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Musical Brocade: Ann Yao & Zheng Music

By Li Wei

"Music Brocade" is a piece for the Chinese zheng, a long stringed instrument played horizontally with the fingertips. The melody evokes images of gorgeous Chinese scenery. Zheng player Ann Yao not only enjoys playing this beautiful music, but often thinks her life as just such a musical brocade. Music has always been a beautiful, central thread running throughout her life.

A Family Tradition

Ann Yao was born in Shanghai and grew up in a family of musicians. Her grandfather, Sun Yu-de, was a renowned master of the xiao and pipa. The xiao is an end-blown bamboo flute, while the pipa is a pear-shaped plucked lute. Ann, who was raised in her grandfather's home, benefited from her early childhood exposure to the dynamic family music tradition. As she recalls, "I saw people going in and out, taking lessons with my grandpa and playing Jiangnan sizhutogether." Jiangnan sizhu is a type of regional musical ensemble commonly found in central east China. Consisting primarily of stringed instruments and bamboo flutes, this popular form is rooted in urban areas and characterized by improvisatory performance with a strong local flavor. Performing in teahouses, private homes, or cultural centers, Jiangnan sizhu musicians (mostly amateurs) play a vital role in maintaining the dynamics of the tradition. Shanghai is the center of this musical genre, and the home of Ann's grandfather served as one of many venues for Jiangnan sizhu ensembles.

Since she was immersed in an environment where music practice and performance were part of family life, Ann naturally learned many folk tunes as a child. The early exposure to folk music such as Jiangnan sizhu had a profound impact on the ways she interprets and appreciates traditional Chinese music. It also helped build a wide-ranging repertoire for her later career as a musician. For example, much of the repertoire of Si Xian, the Chinese music ensemble at Disney World's Epcot in which Ann currently performs, is from or inspired by the Jiangnan sizhu tradition.

Ann followed the family example by starting her musical journey with the selection of her favorite traditional Chinese musical instruments. She began studying the pipa with her grandfather at the age of nine, and later learned the zheng with her aunt and uncle. She quickly became passionate about the zheng, and soon started to appear in public performances. At fourteen, Ann joined the Traditional Music Ensemble of the Shanghai Youth Palace as a zheng soloist. Later she was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where she received four years of instruction. During her training, she studied primarily with her uncle, Professor He Baoquan, and his wife, Professor Sun Wenyan, who each have a distinct pedagogical lineage with different zheng schools. Like many musical traditions in China, zheng music schools are differentiated by regional style, repertory, and techniques. In 1983, Ann graduated and immediately became the principal zheng soloist with the Central Traditional Orchestra in Beijing.

The Zheng

The zheng is one the most ancient musical instruments in China, and its literary references can be traced back as far as the third century B.C. In the early history of Chinese music, a system of classifying musical instruments known as bayin or "eight tones" was developed. In this system, musical instruments were divided into eight categories based on materials used in their construction. The zheng was classified as a "silk" instrument because the strings of the instrument were originally of silk. Metal strings have become more common since the seventeenth century, and wound nylon and steel strings are popular today. The early prototype of the zheng had few strings, but zhengs with sixteen or twenty-one strings are standard today.

The modern zheng is about five feet long and twelve inches wide. Its half-tube shaped body is constructed of wood and often ornamented with graphics or symbols. While the soundboard is typically made of soft wutong wood (Firmiana platanifolia), the wood used for the sides and bottom is traditionally hardwood. The strings are stretched over wooden bridges that can be moved for tuning or pitch adjustment. In general, the right hand plucks the strings (using fingernails, artificial nails or plectra) while the left hand executes vibrato or presses the strings to change their pitches or create sliding notes. Normally, the thumb, index and middle fingers are used to pluck the strings. Modern compositions often feature both hands plucking the strings. Microtones, intonation, and "bending" notes are common features found in traditional zheng music. The mechanism of the instrument and the ways it is played provide the player with considerable freedom in achieving traditional aesthetic values-and this endless source of subtle changes is greatly appreciated by audiences.

The open strings of the twenty-one string zheng are tuned to a pentatonic scale with four octaves. According to Chinese philosophical and musical theories, the five notes used in the Chinese pentatonic scale, known as gong, shang, jiao, zi, and yu, are believed to be metaphysically integrated with the cosmological universe. Thus, the notes and the modes derived from the five notes, known as diao, often have a correlation not only with our physical world but with the spiritual sphere as well. To execute the nuances attached to the notes and modes, the performer not only needs a good understanding of the historical and cultural contexts of a given piece, but also requires skills and special techniques often associated with particular zheng music schools.

Learning the Tradition

There are several zheng music schools in different geographic regions of China. Each has its own repertoire, with characteristics that reflect the strong influence of regional traditions on the stylistic and technical aspects of zheng music. For example, Hakka zheng music found in Guangdong province is characterized by the frequent use of the thumb and middle fingers of the plucking hand, as well as a greater vibrato with slow tempo. Zheng music developed in North China's Shandong province bears musical traits similar to local traditional music, especially to qinshu-a kind of narrative song. Another distinct characteristic of Shandong zheng music is the "tremolo" plucking by the thumb-a demanding technique requiring years of practice. Unlike other schools, Shandong musicians use only the lower thumb joint rather than the whole thumb to pluck the strings back and forth rapidly. Zheng music from North China's Shaanxi province incorporates attributes of local theatrical music such as qinqiang and wanwanqing, which are characterized by microtones. In order to play the microtones, the thumb of the left hand (which is normally not used) joins the other fingers to simultaneously press the strings.

Like other Chinese music traditions, a zheng musician's pedagogical lineage is often traced through generations of teachers. For example, Ann Yao studied with her uncle and aunt. Her uncle, He Baoquan, studied Hakka zheng music with Cao Zhen, Shandong zheng music with Zhao Yuzhzi, and Henan zheng music with Cao Dongfu. Her aunt, Sun Wenyan, studied Zhejiang zheng music with Wang Xizhi. Thus Ann was very fortunate to study with teachers who embodied the styles of several different schools. The experience helped expand her concert repertoire, which clearly shows a wide range of styles. For example, Siduanjing ("Music Brocade") reflects the Shandong folk spirit, "Old Eight Beats" is a traditional folk tune, and Chushuilian ("Lotus") and Jianchuang Yeyu ("Evening Rain on the Banana Leaves") represent the more refined southern fine art tradition.

Learning zheng music is an oral/aural tradition that relies heavily on observation, imitation, and rote. Musical notation serves as a mnemonic. Prior to the twentieth century, the notation system used in zheng teaching was gongchepu-acharacter-based notation combined with abbreviated ideographic symbols to indicate fingering techniques. Today it has been replaced by cipher notation (jianpu, literally "simple notation"), though some publications are in Western staff notation.

The Zheng in the Modern World

The zheng has traditionally been used for court and folk entertainment rather than rituals. Most performances take place within the context of folk ensembles and regional theaters. In the second half of the twentieth century, the growth ofguoyue (national music) and increased interest in writing new compositions for solo instruments established the zheng as a concert solo instrument. Conservatory training and professionalism further encouraged the trend toward virtuosity in concert performance.

Beginning in the early 1960s, musical instrument reform became fashionable in China. Many attempts were made to increase the volume, alter the sound quality, or change the tuning from pentatonic to chromatic on traditional Chinese musical instruments. These reforms attempted to modify the traditional tuning system to accommodate the need for modulation in modern music composition and compatibility in larger traditional instrumental ensembles.

As a result of the modernizing process, several innovative equal-temperament tuned zheng models came out in the late 1970s and early 80s. One model was invented by Ann's uncle, Professor He Baoquan, and pioneered by Ann. Called a "butterfly zheng," the instrument features two wings with forty-nine strings and chromatic tuning. When she performed with the Central National Music Ensemble in the United States for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, Ann impressed many American audiences with the butterfly zheng.

Versatility in performance is essential to Ann. She believes that a balance between tradition and modernization is the key to the success of Chinese music in the modern world. Much like the dichotomy in the ancient philosophy of ying and yang, the ancient and modern should complement rather than conflict with each other. Therefore, Ann is always actively involved with contemporary Chinese music. In 1985, she became the first artist to perform a zheng concerto by the veteran composer Li Huanzhi. The concerto, "Miluo River Fantasy," was among the first CDs featuring Chinese artists on the Philips label.

Since moving to the United States in 1985, Ann has worked to promote Chinese musical culture. In 1987 she joined the renowned ensemble, Music From China. A unique characteristic of this New York-based group is the duality of its musical activities: it strives for the modern spirit of Chinese musical culture while preserving ancient Chinese music. With this innovative ensemble, Ann has performed old and new Chinese music on some of the nation's most prestigious stages, including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently Ann and other members of Music From China collaborated with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to premier a new composition by Zhou Long at the Smithsonian. The work, entitled "Rites of Chimes," embraces a mixed array of instruments from East and West, including two ancient Chinese bells cast between 1200 and 900 B.C. It was the first time that ancient instruments from the Smithsonian's permanent collection were used for a public performance. In 1999, Ann spent a few weeks in Cambridge, England, to participate in a documentary project about Tang music (618-907 A.D.) directed by one of the authorities on ancient Chinese music, Dr. Laurence Picken. By engaging in these kinds of musical activities, Ann believes she not only acquires a better understanding of the age-old traditions of her native culture, but also is inspired to view them within a broader transnational framework.

Young Apprentice

During her years in New York City, Ann Yao taught a few, mostly adult students. Since moving to Florida in 1990, she has focused primarily on the show program of Si Xian, the ensemble at Epcot's China Pavilion, and has had little time to teach. Yet, when a first-grader named Julia Leryong Edge asked for zheng lessons a few years ago, Ann was touched by the girl's enthusiasm and unusual talent.

Julia's mother emigrated from Guangzhou (Canton), China. Although far from her native country, she wanted her daughter to learn about Chinese culture. However, Julia herself discovered the beauty of the zheng when she saw Ann perform at Epcot. She started taking lessons with Ann when she was seven. Since her family lives in Melbourne, more than an hour from Ann's home, Julia's parents also made a strong commitment to bring her every week for instruction. Ann was impressed with Julia's continued growth of interest and discipline, qualities she considers particularly important to young people learning music. After a year and a half of lessons, Julia could play a number of simple tunes with basic techniques.

In recognition of their work and as a stimulus to further learning, Ann and Julia were selected to participate in the 1999-2000 Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program. It was unusual for the Apprenticeship Program to include such a young student. However, the strong commitment of Julia and her family, combined with the Chinese tradition of teaching music to young children, made it a fitting step for this team. And perhaps most importantly, Ann's continued relationship with Julia has meant that the musical brocade will continue into the next generation.

Suggested Reading

Gulik, R. H. van. "Brief Note on the Cheng, the Chinese Small Cither." Toyo ongaku Kenkyu 9 (1951): 10.

Moule, A. C. "A List of the Musical and Other Sound-Producing Instruments of the Chinese. " Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 39 (1908): 1-160.

Liang, Ming-yueh. "V. Instruments, 1. Cheng." Vol. 4. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . Edited by Stanley Sadie. Washington D.C.: Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1980.

Liang, Tsai-p'ing. Music of Cheng, the Chinese 16-stringed Zither. Taipei: 1967.

Picken, Laurence. "Early Chinese Friction-chordophones." The Galpin Society Journal 18 (1965): 82.

Witzleben, J. Lawrence. "Jiangnan sizhu Music Clubs in Shanghai: Context, Concept and Identity." Ethnomusicology(Spring/Summer 1987): 240-260.