Lecture by Prof. Zhang Dongfan and Prof. Xiao Ma on the Chinese tradition of Ou Yue 瓯 乐 or “music of the water bowls”


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On June 8, 2023, at the China Cultural Center in Sofia, the Chinese musical tradition Ou Yue was presented, literally: “music of the bowls”, poetically: “music of the water bowls/cups”. The two lecturers – Prof. Dongfan and Prof. Ma – are familiar to fans of Chinese music and poetry from their successful concert “Traditional Chinese Style and Sophistication” [2], presented at the National Academy of Music as part of the Sofia Music Weeks forum. The introduction of the Ou Yue tradition to the Bulgarian public was part of another forum – “Summer with Chinese Culture” in Bulgaria (6 June – 22 July 2023)[3], organized by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Bulgaria and the China Cultural Center in Sofia. If I had to present in a few words the “Summer with Chinese Culture in Bulgaria” forum, I would highlight two trends: inviting Chinese lecturers and performers with rich pedagogical and research experience, as well as attracting Bulgarians with professional knowledge of the Chinese language, culture, and arts as lecturers. The cinematographer Prof. Andronika Martonova, PhD[4], the composers Prof. Georgi Arnaudov, PhD and Asen Avramov[5] and others were the Bulgarian lecturers.

The lecture of Prof. Dongfan and Prof. Ma was the closing event of an evening titled “Getting to Know Chinese Music”. At the beginning of the evening, Prof. Arnaudov gave a lecture entitled “Ancient Chinese Music”, and Mr. Avramov presented some traditional Chinese musical instruments. After each of the two lectures, the young Chinese musician Li Zhongche, who is a student at the National Academy of Music, performed works for the Chinese traditional musical instruments jinghu 京胡 and guzheng 古筝. Jinghu is the leading melodic instrument in Beijing’s Jingju 京剧 opera. The interesting thing about guzheng is that its shape reflects Chinese understandings of the coherence between heaven and earth and their corresponding geometric figures – a circle and a rectangle, because the upper board of the guzheng is rounded (like the sky) and the lower one flat (like the earth).

Here I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Guan Xin, Mr. Hong Hai and Mrs. Dzhina Balareva for the invitation to attend the presentation of Zhang Dongfan and Xiao Ma and for the provided photographs, sheet music, etc., which helped the writing of this text.

The multidimensional studies of Prof. Dongfan and Prof. Ma on the Ou Yue tradition were carried out in connection with their scientific, applied-science, and creative projects. Evidence of the practice of the Ou Yue tradition is found in different periods of Chinese history – during the reign of the Tang, Song, Ming dynasties, etc. Ou Yue is based on the manufacture of ceramic vessels in which clay is enriched with the mineral celadonite. Celadonite is blue-green in colour, but after heat treatment it is possible to change its colour. The vessels created in this way can emit different tones and so they could be treated as musical instruments.

Their timbre is beautiful and gentle. The “water bowls” could be filled with water, hence their poetic name. Sound extraction is done by striking with special sticks. Too loud sound should not be sought due to the danger of breaking the instruments. When a particular vessel is damaged, the production of a new one with identical pitch is awaited. The way the sound is produced integrates the “water bowls” into the percussion instruments. At the same time, what is specific about them is the material they are made of – clay, in Chinese – ту 土. One of the classifications of Chinese traditional musical instruments is according to the material from which they are made, and there is a separate class of musical instruments made of clay[6].

To form even more specific auditory and visual representations among the audience about Ou Yue, the lecturers released an audio recording of a new popular song they created – based on a lyric by Tu Chunfei (屠春飞 词), music and arrangement by Zhang Dongfang (张东方 曲), sung by Xiao Ma (肖玛 演唱), in which the sound of the “water bowls” was clearly audible to the audience. Ma and Dongfan also presented video recordings of performances by orchestras of Chinese traditional musical instruments, in which one or more performers of “water bowls” are included. They also explained that in order to achieve a balance with the other instruments in such orchestras, the performers of Ou Yue were sounded with microphones. The lecturers mentioned that celadonite bowls could be used to perform fragments of some types of Chinese traditional opera, such as Kunqu 崑曲 (or Kunju 崑剧) .

After the lecture, the two professors presented the work “The Desperate Criminal”《凄凉犯》, created in the 11th century by Jiang Kui, also known as Jiang Baishi (1155–1221), from whose cultural and historical heritage not only poetic and theoretical texts are preserved, but also musical manuscripts. Dongfan and Ma showed pictures of the manuscript of the work. They shared that they had deciphered it for a long time before they could breathe new life into it, since the musical notation of the original was rarely used. The lecturers performed the work live in a countertenor and piano arrangement. This work, which was not presented at their brilliant concert during the Sofia Music Weeks, was characterized by great technical complexity and required virtuosity of performance. After the enthusiastic reactions of the audience, Ma and Dongfan once again presented two of the most beautiful works from their concert at the NMA – the “lyrical poem” Variations – music and lyrics again by Jiang Baishi and arrangement by Luo Zhuzhong, and Spring Thrills by the famous Chinese composer Gao Weidjie (born in 1960) on melody and lyrics by Xu Zaisi (1280–1340). The loud applause brought Dongfan back to the stage. He presented The Day We Dropped Our Chains (1964) by Chu Wanhua (Sino-Australian composer born 1941)[7]. This piano piece had also already sounded in his performance at the concert at the National Academy of Music. After the last musical performance, the Chinese and Bulgarian guests talked and took pictures with Ma and Dongfan.

The lecture of the two professors showed that in a thoughtful, highly professional and immediate communication with the audience, even traditions and works that are centuries away from a given foreign audience, such as the Bulgarian one, can be fully experienced and have an inspiring effect. Their high value of samples of tangible and intangible musical and poetic Chinese cultural heritage is also essential for the perception of the presented traditions and works of art. Among them, the Ou Yue 瓯乐 tradition and the work The Desperate Criminal《凄凉犯》by Jiang Kui (arranged for countertenor and piano) were presented in Bulgaria for the first time.

[1] M. Tzenova is an Assoc. Prof., PhD, at the Institute of Art Studies – BAS.

[2] See Concert with ancient Chinese verses and songs “Traditional Chinese style and sophistication”. Xiao Ma – countertenor. Zhang Dongfan – piano. June 6, Tuesday, 19.00, NAM Hall. 54th Sofia Music Weeks International Festival. 23 May – 30 June 2023 [Programme. 1-8]; Tzenova, M. Countertenor Xiao Ma, pianist Zhang Dongfan and their Concert with Ancient Chinese Poems and Songs “Traditional Chinese Style and Refinement”. – In: Arts Platform, 21.07.2023, Countertenor Xiao Ma, pianist Zhang Dongfan and their Concert with Ancient Chinese Poems and Songs “Traditional Chinese Style and Refinement” [1] – Arts Platform (artstudies.bg); Tzenova, M. Concert of musicians Xiao Ma 肖玛 and Zhang Dongfan 张东方 in Sofia. Some approaches in search of reception. – In: Musical Horizons, 2023, No. 7, publication pending.

[3] Summer with Chinese Culture 中国文化之夏. Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Bulgaria 中华人民共和国驻保加利亚共和国大使馆, China Cultural Center in Sofia 索非亚中国文化中心, 2023 [Bilingual Programme, 1-14].          

[4] See Martonova, A. The Chinese Filmmaker Xie Fei: Today Everyone Makes the Type of Cinema They Like and Expresses Them Best. – In: Kino, 2023, July, Kino Magazine – THE CHINESE FILMMAKER XIE FEI: TODAY EVERYONE MAKES THE TYPE OF CINEMA THEY LIKE AND EXPRESSES THEM BEST. (spisaniekino.com).

[5] For more information and analysis: Tzenova, M. The “Getting to know Chinese music” event as part of the Summer with Chinese Culture forum in Bulgaria. – In: Musical Horizons, 2023, No. 8, printing pending.

[6]  See also Tzenova, M. Beijing Opera Jing Ju 京 剧 . Sofia: Amadeus Print, 2010, 97–98.

[7]  See 储望华Chu Wanghua. – sin80.com, 2006–2023, 储望华 – 新芭网 (sin80.com) (https://www.sin80.com/artist/chu-wanghua); Chu Wanghua ( 储望华): The Days of Freedom (1964). – Classical Music Discord, Chu Wanghua ( 储望华 ): The Days of Freedom (1964) – YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGOD-zI5PJk)

Lecture by Prof. Zhang Dongfan and Prof. Xiao Ma on the Chinese tradition of Ou Yue 瓯 乐 or “music of the water bowls”

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