East Asia: Ancient Traditions and Modern Inventions
Andrew Killick [+]
University of Sheffield
Our entry point to the music of East Asia may seem an unlikely one: the harmonica, which many readers will associate with blues or Bob Dylan. The harmonica is introduced as an example of a family of instruments called “free-reed aerophones” which also includes the harmonium and a wide variety of accordion-type instruments. Free-reed aerophones were taken to the Americas from Europe, where they played an important role in folk music, and the harmonium was also taken to India as we saw in the last chapter, but Europe itself learned the free-reed principle from China in the nineteenth century. After tracing the instrument back to its source, we see how some Chinese musicians in recent times have adopted the Western harmonica and developed a unique and virtuosic music of their own for it. We then use the Chinese free-reed mouth organ as a starting point for exploring traditional Chinese music, including instrumental ensembles, the meditative solo music of the qin zither, and China’s highly developed traditions of musical theater. We note that a feature common to most Chinese music, the “pentatonic” or five-note scale, was long unrecognized by Western scholars (although it was common in European folk music too) because of their ethnocentric preconception that scales must have seven notes. We see how China historically formed another “music tree,” drawing on roots in outlying areas and spreading its branches over neighboring countries like Korea and Japan. These countries are briefly surveyed to reveal how the Chinese influence mainly affected the culture of social elites (for East Asia, like Europe and India, had a stratified social system) while the common people maintained local forms that were often strikingly different. East Asia, like Europe, has a rich historical record including a long history of written music, and claims some of the world’s oldest surviving musical traditions, though in both places we find that these traditions have often been “re-invented” for modern purposes. Also with reference to modern times, we consider how East Asia, once an object of exoticism in Western operas and musicals, has become a new home for Western classical music and also a front-runner in the technologization of popular music through Japanese “noise” music, karaoke, and Vocaloid software.