Homework for Music & China

Writing about music is an important tool for understanding it. MusicAtOurHouse solidifies class content with a short writing assignment following each session. Homework for the live class is posted on the discussion forum. For anyone participating in recordings-only, please feel free to post on the forum on an ongoing basis.

There's a famous quote attributed sometimes to Blaise Pascal, sometimes to Winston Churchill, sometimes to Abraham Lincoln, and sometimes to George Bernard Shaw (!): "I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I wanted to write a short one but I didn't have time." In other words, being concise takes a lot of work! Please say your full thoughts about the topic you choose, but condense them to the most economical form, the smallest number of words needed. The most important thing to cover are literal sound descriptions and emotional identifications.

Homework 1

Describe the ancient, traditional Chinese spiritual character and sensibility as expressed in calligraphy, visual art and decoration, the tea ceremony, kung fu, and music. Refer to our resource page here. (Please watch the videos about calligraphy and the tea ceremony!) The principal musical examples to consider are these compositions by composer Liu Tianhua, played on the Chinese fiddle or "Ehru":
Beautiful Evening (for Chinese New Year) -- another version here.
Recitation of Leisure
What is the main emotional or spiritual theme in this music?

Homework 2

What does the word "impression" mean, and why is it the basis for the name of the French "Impressionists"? Composers such as Claude Debussy and Murice Ravel were inspired by oriental sounds including especially the pentatonic scale we know from China.
Characterize the sound and feeling of these pieces. How is it similar to or different from the Chinese traditional music we have heard (see Homework 1 above)?

For fun: Describe the "Siamese Cat Song" from Lady & the Tramp. How is it similar to or different from Chinese traditional music? Or from these Impressionist compositions?

Homework 3

Chinese music is frequently inspired by visual images and the emotions they evoke, especially images of the natural world. This is true of the music for Ehru by Liu Tianhua (see above). Pianist Clara Zhang introduced to us some piano arrangements of traditional Chinese melodies; these also use visual images:
  • "Music at Sunset" or "Flute & Drum at the sunset," traditional melody arranged by Li, YingHai; Here is a piano performance by Pianist Yin, ChengZhong, who was considered the best interpreter of this piece. This is the piece which uses so many images we talked about in class such as Bells in the Temple, or the Moon over a Mountain, or Wind mixing with Water, or Fishermen Singing, or at the end a Boat Sailing off Alone. This piece sticks to the 5-note scale very strictly--the pianist plays only the black keys on the piano, and none of the white keys, which makes a pentatonic scale.
  • Here's a video of Clara Zhang playing "Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon" arranged by JianZhong Wang (Clara Zhang speaks at the beginning, which unfortunately the video doesn't pick up very well, but the piano playing is clear and starts at 1:47). This piece uses a traditional melody in which a woman sings of her longing for her lover.
  • The famous erhu player Abing's composition "Moon Reflected on Second Spring" (and on youtube here) also has an image as inspiration--even thought Abing was blind!!
  • When French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy composed using the 5-note (pentatonic) scale, he did the same kind of thing--he called his piece "The Girl with Flaxen Hair."
How does a visual image serve as an inspiration in these examples? How does the kind of feeling one *sees* in a picture or imaginary image become a kind of feeling one *hears* in the music? Discuss the emotional quality of Chinese music generally; why might the association with natural images be so strong?

Extra question: How does Chinese music use rhythm and emphasis and articulation to create richness and variety, despite having a scale limited to 5 notes?

P.S. I have also created a category in our discussion group to post a "thank you" to our guest pianist Clara Zhang--please post your "thank you" here.

Homework 4

Describe the sounds of Chinese (Peking) Opera. Here are two examples about the legend of Madam Whitesnake. (Read about the legend of Whitesnake here.)

A Recitative & Aria from Whitesnake (unfortunately it cuts off rather abruptly)
White Snake Goddess Wedding

Song From Da Deng Dian (The Great Enthronement)
I lower my head and watch her
The Princess dresses like a fairy
No wonder my husband didn't come back to me
And has been bothered by her for 18 years
If I were a man, I might also go to her kingdom for years
If I saw her I would say
"Dear Sister -- thank you for taking care of my husband for 18 years!"

What are the four "tones" in Mandarin Chinese? (see our resource page) How are these connected the the vocal expression in Chinese Opera?

Extra: How is the origin of Chinese opera, from the tones of language, analogous to the origin of Indian Classical singing, out of Vedic chanting?

P.S. You might also be interested in these:
A Fight Scene in Chinese Opera
A Documentary about Chinese Opera

Homework 5