Dapu’ing Songxia Guantao: A report

The hellish mess that comprises of a musician's nightmares unto daybreak.

The hellish mess that comprises of a musician's nightmares unto daybreak.

*re-released, final complete*

Back in sometime early 2008, Charlie Xu and I were invited by Christopher Evans on the Facebook Guqin group to dapu a “lone version piece” – a guqin melody by  the name of “Under the Pines, Watching the Waves” (Songxia Guantao), which “onlyexists in the manuscript Yanlulou Qinpu, published in 1766.” Albeit nine sections long, Christopher believed it would be an easily manageable and hoped that it would be fully interpreted in half a year and could get underway practicing soon.

How wrong we both were.

My sincere apologies for promising that so quickly. Exactly one year About 368.5 days after the question was asked, the dapu is complete. Most of the time was spent happily (or frustratingly) procrastinating on other things like starting this blog, Mabinogi, homework essays, and relatively futile articles on other topics that nearly made its way into an academic journal, but didn’t on grounds of pathetic office politics and email squabbles.

In the coming sections, I will be giving a full detailed report on the identifying and explaining the process and challenges of dapu, and give a reasoning to my musical interpretation and analysis in this 18th-Century score. For those who just want the score to download and play, it is available for download in five links after you click below.

Direct link to the interpreted scores: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Original score in PDF
Songxia Guantao Dapu Report
Juni Lefeuille Yeung, FXKQS

A blurb on Dapu
Dapu is a long, if not tedious process of taking guqin scores containing only finger tablature and interpreting it into a playable melody, and then re-record them with any method that could further capture the missing information from the original, such as pitch and rhythm. In the latter half of the 20th century, tablature with 5-line staff was the standard, and tabulature with jianpu (Numbered Musical Notation) the more popular standard in mainland textbooks today. Sometimes, an audio recording supplements the information, and completes the common set of tutorial media found today.

And since starting the Standards of the Guqin textbook project in 2007, I have decided that all dapu work I do will continue with my preferred 5-line style, owing credit to my history with Western musical training, with half-barlines dividing phrasing rather than dissecting meter precisely. This, however, does not suggest the idea that Chinese music has no regard for meter and an objective sense of rhythm – quite contrary, there is a strong sense of rubato (or the Chinese term die-dang 跌宕) that dictates the rise and fall of musical phrases and notions. Hence, dapu is a work of deduction and postulation in recreating (or even re-inventing) these elements that is otherwise lacking in the written tablature.

The Manuscript and the Piece
The manuscript Yanlulou Qinpu 研露樓琴譜 was named after the personal style  name of Cui Yingjie 崔應階, The Viceroy of Min-Zhe (閩浙總督) at the time of the book’s publication. He was famed for composition in poetry, music, and various fictional tales. He also helped revise the local gazette of Chenzhou and Yuntaishan (Cloud-Terrace Mountain, formerly filed as Haizhou county).

Under Zha Fuxi’s research on existant guqin titles, there are at least five known existing variations of this piece, with the chronology as follows:

  1. Qinyuan Xinchuan 琴苑心傳 1670, same title, with description. cf. QQJC Vol.11 p.364)
  2. Songfeng Ge Qinpu 松風閣琴譜 1677, under name Songfeng Yin with lyrics and commentary. cf. QQJC Vol.12 p.422)
  3. Yanlulou Qinpu 研露樓琴譜 1766, no description. cf. QQJC Vol.16 p.459)
  4. Yilulou Qinpu 浥露樓琴譜 (1802+?)
  5. Tianwenge Qinpu 天聞閣琴譜 (1876)
  6. Minghsheng Ge Qinpu 鳴盛閣琴譜 (1899)

Hence judging from the chronology, the work is not an original of Cui, but simply a part of his collected repertoire. Songfeng Ge Qinpu furthers this account by attributing the lyics and score to a Cheng Yin’an (程隱庵 文譜, possibly a misprint of the author Cheng Xiong’s title “Ying’an 穎庵”?). However, comparisons with older scores indicated that he did process the score into modern notation, especially concerning the transitioning of Ming-style huiwei system into the “metric” hui-fen system. Typical of scholarship at the time, there are occasions of overlooking and mistakes, which must be taken into account in the reading and interpretation process.

Qinyuan Xinchuan Forward and afterword of the piece.

Qinyuan Xinchuan Forward and afterword of the piece.

Since the Yanlulou copy has no descriptions for pieces, the earliest traced account goes to the Qinyuan Xinchuan. According to this:

“The piece can be traced to even earlier origins (“It is an ancient piece 古曲也”). The theme is a Daoist practictioner sitting under the stout pines and watching the unending waves.Looking upwards the progression of the Way (daohua 道化) and downwards upon the feeling of things (觸物情). It is heavily toned with the intent of someone lamenting on the passing of things by a riverside. Hence, this piece is clear, transcendent, and goes back and forth, and extends greatly with the the mood of poetic recital of emotion.”

The piece is recorded as a piece in Jue mode. According to prestigious texts’ from the Ming Dynasty, explanations such as the Shen Qi Mi Pu, characterized the third string (the “Jue/jiao” string) as the gong sound, or the primary tonal centre upon a standard tuning of the instrument, resulting in the setting 5 6 1 2 3 5 6 (1=gong). It is also characterized by the strong use of its relations with its Jue sound (3, open 5th string) and its Yu sound (6, open 2nd/7th string). From the sectional analysis shown below, this piece can be justified as a Jue mode under these classification requirements.

The first line of the score. Changes are marked in red.

The first line of the score. Changes are marked in red.

From the first look on the first page of the original score, it is quick to notice that Cui is indeed well-versed in musical theory for the guqin and its hot discourses of the day. Obvious if not somewhat unsettling to the modern reader, the left hand positioning noted suggest on first sight rather uncommon examples, such as “8 (八)” and “7-1/2 (七キ)” along with familiar and obviously modern-looking decimal positions, such as “6.2 (六二)” and “5.6 (五六)”. The former system is known as the hui-wei system, popularly used in pre-1683 scores to denote positions relative to one or two hui‘s, such as “7-8” denoting “between 7 and 8th hui“, whereras the latter hui-fen system divides the space between two hui (despite the varying distances) into ten equal parts and noting all positions between them as a decimal of the distance in between. In the earlier years of implementing this system, some manuscripts spend great detail explaining the innovation and ideas which failed in practice, such as recording the second decimal (such as 7.76 or 12.23) for the space simply did not allow such amount of information to be possibly printed clearly and picked up by the eye [cf. Jim Binkley tr. Yu-K’u-Ch’ai-Ch’in-p’u]. The mixed use of these two systems proved that Cui knew of both systems, and accepts its use concurrently – however, to the modern reader it is a sign of confusion and a sign of being disorganized. Whether the use of these two systems in the same piece was deliberately done so or not remains to be studied. On a side note, the vertical layout of the tablature along with the tight formatting of the left hand subtext also tends to suggest to the reader to parse the entire progression in one go, which is somewhat stressful.

Hence, the first step in the dapu process is to rewrite the entire score so that the left hand positions are universally in the decimal system. In the draft copy, consideration into spacing for the final copy and dividing general phrasing and sections was the first task. Although seemingly forward with ‘just copying’ the score horizontally under five-line staffs, doubts and ponderings take place on the use and changes of the original score, be it position rewrites (as previously mentioned), or discovering irrational notes or misprints and correcting them (such as having a pressed note on one string before, but an empty slap with the left thumb on an adjecent string right after). Any changes will have to be footnoted, and justified on a case-by-case basis.

Next, using a table with all the relative pitches for pressed and harmonic notes, the pitches are drafted onto the five-line staff with whole notes. As one creates rhythm by interpretation in practice (as in repeatedly sight-reading and analyzing the melody), and records it in pencil. This is a tedious task that can be processed much quicker if there was the existance of a computer software that can automatically interpret pitches onto the alternate staff based on tuning and position, which can be easily processed by spreadsheet. However, it is most regretful that nobody in my knowledge has created such a digital calculator or assistant that is openly available yet. After finalizing the above, one then proceeds to rewrite the entire score in ink, carefully marking in fine print and lines, and equally spaced out to ensure that bars (phrases) are fit onto a single line as best as possible. The product is scanned, and then published. When possible, an audio or video recording to accompany the results as aid is recommended. As of the writing of this essay, this has yet to be done.

Section-by-Section Analysis

Section 1 of 9

Songxia Guantao Pg.1: Sections 1 & 2

Songxia Guantao Pg.1: Sections 1 & 2

The piece begins off in broad lento but with a powerful cycling of octave-spanning chords. The use of chang-yin (“long murmurs”) give hint to the slower tempo. Every phrase almost ensures the feeling of great power (as in the roaring waves of the rocky Fujian coast) as every finale was backed with a lingering lower pitch, with the second attempt a highlight, as one could see the left hand dragging up from the far end of the instrument up to meet the crisp Yu sound of an open 7th string. (Theme O-1)

A technical note: As shown in the picture above, the opener line contains originally a “6-7” and a “6.4” at the same time. It is up to the discretion of the player to determine whether the 6-7 should be interpreted as a 6.7 instead, given the possibility of just-intonation position recalculation done by the author to achieve a novel temperament to imitate local Fujian music patterns.

Beginning with the Wang-lai and li of the 4th line, speed up slightly and limit the degree of left hand movement from here on until the release at the end of the section for dramatic effect.

Section 2 of 9

The first hint of the two-line primary theme (A) in this piece is suggested after the chord at tongsheng (just before first footstop). This theme of simple slides from 7th hui of each string to one or two sounds upward is variated once here (A-2) and resolved with a declining action back on Jue sound (page 2, open 5th string as one with pressed 6th string, 1st footstop). To resolve the theme as a full section, the author repeats theme (A) one more time in its simplest denomination on zhi and concludes with a lamentful bo-la sansheng.

Songxia Guantao Pg.2

Songxia Guantao Pg.2, Section 3 & 4

Section 3 of 9

The new two-line theme (B-1) is strongly indicative of a rising action, picking up the pace. The first “line” (two footstop sections, depicted here as first line of section 3) is a parallel image, suggesting to the player to play swingfully, with the use of in-out right hand movements and two-step glissandos (a yin counts as a step if the slide only goes up one tone, to account for parallel rhythm). A melodic line sings majestically and high-strung on yu sound to denote the climax of the section before returning to the lower ranges, but refuses to extinguish itself, with consistant use of push-out movements and resolves with the bang of a loud yu. (open 7th)

Section 4 of 9

A climax of the entire piece, with lavish use of gun-fo rolling sounds to decorate the previous theme (B-1*). This section changes the modality by a fifth to zhi (so) sound, traditionally understood as a tone for outcrys of expressive emotion, and is further expressed by the increasingly higher positions demanded on the left hand. However, it is important to observe the slight cooling off at the end of this section with the use of non-pentatonic he (si, E) sound before closing off with the open zhi sound at the end. A minor correction has been made to a note here, where the original reads “thumb 5th hui slap [yan] 2nd string”, but should be 3rd string since the previous note was there. Should it be played on 2nd string, the author would have used empty-press/slap [xu-yan] instead.

Section 5 of 9

Songxia Guantao Pg. 3, Sections 3, 4, 5.

Songxia Guantao Pg.3, sections 5 & 6.

This section may be the most technically demanding for the left hand, as it involves various techniques of moving, gui-zhi (kneeling-finger), and pressing on the upper register (which is difficult on any instrument, but especially poorly-made ones). Instead of gun-fo rolls, it is replaced with subtle left hand movements in wangfu 往復 back-and-forths, and this subtlety is confirmed even more so with the use of a single harmonic at the end of the theme line. While the middle of this section is similar in treatment to the previous sections, it was somewhat difficult to link up the concluding open string notes as it suggests a slowdown, but the overall theme goes otherwise.

Section 6 of 9

This section begins the cooldown variation, as the theme (C-2) from last section (C-1) is taken down an octave and recreated with the gun-fo but to a lesser degree. The climax of this section is the extensive use of chords in cuo movements (which must not slow down), followed by a conclusive qiacuo sansheng movement.  This is the final variation of the main themes used since section 3, hence concluding the body of the piece.

Songxia Guantao pg.4, section 7 and 8

Songxia Guantao Pg.4, sections 7 & 8.

Section 7 of 9

The conclusion begins with a declaration on returning to the original Jue sound and variates on the opening theme (O-2). While the notes may seem to have similar layout, length and progression with section 1, it is also important to consider the context of the previous and next sections – hence not copying the tempo and rhythm of the beginning. This theme finishes off in a formulaic qiacuo sansheng and enters the second half with the reintroduction of the two-line theme (A-2) in ruman, or “entering slow-beat”.

Section 8 of 9

This section is played almost entirely by harmonics – an obligatory feature of larger guqin pieces. The melody does not deviate far from the base mode of Jue but stands unique in its content.

Section 9 of 9

Songxia Guantao pg.5, Section 9
Songxia Guantao pg.5, Section 9

The last section maintains securely on a Jue-mode based melody line, emphasizing its tonality by sweeping motions (bo, la). Notice the non-perfect chord produced in the middle of the first line (zhi and yu sound together from open 6th and pressed 7th strings) – probably due to maintaining parallelism in the technique and visual aspect of performance, but it also emphasizes the open zhi sound to express a sense of sadness (the traditional understanding of the tone) and imperfection. Remnants of the first theme (A) echo for one last time before entering the ending sequence which repeats the gong sound twice as a faint pressed-harmonic chord.

Process Notes
The writing of this report itself took over a month, as I had to learn the analysis of melodies and modality as I wrote along. At least three major revisions were made on the historical information, as I lacked the proper previous research on the number of re-occurances in other manuscripts of the exact same piece. Thanks to Christopher Evans for keeping me updated on this. Also a big thank you to Dr. Tse Chun-Yan for his work on Ming-Qing dynasty tablature differences, Mr. Jim Binkley and Mr. John Thompson for email crash-courses on modality, and the members of the Facebook International Qin Society for all their enthusiasm, support, and feedback!

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