Sunday, December 30, 2012

Guitars come to China

When did the guitar come to China?   Western missionaries may have brought lutes, vihuelas and other guitar-like instruments to parts of China already by the 16th century, but their memoirs mention only the keyboard instruments and bowed string ensembles.  There's a record in the Vatican archives that papal legates to the Kangxi emperor brought two guitars by the maker Pietro Franchi to Beijing in 1720.

It was probably only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that the guitar began to be known more widely in China's coastal cities.  By the 1920s and 1930s, the instrument was all the rage in Shanghai and Hong Kong, cosmopolitan cities with broad western and Asian connections.  Famous stars appeared with guitars in movies made in Shanghai's film studios.  Models posed with Western stringed instruments. Ling Long, a magazine for sophisticated "modern girls," ran several portraits in the mid-1930s of fashionably dressed young ladies playing or holding guitars, ukuleles or mandolins.  In one, a woman with bobbed hair and a qipao dress with modish diagonal stripes mimes playing guitar in a garden.  The caption reads, "Miss Xu, in this tranquil place, play a song for us!"  In another, a girl labeled "healthy and beautiful" lounges in a bathing suit, cradling a ukulele her lap.  In a third, a girl in revealing tank top and short shorts lies on her back, one knee raised, her loose hair provocatively splayed on the courtyard floor behind her.  "Only she," the caption sighs, "can fully express such natural beauty."  The head of a mandolin rests against her breast while her slender fingers toy with the tuning pegs. 

These western stringed instruments made it possible (in a manner to which Chinese instruments are less suited) for young Chinese to accompany themselves singing popular songs of the day, and to do so in parks and other outdoor settings (as the piano does not).  But clearly these instruments meant more than that.  The guitar in China in this era was associated with youth and freedom—as in many other places.  But in China it bore an added sense of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, because the guitar was—and would remain for decades—classed as a foreign instrument. 

One of modern China's most famous song-writers, Nie Er 聶耳 (composer of China's national anthem) was a guitarist.  He used the guitar to great effect in his 1935 hit play, "Song of Returning Spring."   A girl strums guitar and sings "Plum Girl's Song" 梅娘曲 about her boyfriend who has lost his memory after being wounded fighting the Japanese.  She reminisces in the song about how they once played guitar and romanced in a garden in Southeast Asia—so again, the guitar is associated with foreign parts, as well as young love.  The song became a big hit among Chinese inside and outside of China, and could be considered a milestone in the use of guitar in Chinese popular music. 

Another early and prominent appearance is in the well-known New Year's song, "Gongxi gongxi," 恭喜恭喜 by Chen Gexin (under the pen name Qing Yu) and performed by Yao Li  姚莉 and her brother Yao Man.  The song, written in Shanghai in1945, commemorates the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII).  It has a gypsy sound to it, reminiscent of Russian or French café music.  Though this sound would not have been alien to listeners in 1940s Shanghai, it was nonetheless a cosmopolitan sound, not a specifically Chinese one.   The cross-cultural layerings of this emotive song are perhaps one reason why singers China Forbes and Timothy Yuji Nishimoto covered it—in Chinese—with Pink Martini in 2010.  [My thanks to Andrew Jones for the references to Nie Er and "Gongxi gongxi."]  Here's the Yao Li and Yao Man version:

These foreign associations would get the guitar in trouble as China's political vicissitudes led to anti-western isolationism during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.   Oddly enough, given the millions of young Red Guards then roaming the country and challenging authority, and the revolutionary romanticism of those years, they were not playing guitars.  In fact, the guitar was condemned as Western and decadent, associated in China with "hooligans" (liumang 流氓).  Anthems to Mao were not accompanied on a six-string.  Popular instruments of the day included the accordion, harmonica, and autoharps.  And it was permitted to play the what was called a "balalaika"—a three-stringed banjo-like instrument (Russian balalaikas are in fact triangular).  These were functionally little different from simple guitars, but round in shape rather than waisted, with backs decorated with such Maoisms as "never forget class struggle!"  Now these instruments are coveted pieces of Cultural Revolution memorabilia. 

As the Cultural Revolution wound down in the late 1970s, the guitar returned, as much as icon as musical instrument.   One emblematic figure of that era was the "false foreign devil"—the newest avatar of the liumang hooligan.  He wore long hair, tight or bell-bottom pants, sunglasses (often with the tag still dangling) and carried a guitar.   The philosopher Zhao Yuesheng describes his first encounter with the type in 1978 or 1979:

"I opened the gate and entered the yard [of a friend's old courtyard home in Beijing] and saw a guy standing under the big tree.  He was tall—close to six feet—with broad shoulders, a narrow waist and long legs.  On close inspection he looked like a wild tartar (huren 胡人)  with his fair complexion, prominent brows, deep-set eyes, broad forehead, square face, and high-bridged nose.  His long hair swept his shoulders, and the tight trousers left the rounds of his buttocks clearly visible.  Today, we'd call this "sexy."  In the opinion of the time, it was "hooligan."  His left hand leaned against the trunk of the walnut tree; from his right shoulder hung a big guitar, its coppery finish already worn off."

Zhao, used to seeing people dressed in standard loose-fitting workers' and soldiers' clothes, was startled by the man's get-up, which reminded him of Hong Kong or Taiwanese style.  They went inside the house, which belonged to a young woman of their mutual acquaintance.  Zhao was curious to hear this young man, named Tang-ke, play guitar and sing—something Zhao had only read about in novels, but had never heard before.  Though Tang-ke was obviously courting the woman, Zhao was the one most affected when the guitarist softly strummed chords and sang, in a rough but melodic voice, a love song called "Blue Streetlight."  Compared to the strident martial anthems to Mao Zedong that Zhao had grown up with, this song was drenched in "consumptive sentimentality, and so --'capitalist'"![1]

[Excerpted, with minor modifications and with the addition of photos and links, from my chapter "Shredding for the Motherland:  The Guitar in China."  In Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah, eds.  Chinese Characters.  University of California Press, 2012. ]

[1] Zhao Yuesheng 赵越胜,A Stirrup cup for the past  (Li ge qing jiu yi jiu shi  骊歌清酒忆旧时).  New YorkOxford University Press, 2010, pp. 178-179.  

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"This Machine Kills Lemurs," or "a Rosewood by Any Other Name . . . ."

Last November (2009), the US Fish and Wildlife Service raided the Nashville offices of Gibson Guitars and hauled off computers, guitars and stocks of wood as part of an investigation of the guitar company for allegedly importing illegal rosewood from Madagascar.
Rosewood (genus Dalbergia) is the favored material for the back and sides of acoustic guitars: it's dense, with a beautiful russet color, whorly grain and a smoky fragrance you can smell each time you open the guitar case, even on a guitar several years old. As the hard surface reflecting the sound waves inside the guitar's box, it affords a rich yet punchy sound with long sustain. Guitarists love rosewood. I've got two guitars made with Brazilian and one with Indian rosewood; I'd even bet that the nylon-string guitar that Sting, founder of the Rainforest Foundation, plays on "Fragile" is made of Brazilian rosewood.

The Gibson case remains under investigation, and Gibson has pledged cooperation with the authorities, while maintaining that it is not in violation of the Lacey Act, the US law prohibiting import of endangered species. In fact, Gibson may have simply been caught up in the un-Raval-ing of Madagascar's democracy: protests and a coup in late March 2009 drove out the democratically elected president, Mark Ravalomanana, who had held power since 2002. In his years in office, Ravalomanana had protected lands in a system of national parks, promoted sustainable farming, and with international aid pursued other ecologically friendly projects. Gibson has been publicly active in promoting sustainable and legal trade in woods—its Chairman and CEO sat on the board of Rainforest Alliance; the company claims its Madagascar woods all have clear chain-of-custody documentation. But Madagascar rosewood has become suspect on international markets since the coup. Lawlessness and the curtailment due to sanctions of international aid for environmental projects have opened even protected forests to slash-and-burn farmers and to an armed "timber mafia" who harvest the rosewood and ebony for export. The new president, Andry Rajoelina, legalized rosewood and ebony exports and his government benefits from an export tax on raw woods, justifying this policy by saying the trees were felled by cyclones. (More on this from National Geographic here.) Madagascar suffers further economic pressure due to the collapse of world prices for vanilla bean, another of the island's main exports. This arises in part from international aid efforts to expand vanilla production in tropical countries (which have the unintended effect of depressing vanilla prices world-wide), and from increased synthetic vanilla production in China. And China, too, now imports most of Madagascar's rosewood, producing flooring and furniture for export and domestic use. But lutiers the world over also pay top dollar for Malagasy rosewood ($5000 per cubic meter), and, in their own way, as do those who buy guitars made of this wood, further the deforestation of Madagascar and threaten the lemurs and other endangered species.

There have been similar cases in recent years involving Dalbergia nigra, aka Brazilian rosewood, aka jacaranda da bahia, aka palosanto de Rio, the most popular rosewood for guitars and other instruments and another species on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) endangered list. In 2004, Spanish authorities seized 33 tons of Brazilian rosewood from Spanish warehouses. A thirty-member gang had been importing and reselling the wood to guitar makers in Cuenca, Grenada, the US, Germany, and Japan. In late 2007, in an operation that ranged from eastern Brazil to central Massachusetts, Brazilian police and the US Fish and Wildlife Service arrested 23 members of another gang, this one alleged to have smuggled 13 tons of rosewood into the US. It is the market for Brazilian rosewood guitars that supports this smuggling.

The international trade in tone-woods and the commercial webs that link Spain, the Americas, Africa and Asia go back a long time. Half a millennium ago, almost as soon as global maritime trade routes first opened up, the demand in European workshops for wood with exceptional acoustic and visual qualities pushed the tentacles of capitalism deep into the world's rainforests. In the sixteenth century, Iberian lutiers and violeros (vihuela makers) already employed a variety of exotic materials from around the old and new worlds in making instruments, including whalebone, Indian cane, rosewoods, Brazil wood (pernambuco or Caesalpinia echinata, now the best wood for violin bows), guaiac, sandalwood, ivory and ebony. Ebony was not only used for keyboards. The ordinances of the violeros guild (makers of vihuelas, an early guitar) in Toledo in 1617 specified that vihuela fingerboards be made only of this hard wood (as many chordophone fingerboards still are). From trees of the genus Diospyros and native to Africa, Madagascar and South Asia, ebony is dense enough to sink in water and was thus a favorite choice for parts of instruments which must endure much wear and tear, as well as for sides, back or ribs of instruments. One source (1550) mentions a Spanish vihuela with rib braces of fine ebony from the Island of Meroe, between the White and Blue Nile in Sudan.

Within a few decades of the European discovery of the Americas, and while Portuguese conquest and colonization of Brazil was still underway, the special qualities of Brazilian rainforest woods had already been identified and the wood was being cut and shipped to Europe. An inventory in 1564 of the instruments in the collection of Princess Juana of Austria mentions a vihuela with a "back of alternating Brasil [probably pernambuco] and white wood strips and the sides of ebony." The guitar maker Pablo de Herrara testified in his 1622 will that the Marqués de Alcañices owed him 800 reales for a guitar made of cocobolo wood—another Central American member of the rosewood family with an attractive grain and color pattern. He built another cocobolo guitar for the Count of Navalmoral worth 500 reales. (De Herrara chose his woods better than he chose his customers: upon his death the Queen herself still owed him 100 ducats for a guitar, though in his testament he generously offered to accept whatever she would pay). And we know that a maker named Phelipe Santiago Medina built a vihuela with rosewood ribs in the early 1700s.

If we define the guitar as a chordophone made with a sound box constructed from separate thin pieces for top, back and sides (as opposed to curved staves, like lutes, or carved out of a whole block of wood, like a gittern), then the first guitars (guitarra, vihuela) were invented around the same time as Iberians and other Europeans in their ships began to explore and exploit the wider world. Arguably, the fact that guitars require only thin pieces of wood made it more affordable to build them from extremely expensive materials brought by sail from halfway around the world, and the very design of the instrument thus reflects its era. From Princess Juana's vihuela, to the old Brazilian rosewood Martin D-28's played by Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and countless others, to the tens of thousands of instruments Gibson and other factories turn out today using new, cheaper woods to meet swelling demand, few guitars originate on a single continent. They have always been, and remain, global artifacts dependent on the marvelous materials of tropical forests.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gibson semiotics

I had the dubious good fortune to take three girls under twelve (my daughters and a friend) to see the "Jonas Brothers 3D Concert Experience" movie the other day. Oddly, the cinema was entirely empty except for us, and I was spared the high-volume audience participation (screaming) that I'd been warned about. So I took the opportunity to ruminate on the interplay of gender and stringed instruments in this closely choreographed pop event.

That pop and rock performance floats on turbid undercurrents of sexuality goes without saying. This once had the capacity to shock, in the days of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other pioneers, but hardly merits mention today. More so than with the girl singers in its stable, Disney has managed to market the Jonas Brothers as objects of teen desire in a culturally safe and no doubt commercially lucrative way. The boys flee hordes of screaming fans through Manhattan (in an obviously set-up chase scene inspired by A Hard Day's Night); a hand-held POV camera takes us through their hotel suite, visiting their tousled beds one by one as bodyguard "Big Rob" shakes them awake; in the "candid" dressing room scene, they strip their shirts off sweaty, hairless chests for the 3D camera they "didn't notice" was there; they bump and grind and posture with innumerable guitars as rockers always have--guitars being, of course, simultaneously male and female symbols. They run, prance, leap, back-flip and slide along a catwalk inches above the waving arms of thousands of lucky front row fans, like lean but juicy fish teasing the grasping tentacles of a giant, hungry anemone. And it's no big deal: sitting there as a Dad with my daughters, none of this bothered me. The only creepy moment comes when the boys exchange the guitars and mike stand they spend most of the movie wrangling for fire hoses with baroque, sci-fiesque nozzels: and spray down the audience with foam--I kid you not. The mass of panting girls screams in delight, gazing adoringly up at the idols who just hosed them, their faces splattered with white.

So sex and gender are old hat with this kind of thing. Still, a couple aspects of the show caught my attention. As if the adoration of thousands of girl fans is not enough, the Jo-Bros on their Burning Up tour are backed by a large string section cum cheering squad composed entirely of young women, divided in two equal halves on risers overlooking the stage. They dress kind of like caterers first, in black and white with bow-ties; later in the show they wear red dresses. I was reminded of the iconic girls in Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love (1985): the same juxtaposition of male singers against female back-up musicians; the same play of black, white and red. Here, though, the female backdrop consists of violinists, violists and celloists (unlike the Palmer girls, they really can play--though they spend most of the show leading the audience clap-along). The back-up rock band itself (guitar, drums, keyboard and bass) is composed of somewhat older guys. But the designers of this extravaganza saw fit to cast girls in the supporting role behind the orchestral instruments.

I noted that the Jonas boys play many different guitars in the course of the show--sometimes changing guitars in the middle of songs, hurling one they were done with at a waiting roady and grabbing up a fresh one, like a pony-express rider changing steeds in mid-gallop. Though the boys can and do play a full complement of bar chords and the odd solo, we should consider their guitars mainly as costume ornaments and props (their playing is way down in the mix). Nothing is left to chance in this show. I lost track who was playing what, but one or another of brothers Nick and Kevin play a green Gibson SG, a red SG, a (Gibson) Epiphone semi-hollow-body, an off-white (Gibson) Les Paul, a spangly gold Les Paul and a spangly green Les Paul. For acoustics they play Gibson Hummingbirds, which are not seen much these days outside of country music circles. Back home after the movie, I pondered what this all could mean. I was really on a roll, happily ruminating on the semiotics of Gibsons (wholesome, rocking but not subversive, with fat necks perfectly sized for fingers wearing purity rings?) versus the absent Fenders (edgy, biting, lithe and suggestively curved, primed for Hendrix-style ignition--a real "burning up"?), not to mention the possible phalanxes of gnarly Japanese custom axes--when my friend Jed brought me back down to earth with a quick Google search. The Jo-bros have a contract with Gibson. Product placement, not semiotics or even considerations of timbre, apparently, explains their choice of guitar brand.

So my search for chordophonic meaning in the Jonas Brothers is probably all over-reach--the worst kind of academic wanking. Or is it? The same friend, himself a mean banjo-picker, offered the following in consolation:

"I'm sorry to have trivialized your deconstruction of the Jonas Brothers' guitars with my literal minded yes-or-no cold-blooded reading of the contract situation. Or course you are right that the implications that you noted are indeed part of the subtext of the Jonas Brothers' performance, all there to be read by the trained eye. Obviously the film represents a complex manifestation of the concept of "kawaii" 可愛いas originating in East Asian popular entertainment and filtered through the Westerner's lens of cultural commodification. As the Jonas brothers are (gui)tarred and feathered with the brand of Disney, the viewer has no choice but to empathize with their plight as a sacrificial lambs, bathing the faithful in their pure-white foamy blood, expiating their forbidden sexual desires as they take upon themselves both the credit and the blame for the hidden loss of innocence that Disney has always represented in the American imagination."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


In an article on the "reform" of traditional Chinese musical instruments (周大风 "民族乐器的改革," <<艺术科技>> 2001: 3), the musicologist Zhou Dafeng pointed out that the standard western symphony orchestra lacked a plucked string section, while China had plucked strings in abundance, with a well-developed set of playing techiques. He thus proposed that Chinese instruments such as the
yueqin, liuqin, pipa, zheng, ruan and others, once properly modernized, could fill the gap and create a new, truly international orchestra.

What Zhou did not consider was that the west had a full complement of plucked instruments already, though they have not generally been part of the line-up on the symphony concert stage. Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and others have noticed some of the comparabilities and compatiblities of old-time and bluegrass string bands with Chinese music (see their Sparrow Quartet collaborations; she even sings in Chinese).

Well, here's a full fledged sino-bluegrass string band, and it works pretty well. It reminds me of filling up for the day at the breakfast bar in a fancy hotel in Asia, where you can have some juk, pancakes, miso soup, bacon and eggs, a few shrimp dumplings, a glass of OJ, some seaweed, toast and jam . . . . It's a buffet of timbres.

Red Chamber and the Jaybirds:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

How the Guitar Saved Christmas?

It's the 190th anniversary of the first performance of Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) in Obendorf, Austria, 1818. According to the well-known story, the local priest Joseph Mohr went to the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, on Christmas Eve and asked him to compose music for a set of lyrics Mohr had written. They would perform the new song with the choir at midnight mass that night. According to the various legends attending the writing of Silent Night, the church organ had broken down, perhaps because mice had chewed through the pipes, no repairman could make it through the snow to fix it, and what to do about the Mass? Hence the call for the guitar to save Christmas—a challenge the guitar rose to admirably, of course. These legends have mostly been debunked as later embellishments on the tale. Nevertheless, the Mohr-Gruber collaboration was real and produced a huge hit—Silent Night is now sung in dozens of languages, not to mention piped ubiquitously through the world's shopping malls. A year ago, the mayor of Foshan, Guangdong, one of China's export-driven coastal super-counties, toasted a traveling delegation of American professors with several glasses of maotai liquor at a formal banquet, then invited us to join him in singing Silent Night. He is no Christian, at least not publicly, since the Communist Party frowns on religious affiliation by its officials, even when their districts turn around $3 billion annually in foreign trade. Still, he sang louder and better than any of us. (He led the song in English, but we might as well have sung 平安夜,圣善夜 / 万暗中,光华射 . . . .)

The simple lyrics and pretty melody are clearly part of the song's attraction. But it is also a perfect guitar song: three chords, in key of D; as you can see from this score (the earliest extant version, from c. 1820, in Mohr's hand) the accompaniment involves base chord-chord and arpeggio playing (hear a stream of a performance as originally written) you can see how Gruber might even have worked out melody and harmony on a guitar, since the parallel thirds are easily played on this instrument.
Gruber's guitar was one of the small romantic age instruments; it closely resembles those of the Viennese style (developed in turn from Italian models). The Viennese school was dominated in the first decades of the nineteenth century by the luthier Johan Georg Staufer. It was in Staufer's shop that C. F. Martin learned the trade, and of course later brought his skills as a luthier to the U.S., with memorable results. Compare Gruber's Silent Night guitar (above) with a Stauffer guitar (right below) and a Martin (left below), each from the 1830s:

But there's more to Silent Night as a guitar tune. Despite the waltz beat and the V chord that comes a little early, it's a three chord song with a middle IV chord section, and the climax on the V7. Add a 7th to the IV chord and the bluesy feel is unmistakable, though probably not what Mohr / Gruber had in mind. In any case, bluesy or not, it's a simple three-chord popular song—called a "Tyrolian folk song" early on—which makes it readily played and learnt by guitarists and others. On the one hand, then, Silent Night's global popularity certainly owes much to its lyrics, quiet spirituality, compelling back-story and (dare I say it?) candy-box imagery (that snowed-in Austrian hamlet on Christmas eve—you can almost smell the strudel). But at the same time, it is an exemplar of the partnership of the simply structured European song form and the guitar, a partnership that for several centuries battled in the vanguard of Western Music's triumphant colonization of the rest of the world. (This is a longer argument than I can make here now—it is Christmas, after all, the kids are yelling at me to come downstairs for present opening. But in brief: starting as early as the 16th century, aspects of European music, including song-forms, Western tonic-dominant tonality, temperament and other features spread around the world to where they are now so ubiquitous that their ultimate origins escape notice. Guitars, including vihuelas and other guitar prototypes, played a big role in this process, I maintain, in large part due to their ease of manufacture, ease of play, portability, ability to produce both melody and chordal accompaniment, suitability for self-accompaniment by a singer, and so on.)

The guitar and the church

One key reason the Silent Night story resonates is the way the humble guitar saves the day when the noble organ cannot perform. Like the barnyard animals or the little drummer boy jostling with the Three Kings to worship Christ in the manger, the common, stripped-down folksiness of the guitar reminds us of the simpler things Christmas is supposedly about. Of course, Obendorf 1818 was not the guitar's ecclesiastical debut. Starting in the early 1500s, Catholic missionaries deliberately introduced guitars into churches in Goa (south India) and Latin America with the explicit goal of undermining local "devilish" musical traditions. They failed in this goal, of course, and a few years later were writing back to the Vatican to complain that young men were playing completely inappropriate music on their guitars, and doing so in the churches no less! So the European musical juggernaut, which the guitar did so much to drive along, thankfully left a marvelous melange rather than simply substitute alien for indigenous musical traditions. Much more on this later.

There's at least one more irony regarding the Church's relationship with the guitar: the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) are often simplistically derided as kicking out Latin and bringing guitars into the church. Unfair and inaccurate as this view no doubt is, the reason why critics of Vatican II latch onto 1960s-ish guitar strumming as a contrast to traditional Latin liturgy and, I don't know, Gregorian chant, is the same reason the guitar saved Christmas in Obendorf: the guitar has an intrinsically folksy, demotic, and democratic quality to it. For those who valued the Church's High and Mighty aspect, its awesomeness, mystery, power and authority, the guitar seemed like a bad symbol. But I'm in no sense a Catholic historian; perhaps a certain Catholic bass player of my acquaintance who has just joined a famous nationally touring Christian Celtic Rock band would care to comment?

Finally, my own Christmas tale: like the kid in that stupid movie, A Christmas Story, when I was 13 or so, I badgered my parents endlessly to buy me a bb gun. As good permissive 1960s-1970s parents, they did so, but not before tricking me by placing a long, rectangular box behind the tree just where I expected to find my new gun. Only after they had relished my disappointed face when I opened the box and found a cheap classical guitar, did my folks retrieve the bb gun from a closet. That year it was the gun that saved Christmas for me, but the guitar won out in the long run.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pipa player from the walls of a Qizil cave temple

In many ways, this image sums up what I am trying to do with this blog (and in the book I'm working on). The pipa is a short-necked bowl lute. Instruments by this name entered China from northern and central Eurasia starting perhaps as early as the late 3rd century BC (there's a story that workers commanded by China's first emperor to build the Great Wall learned to play a round lute by this name from the nomads whose lands the wall was cutting off). The pear-shaped pipa came east via Central Asia, ultimately from Persia and India, in a couple waves following the fall of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century AD. It was closely associated with Buddhism: the young Siddhartha, when still a spoiled prince in his father's palace, is said to have chilled out while listening to bands of lutes, harps, flutes and drums; several major sutras describe heavenly bands in which lutes feature prominently. Thus associated with the growing Silk Road religion, the pipa grew in popularity as would the guitar a millennium or so later, reaching a peak of popularity in China in the Tang period (7th through 10th century), and thereafter showing up in Korea and Japan. Tang dynasty elites loved the pipa and Central Asian music, and sponsored pipa-ists and western musical ensembles to perform at their ceremonies and parties. Tang poets linked the pipa in their writings with courtesans and dancing girls from the far west. (The instrument today is still somewhat feminized in China, with mainly girls learning to play it.) This was in contrast to the older qin zither, favored by dour Confucian scholars who plunked away on the fretless thing while sitting alone in their studios worrying about the Buddhists and partying poets.

Over the same centuries, versions of this pear-shaped lute were spreading from Persia throughout Arabia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, north Africa and generally around the Mediterranean. Known in Arabic as al-`ūd, hence "oud," this instrument was the foremost exponent of mugham classical music in the Islamic world. When the Umayyad Caliphate conquered Iberia, the Arabs brought the instrument to Spain (Al-Andalus), whence Europe got the "lute" (picking up the "l" from the Arabic definite article al.) It was a famous oud player who opened Spain' first music conservatory.

Anyway—not to be longwinded here again—the oud / lute spread around the Arab empire along with Islam. The pipa lute spread around the Tang empire along with Buddhism. We thus find the short-necked bowl lute, with similar design features (the bent headstock, the bowl constucted of multiple staves) from one end of Eurasia to the other as a legacy of this early medieval high point of what might be called "proto-globalization"—when empires forged connections across the old world.

The particular image here captures many elements of this early episode of globalization. It comes from the center of Eurasia: Kucha in modern day Xinjiang, where the Qizil caves are located, was one of the Silk Road stages followed by Buddhism on its way east. Nearby monastic colleges translated Buddhist writings into Chinese and other languages. But Kucheans were also the top composers and performers of music along the eastern Silk Road, in hot demand in Tang China. The dress and fleshy visage of the pipa-player in this painting reflect Indian influence, as does much Buddhist art from the Tang period. More than that, in the drapery of his toga we see Hellenic influence, the legacy of Alexander's 4th century BCE conquests in Afghanistan which left their mark on subsequent Buddhist art. Exotic, yes, but look at his playing technique: while ouds / pipas were often played with a large plectrum, here he uses a finger style familiar to any classical guitarist today. Note the long nails! And he seems to have his pinky planted on the soundboard, though that's a no-no for pipa players and classical guitarists alike. . . .

Vibrating strings

Throughout history, billions of strings have been plucked, bowed or hammered on citarras, pandouras, violins, pipas, biwas, đàn tỳ bàs, barbats, qins, giterns, citerns, sarods, rawabs, rebabs, rebeks, rubabs, basses, bajos, banjos, washtubs, lutes, ouds, koras, harps, lyres, saungs, tamburas, tamburs, tamburitzas, banduras, dombras, dobros, clavichords, harpsichords, monochords, autoharps, zithers, tars, ektars, dutars, sitars, setars, santoors, doshpulurs, mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos, ukuleles, vihuelas, kotos, zhengs, khims, qanuns, yangqins, cimbaloms, zhus, cellos, erhus, zhonghus, dahus, jinghus, dulcimers, bazuqis, kayagums, psalteries, hurdy-gurdies, crwths, kamanches, ghijeks, masenqos, morin khuurs, gojes, balalaikas, ses, sazes, changs, çengs, charangos, đàn bầus, ruanxians, yueqins, sanxians, shamisens, berimbaus, sarangis, veenas, cuatros, inangas, qumuz, qobuz, tiples, valihas—I could go on—not to mention chicken-cookers, rubberbands strung over shoeboxes, and of course the guitar.
Whether by plucking, hitting, scraping, being blown on or stimulated electronically, these strings have moved in patterns determined by their physics. The finger, pick, bow or hammer imparts energy to a string, dislocating it slightly from its straight resting position. After the impact, the tiny bend in the string propogates along its length, hits the nut or bridge, flips and bounces back again, continuing back and forth in this fashion until its energy is expended. When thus set in motion, any specific point along the string simply oscillates back and forth in a direction perpendicular to the line of the string itself. But when viewed a whole, the twangling string moves in waves, producing a fundamental frequency and a series of integral multiples of it known as overtones. The frequency and its harmonic overtones can be defined as a function of the length of the string, its tension and its mass; a longer, fatter or looser string gives a deeper note, shorter, thinner or tighter stings vibrate faster. These frequencies are joined by other, unrelated frequencies from the scraping of the pick or bow on the string—interesting noise, to a stringed instrument player. These "noises" too are waveforms.
All these waves are conveyed through the bridge into some kind of box or drum, where they are amplified in an enclosed space between hard walls and picked up in turn by whatever more flexible membrane the instrument employs: a softwood soundboard, a stretched skin or mylar head, or a vibrating plate. The visible motion of the string has now been turned into pulses of air, radiating outward from the instrument in invisible pressure waves. The original set of overtones has been further shaped by the materials in the string, bridge, box and resonating membrane, which have a character all their own, amplifying some frequencies and repressing others, resulting in a unique sound. Few stringed instruments sound exactly alike.
Most of these billions of vibrations over thousands of years have been heard by somebody; many of them have, moreover, been listened to. If heard, that means that the pressure waves from the instrument's sounding membrane made their way to a person's eardrum, which conveys the frequencies of moving air molecules into the inner ear. There, hair cells keyed to the specific frequencies fired, converting the wave's kinetic energy into electrical signals (the same thing accomplished by an electric guitar pick-up). The cells sent these electrical signals into the auditory cortex, where a set of neurons likewise designated to particular frequencies registered their highness or lowness—their pitch. But that was just the beginning. Many different parts of the brain then started processing the sound, sorting out the different overtones, determining one fundamental tone from the mass of harmonic multiples, estimating how far away the sound was and what direction it was coming from, determining whether or not it constituted something dangerous, recalling that the man had heard that sound before and what it was called, or if he hadn't happened to have heard a crwth or a qobuz, noting that fact while suggesting things that sound similar. The sound and its recognition triggered a series of additional memories and images in our hearer (heavenly hosts, seancing shamans, or screeching animals, for example.)
If the string is vibrated again, in a pattern with rhythm and a sequence of different pitches—that is, if it was used to make music and the man was listening—the brain would have fired millions more neurons, involving brain stem, cerebellum, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, frontal cortex and other areas associated with movement, language, pleasure and reward. The listener may have recognized the tune or its style and been able to predict where it was going based on rhythmic and melodic patterns; he may have felt happiness or dread; he might have been moved to dance, sing, love, or fight by the sounds themselves and the webs of associations they evoked. He might have felt the urge to drop whatever he was doing and pick up an instrument to play along.
Hominids have always heard sound. We don't know when humans first listened to strings, or struck objects, or columns of air in flutes or other things intentionally vibrated to make music, but it is likely to have been a long time ago. On the wall of a cave painted 12,000-15,000 years ago is this drawing of a ox-headed biped (presumed to be a man in a mask and called the petit sorcier). He seems to be playing a bow (the bow-and-arrow kind) pressed to his nose or mouth, using his own skull as the resonator.