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Three Variations on Plum Blossom

note: once again, examples are not included, sorry. However, the example captions are included.

I. Introduction

A reading of Robert Cogan's 'Color and Register in 'Plum Blossom"' brings to mind a recent analysis of Webern's Orchestra Piece I (Bewegt). Both pieces explore tone color through juxtaposition and eventual merging of pure and rich sounds. But while Webern uses an entire orchestra for this exploration, Three Variations on "Plum Blossom" uses only the ch'in, the ancient Chinese zither. Nevertheless, both pieces share highly organized progressions of register and attack quality. Bewegt and "Plum Blossom" were written centuries and cultures apart, but they somehow have similar musical goals. It follows that "Plum Blossom" is important, not only for its cultural significance as a great work of ancient China, but as a precursor to the coloristic and timbral experimentation that plays such a large role in music of the past century-- whether it be live or electronic, Eastern or Western.

II. Background: Tone colors of the ch'in

The ch'in is a plucked zither of seven strings whose history traces back to 1000 B.C. Its repertoire and performance literature is extremely extensive. As opposed to classical European notation, which loosely indicates aspects of tone color (pitch rhythm, dynamics), ch'in notation tightly specifies the actual production of tone color. There are about two hundred symbols to direct the means of tone color production, and one of these symbols is added to almost every note in a ch'in piece of music. Ch'in notation symbols specify musical aspects like the string to be used (open or stopped), the technique of stopping the string (normal or harmonic), the plucking hand/finger/fingernail, the direction of pluck, brushing or sliding, the form of vibrato, and multiple attacks. Ch'in notation symbols also imply poetic images that can help the performer in producing sound (Example 1).

example 1. Some ways of touching the ch'in (Levy)
San: Open strings, right hand only.
Shih: Stopped strings.
Fan: Harmonics, produced by a light touch of the left hand opposite the stud and on the string indicated: "White butterflies exploring flowers."
T'o: Right hand thumb plucks outward: "A crane dancing in the wind."
Mo: Right hand index finger plucks inward: "A crane singing in the shadow."
Yin: A finger of the left hand quickly moves up and down over the spot indicated. There are more than ten varieties of this kind of vibrato: "A cold cicada bemoans the coming of autumn."
Jou: A vibrato slower than Yin: "The cry of a monkey while climbing a tree."

Unlike early European music, which focuses on musical line and often omits specific instrumentation, dynamics, and articulation, ch'in notation considers that even a single note has great variety of timbral and coloristic shadings. Register and attack influence these shadings: the rich notes of low open strings (San) have many upper partials and are slow to decay, while the notes of stopped strings (Shih) decay much sooner. Harmonics (Fan) produce even fewer upper partials. The noise intensity of a tone is influenced by the strength of the plucking finger and the level of fingernail involvement. An inward pluck by the thumbnail (P'i) produces intense attack noise, while a slide from a previously attacked note produces a new note with virtually no attack noise.

III. Color in "Plum Blossom"

In this analysis, "color" generally indicates a note's articulation. However, the true musical definition of "color" is tonal quality. An instrument's perceived tonal quality changes with each register (even if there is no spectrum change, as in the case of sine tones). Because of this, register is an element of musical color. Though the words "register" and "color" are differentiated in this analysis for specificity's sake, the intricate plan of "Plum Blossom" pertains almost wholly to musical color!

Three Variations on "Plum Blossom" is written for ch'in and is attributed to Huan I of the Tsin Dynasty in the fourth century, A.D. Its surviving notation is from the Ming Dynasty in 1425 (Appendix A). The rough registral plan of this piece is an arc that is based in register 2 (two octaves below middle C) and spans to register 5 (one octave above middle C). However, shifting register and attack patterns create multileveled color contrasts that add much complexity to the simple arc design.

The piece is divided into ten sections (Appendix A). Section 1 contains open strings in register 2, while Section 2 contains harmonics in register 4-5. In only the first two sections, two overriding contrasts are established: registral contrast (register 2 vs. register 4-5) and coloristic contrast (low open strings that produce many overtones vs. harmonic strings that produce purer tones). Register and pitch order contribute to the principal arc design of the piece (example 2). This design is constructed through a main progression at the beginning of most sections (element A). A is based at register 2 in section 1 and culminates at register 4-5 in section 7. The registral progression of A is as follows:

Section Register (note span)
1 C2-D3 [registral base]
3 F2-G3
5 C2-G4 (omitting F2)
7 F3-D2, A4-D5 [registral apex]
8 C2-C3, F3-G4
9 D2-D4
10 C2-G3 [registral base]

A combination of register, color, pitch order, and rhythm contribute to two repeated refrain elements that form secondary linear designs (example 2). Element X is concentrated in the upper registers of the piece. It first occurs in section 2 and also occurs in sections 4, 6, and the last eight measures of 10. X forms a linear descent in two stages (section 2 to 4, section 6 to 10) that begins in register 4-5 and ends in register 3. Outside of a few pitch and rhythm variations, X has a fixed pitch order and rhythm (example 3.1). X consists of harmonics, and this emphasizes the purer quality of the upper registers.

The second refrain element, Y, usually occurs at the ends of A sections rather than as a section in itself (example 2). Y is found at the ends of sections 5, 7, 8, and 9, and in measures 10-14 of section 10. Y is stated only in register 2, the piece's lowest register. Thus, Y forms a completely static secondary linear design. In pitch and rhythm, Y is also similar to the last phrase of X (example 3.2). X and Y contrast with each other in register and color, but their placement also allows these elements to interrupt and contrast with element A. When A is in its lower registers (sections 1, 3, and 5) X cuts in as a higher-register contrasting refrain (sections 2, 4, and 6). When A reaches its high registers (beginning in section 5), Y cuts in as a lower-register contrasting refrain.

example 2. the registral motion formed by elements A, X, and Y (Cogan 342). A parts form an arc, X parts form a 2-stage descent, and Y parts are static.

example 3.1. element X first occurs in section 2. (Cogan 336)

example 3.2. element Y first occurs in section 5 (Cogan 337)

As "Plum Blossom" progresses, registral contrast becomes a factor within each section, not only between them. In section 5, the opening cell a (occurring in this section's first two measures) is first expanded (section 5, mm. 3-5) and then shifted from register 3 to register 2 (section 5, mm. 6-7) (example 4). Section 6 presents the same element X notes as section 4, but notes that are repeated in section 4 instead occur as octave jumps in section 6 (example 5). The culminating section 7 presents a separation that is so consistently large that two staves must be used-- the bass clef for registers 2-3, and the treble clef for registers 4-5 (example 6). In section 9, the music of section 7 is mostly repeated, but the upper register 4-5 is shifted down an octave so that the music spans registers 2 through 4 (example 7). This shift hails a return to registral reduction so that the contrasts and separations decrease to the end of the piece in sections 9 and 10.

example 4. section 5 contains an expansion, then a register shift of a two- measure cell (Cogan 343)

example 5. section 4 presents note repetition, while section 6 presents register shifts of the same note.. (Cogan 343) Register shifts are circled.

example 6. in section 7, two staves must be used to present simultaneous registral regions, register 2-3 and 4-5 (Cogan 344)

example 7. in section 9, the upper register of section 7 is shifted down an octave. (Cogan 337)

The principal motion A begins in register 2 and ascends to a summit in section 7. At the same time, it maintains its original register, so that each progression of A becomes increasingly biregistral. Consequently, each section increasingly employs internally the original registral contrast found between A and the harmonic refrain X. Section 7 marks a summit since it contains the greatest gap between simultaneous registers. From this section, the registral gap is reduced until contrast is almost elimination in section 10. The placement and variation of elements A, X, and Y lead to highly organized registral contrasts that function on many different levels:

Contrasting registers provide basic tonal color distinctions. The specialization of ch'in notation also allows for more subtle shading in color contrast. In most sections, successively repeated notes are given different color production symbols so that there is color contrast even on the smallest scales. As principal motion A comes closer to reaching a summit, perceived contrast is intensified. In sections 5, 6, and 7 registral contrast is immediate in terms of time, while it is broad in terms of space and color. Contrast, which in the beginning and end of "Plum Blossom" is between sections, bounce back and forth directly off each other within the summit sections 5, 6, and 7. After the summit section 7 and towards the end, registral contrast is reduced until registral aspects of A, X, and Y overlap in section 10. This last section is also the only one that contains all elements A, X, and Y. In this section, the tension that had been built in sections 1-7 is finally eliminated through the registral and temporal unification of elements.

IV. Attack quality in "Plum Blossom"

Color contrasts in this piece are brought about through shifts in register and stopping techniques (normal or harmonic). In addition, color contrast is produced by shift in attack quality. Section 1 presents one of the piece's overriding contrasts between open strings and harmonics. This section also divides itself into phrases that each have a distinctive prevailing attack quality: measures 1-12 contains single notes (usually with quarter note value) with single attacks, measures 12-19 contains single notes with many attacks, and measures 20-25 contains many notes (usually with sixteenth note value) with single attacks. In measures 20-25, most pitches are also introduced by slides (notated by slurs ended by an arrow) instead of direct attacks.

Within these three phrases, attack quality also varies subtly from note to note. The main attack symbols of section 1 are:

These different attacks, first presented in section 1, are contrasted in juxtaposing sections that contain A elements. Phrases of repeated attacks are placed against phrases of slides. In section 3, measures 1-2 contain slides, and these are juxtaposed with measures 2-6, which contain repeated attacks. In section 5, measures 1-5 contain slides, and these are placed against measure 5-10, which contain repeated attacks.

Three Variations on "Plum Blossom" contain several levels of color dichotomies that are all introduced in section 1, expanded in each of the A elements all the way to section 7 (the summit section of greatest internal color tension), and reduced in each of the A elements to resolution in section 10. These color dichotomies include attack quality (one per note, many per note, many slide notes per attack), stopping techniques (open strings, harmonics), and register. The development and resolution of attack quality, stopping techniques, and register form the multileveled arc (in element A) and linear designs (in refrains X and Y) of "Plum Blossom."

V. Conclusion: "Plum Blossom" in global and temporal context

The overall progression of the piece is coloristic in registral, spectral (stopping techniques), and attack aspects. This is in direct contrast to pre-modern European music, which has formal plans based on linear pitch motion. Before the twentieth century, music that develops through alternate formal plans-- successions of registers and colors-- has seemed radical to Western ears rather than merely different and equally valid. The sound and formal principles of "Plum Blossom" are very different from the European music that was composed at the same time: the chant "Veni Creator Spiritus," Machaut's "Plus Dure," and Josquin's "Benedictus."

Though "Plum Blossom" lacks a complex linear pitch plan, its coloristic nuances are notated with a complexity that has no comparison in European music of the period (or for many centuries afterwards). European music of the same time purposefully restricted register and color through the limitations of the modal system. Until the seventeenth century, European compositions omitted the specification of an instrument, let alone performance practices! In contrast, "Plum Blossom" is written for a specific instrument, and that instrument has extensive notation that clearly specifies performance practice for each note.

It is important to recognize and analyze the richness in developing registral and color resources, for they have in recent years spread from China and its neighbors into the rest of the musical world. The twentieth century marked a period of musical globalization as the East increasingly influenced Western music and the West increasingly influenced Eastern music. In addition, the onset of technology and electronic music provided a new arena for both Eastern and Western composers to develop and explore the resources of register and color. With this, Three Variations on "Plum Blossom" takes on added significance beyond its position as a great Chinese work-- it is an ancient precursor to some of the greatest innovations in modern music. From the contrast of pure and noise tones that mark Webern's Bewegt (which in itself was a precursor to electronic music), to the spacial, spectral, and motional contrasts that mark Varese's Poeme Electronique, "Plum Blossom" has strong ties to the modern age. These ties are based not only on color and register as structural material, but also on contrast and opposition as a vehicle to develop those materials. "Plum Blossom" may once have been considered too foreign for Western ears, but its contemporary relevance continues to increase as composers realize that coloristic contrast and expansion is an extremely rich field for exploration. | March 2001


Cogan, Robert. Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976.

Cogan, Robert. "Varese, A Sonic Poetics, by Robert Cogan." http://ccrma- www.stanford.edu/CCRMA/Courses/154/varese.html

Levy, John. "Some ways of touching the ch'in." from BBC LP REGL 1 (Westminster WBBC-8003), "Chinese Classical Music," liner notes.

Liang, David Ming-Yueh. The Chinese Ch'in: Its History and Music. San Francisco: The Chinese National Music Association at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 1969.

Wang, Pin-lu. A Chinese Zither Tutor. Seattle: The University of Washington Press, 1983.

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