North American Guqin Association



A Personal View of Qin and Improvisation

by Henry Kaiser

To tell you more about this new Qin and Xiao improvisation album, I
need to tell you some things about myself, about how I came to love Qin
music. I will also need to tell you a few things about improvisation.

Most of the music played on planet earth is improvised, not composed.
What do we know about the first music that prehistoric man made? We
know it was improvised; it was the first music, it could not have been
anything but improvisation. In most traditional cultures, be it the
“high art” tradition or the “folk music” tradition, improvisation is
the main ingredient in music. Indonesia, India, Asia, Southeast Asia,
Scandinavia, Europe, Africa... nearly everywhere, improvisation is
supreme in most roots musics. The western classical art tradition, in
which composition is all important, and where there is a hierarchical
supremacy of the composer of the performer, is truly a rare situation
in human musics. In parallel to the West, seems that there has not
been much improvisation in Chinese musical art for a long time. At
least that is what the scholars say. The historians tell us that there
has been no improvisation on Qin for at least 1500 years. However, 2000
years ago, it was supposedly common.

I am a guitarist, both improviser and composer. I began to play and
grew up in the traditions of blues, jazz, rock, experimental, world,
and various other musics that are all rooted in improvisation. My own
particular path of discovery lead me to the music with the most
improvisation on the planet. The “free music” or “free improvisation”
tradition, created in the 60’s and 70’s by English an Europeans like
John Stevens, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Han Benninck, Misha
Mengleberg, Peter Brotzman, and many others. Derek Bailey, and amazing
guitarist was my biggest hero. He developed a whole new vocabulary for
the guitar. Wide intervals, mixed stopped notes and harmonics; as well
as alternate ideas of pitch organization, timbre, ornamentation and
plectrum attack. Do develop the widest range of moment to moment
choices for improvisation, he tried to create a new and personal
musical language with a larger vocabulary of sounds to choose from. In
the early 70’s when I began to play guitar I met and interviewed Mr.
Bailey and he introduced me to a recording of the qin made by the
western musicologist John Levy. Besides a few classic qin pieces, there
was a section called: ways of touching the qin. A demonstration of the
many different way of articulating and playing one note. This recording
turned out to be very influential on Bailey and myself. It was a
demonstration of the many choices that you could make about playing one
note. Choices that are largely unnotatable in the western notation
tradition. The qin is largely taught in an oral manner, from teacher to
student, these techniques are demonstrated, learned, and are summoned
up in qin notation manuscripts by their names.

To Derek Bailey and myself, the qin seemed like the ideal instrument
for expressive improvisation. And we learned many things from qin
recordings to expand our guitar vocabularies. We were so surprised to
learn, a few years later, that there was not recent tradition of qin
improvisation! How could this be? It was the ideal instrument for
improvising with. It had and enormously diverse and varied vocabulary
of sounds and playing techniques. These sounds and playing techniques
resulted in music that was far beyond the limitations of the western
notational system. Even the Chinese systems of qin notation were a
short hand for the actual music. The pieces were so complex that they
needed to be directly from one player to another, from one instrument
to another. It was incredibly strange to us that this great instrument,
one of the oldest instruments on the planet, had not an improvisation
tradition for a millennium and a half. To us in the West, improvisation
yielded the best music. Music from the heart and soul of the performer.
Music that was appropriate to the moment, circumstances, and audience;
at the time of its realization from mind into sound and back into the
minds of the listeners. It was a mystery to us. Why no improvisation on
Qin. Was it a tyranny of pedagoguery over performers? Was improvisation
crushed by some cultural establishment because it was a dangerous
music? Perhaps dangerous in the way that sometimes surprised Taoism had
been at times suppressed? We could and can only guess. I leave this
question for qin scholars who know more of China than this qin lover.

Decades later, I found a recording of Prof. Li’s that included a couple
of improvisations. Later I met Prof. Li in San Francisco and attended
concerts were he created extemporaneously, according to programmatic
music suggestions from the audience. A waterfall in Autumn, Geese
chased by a Fox, etc. This to me seemed like the greatest qin music
that I have heard. (and I will say here that I have a well-listened-to
collection of over 150 qin CDs and LPs!) I later recorded and
as-yet-unreleased set of improvisations by Prof. Li. I was happy to see
Prof. Li’s first collection of Extemporizing Works of Qin and Xiao,
released last year. And I am so happy to see another volume coming
soon, the very one you are holding in your hands.

I think that this work makes Prof. Li one of the most important
musicians on the planet. He is returning the qin to the vitality and
magic of its original roots in improvisation. The well spring that the
best music flows from. If you are a conservative qin fan who is
skeptical about Prof. Li’s extemporizations, I would ask you one simple
thing. Put aside your prejudices and listen with an open heart, mind,
and ears. The qin is one of the greatest instruments ever for speaking
to the soul. I know that improvisation provides for a much more direct
connection in this respect. And by choosing improvisation, I believe
that Prof. Li not only has a lot more to say, he has the chance of
saying the right thing at the right moment. He is creating music that
more accurately reflects a vital, chaotic and changing natural world.
He is returning the qin to its true way, so that it may do the same for
himself and any fortunate listeners.

HK NOV 2003


Henry Kaiser is widely recognized as one of the most creative and
innovative guitarists, improvisers, and producers in the fields of
rock, jazz and experimental music. He is one of the most extensively
recorded as well, having appeared on more than 175 different albums.
Evidence of his exceptional musical breadth and versatility can be
found in a partial list of the extraordinary artists with whom he has
recorded and performed: Herbie Hancock, Richard Thompson, David
Lindley, Bob Weir, Bill Laswell, Steve Lacy, Fred Frith, Drumbo, Wadada
Leo Smith, Negativland, Terry Riley, Jim O'Rourke, Ryuichi Sakamoto,
Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell, Victoria Williams, Jerry Garcia, Marilyn
Crispell, Derek Bailey, John Oswald and Cecil Taylor.

While Kaiser has helped unfetter the guitar from the conventions of
genre-bound techniques, his instrumental virtuosity and technological
breakthroughs are always deployed in the service of deep and immediate
personal expression. Some of his musical sources include traditional
blues, free jazz, free improvisation, rock, American steel-string
concert guitar, and 20th century classical, as well as Malagasy, North
Indian Classical, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean musics.
Like any probing artist he also draws creatively from his other abiding
interests, which include information theory, experimental cinema,
mathematics, experimental literature, and SCUBA diving. Mr. Kaiser has
taught World Music at Mills College and Underwater Research at the
University of California at Berkeley. In the Austral summer of
2001-2002, he traveled to Antarctica on a National science Foundation
Grant, to record a solo guitar album about Antarctica. His “Antarctic
Guitar” CD was the first album in human history to be recorded on that

fan website:
Antarctic Guitar Journals:




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