Practise singing up the scale using the Chinese syllables.

Pronunciation tips (with apologies!):
her, suh, eee, shang, chuh, gung, fan, leeoh, woo, eee, shang, chuh

Skeletal scores (guganyin)

Gongche Score

Gongche score of ‘Lao Xingjie’ (Old Street Walking) (first few lines)

The score reads, as with Chinese writing, vertically, starting from the right.

The metre is shown by dashes to the right of the symbols. Each dash indicates a ‘beat’ (ban) on the clappers in the left hand.

A large comma (after the 15th symbol) indicates the end of the first phrase.

In many genres of Chinese instrumental music, young musicians learn the basics of the repertoire by singing the score (yunpu).

Exercise:

Work out how to sing the first phrase using the Chinese syllables. Use a slow regular pulse.

Chinese Exercise

Add in the beats on the ban (on the first beat of each bar in the transcription). Some kind of clappers would be great but you can use any kind of percussion, or simply beat the desk with the left hand.

The way in which the skeletal score is realised in performance is called metrical variation (板腔体 banqiangti). The ban gives the clearest indication of the metrical expansion:

At slow speed it plays one ‘beat’ (ban) on the clappers to three ‘eyes’ (yan) on the woodblock: (banyanyanyan / banyanyanyan)
At mid-speed it plays one ‘beat’ to each ‘eye’: (banyan / banyan)
At fast speed it only plays the beats: (ban / ban)

The same melodic material is first played slowly with a lot of ornamentation. Then it is repeated at around double the speed with half the amount of ornamentation, then again, doubling the speed again with hardly any ornamentation. The ornamentation is called jiahua (adding flowers).

The transcription below takes a five-note phrase from the score and shows how it is realised in performance at fast, mid and slow speeds:

Chinese Transcription

You can see that there is quite a bit of flexibility in the expansion of the skeletal score in performance. In particular the slow version barely coincides with alternate notes of the skeletal score. There are no overt rules, but there are conventions governing the limits of acceptable variation within the tradition. It might be stretching a point to call this improvisation, but there is clearly creativity going on in the course of performance.

Exercise: 

Play the three different versions of the phrase on any melodic instrument (recorders would work well). Make sure you’re following the indicated speeds. Accompany with percussion or tapping the desk to beat out the ‘beats’ and ‘eyes’ of the metre.

The example shows what one flute (dizi) player might do with this phrase, but different musicians all do it slightly differently, and the same musician may play it differently each time.

Different instruments vary the skeletal score in different ways according to the characteristics of their instrument, thus creating a heterophonic texture. The art of playing in the ensemble is to achieve balance, and a harmonious blend. Musicians say, ‘you simple, me complex’ (nijian wofan) and take turns to play the leading role. Thus the aesthetics coincide with the Confucian philosophical ideals of balance and harmony, yin and yang.

Exercise: 

If you’re feeling confident you could try to introduce slight variations into your performance of the phrase. See if your audience thinks it sounds right.

The ‘eyes’ of the percussion part (played on the wood block) can also be varied, especially at the slow speed, adding in quavers, dotted notes, even syncopations.