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:

1 comment:

  1. I'd noticed the similarity between Chinese traditional music and American folk music before, and attributed it to the use of pentatonic scales, but wondered if those sounds arose separately or were derived from some common source.

    Last week I went to see a traditional Naxi orchestra in Lijiang. At one point a member played a solo piece (I can't remember the name of the instrument, but it looked like a banjo and was two-stringed), and the opening riff bore an uncanny resemblance to Johnny B. Goode.