Xin-Liang’s p’i-p’a meets Jumez’ guitar
I am so tall, she is so small!
My voice is monotonous. Hers is a melody.
But her voice can be a caress… or a sword.
The rhythm or her words (incomprehensible to me) is relevant: I cherish her waltz, but, boy, do I fear her march!
In her single language (Chinese) she seems to express much more than I do with six or seven tongues.
Her whole body can be in turn sweetness or madness, vulnerable or armoured, whereas I always keep calm.
She plays on four strings. I play on six strings.
She the p’i-p’a.
I the guitar.
Our currents are opposite, and create a magnet-like attraction.
She is in full harmony with her instrument. By the vertical position of the p’i-p’a on her lap, she keeps the neck of the instrument close to her own neck; under her hair-bun, her vertebrae make a delicate curvy line, with a few straight hairs falling down, thus marking so much the more the ridge of her slenderness. Next to it is the slender neck of her p’i-p’a, with the convex spaces between the frets — which she calls the xiang.
The strings and the keyboard, the hair and the neck… only a painter could depict this similarity.
By delicately pushing a p’i-p’a string down, she gets sensuous variations in tones, just as if these carvings were centres of pleasure…
This unlimited division marks the unlimited multiplication of sensations. She can subdivide the scale to the most minute microtones.
Next to her, I feel clumsy with my straight half-tones.
But since I cannot divide the tones, my only option is to multiply them. I play two. three or even four parts together.
Her fingers. as thin and white as ivory sticks, are very free to evolve between the strings. She can use the necessary space to prepare the actual plucking of the string. She can concentrate on the angle of attack that her hand is willing to select. She can impulse wide movements that won’t be affected by the strings next to it. She benefits from the greatest freedom, the one that allows her to throw all of her emotions into the smallest possible particle of musical expression: the tone colour.
My fingers are very busy trying to avoid all those strings so close together, and strike them with less preparation to extract the sound nuances.
It’s not what she says that’s important. It’s the way she says it.
Beijing 1981: Xin-Liang and Jean-Pierre
My mind is elsewhere: I am issued from a culture which worships quantity. MORE power, MORE money, MORE houses, MORE cars, MORE strings, MORE notes… For the sake of this compulsion, we have even denatured many of our instruments! The hunting horn had an incomparable brightness and depth of tone, a sound that could be perceived through one’s guts rather than through one’s ears! Well, they decided that, by adding a few keys, more notes than the simple harmonics could be produced. Too bad if the sound was not exactly the same and became “sterilized”! Today, in the orchestras, it is that modified instrument that is used under the name of “French horn”, that instrument that can produce MORE notes, no matter if the tone loses its depth and nobility.
Other instruments have been affected. The harp? Such a fascinating celestial sound. Let’s do MORE on it: we’ll add some complicated mechanics, activated by some brass pedals. True, the sound is not the same. It is much more tenuous. But what is the importance, as long as we can do MORE with it? Nowadays, to hear the real sound of a harp, one has to listen to so-called “folk” instruments: Paraguayan, Venezuelan, Celtic… And a Westerner has to go “folk” again to listen to the real sound of a flute: the Bengali bamboo flute, for instance. But watch out: pretty soon, they are going to insert screws, mechanics and what more into the noble wood… What they want is to extend the surface, at the price of depth. Fortunately our violin has escaped this tendency (for the time being!)
MORE or BETTER?
Through the guitar and the lute, I have been torn between the MORE and the BETTER. I have played instruments with 5 to 16 strings. The guitar, today, is divided into two streams:
The 10-string instrument is not exactly driven by the MORE plague, but rather by an intellectual search for perfection: with an appropriate tuning, each note that is played will start at least one harmonic reaction from a lower string, which means a more balanced sound.
Whereas in the 6-string version, some notes are “deaf” (have no harmonica! support): D#, C#… Yet, the structural modifications required for the increased tension imply a loss of sound quality.
Better balance, indeed, but at the cost of sensuality…
But even if I have settled for six strings, my mind is nevertheless concentrating on the polyphonic aspect of music.
Her p’i-p’a has four strings, even though she tells me that in the past there has been an attempt to add a fifth string. All the construction of the instrument is dedicated to this essential element: the sound quality.
With my six strings. it is true that I can multiply the combination of harmonic lines to the infinite. I won’t be satisfied with just one melody: I shall add a bass line, plus an accompaniment. I shall try to play counterpoint or fugues, just as if I had MORE instruments than a guitar.
What I get from my audiences is admiration.
When she is playing the p’i-p’a. she is not interested in the temptation of polyphony. The developments of her music are not numerical. What she is looking for is the adequation of each note in the emotional pattern she is willing to convey.
What she gets from her audience is gratitude.
In my culture, I have been trained to respect each note that has been written by a composer one year or five centuries before me. Playing those very same notes today implies that times have not changed in between. That the ear and the perception are exactly the same today, which is of course not true.
Music or museum?
Instead of a piece of music, I sometimes have the impression of playing a piece of museum.
She, on the contrary, is inspired by a gongche, which reminds her the essence of a work. But her role is to adapt it to time and place. She is constantly actualizing the composition, making it adequate, consistent with her audience. Even if a gongche gives a precise indication of the piece, she has complete liberty to fill in what’s between the notes, especially in terms of micro tones, which she can mould as she feels. In the xiang part of her p’i-p’a neck. She can use the tui technique to upgrade a note to the superior tone…
I am a scholar, I can dismantle. analyse, put an incredible amount of lines together. I have learned how to master my instrument.
She. with a few notes, can make a thousand hearts vibrate. One single beautiful note she plays can replace all of my technique. But she needs more than my technique to play that single note!
I am embarrassed in my polyphonic pattern.
She finds her fulfilment in polychromy.
When I engage in the process of studying and performing a great work, I make sure that all the rules are respected, that it has the best possible construction, the most adequate transitions, the purest developments, the most logical conclusion.
But I have also learned to know that those mechanical patterns often take out a lot of spontaneity. Automatic developments often replace the actual ideas.
But she tells me: “A great work is the one that is not accomplished!”.
She is right. The world is too complex to have a descriptive approach. The only way not to be mistaken and not to mislead others is to have an elliptical approach. This way, there is involvement, but no restrictions.
I will do just like her on the p’i-p’a: say less, imply more. I shall not describe any longer: I shall understate.
And I tell her: “Like a bee, the artist must gather pollen from many flowers.” Learn from me just as I have learned from you, and let’s bring back the new substances to our own beehive. I shall still play the guitar, enriched by new notions. You will still play the p’i-p’a, perhaps having polyphony in mind. But please remain as you are today: dense. exempt from any verbalism.
She has found density on her p’i-p’a.
I have looked for diversity on my guitar.
Density and diversity finally met on a harmonious musical score. One on each stave: