EOL 8: Birth of a New Mode? (Dujunco)

The Birth of New Mode?

The preceding discussion of how modes are generated and how modal shifts are realized may seem, to use Regula Qureshi's words (1987:57), "unduly positivistic, cold and unsubtle" and simplify the complexities of the whole creative process underlying melodic variation in xianshi music. Moreover, although it is not my intention in this article, there is a danger that my discussion of music theory, which I deem necessary, may give the impression that the process is quite mechanical and contrived.

This impression could not be more wrong. The creative act and experience of melodic variation by xianshi musicians is extemporaneous, whether or not it takes place at the spur of the moment or builds up gradually over a period of time. It is the result of rapid mental synaptic activity combined with emotional sentiments and aesthetic sensibilities that elude thorough theoretical analysis. My attempt here at parsing and explaining some of its components that are relatively easier to analyze clearly do not give justice to the complexity of the whole process. Even at the most basic level, it does not fully reveal, for instance, what steps musicians go through in their minds as a result of which a new mode was unexpectedly created in the course of trying to perform a melody in an established mode. How does a mode come about? Is it often simply a result of happenstance? If so, how could one account for an occasion wherein a whole ensemble of musicians acting in concert came up with a new mode?

I was faced with these questions after witnessing what, by all appearances, seem to be the unintentional creation of a new mode and a new modal variant of the melody "Lady of the Green Willow" (Liu Qing Niang) by xianshi musicians I was recording in 1992. In July of that year, I went back to Chenghai county in the Chaozhou region to conduct follow-up fieldwork. Chenghai is the unofficial center of xianshi music, with more than a dozen music clubs devoted solely to the performance of xianshi within a ten-mile radius. On my first evening, I visited the Chenghai Northern Township Seniors' Association (Chenghai Beicheng Laoren Xiehui). As with my initial visit to their association the previous year, the musicians in the club graciously welcomed me to listen to and let me record their music session. They performed five pieces while I was there, with breaks in between during which they drank tea, smoked cigarettes, and chatted with me and with one another.

After a performance of the fourth piece, they asked me what I would like them to perform next. I told them that I would like to listen to a performance of a melody using the tiezhi fan technique, preferably something other than "Raindrops Falling on the Jasmine Flowers " or "Red Lotus," both of which I have already recorded before. After some discussion, they told me that they would perform "Lady of the Green Willow" in the tiezhi H3H6 mode. I was pleased with their choice, because this piece is one of the few melodies which has frequently performed variants in all the four diaoti I have discussed earlier. During fieldwork from 1989 to 1991, I have never heard it performed in the tiezhi H3H6 mode. I was therefore excited and looked forward to listening and recording a variant in that particular diaoti for comparison with the other variants I already have on tape.

However, it seems that the musicians have either never performed "Lady of the Green Willow" in tiezhi H3H6 or, if they have, it has been quite some time since they have done so. I got this impression because when the yangqin player, Mr. Chen Naihuai, struck the opening measures on his instrument, the rest of the musicians were unable to join in and he had to stop playing.14 Example 7 shows the first phrase of "Lady of the Green Willow" he played in the tiezhi H3H6 mode in relation to the same phrase as transcribed in the L3L6, fanxian, and H3H6 diaoti.

As I have already mentioned, transformation of a melody from the L3L6 and H3H6 modes is accomplished by performing it a fifth up (or a fourth down) the scale, without changing F as the key-note (do). But the H3H6 variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" customarily performed by Chaozhou xianshi musicians everywhere I have conducted fieldwork in the region differs from the H3H6 variants of other melodies in the sense that it is actually derived from the fanxian variant and not from the L3L6 variant. Moreover, a measure-by-measure comparison with the L3L6 and fanxian variants reveals that the first four measures are omitted and the H3H6 actually begins only on the fifth measure of the melody.

The tiezhi H3H6 variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" that Mr. Chen started to play is based on this H3H6 variant derived from the fanxian variant - it is a fifth up (or a fourth down) from it. As one can see from Example 7, it appears to be a H3H6 variant that has been transformed from the L3L6 mode through the interchange of tones (see the L3L6 and TZ variants).

After discussing among themselves for some time, the musicians wanted to try performing the tiezhi H3H6 variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" again. Mr. Chen switched instruments and took hold of the erxian fiddle which normally assumes the lead during performance. This time, after he played the opening bars, the other musicians slowly joined in. But I soon realized that the melody that was taking shape was not that of a tiezhi H3H6 variant of "Lady of the Green Willow". Upon following the performance with a transcription of the H3H6 variant of the melody, I found out that the musicians were performing a fourth up instead of a fifth up based on the H3H6 variant. Example 8 shows a transcription of the melody of the touban section of the variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" that they performed. Example 9 shows the same variant in simplified form in relation to the L3L6, fanxian and H3H6 variants of the melody.

When the performance of the variant ended, I immediately asked Mr. Chen and the other musicians what diaoti they had just performed in. They replied that it was tiezhi zhongliu (tiezhi H3H6). I played back the tape of the performance I had just recorded and pointed out to them that they had not performed "Lady of the Green Willow" a fifth up based on the H3H6 variant, but rather, a fourth up and therefore what they had performed was not a tiezhi H3H6 variant. After listening to the taped performance several times, they also realized what they had just done. I asked them if they had performed this modal variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" and what this mode is called. They told me that this is the first time that they had done this and that they do not know of any other group of musicians who have performed "Lady of the Green Willow" in this manner. The mode, they said, has yet to be given a name. In the next few days, I asked musicians in other music clubs I visited about this and they confirmed what Mr. Chen's group had told me.

Thus, it seems that I had had the rare opportunity to witness the emergence of a new diaoti and a new modal variant of Liu Qing Niang. It came about as a result of the inadvertent mistake on the part of Mr. Chen and the other musicians in the ensemble of performing the qupai a fourth up based on its established zhongsan zhongliu variant. As Nettl (1983) also mentions in the essay on tune variants I quoted from at the beginning of this article, mistakes due to memory slips by performers are often behind the birth of new variants. Theoretically, it is possible to transform an existing modal variant of a qupai in many ways resulting in countless new modes and modal variants. But whether or not any of them would be accepted by both xianshi musicians and listeners and become part of the performance practice of the xianshi tradition is something that remains to be seen.

This brings us to the bigger issue of what sparks creativity and change within a music culture. Furthermore, through whose agency are processes of creativity and change carried out and in what way? These questions are particularly interesting to consider with respect to a music culture as steeped in history and tradition as that of Chaozhou, and with respect to a music genre such as xianshi. Unlike cases wherein sudden sweeping revolutionary changes occur and replace previous ways of doing things, new trends and novel ways of practice take root gradually and over long periods of time in Chaozhou xianshi music culture so as to almost be unnoticeable. Confucian reverence for tradition and the past runs deep among the native practitioners of this music even now, despite the intense iconoclasm of the past decades under communist rule. Consequently, there has been strong resistance towards change, especially one coming from outside.

Compared to other Chinese regional folk music, xianshi survived the movement to reform Chinese traditional and folk music during the 1960s and the 1970s relatively unscathed. Inevitable changes to it–-for example, in its tuning and instrumentation--have largely been superficial. At the core of the music remains the predilection for melodic variation within the constraints imposed by the framework of the qupai melody. In a music culture that places a high premium on the ability to put a single melodic "idea" to maximum use, being creative implies generating multiple varieties of a single melody and one of the ways in which the Chaozhou xianshi repertoire is expanded and the few commonly performed melodies given new spins is through modal variation. New modes, however, are hard to come by. As one musician said to me, "A new mode is like a comet that appears only once every few decades." And like a strange ball of fire that appears flashing across the sky, it is treated with caution, suspicion, and curiosity or a combination of all three. It is only after it makes a few more appearances that it becomes accepted and greeted with comfortable familiarity.

Such seems to be the attitude toward the "mode" that resulted from the mistake in the performance of "Lady of the Green Willow" described above. Since then, musicians have reportedly performed a variant of the melody using that "mode" again only once and, interestingly, it was in the context of their reminiscing about my visit. Moreover, after further analysis and discussion among themselves after listening to my recording of their first performance of "Lady of the Green Willow" in the supposed new "mode", they concluded that it is not a new diaoti at all; rather, they said, it is the result of the application of the technique for generating the fanxian mode (i.e., transposing a fourth up the scale but without a shift in the designation of F as do) to the melody of "Lady of the Green Willow" that was in the fanxian mode to begin with--in other words, it is fanxian twice over.

Even though the musicians deemed that a new mode has not been born, in my opinion, this doubling of the fanxian variant of "Lady of the Green Willow" on itself is a clear stroke of creativity. It represents a novel way of performing this piece that resulted in a variant that has not been heard nor played before. At what point this particular idiosyncratic application of the inversion technique is considered a mode in the Chaozhou musical sense is hard to say. Perhaps with the passage of time and frequent renditions of more than one melody in this manner, it would have the same legitimacy as all the other diaoti I have discussed earlier. We should therefore probably rethink what constitutes a mode in the context of Chaozhou xianshi and add this to the list of its defining parameters.

Summary and Conclusion

Modality is a key feature of Chaozhou xianshi music wherein variants of the same qupai or tunes have developed by means of variation based on a complex system of modes. Compared to the notion of mode in other Chinese music traditions, the concept of mode here is broader, extending beyond aspects of tonality to focus on melodic details of a higher order. For this reason, I chose to use the more inclusive term, diaoti, introduced by Su and Chen (1989), instead of diao, diaoshi and diaoxing, which are commonly used in Chinese music theory to refer to to a more limited notion of mode that relates mainly to scale and tonality. The broader conceptualization of mode in Chaozhou xianshi music, I believe, has allowed the continued generation of new diaoti and new modal variants of qupai in addition to the ones already established by tradition.

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