Sunday, July 06, 2008

Divine Music Administration

Alex Ross wrote a long article in the last New Yorker about classical music in China. It's worth reading the whole way through. I especially dug his description of the Divine Music Administration in the Temple of Heaven Park, since I was just there and experienced it with many of the same feelings (though not the same level of serendipity). Ross:
On a day when the center of Beijing was overrun by Olympic hullabaloo--in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, President Hu Jintao was lighting the Olympic torch, to the accompaniment of Hollywoodish fanfares--I went for a walk in the august sprawl of the Temple of Heaven complex, and saw a sign pointing to the “Divine Music Administration.” No such place existed in my guidebook, but I followed the arrows nonetheless. After going around in circles for a while, I came upon a series of buildings where court musicians of the Ming dynasty once rehearsed. The buildings had recently been renovated, most of the rooms filled with exhibitions on Chinese musical history. One could bang replicas of ancient bronze bells and strum on a guqin. A young attendant was standing by. When I asked a question, she proceeded to play the guqin with expert grace. She seemed grateful for the attention; in the past hour, I had been the museum’s only visitor.

Then I heard music--not recorded music but the real thing, a slow, grand, forbiddingly austere procession of sonorities. It emanated from behind the closed doors of a hall in the center of the complex. I cracked open the door, but an attendant shooed me away. “Not allowed,” she said. I walked over to the box office and asked if a public performance was scheduled; the man behind the counter shook his head vigorously and said, “No music.” Just when I was preparing to give up, I saw a van approaching. Twenty or so well-dressed Chinese tourists piled out. Guessing that they were headed into the hall, I slipped into their midst, and made it through the doors.

A half-hour performance ensued, with a full complement of Chinese instruments, and players dressed in vividly colored courtly garb. It was a sound at once rigid and brilliant, precise in attack and vibrant in delivery. It was the most remarkable musical experience of my trip. At the time, I didn’t quite know what I was hearing, but I later surmised that I had witnessed a re-creation of zhonghe shaoyue, the music that resounded at the temple while the emperor made sacrifices to Heaven. Confucius, in the Analects, calls it yayue--“elegant music”--and laments that the people are discarding it in favor of vernacular tunes. Now it is a ghost in a phantom museum.

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Other musical miscellany: a brief clip from sometime in the mid-1930s of Shostakovich playing the last bit of his first Piano Concerto.


Blogger nate said...

Sounds neat. I continue to be sort of amazed by Alex Ross' ability to put his emotional responses to music into words.

Also, for the record, that is the awesomest footage of Shostakovich ever.

7/07/2008 9:36 PM  

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