The Guqin Silk String Zither
December 14, 2008 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Pronounced "chin" ("stringed instrument") or "goo chin" ("old stringed instrument"), the qin / guqin throughout its long history has been the musical instrument most prized by China's literati. They categorized it as one of their "four arts", collected it as an art object, praised its beautiful music, and built around it a complex ideology (compare its image in popular culture). No other instrument was described and illustrated in such detail, so often depicted in paintings, or so regularly mentioned in poetry. And its tablature documents the world's oldest detailed written instrumental music tradition, allowing both historically informed performance (requiring silk strings) of the many early melodies, and practical exploration of the relationship between Chinese music theory and music practice. The guqin silk string zither work of John Thompson.

John Thompson is the best-known musician giving historically informed performances of early Chinese music for the guqin silk-string zither. After a college degree in Western musicology (early music) and graduate studies in ethnomusicology, he began in 1974 to study the modern guqin tradition from Sun YüCh'in in Taiwan. Since 1976 he has focused on early repertoire, personally reconstructing over 150 melodies published in 15th and 16th century handbooks. In 1992 the National Union of Chinese Musicians invited him to Beijing as the focus of a seminar on reconstructing music from the earliest surviving guqin handbook, Shen Qi Mi Pu (1425 CE). While based in Hong Kong as artistic consultant to the Festival of Asian Arts he performed throughout East Asia, and published seven CDs of his musical reconstructions as well as four books of music transcription. Since moving to New York in 2001 he has continued to perform, research and lecture on the guqin. His website is the most comprehensive English-language source of information on this instrument.
posted by netbros (7 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"goo chin."

heh - I just wanted to hear that again.
posted by seanyboy at 2:55 PM on December 14, 2008

cool post. just started checking it out, but the piece here is excellent, and the backstory is fascinating.
posted by facetious at 4:10 PM on December 14, 2008

I took lessons on the guqin in college. The tablature was very precise, indicating specific technique for both hands. It's a quiet instrument, mostly unsuitable for public performances. We had to amplify the heck out of it to do a concert, but it was worth it.

We did a piece called 酒狂 (drunken madness). Good fun. Unfortunately, most Chinese people don't know anything about their own traditional music, and they usually try to convince me that what I played was actually the 古箏, guzheng, which is actually the ancestor of the koto and a totally different instrument.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:35 PM on December 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Personally, I'm partial to the er hu having taken advantage of the opportunity to study with a master who was in the US on some kind of grant at Brown. He said, "you study hard, you be in Chinese orchestra." Unfortunately, my apartment was robbed over Christmas vacation, and I lost the er hu, and there was no budget for replacements. Ah well, the path not taken.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:45 PM on December 14, 2008

A few years ago I studied erhu and yangqin with the Music From China ensemble. I wanted to learn the sanxian, but nobody knew how to play it because it's sort of considered a yokel instrument. I had to learn on my own. Now I give sanxian lessons at Bard College. Take that, centuries of Chinese literati!
posted by billtron at 10:54 PM on December 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

ABC Radio National's Into the Music did a programme on the Qin that has an excellent interview and musical selection. The transcript, audio and video of playing are available here. The actual instrument being played in the audio is 3000 years old.
posted by Kerasia at 11:32 PM on December 14, 2008

Oh yeah! I love the guqin. What a splendid instrument. I made a post a while ago linking to youtube videos of people playing it.
posted by Kattullus at 8:58 PM on December 15, 2008

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