earth. pillar. sky. (2020, rev. 2021)
for guqin solo
Commissioned by AIR Contemporary Music Collective.
-Original version performed by Xuemeng Wu, 77 Theatre; Beijing, China, January 2021
-Revised version recorded by Xuemeng Wu, November 2021
Perhaps rather uniquely (even in Chinese music), the guqin’s performance practice—a binary of ringing, immutable harmonics and fluid, parlando slides—is not a mere medium for more concrete musical forms but is form and medium (in Niklas Luhmann’s sense) in one. To me it is clear that this performance practice is a mobile transcription of the now vanished yayue (court music) of the Zhou Son of Heaven: itinerant scholars, faced by the prospect of cultural collapse, rescued this “cosmological” music from extinction by reimagining its serene metal bells and writhing aviary of bamboo pipes (symbolizing heaven and earth, respectively) on the seven strings of their zithers.
earth.pillar.sky. sets out to do for the guqin what Helmut Lachenmann’s Pression did half a century ago for the cello: to situate this instrument’s performance practice in a thickly descriptive context (of production, history, culture). Performance practice, in the most general sense, is reduction: faced with an unruly amalgam of strings and surfaces, the traditional musician, by aesthetic necessity, demarcates a lexicon of “standard” gestures. But the sources from which the musician draws their demarcations, the principles which underly their specificity, are woven into the texts of culture, inaccessible to the onlooker. earth.pillar.sky. does not attempt to tear down this opacity. Rather it is itself the very struggle to come to terms with the distant historical Other—to try to make meaning, through the material of music, of a musical tradition both inaccessible and grandiose in its ancient austerity.