Echoes in the Field

Here in Nangaoluo village, musicians sat around a large rectangular wooden table mixing sounds and complex rhythmic patterns creating a vital transformative energy. I was in rural north China with a group of music students from Hong Kong University, the composer Eli Marshall and some of the best musicologists in the country. The heat was oppressive.


The Nangaoluo musicians are technically skilled, imaginative and talented, improvising, elaborating, refining while sight-reading scores. Within the rules of specific nuances and stylization, there's room for each musician to enter a creative realm, to make innovations, and create something entirely new from within the limits of that style or idiom. No matter how many times a piece is performed it's never repeated or reenacted exactly the same way again. Any live performance will always create a certain excitement and tension. Live music has that special resonance and that's what makes it so precious! If it makes you buzz at a personal level, it's resonating at a very collective level as well.

I was in a different dimension, not only physically, but in some kind of celestial reckoning, ‘out of this world.’ I turned and looked at Eli as we sat with the musicians performing around a large wooden rectangular table. Their music spoke of mastery, both oral and notated, a living presence rather than a dead tradition.

The musicologist Xiao Mei who accompanied us had written about her visits to the village in her music travelogue book Echoes from the Fields (2001). We learn of a ninety-three old Chinese catholic who lost seven of her family members during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, two photos discovered by Stephen Jones in a small town in Italy of missionary activities in the village (one of a church, the other, of a priest and male musicians). One musician suggests that music stands be used during performances because 'western symphonic music also has notated scores placed on music stands,' even when the village musicians 'don't need to look at a score' because 'wind ensemble music is performed with the eyes closed.' Xiao was eager to find out what constitutes 'change' among the music associations in the village from at least three perspectives:--the musicians themselves, the author and Jones, and the plan to bring music students from Beijing to learn and study their music.

Over the years, Eli has reminded me of the jazz and blues-like quality of much of the music—instrumental and song—that he has heard in his own fieldwork in China. Once we were listening to a fieldwork recording of a percussion interlude and instrumental vocal piece performed by Naxi musicians from Lijiang in Yunnan province in his apartment in Beijing. The piece had its own architecture similar to a traditional twelve-bar blues stanza-chorus. The roof was fixed but at the same time it floated free allowing for spontaneous improvisation, the flute and male vocal playing together—sometimes delayed, at other times anticipated producing a rich tapestry of heterophonic textures. We were reminded of the sonic gestures of people's lives and the musical rituals that govern their existence, music and stories that begin the field and never really leave it.

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