Probably your first impression of the intimate music on this generous CD from the enterprising Nimbus label is of the peace and tranquillity. These are emotions and responses well conveyed through the meticulous and inspired zither (or qin) playing of Lin Youren.
The qin (pronounced, roughly, as 'chin') is a venerable, 2000-year old, Chinese, seven-stringed (ideally silken) long, low box whose tuning is pentatonic; the qin has a complex and highly-specific system of tablature.
Like the pipa
(lute) and Kanqu
opera, the qin is associated with a tiny literate 'élite', an ancient imperial 'scholar culture'. Unlike them, the qin is essentially a solo instrument; occasionally it's heard with the xiao
(flute). Indeed, the sobriety and refined nature of the qin and qin players sits well in the context of the four attributes considered essential to the self-cultivation of a(n imperial) gentleman: chess, calligraphy, painting … and qin.
The dynamic range of the instrument is wider than might at first seem from the music on this CD: it's capable of excitement and speed (though not in the same way we know from pipa
playing). Here, though, it's used mainly in a reflective way celebrating natural phenomena, simple pleasures and emotions; and laments. Modern expert Lin Youren confines himself to the gentle and the transparently slow, though not all sombre, styles here.
Most of what he plays on this CD is repertory handed down from older, former players. This is in contrast with another body of qin music, recreations from older scores much in the way Western academics (and performers) have elaborated an 'early' music tradition. Lin Youren (born in1938) studied with the older exponents in the 1950s and has retained the intimate and meditative approach while other players have gone in for greater communication with the audience, gestures and a 'modernised' attitude.
That much is clear from the way the pieces gradually seem to evolve out of nowhere - as if emerging from the mists of our vision of Chinese rural life. Not that they're too relaxed or, worse, too undisciplined to make any impact. Impact comes at times from understatement. And at times from the contrasting relaxation of understatement.
There are moments of great 'drive'…the middle section of the longest piece on this CD, Flowing waters
, [tr.10], for example. But the pace is otherwise uniformly unhurried from first note to last. In other words, if you're familiar with the energy of pipa
recitals, the apparent reticence and contemplative nature of the playing may well surprise you.
Much of this follows from Lin Youren's own personality and temperament. On the one hand, he's an iconoclast and subverter of order; on the other an introvert who is quietly and unobtrusively, unselfconsciously at one with his instrument and all its mystical power. His music does not suggest either quest or romanticism. Rather, it emphasises the continuation of a tradition whose very survival and retransmission are as innately significant as is the act of faith to achieve them.
The ten items on the CD are all instrumental, except Quifeng ci (Lyric on the autumn wind)
[tr.7] in which Lin Youren sings. Not the most melodious voice. But indicative of his rounded attachment to music-making. And important in aiding our understanding of his priorities. As is the fact that the next piece was apparently inspired by the world of football.
Even without knowing the necessary skills that contribute to expertise in qin playing, it's obvious that Lin Youren possesses them. He is never motivated to make an effect, to rush, or to over-expose such skills. His playing - by stealthily shunning extremes - affirms the qualities of the instrument and the import of the music. It's hard to portray silence and stillness in music, for example. But he does it, through thoughtful tempi and considered phrasing. This means that the music can be listened to repeatedly without tiring or impatience.
As is usually the case with Nimbus, the CD comes with a booklet containing copious background. Here - on the qin and its cultural context; on Lin Youren; and on the pieces he played when he visited the contained but nicely responsive acoustic of the Wyastone Hall in 1998.