Alex Rhodes

Composer | Arranger | Editor

The Chinese Dynamo Project: Week 2

The Largest Chapter

Welcome to week 2 of The Chinese Dynamo Project, where I am in the process of familiarizing myself with traditional Chinese methods of composition in order to be able to incorporate these styles into my own work. Let’s cut right to the chase: this week is probably the most integral to actually creating an original composition. I treated this week’s research as a fundamental basis to what I need to know after these upcoming weeks. In a way, it makes sense. No matter how many forms or structures I follow in writing, replicating Chinese music is impossible without the correct instrumentation. And as I stated last week (with my predictable realization that perhaps there were too many topics to learn in just four weeks), I have narrowed down the study of instruments to four different ones I will be featuring in my piece: the Erhu, the Pipa, the Guzheng, and the Xiao. So this week, I essentially learned the entirety of the basics I would need to know…which was a lot. Of course, I will continue to develop my proficiency in writing for each instrument as the weeks progress, but I feel like I now have a decent basis of understanding on what to write and how to write for each component.

Also, one final note before we begin the rundown of each instrument: this will be a video/website heavy week, so make sure to listen to everything I embed in order to learn along with me!

Instruments of Success

Each instrument that I decided to study (and the multitudes I decided not to study) has such a long, rich history that becomes evident when exploring how these instruments are played or exhibited in modern compositions. So, for the sake of keeping this as a project update rather than a textbook, I will only be briefly going over each of the four instruments in a bulleted format, and then including a few helpful links in order to expand your understanding.

   The Erhu    / One of the more popular Chinese instruments in numerous cultures because of its similarities with the violin and its accessible sound.  / More of a traditional folk instrument, rather than specifically seen in concert performances.  / The instrument comprises of two strings, with the lower one tuned to D4 and the higher string tuned to A4 (with a 5th in between).  / The range of the Erhu is between the open D string (D4 on the treble clef) and a high E above the staff lines (E6 on the A string).  / I can also speak a lot on the keys and harmonies possible in each instrument, but there will be a whole week dedicated to Chinese harmonies.  / A few core playing techniques that are heard in the Erhu:       Dun Gong, which is the equivalent of staccato        Shuang Yin, the term for double stops (where the Erhu can only play double stops a 5th apart)        Hua Yin, a glissando technique with the left hand that often is limited to a smaller interval at a quicker pace.   / So for composing for the Erhu (at a basic level), it is written similar to a violin with a plethora of extra notations that will allow the instrument to exhibit the many special techniques it has.  / Linked below is a really good introduction site for playing the instrument, as well as a well-known piece that employs many of these previously discussed techniques and playstyles.   Picture courtesy of cdn3.volusion.com

The Erhu

/ One of the more popular Chinese instruments in numerous cultures because of its similarities with the violin and its accessible sound.

/ More of a traditional folk instrument, rather than specifically seen in concert performances.

/ The instrument comprises of two strings, with the lower one tuned to D4 and the higher string tuned to A4 (with a 5th in between).

/ The range of the Erhu is between the open D string (D4 on the treble clef) and a high E above the staff lines (E6 on the A string).

/ I can also speak a lot on the keys and harmonies possible in each instrument, but there will be a whole week dedicated to Chinese harmonies.

/ A few core playing techniques that are heard in the Erhu:

    Dun Gong, which is the equivalent of staccato

    Shuang Yin, the term for double stops (where the Erhu can only play double stops a 5th apart)

    Hua Yin, a glissando technique with the left hand that often is limited to a smaller interval at a quicker pace.

/ So for composing for the Erhu (at a basic level), it is written similar to a violin with a plethora of extra notations that will allow the instrument to exhibit the many special techniques it has.

/ Linked below is a really good introduction site for playing the instrument, as well as a well-known piece that employs many of these previously discussed techniques and playstyles.

Picture courtesy of cdn3.volusion.com

"The Moon Over a Fountain", composed by Hua Yanjun. Video courtesy of Zijing Jaing

Visit this site for more information on the Erhu:

http://www.lantungmusic.com/erhu/for-composers/

   The Pipa    / A lute with four strings that dates back numerous centuries as a traditional and performance instrument.  / Tuning for the four strings are ADEA, from bottom to top. Notation is read in bass clef, with the lowest A starting at A2.  / Range is from the lowest A string (A2) to a high D in treble clef (D6).  / In order to play the Pipa, the player wears multiple plectra on their right hand, which essentially serve as picks in order to execute the many techniques attainable on this instrument:       Luen, a tremolo that can be played on multiple strings, played by all five fingers (There are multiple examples of this in the Pipa peace linked below)        Dzai, a muted note that sounds after the left hand plucks the highest string.        String bends, where the player changes the location of the finger on the left hand after plucking   / Linked below is a solo Pipa piece that demonstrates a lot of these techniques, as well as an interesting website that outlines the history and development of the instrument.   Picture courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Pipa

/ A lute with four strings that dates back numerous centuries as a traditional and performance instrument.

/ Tuning for the four strings are ADEA, from bottom to top. Notation is read in bass clef, with the lowest A starting at A2.

/ Range is from the lowest A string (A2) to a high D in treble clef (D6).

/ In order to play the Pipa, the player wears multiple plectra on their right hand, which essentially serve as picks in order to execute the many techniques attainable on this instrument:

    Luen, a tremolo that can be played on multiple strings, played by all five fingers (There are multiple examples of this in the Pipa peace linked below)

    Dzai, a muted note that sounds after the left hand plucks the highest string.

    String bends, where the player changes the location of the finger on the left hand after plucking

/ Linked below is a solo Pipa piece that demonstrates a lot of these techniques, as well as an interesting website that outlines the history and development of the instrument.

Picture courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

"A Song on the Frontier Fortress", composed by Liu Dehai and Li Shi.  

Visit this site for more information on the Pipa:

http://www.philmultic.com/pipa.html

   The Guzheng    / Very similar to the harp, but played horizontally as if the instrument were a table.  / Like the Pipa, the player wears plectra on their right hand in order to pluck the strings, while the left hand manipulates the sound on the other side of the instrument.  / Very polyphonic due to its design, and typically tuned in the major pentatonic scale that is prominent in Chinese compositions. The player can play the notes left out from the pentatonic scale by bending and holding down the strings with their left hand.  / There is a similar technique like the “Luen” technique of the Pipa, but it is only played with two fingers instead of five.    / A quick note- from multiple sources in my research, the Guzheng is stated as being primarily a solo instrument to be performed in concert settings. Although I will be taking this into account in my work, I still think it’s such an important instrument to include in a Chinese-influenced work, frequently seen in modern video game or film scores.   Picture courtesy of   ae01.alicdn.com

The Guzheng

/ Very similar to the harp, but played horizontally as if the instrument were a table.

/ Like the Pipa, the player wears plectra on their right hand in order to pluck the strings, while the left hand manipulates the sound on the other side of the instrument.

/ Very polyphonic due to its design, and typically tuned in the major pentatonic scale that is prominent in Chinese compositions. The player can play the notes left out from the pentatonic scale by bending and holding down the strings with their left hand.

/ There is a similar technique like the “Luen” technique of the Pipa, but it is only played with two fingers instead of five.  

/ A quick note- from multiple sources in my research, the Guzheng is stated as being primarily a solo instrument to be performed in concert settings. Although I will be taking this into account in my work, I still think it’s such an important instrument to include in a Chinese-influenced work, frequently seen in modern video game or film scores.

Picture courtesy of ae01.alicdn.com

"High Mountain Flowing Water", a traditional song. Some of you might recognize this from an amazing television show that was on over a decade ago. 

   The Xiao    / A vertical end-blown flute often made of bamboo for a soft, airy sound.  / The Xiao is typically tuned to a major scale, sometimes beginning on the dominant pitch, and either has six or eight holes for finger placement.  / Typically used for more melancholy pieces as opposed to its counterpart, the dizi, which has a higher pitch and is played differently.  / Linked below is an in-depth exploration into how the Xiao is tuned and utilized, as well as a fantastic piece showing the instrument’s strengths. Notice the Xiao’s contemplative sound and how it occasionally reaches a lower pitch than one would expect from a bamboo flute.   Picture courtesy of   www.redmusicshop.com

The Xiao

/ A vertical end-blown flute often made of bamboo for a soft, airy sound.

/ The Xiao is typically tuned to a major scale, sometimes beginning on the dominant pitch, and either has six or eight holes for finger placement.

/ Typically used for more melancholy pieces as opposed to its counterpart, the dizi, which has a higher pitch and is played differently.

/ Linked below is an in-depth exploration into how the Xiao is tuned and utilized, as well as a fantastic piece showing the instrument’s strengths. Notice the Xiao’s contemplative sound and how it occasionally reaches a lower pitch than one would expect from a bamboo flute.

Picture courtesy of www.redmusicshop.com

"Autumn Moon Over the Lake", composed by Lü Wencheng.  

Visit this site for more information on the Xiao:

http://santafefluteschool.com/resources/xiao/

Outro

Albeit relatively brief, hopefully that provided a good basis in learning what each instrument is about and how they relate to the orchestral setting in our compositions. One of the most beneficial things I researched during this week was the western equivalent of each Chinese instrument. I felt like this was a necessity for me to actually write the piece for two reasons. The first regarding the softwares I use for notating and writing music: while I have the means of faithfully recreating the sounds of many ethnic instruments in Logic, I do not have the capacity to notate these instruments in Finale. So, for the sake of actually having sheet music, they will be labeled as their western correspondents in the sheet music. The other reason stems from the evident differences between traditional Chinese notations (including the use of frets and numbers to designate notes) and modern orchestral notation (which I thought was much more helpful, in order to know how to incorporate these styles into western film and video game scores). Pictured below is a really cool example of an Erhu piece written in traditional Chinese notation…something I’m not sure I have the time or the patience to learn.

This week was, overall, a very time-intensive yet successful week. From here, we will begin to learn about the structures and forms inherent in Chinese compositions next week, and then tackle the idea of a new perspective on harmonies.

-Alex

  Traditional Chinese notation for an Erhu piece. Image provided by www.eason.com

Traditional Chinese notation for an Erhu piece. Image provided by www.eason.com