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December 18, 2011

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Music to soothe the soul

THE pure and lingering melodies of the guqin (plucked seven-stringed instrument) are said to still the mind and calm the soul.

The 3,000-year-old ancient instrument plays a key part in Chinese intellectual history and has resonated in the hearts of scholars and noblemen for ages.

Mastering the zither-like guqin was considered one of the essentials of being a gentleman.

Three concerts are coming up, a performance of original works tonight and a New Year's concert on January 3.

The third on December 28 is notable for its atmospheric stage setting, a study of an ancient scholar - with guqin table, calligraphy desk, books and ink-wash paintings.

Famed guqin artists Wang Peng, Du Dapeng and Qiao Shan will perform both classical tunes and music representing a modern aesthetic and new perspectives on the possibilities of the revered instrument.

The program presents guqin solos, songs performed with guqin and guqin improvisation in a joint presentation of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

The classics "Flowing Water," "Phoenix Hairpin" and "Parting in Yangguan" will be performed.

Wang, one of China's distinguished guqin restorers and makers, says the concert will provide insight into ancient scholars' spiritual outlook.

Wang has restored more than 100 ancient guqin, including those from the Tang (AD 618-907 ) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.

"What makes this concert different from former guqin performances is the settings," says Wang, who designed and made most of the properties. "We want to bring the audience the original ambience of the art."

Guqin was one of the four arts - along with calligraphy, painting and chess - that scholars and gentlemen were expected to master.

Young people today are far less interested in traditional music than pop music.

"Western-style music education has prevailed for a very long time in Chinese schools," Wang says. "Many Chinese parents show little respect for traditional arts. They would rather enroll their children in piano and violin lessons than classes in traditional Chinese musical instruments."

Among those who do student traditional instruments, guqin is less popular than guzheng, another zither-like instrument with movable bridges and up to 23 strings. Guqin music is more lingering and soulful, less bright and crisp than guzheng that can has a wider range.

Guqin music is listed by UNESCO as part of mankind's intangible cultural heritage. According to a recent UNESCO report, there are fewer than 1,000 well-trained guqin players and perhaps no more than 50 surviving masters.

The original repertoire of several thousand compositions has drastically dwindled to a mere hundred works that are regularly performed.

Every year there are fewer than 10 guqin concerts in Shanghai, many of them attended by elderly guqin lovers. Qiao, a noted guqin artist and an official with China's Academy of Guqin, says only 300-400 people attend each performance.

"We're happy to find more and more young professionals attending concerts and classes these days," Qiao says.

Tao Yi, a grandson of the late guqin master Liu Shaochun, is dedicated to preserving this ancient art. He has compiled Liu's scores into a book and videotaped Liu's performance for exhibition and academic exchanges.

With the emergence of guqin workshops and clubs, people are beginning to realize the charms of the music, Tao says, commenting that many learners focus only on technique "rather than cultivating their personal morality, aesthetic taste and philosophy of life."

"A performer without virtues and tranquility heart can't present inspiring guqin music," he adds.

The concert tonight will feature original guqin music composed by the faculty of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, as well as flute and erhu (two-stringed bowed instrument) music.


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