About this work:
Commissioned by the New York New Music Consort for the NEWworksOCTOBER series at Columbia University, The Points received its world premiere on October 17, 1991, in New York. I also wish to express my gratitude to the Corporation of Yaddo. It was during a four week residence at Yaddo in July of 1991 that "The Points" was completed, and presented by Ms. Wu Man at the Music Room on July 23, 1991. The Points (Dian) was first recorded by Wu Man for Nimbus Records Limited, U.K., released in June of 1993.
The eight standard strokes in Chinese calligraphy, exemplified by the character "yong" [eternal], start with the points in different touches. There are sensitive articulations and gestures in the drawing, which enlightened me with the musical imagination for my pipa solo piece "The Points."
In the beginning of the creation, I researched on all pipa repertoire, learnt all fingerings and listened to the inner voice from various schools in pipa performances. I also learnt from Ms. Wu Man about the pipa arts.
"Pipa styles have long been divided into diverse schools. Pudong pipa originated in Shanghai's Pudong region and was refined through the generations until a unique playing style and repertory emerged. Pipa scores from the Ming and Qing often have only 'bare bones' melodic notation; there's a sizable gap between such notation and actual performance. Later performers generally filled this gap by adding their own familiar techniques and styles, according to individual aesthetics. Besides reading the score, students must absorb and internalize oral teachings to attain genuine knowledge and command of the nuances of a particular style."
"There are two kinds of music in pipa repertoire in general. Lyric tunes describe feelings, weighted toward expressing the sublime. Martial tunes tell a story, weighted toward description of things and events in vivid detail. In playing technique, lyric tunes are slow. The music's inner soul is expressed through varied shadings of dynamics and tone colors. Martial tunes are often rapid, with dramatic, sudden tempo changes. A particular event or action can be expressed with diverse rhythmic forms. In performance, the atmosphere of martial tunes is large-scale; of lyric tunes, fine and delicate."
The structure of "The Points" comes from the brush stroke movements of Zhengkai calligraphy; the melodic material comes from Qinqiang music (a kind of Qu Yi popularized in Shaanxi province). In this work I had integrated the spirit of the traditional lyric and martial techniques; but its modern structure, melody, and basic tunings (I re-tuned the strings from A, d, e, a to Bb, Eb, e, a) were worlds apart form the traditional; Though the title refers to the contact points between brush and paper that commence and characterize the eight strokes, "points" also aptly captures the nature of plucked string music--the melody is created out the musical points plucked forth by the fingers.
The introduction is like the first downward stroke: an opening note in forte with a succession of portamenti, strumming, and vibratos are followed b quick sixteenth notes that build to a crescendo. This sustained crescendo comes to a dramatic halt, as when the flowing energy of the brush is suddenly withdrawn.
The first few measures of the first section have the feeling of vigorous percussion with slow singing of opera. Although metrically free, it's full of tension. Constant wide vibratos of the left hand and intense tremolo using the right thumb bring to life the "qin" stroke, whose gradual progression is quickly detoured. At the same time, there is the unmistakable atmosphere of the singing style of Qinqiang music. The entire first section is extremely diverse. In one section, an initial thick, humming male vocal sound suddenly becomes a subtle yet bright soprano sound.
The music in measure forty-six to sixty vividly reflects the upward horizontal movement of the fifth brush stroke, full of strength and purpose. Tuning the third and fourth outer strings a half-step higher, and using non-traditional position jumps and spanning strings, allow greater flexibility with rhythms and dynamics. The result is wonderfully uninhibited. Tonal colorations in the Chinese opera-influenced sections are carefully measured; strumming is forceful, but not harsh.
The sixth brush stroke, an arching movement, can be capricious in unsteady hands. The xiangjiao vibrato is put to good use here. While softly playing the tan tiao [plucking the string with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand], left-hand pressure on the xiang ledge creates a wide, quivering vibrato. This sound evokes the stroke's uncertain tendencies. The initial thickness of the curving stroke is realized through uncommonly wide jumps between the lower and upper registers that culminate in vigorous strumming.
The climactic moment of this work is strikingly unconventional. Traditional compositions usually resort to strumming and the playing of chords. Here, though, the performer must play sixty measures of fast sixteenth notes unceasingly. Through modulation from low to high register and sequence, the music reaches its highest point when the large strings hum like rain. This section is rhythmically exacting and requires clean attacks. Besides rapid tan tiao plucking, frequent jumps with the left hand add to the work's technical difficulty. In as demanding a work as this, there is a danger of the hands stiffening from fatigue, hindering the melody from flowing freely "like a pouring of large and small pearls into a plate of jade." Here the player may either diminish the hand movements to save energy and maintain better control, or alternate vibratos and dynamics at moments that call for special tone colors. Similarly, in calligraphy, brush stokes are at differing times heavy or light; the ink can be dark or faint.
The concluding section seems as tranquil and simple as a lyric melody, yet each note carries deep emotion. Playing it calls forth fully the unique techniques of lyric tunes--subtle fingering variations and gradations of tonal dynamics and timbres. The work ends with the sudden appearance of the lun zhi, creating a strong tremolo, sustained for thirty-six beats. The last brush stroke comes as a finishing flourish.
I hope that this work's conceptual daring, structural integrity, technical complexity, and rich folk flavor all help me to share my experience with my audience.
Version: Solo pipa (Chinese lute)
Year composed: 1991
Ensemble type: Solo instrument, non-keyboard
Instrumentation: 1 Other Stringed Instrument(s)
Instrumentation notes: Pipa