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.