At the end of 2012 I dove into a 5 week Residency with the Xaimen NanYin Troupe. Our goal was twofold: 1. To explore, learn, and collaborate with each other to create a performance that would be true to traditional NanYin music but at the same time, one that would integrate improvisation and Western music and ideas within the structure and parameters of this ancient art form. 2. We wanted to create a performance that would also expand and reach out to a different audience than is usually associated with NanYin performances and audiences that would normally go to an improvised concert, (even though there almost no improvised concerts in China period), and hopefully change the way a live performance is generally seen in China by making this much more interactive, and by doing so, take the Chinese audience by surprise.
What we came up with was to present a concert that was a dreamscape entitled “NanYin Music in a Western Dream”. It was an amazing Residency for all of us. One that was built around long intensive, (but very fun) and exciting days that in the end, changed all of our perceptions of music and performing forever. Our goal is to continue the “dream” performances at least once per year.
What Is NanYin (南音)?
The NanYin music is one of the oldest forms of documented music in China. There are much older forms from China but no documentation has survived. NanYin means literally “Southern Music” and it begins it’s origins in the Tang and Song Dynasties (Tang: 618-907, Song 420 -479), and was born in the Southern Provence of Fujian. For a historical reference point Gregorian Chant and other mono harmonic monastic work lives in the time period of 590-604.
NanYin music consists of three main parts: Zhi (divertimento), Pu (instrumental), and Qu (vocal). The earliest Nanyin Musics are exclusively melodic and mostly sung/played in unison although with microtonal variations in pitch and intonation. The melodies have very complex forms and can be quite long and can change meter and tempo quite drastically throughout a given piece.
Generally the music is quite serious, although I have come to realize that it can also be lighthearted and playful as well, but due to the lack of harmonic structure (or the use of chords as accompaniment), to our modern ears it can feel very slow and melancholy. The core of the instrumental component of NanYin is in the traditional 4 stringed Pipa, (with nylon strings rather than the modern day Pipa which has steel strings and may have 5 strings). The other key instruments in NanYin are the Dongxiao (vertical Bamboo flute), Sanxian (3 stringed plucked fretless instrument somewhat like a banjo but with a much smaller sound box made from stretched snakeskin), and Erxian which is a two stringed bowed instrument or vertical fiddle without a fingerboard.
The vocal technique is quite different from “Western” vocal projection as most of the sound comes from the throat rather than the diaphragm and with intense breath control the vocalist can alter the tambour of the pitch with articulation of the mouth. The range is always of the high Soprano register and many times becomes indistinguishable from the Dongxiao or Erxian.
The language has always been, and continues to this day, to be that of the Southern Dialect and is not Mandarin or the mainstream language. In todays performances, most people do not understand the words being sung and so they will have a screen with a translation in Mandarin for the audience to read as the song is played.
How the “Dream” came to be
In April of 2012, I was introduced to some of the NanYin Troupe when they came to my concert of trio music. The concert was a combination of my trio with the GuZheng and Pipa and my Trio with Violin and Piano. The Troupe members were very excited about how we were mixing these musical styles and collaborating. They invited me to “sit- in” with the Troupe for a concert to try things out, (quite a humbling experience-but beautiful none the less), and so our dialogue began about how we might collaborate.
In November, I traveled back to China to spend almost 5 weeks with the troupe in an intensive residency to really learn about NaYin Music and at the same time find a way to create something new together. I had no idea what the outcome of this collaboration would yield, but as soon as I boarded the plane the dream began. Everything seemed different this trip-my interaction with people on the street and the Troupe all seemed like they were characters in a dream that was unfolding, (or that I was able to create, edit and develop), in real time. My work with the Troupe was also entirely in this dream space. I spent 10 hours every day in their beautiful hall creating (and being created), in a dream.
Things that would appear as dreams the night before would suddenly materialize in the day at the hall. People I met in the dream would suddenly show up in the hall and be part of the exploration and the music we making. Things and characters and questions that would show up as conversations in the day would continue and resolve in the dream later that evening. This “state” of dreaming continued non stop for the whole 5 weeks and is still evolving even to this day whenever I listen to the music I recorded there. Although I have had moments of “lucid” dreaming in the past, I have never been in this creative dream for such a long period of time, and had it influence so much of my life and creative process. The Dream state continued right into and was part of the final performance.