North American Guqin Association

Guqin lecture with Professor Li Xiangting

Center for Chinese Studies, UC Berkeley, Dec 3, 2009

2009-12-04 010


The world-renowned guqin master Professor Li Xiangting made a rare appearance in the United States for a guqin lecture at the Center of Chinese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley on December 3, 2009. The presentation was co-sponsored the North American Guqin Association and made possible by a grant from Meet the Composer. The lecture room was filled almost to capacity with an appreciative audience.

Professor Li Xiangting is one of today's leading guqin masters. He is one of the few musicians who can compose, improvise, teach and perform on this instrument. He is a distinguished professor of guqin at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, president of the China Guqin Association and senior consultant to the North American Guqin Association. He has also toured internationally and has been recorded extensively. Professor Li is renowned not only for his individual style of guqin music but also for his refined, traditional, scholarly skills in xiao flute playing, calligraphy, brush painting and poetry. The Chinese Ministry of Culture has recently declared him one of the ten National Representative Heirs to China's Intangible Culture.

The main focus of Professor Li's lecture was to clarify some common misunderstandings about the guqin, which are nowadays often found on the Internet. Professor Li believes that the art of the guqin is a mature art form which has been developed for over 3000 years, and it is capable of expressing many facets of human thought and emotion. Although guqin music embodies philosophical, historical, and even political ideas beyond the realm of pure music, it also has the power to stir up our deepest, innermost emotions.

However, in the past couple of decades, some new schools of thought have mystified the guqin into a pure form of philosophy – claiming that it is a “Tao” and not an art. They idolize the concept of “Qing, Wei, Dan, Yuan” falsely as the essence of the Yushan school or even the highest state one can achieve in the art of guqin playing. “Qing, Wei, Dan, Yuan” are four characteristics of guqin music that can be translated as “pure, delicate, subtle, remote”. Based on these ideas, some players have developed a distorted view of how the masterpieces in the traditional guqin repertoire should be played – music that is divorced from its context and always played softly in a detached and expressionless manner.

Guqin is also an extremely versatile instrument, from the profound, deep tone of its open strings, to the pure sound of its harmonics and the singing quality of its stopped strings – it is capable of many shades of timbre and expresses a wide range of human emotions. Its versatility is especially impressive when considering how most instruments are used in an orchestra. The harp, for example, has a really beautiful sound, but orchestrators can use it in only a few ways to conjure up a specific mood, proving that its expressive range is rather limited.

Professor Li demonstrated the full expressive range of the guqin with a heartfelt rendition of “Liu Shui” (“Flowing Water”) – from the droplets of a spring to the billowing waves of the ocean, regarding with awe the grandeur of nature. Professor Li proved to the audience that guqin music has the power to move its listeners even if they are experiencing its music for the first time. He suggested that if the audience is not moved by the music, particularly if it is a masterpiece from the guqin core repertoire, it is usually the player's fault and not the listener's.

Professor Li is also a master player of the xiao (a vertical bamboo flute commonly used to accompany the guqin), and he played “Meihua San Nong” (“Three Variations on the Plum Blossom Theme”) on the xiao as a duet with Wang Fei, the founder and director of the North American Guqin Association, on the guqin. Traditionally, Chinese poets have used the plum blossom to symbolize the noble character of the virtuous, since it is one of the few flowers that bloom in the winter. Professor Li emphasized that “Qing, Wei, Dan, Yuan” is merely one facet of the guqin's expressive palette and it is definitely not the highest state of the art of the guqin. Then he demonstrated a section of “Meihua San Nong” based on the distorted view of “Qing, Wei, Dan, Yuan” and it no longer contained the passion necessary to portray the struggle of the plum blossom against the winter wind.

Finally, Professor Li surprised the audience with his unparalleled skill in guqin improvisation, first on the theme of “Spring Breeze” and then on two Chinese poems sung with deep feeling and masterfully accompanied by his own playing. By the end of the presentation, the few audience members who had never heard guqin before all expressed a similar sentiment – they enjoyed the music tremendously and felt that they could understand it although they didn't have any knowledge of it prior to the lecture. One westerner commented he was “amazed by the many voices of the guqin” and another, older Chinese gentleman was impressed by how “touching” and “expressive” guqin music can be. According to Elinor Levine, the Program Director of the Center of Chinese Studies, the event was one of the most successful and well attended in the fall of 2009.

Please click on the link below to see photo album taken by Tinghua Zhang.


North American Guqin Association


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