In the summer of 2000, I received a grant from the University of Michigan to collect classical and folk music along the ancient Silk Road within the contemporary Chinese border. I spent two months traveling through the most remote corners of the world, in the mountains and deserts.
The result was both fascinating and eye-opening. Not only was I profoundly touched by the beautiful music from the region, I also realized how significantly the music of different ethnic groups has been inspiring and infiltrating each other for thousands of years. And just as there is no pure blood in any race, there is no true nationalistic music either. Bartok, speaking of Slavic folk music, believed that the most interesting music was from the regions bordering more than one ethnicity. And that can certainly be said of all the musical styles I encountered during my trip. However, a border line has never truly existed on the Silk Road. This is true fusion in its finest sense.
In The Song and Dance of Tears I did not attempt to re-create the scenes and music I heard during the trip. Rather, the work serves as an evocation of the impression and emotions that stayed with me deeply. The tune I constructed for the last section of the work, Tears, was based on material from several folk songs I heard during the trip. One of them was titled Tears, in which an old man laments his lost youth.
The sheng, a Chinese mouth organ, is arguably the ancestor of all reed instruments, including the Western organ and accordion. We now have evidence of this instrument being incorporated into the Chinese culture for at least 2,500 years. The sound of this wind instrument is produced by either exhaling or inhaling through the mouthpiece while the fingers block the small openings of each bamboo pipe to generate air flow.
The history of the pipa, a plucked instrument of the lute family (whose invention has been attributed to the Babylonian civilization that flourished during the third millennium B.C.), is a typical example of how different cultures flirted and integrated with each other. When the pipa was first brought into China through the Silk Road over 2,000 years ago, it resembled and sounded very much like the present-day lute, with a curved neck held horizontally and played with a plectrum. Throughout the years, the Chinese have truly assimilated the instrument into being one of its own- it is now performed vertically with fingernails and the instrument has changed extensively in its range of expression. Like almost all Chinese instruments, it can bend the pitches easily by pulling and pushing the rather loose strings to produce a glissando effect, a feature which comes from the tonal aspect of the Chinese language.
Learn about other music from the Silk Road.