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This talk discusses the aesthetics of Chinese traditional music and explores its conveyance in modern practice, especially in the context of globalization and multi-cultural music making. I will use the zheng, an ancient Chinese long zither presently with approximately twenty million practitioners worldwide, as an example to explore the concept of sound (sheng) and music (yin), and to discuss the interrelationship between the two.
Ancient Chinese sages consider sound and music distinct yet interconnected; only refined sound was deemed music. The morphology of the zheng mirrors the duality of sheng and yin, as each string is divided in two by a movable bridge. The right hand plucks the strings to the right of the bridge to initiate sound, and the left hand manipulates strings to the left to cultivate the sound into music. This unique morphology delineates the zheng’s composition, performance technique, as well as the relationship between the notation and oral transmission. Sound manipulation and cultivation through pitch bending and stressing expression through subtle shifts of moving tones and timbre reflects the Confucian concept of ideal sound.
In the 21st century, cultural interactions and mass communication through multiple media have propelled the zheng into an age of globalization. Zheng musicians now perform a wide range of music genres, encompassing traditional, new music, and free improvisation. Can the zheng’s unique music identity be redefined in non-traditional and non-Chinese genres? I argue what can be explored and applied in modern zheng music mirrors the ancient Chinese concept of sheng and yin, and a command of microcosmic shifts of tone within a macrocosm of complexity are fundamental in defining the zheng’s unique musical identity in the age of globalization.
Mei Han (Ph.D.) is an ethnomusicologist specializing in Chinese instrumental music. Her research interests also include music of East Asia, Southeast Asia, the Chinese diaspora in North America, and contemporary music influenced by Asian philosophy.
She has published in journals in English and Chinese as well as entries for the New Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Han is currently a visiting assistant professor at Kenyon College, Ohio. She directed the Chinese Music Ensemble at the University of British Columbia, established the Chinese Music Ensemble the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Kenyon College.
Mei Han has lectured at universities and music institutes in North America, Europe, Asia, and South Africa. She received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (full scholarship for Doctoral degree), awarded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; the St. John Scholarship (for Master’s degree at UBC), awarded by St. John University (Shanghai) Alumni Association; and the Thelma Adamson Prize for the best student presentation, SEM Northwest Conference.
Mei Han is an international concert artist and is considered one of the world’s premiere zheng (Chinese long zither) virtuosi, performing in a multitude of musical genres including traditional, contemporary, creative improvisation, and electro-acoustic music. She has performed in prestigious venues, festivals as soloist with chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras; recorded seven albums; garnered award nominations, and has been the subject of documentaries and articles.