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

Early sources depict Fuxi and Nüwa as intertwined serpents; the origins of this symbolism are unclear.


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. The nature of this reduction reveals an aesthetic; in the case of tradition, for which aesthetic (art as transformative magic) and cosmology are one and the same, reduction also reveals a worldview. The evolution of the violin bow is not a technological progression but a document of the evolution of European cosmology. 

To my outsider ears, the defining characteristic of guqin performance practice—a binary of ringing, immutable harmonics and fluid, parlando slides—was the attempt of itinerant scholars, in the chaos of the late Zhou, to preserve the vanishing music of the Son of Heaven: that “cosmologically perfect” music of the Duke of Zhou, with its serene metal bells and writhing aviary of bamboo pipes symbolizing heaven and earth, respectively. earth. pillar. sky is a reimagining of this performance practice—the product of a fantastical process of reduction, beginning from this same cosmology. 

But here, the meditative stability of traditional performance practice is replaced by an eight-part ritual of transformation. In a post-cosmological age, performance practice seems an arbitrary narrative, indeed a stubborn fixation, in a sea of possibility, on a single worldview. In a post-cosmological age, performance practice (that is, tradition), cannot simply be. Only by twisting tradition inside out, by wrestling with and straining its elastic substance, can we come to terms with the metaphorical substance that lies beyond tradition’s seemingly eroded surface dogma.