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The Gregorian chants of medieval Europe are often described as the earliest written music, but there maybe some that is even older, and it sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of ancient music from China - not an original recording, by the way. For years, the Chinese and Japanese were baffled about what it sounded like because they could not decipher the ancient musical notations. They finally found a key to the puzzle in Northwest China.

Orchestras there were playing music that used those notations. It was first written down during the Tang Dynasty, as far back as the seventh century. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report from Xi'an about this living musical relic.

(Soundbite of music)

ANTHONY KUHN: In the seventh century, Xi'an was known as Chang'an. It was the capital of the Tang Empire and the world's largest city, with roughly a million residents. Chang'an lay at the eastern end of the Silk Road, and scholars, priests and merchants from India, Japan, Persia and Byzantium created a thriving trade here in goods and ideas.

Li Kai is director of the Chang'an women's classical music ensemble. He says that the music of the Tang court absorbed some cultural influences from the West.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LI KAI (Director, Chang'an Women's Classical Music Ensemble): (Through Translator) A valuable flower once came overland from Europe via the Silk Road. It was called the tulip. China's emperor saw this as an event worth commemorating, and so he had his court musicians compose a tune called "The Tulip."

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Every Monday, Li's orchestra rehearses at the Little Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the year 709. In 1950, Xi'an had 40 orchestras playing Tang music. Today, there are just 12.

The orchestras include stringed instruments such as the pipa, which looks like a lute.

(Soundbite of pipa music)

KUHN: Wind instruments include the sheng, which has a mouthpiece connected to a cluster of bamboo pipes.

(Soundbite of sheng music)

KUHN: And percussion instruments such as the double cloud gongs, an array of small bronze discs hanging on a wooden rack.

(Soundbite of the double cloud gong music)

KUHN: Hui Zhi is the woman who bangs on the little gongs. Her day job is as a police officer at a local jail. She says she was walking by the Little Wild Goose Pagoda one day when she heard the music.

Ms. HUI ZHI (Musician, Police Officer): (Through Translator) The music rocked my mind. When I heard it, I imagined the prosperity and power of the Tang Dynasty. I sat and listened for a while, and then I made up my mind to join this orchestra.

KUHN: Besides various instrumental arrangements, court music included dancing and singing.

Ms. WU QING (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: The incense is in its burner, the candle is on the table, sings 19-year-old Wu Qing in a song describing offerings at a Buddhist temple. Wu is a far cry from the courtly, portly women musicians depicted in Tang Dynasty paintings. Dressed in a neon pink sweatshirt and camouflage cargo pants, Wu bops to her music and plays on a handheld video-game machine during breaks in the rehearsal.

Ms. QING: (Through Translator) Sometimes I wonder why I wasn't born in ancient times. Really, really, really. Ancient people were so lucky. They didn't have any troubles. They just ate, drank and listened to music, and that's all.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. QING: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Actually, commoners seldom got to hear court music, except on big holidays. Most of the time, it was the exclusive province of the emperor and his court. Besides, they wrote music in a way that was illegible to all but a few. Think of it as a kind of ancient anti-piracy encryption.

Orchestra member He Zhongxin comes from a family with centuries of musical tradition. He says that the script could tell a musician what to play, but not how to play it.

Mr. HE ZHONGXIN (Orchestra Member): (Through Translator) Our kind of music uses parts of Chinese characters, but no notes. Even if you can understand it, you won't get the flavor of the music right without the oral instruction of a teacher.

KUHN: In other words, it's the teacher who gives you the Tang Dynasty equivalent of allegro con brio, or adagio molto cantabile.

Li Kai admits that some data must have been lost over centuries of oral transmission.

Mr. KAI: (Through Translator) How far off are we from Tang Dynasty music? I'm sure there's some distance, but not much. After a thousand years, there's got to be some difference. Tang Dynasty people ate differently, thought differently and lived in a different environment.

KUHN: Li says that the Tang Dynasty adhered to the Confucian idea that music's highest function was as a tool of moral education and socialization. It taught people to respect authority and hierarchy and to cultivate a spirit of composure and moderation.

That means that everyone in the orchestra played the same note at the same time.

Mr. KAI: (Through Translator) Music emphasized harmony. The myriad sounds were united as one. This united sound was used to promote the emperor's authority. So while each person played a different instrument and had a different role in society, they all acted according to the same standards and rules.

KUHN: This interpretation of harmony meant strength through unity, not diversity. The idea of harmony as a combination of different chords and notes was a foreign notion.

Today, China's rulers once again espouse a harmonious society. Of course, not everyone buys into this orthodoxy, even at the risk of being branded a dissonant dissident.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News Xi'an, China.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can hear more music from the Tang Dynasty ensembles at nprmusic.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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