Help Me Explore Chinese Traditional Music
November 15, 2014 4:12 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for suggested recordings of Chinese traditional music and some help in how to contextualize and understand what I am listening to.

I've enjoyed listening to Chinese traditional music (what I might call "classical" Chinese music) for years, sparked by things like Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, the various Pipa crossover albums (like the one Kronos Quartet did a few years back), etc. Those of course are Chinese/Western crossover projects; I like them, but that's not all that I'm looking for.

In order to connect more directly with the source, I have randomly collected a lot of recordings of Chinese solo instrumentalists, without really knowing what it is I am listening too or for (though really liking what I hear), and without a systematic understanding of Chinese music history and theory. I realize I could find books on the subject, but I am not a musician or music theory expert and was hoping for some personalized suggestions for an amateur enthusiast on specific recordings I should seek out, as well as perhaps a very simple taxonomy of traditional Chinese music genres and styles, both instrumental and vocal. I realize that like the country of China, this is a huge topic; that's why I am somewhat overwhelmed by it and am seeking assistance.

What I expressly am not seeking advice on is Chinese popular music or more of the East-meets-West crossover stuff.
posted by JimInLoganSquare to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My Western music education started with Do-Re-Mi (children's song, Wikipedia). It was initially explained to me that those notes were the building blocks of all music. So I found it really interesting to learn that Chinese traditional music actually uses an entirely different set of building blocks. It might be fun to start by exploring these Wikipedia links: Chinese musicology, equal temperament, pentatonic scale, Shí-èr-lǜ.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 5:28 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The leading specialist journal in American ethnomusicology dealing with the subject is "Asian Music." You can read back issues on Project Muse. The journal covers all of Asia and a full spectrum of musics, but it has many articles on Chinese traditional music. This is a vast topic, as you might guess , not susceptible to quick overview except at cost of great reduction (e.g. the first response above). Chinese music has many different scales and diverse regional traditions, and "traditional" includes both art musics (like Beijing Opera or ch'in music) and a huge range of vernacular traditions with which the elite traditions have been imbricated for, oh, a few thousand years ... To say nothing of the huge range of ethnic minority traditions in modern China.

The best way to approach it would be to browse the articles and recording and film reviews in Asian Music and use those as context for your further exploration. it's like asking for guidance on "European" or "African" traditional music: way too big to approach from one direction.
posted by spitbull at 6:56 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: spitbull, thanks for pointing me to "Asian Music." That's a great resource, and it took me only a couple of minutes to find references there to a review of a book from Oxford University Press that might be able to provide a primer for me: Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture by Frederick Lau. I think I will start there.

Also, from the review, and echoing your thoughts above:

"Chinese music is notoriously difficult to describe, partly due to China’s long history developed over five thousand years through which all musical traditions are formed and practiced, partly due to China’s vast territory in which regional variations and genres develop, and partly due to the existence of 55 minority ethnic groups within the country, each one of which has respective traditions of its own."

I would welcome other answers, of course, but I think I may be well set with this one. Thanks.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:28 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Prof. Lau is an old friend and, coincidentally, I just saw him yesterday. That's an excellent book, heartily endorsed. I should have recommended it.
posted by spitbull at 8:16 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Let the professor know he is about to sell another copy (sometime between now and Christmas)!
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 12:28 PM on November 16, 2014

LOL, will do.
posted by spitbull at 1:24 PM on November 16, 2014

Response by poster: FYI, that book did get purchased, it did get received ... and I am heartily enjoying it (and the accompanying CD)!
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 4:25 PM on January 30, 2015

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