26 August 2006

How do you find Chinese music?

What are the features of Chinese music? To Westerner ears in the early years, listening to Chinese music was probably one of the least pleasant things in their world. In reading historical literature on Western impression of Chinese music in the nineteenth century, I encountered some interesting comments.

Fred Gaisberg, a business representative of the Gramophone Company, who started his Asian tour in 1902, wrote in a field report that in Shanghai they had to stop the session after making ten records because the din had so paralysed his wits that he could not think.

Henry Ellis, the third commissioner of the Lord Amherst’s British diplomatic mission to China in 1816 to 1817, described the performance of Canton opera as annoyance of a sing-song and mass of suffering, and said he never wanted to endure the noise of actors and instruments which he would not even call musical.

William Tyrone Power, the commissary general-in-chief of the British army, commented that Chinese singers employed an unnatural falsetto key pitched as high as possible, and the vocal timbre was hideous and ludicrous which could be compared to a tom cat caterwauling on the pantiles.

While these comments draw on the viewpoints of a businessman, a diplomat and a general from the British Empire, what could a real musician say?

Hector Berlioz, a famous French composer of the romantic period, contended that to name what Chinese people produced by their vocal and instrumental noise music was a strange abuse of the term. He also criticised that nothing so strange had ever struck his ear as Chinaman’s voice. From his view, Chinese singing is as a series of nasal, guttural hideous tones, which can equate the sounds a dog makes when after a long sleep it stretches its limbs and yawns, and even less flattering, wildcat howls, death-rattles and turkey cluckings.

Although some earlier Western criticism is apparently culturally egocentic prejudice against the sound out of their classical traditions and practices, the derogatory comments are actually understandable.

First, these Westerners simply applied the musical knowledge they had learnt in their culture to what they heard in China: some of them could only equate Chinese music with noise based on their definition of ‘music’, whereas some, from their technical point of view, deemed Chinese music backward.

Moreover, as there was no need, and perhaps nowhere, to develop a musical capacity to appreciate Chinese singing or the acoustic effect of instrumental performances in their society at that time, a person like Gaisberg would certainly not be ‘musical’ enough to tell the difference between ‘din’ and Chinese music nor the variation among those pieces he recorded.

However, with the development of information technology and commodification of culture products, more and more ethnic or folk music from different corners of the globe are available in the music marketplace. It may help people to understand and appreciate musical sounds of the others.

How do you find Chinese music?

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