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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

It Starts with the Instruments

Believe it or not, the festival's already begun—at least for some of the partner institutions. Yesterday was A China Celebration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured an introduction to the Met's Silk and Bamboo: Music and Art of China (running through February 7, 2010) and an hour-long concert by Music From China (which was notably heavy on the silk front, with both plucked and bowed strings, and light on bamboo).

The real treat of the afternoon, though, was Met musical instrument curator J. Kenneth Moore's notes on the exhibition, which traced some 8,000 years of Chinese music making. This was, amazingly enough, roughly 4,000 years before the earliest Chinese writing, and nearly 6,000 years before China first became a unified country. About two-thirds of Moore's timeline took place before recorded history.

History is rarely kind to ephemeral arts—particularly in China, where the First Emperor Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE) started a national tradition of leaders destroying the knowledge of previous generations—but the difference between music and visual arts was particularly striking given curator Maxwell K. Hearn's earlier introduction yesterday of the portraiture of Luo Ping (1732-1779). Luo's work still exists more or less as it did in the Qing Dynasty. For those who want to know what ancient Chinese music really sounded like, looking at the Met's musical instruments is rather like looking at Luo's brushes.

Still, the history of Chinese music is fascinating, especially on the political and cultural front, where archeology can seem both distant and familiar. From the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Chinese music was dictated by the Yuehfu, a government bureau that not only licensed court and temple musicians but also micromanaged tuning and playing techniques. In many eras, ensembles were funded by the state; other times, musicians were left to support themselves solely though commercial work in theaters, brothels, and teahouses, prompting China's iconic teahouse girls, who famously blurred the line between classical and vernacular music (and just goes to show that the 12 Girls Band is not a recent phenomenon).

Posted by Ken Smith

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