CHIME Field Research

Why is it that one of the world's biggest and most fascinating music cultures is so little known? How is it possible that such a vast field of musical traditions, spanning a history of over four thousand years and covering an area larger than Europe, has been grossly overlooked by so many researchers and students of Chinese culture?

The Dutch scholars Antoinet Schimmelpenninck and Frank Kouwenhoven felt triggered by this question, and in early 1990, together with a number of young European colleagues, they initiated the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, short: CHIME.

The two had been exploring musical China since 1986, visiting rural Jiangsu to collect local folk songs, studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and collecting books, recordings and instruments. With the founding of CHIME in 1990 their hitherto private collection became the official CHIME Library, covering virtually any type of Chinese music, from local opera to pop and rock, from Buddhist chants to tribal rituals.

Mong Dong

Qu Xiaosong's most famous work Mong Dong from 1984 must be considered a representative work of its time, incorporating music from different contexts and different backgrounds. As Qu Xiaosong had experienced rural life in China when he was sent to the countryside during Cultural Revolution, Qu saw himself as being a "simple man from the mountains". Consequently, the beginning of Mong Dong is referring to the shange 山歌 mountain song tradition from southern China with its direct voices and short phrases. The Baritone had directions to sing as if he never took any singing class before, to imitate a pure and "natural" character.

Still, Qu Xiaosong's horizon went beyond this rural tradition. In an interview with Frank Kouwenhoven, he "admits" that Mong Dong was strongly influenced by the work of an American composer, George Crumb, who wrote his piece Ancient Voices of Children in 1970. The source of inspiration becomes obvious if one compares the beginning of the pieces. Both use a very similar form of notation, and also Crumb's use of nonsense syllables and the technique of the singer to "sing inside the piano" have their counterpart in Qu's work. Nevertheless, with its more intuitive character and the different background, Qu Xiaosong's Mong Dong cannot be considered to be a "fake" by any means. It was originally written for the cartoon The Wild Ox and the Shepherd  悍牛与牧童 and thus wasn't even meant to be "absolute art music".

Guqin 古琴

The seven stringed zither (guqin, or simply qin, or ch'in in old transcription) is one of the oldest instruments with Chinese origin. It has traditionally been an instrument of the scholars, and it was always (and still is) only played by a very few adepts. The oldest qins that have been handed down and are still played are dating from the Tang dynasty (618–907). Playable predecessors of the instrument have even been found in graves from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

The Bells of Marquis Yi

In 1978, while clearing a hill near Suizhou 随州 in northern Hubei to build a radar repair station, soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) stumbled upon weirdly coloured clay. Two soldiers with an interest in archaeology suspected that there might be some important archaeological spot and alerted the local government. The Party officials were not impressed and ordered the PLA to blast the hill. Fortunately, the PLA officers ignored the order and repeatedly invited archaeologists to inspect the site. Soon it became clear that the hill contained an ancient burial site that turned out to be the grave of a nobleman from the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), Marquis Yi of Zeng (曾侯乙). Amongst others, a magnificent set of 65 perfectly preserved chime bells was unearthed, still playable after 2,500 years!