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Thread: Some Sogdian and Turkic music (as preserved in Japan and China)

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    Some Sogdian and Turkic music (as preserved in Japan and China)

    The Tang Dynasty (618-907) occupied large parts of Eurasia and was the most cosmopolitan and expansive Chinese polity. At that time, the elites of China were comprised of a hybrid Han-Steppic nobility, descended from a fusion of local Han magnates with the Sinicized remnants of the Xianbei, Turkic, Qiangic and Xiongnu aristocracy who founded the many states in the chaos of the Sixteen-dynasties and the Northern and Southern states period. The result was that prominent families in the northwestern Chinese borderlands, though predominantly Sinophone, were of mixed descent, were often bilingual in other languages (especially Xianbei), and had prominent traditions of horsemanship, archery, and familiarity with Steppic forms of social organisation. During their long periods of service within the Northern states, who fused political legitimacy and control over Steppe nomads with the economic power of the bureaucracy ruling over China proper, they became intimately familiar with this chimaeric form of state organisation; these families would go on to found the Dynasties that would unite China in the Sui and Tang periods, and would preside simultaneously over the extension of Chinese civilisation south of the plains deep into the subtropical South down to Vietnam and the popularisation of subtropical goods like Tea and rice, at the same time as they established the most extensive conquests of Steppic confederations and Central Asian states that any Chinese polity would be able to achieve.

    The intense and intimate exposure with all things Central Asian and even Western Eurasian immediately galvanized a craze for all things foreign; Nestorian Christianity, Manichaenism, Zoroastrianism and especially Buddhism flourished throughout China, and a web of Indian and Gandharan monks, Syriac Christians and Sogdian merchants and moneylenders spread itself over almost every major city. Given the merger of the Turkic tribes into the military of the Tang empire (Tang Taizong was effectively the Emperor of the Chinese and the heavenly Qaghan of the Gokturks simultaneously), Turkic people became a common sight throughout China, and steppic sports such as polo found became popular throughout the elite, played even by court ladies. Foreign forms in visual art collided with Chinese visual language, with some spectacular results. Grape wine and camels became tropes in Chinese poetry. The last Sassanian King was received into the Chinese court, and the story of him and his descendants movingly retold in histories of the time. And--for the first time--stringed instruments from Western Eurasia were introduced by steppe peoples and incorporated into native musical traditions. Many sounds from strummed or bowed instruments (such as the pipa) that we think of as typically Chinese have in fact their proximal origin from steppe peoples, and their ultimate origin in Western Eurasia--in fact, the pipa was first introduced to the capital Luoyang by master musicians from Central Asia, whose names we have recorded.

    The Chinese court in addition did something quite curious--their bureaus of music included a section for each foreign nation the Chinese knew well, including the two states on the Korean peninsula at the time, Sogdian, Persian and Turkic sections as well as a section for each prominent city-state of the Tarim basin (in fact there were only two Chinese sections!). The music collated there became a part of the court "party music".

    The extreme xenophilia in Chinese culture and aesthetics of the time is well-summarised in some passages of Britannica:

    There was hardly a tavern in the capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an, Shaanxi province) that could compete without the aid of a female singer or dancer from the western regions with an accompanying set of foreign musicians. Popular tunes of the period included “South India” and “Watching the Moon in Brahman Land,” while beautiful exotic dancing boys or girls were ever the rage. One set of girls from Sogdiana (centred in modern Uzbekistan) won the support of the emperor Xuanzong (712–756) because they were costumed in crimson robes, green pants, and red deerskin boots, and they twirled on top of balls. Other girls from the city today called Tashkent inspired a poet of the 9th century, Bai Juyi, with their dance, which began with their emergence from artificial lotuses and ended with the pulling down of their blouses to show their shoulders.... A study of the lithe bodies and flying sleeves on Tang clay dancing figurines is even more compelling proof of the style of the era...

    In addition to all the commercial musical enterprises of the Tang dynasty, there was another equally extensive system under government supervision. Emperor Xuanzong seemed particularly keen on music and took full advantage of the various musical “tributes” or “captives” sent to him by all the nations of Asia. This plethora of sounds was further enriched by the special area in Chang’an called the Pear Garden (Liyuan), in which hundreds of additional musicians and dancers were trained and in which the emperor himself was most active....

    ...A distinction already had been made between court music (yayue) and common music (suyue), but Tang nomenclature added a third kind—foreign music (huyue). Eventually officials organized imperial music into the 10 performing divisions... Of these divisions, one represented instrumentalists from Samarkand... another group came from farther west in Bukhara... Kashgar, at the mountain pass between the east and the west, sent yet a different group. Musical ensembles were also presented to the emperor from the eastern Turkistan trade centres of Kucha and Turfan. India and two recently defeated kingdoms of Korea provided still other musicians. Chinese and Kucha music were blended by different musicians. One group was supposed to maintain the old styles of Chinese folk music, and there had to be one special group for the performance of formal Chinese court music. These 10 types by no means completed the picture, for nearly every Asian culture took its chance at musical goodwill in Chang’an...
    In time, this courtly tradition died out; Chinese music underwent much transformation, and sounds today nothing like what it did back then. In fact, it is more or less accurate to say that no court tradition of music survives in China at all--almost traditional Chinese pieces today are either popular music, from songs sung by "entertainment girls" in teahouses to peasant folk songs, or rarefied styles among the literati. Almost all Tang dynasty music were lost. But, starting in the Ming period (1600s-), many Chinese literati became aware of the fact that many Chinese manuscripts--including of music--that were long lost in China were in fact preserved among the old cultural collections kept by monasteries, samurai aristocrats, or the Imperial family, in Japan--perhaps unsurprising given the longevity of feudal social elites there, at least when compared to the Chinese social system. In fact, the tradition of playing music transmitted from Tang China never died out in Japan after its transmission during the Heian period; this music eventually became the core of 雅楽 (lit. "elegant music", gagaku in Japanese, yayue in Chinese), or the music of the Japanese Imperial court. Today, almost all manuscripts of Tang music we have--which now amount to the hundreds--are from Japan, which gives us the earliest large body of music played by an orchestra we have in the historical record. With the onset of modernity, academics from multiple countries now came together to try to see what they could make of this music. And it turns out, much of this music was transmitted from Central Asia and the Steppe through these music bureaus--from Turks, Sogdians, Persians, Ferghanans, Kushans, Kucheans, and Khotanese, among others. Some discoveries at Dunhuang supplemented this number.

    Much remained before this music could be reconstructed to any degree; the work of generations of musicologists from the West, China, and Japan went into this effort. In particular, this music had become extremely Japanified; while the scores were the same, the music often accumlated long preludes and the performance style had developed under a very different aesthetic environment for a thousand years. The following piece is performed in Japanese style:

    《青海波》(Dance music: The Waves of Kokonor)


    The tempo is incredibly slow, with notes dragged out, the appearance of extremely long preludes and introductory notes, and a musical focus on intensity, stunning contrasts, and forward motion conveyed by changes in volume. Some changes in tuning have also happened. Here is how some musicologists have reconstructed it:



    There is apparently a version of this tune preserved in a folk song among the Altaians(!)

    《酒胡子》 (The Drunken Sogdian) in Japanese Style:


    Reconstructed:




    《迦陵频 急》(The Kalavinka. Quick) (This is a buddhist sanskrit term) in Japanese Style. Note this song has developed an extremely long prelude.


    As reconstructed. Music starts at 0:16:


    Here are two of my favourites:
    《傾杯樂》 急 (Persian tune: In praise of alcohol. Quick) As reconstructed.

    This song has come down to us as a subject of a very famous anecdote in a Tang court record. Supposedly the Tang emperor Xuanzong had trained some horses to dance, and they would end their performances by lifting a wine cup in their mouths, then tossing back their heads as if to drain its contents--all the while to this particular piece.

    Another recording of the same piece, this time with live musicians that are a much less practiced... You can see they're having a little difficulty playing the non-pentatonic sounding notes!


    安樂塩 (Shatuo Turk tune: Banquet for peace and prosperity) As reconstructed.


    The process of reconstructing this music, so that it could be played on period instruments, is a long and slow one and is in its infancy today; but there seems to be many groups working on this, the results are pretty tantalizing, and honestly sound quite good to me.
    Last edited by Ryukendo; 12-10-2020 at 09:26 PM.
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    You know with all the wine houses, dancing girls, concubines and slave trade the Sogdians were known for, they were basically the pimps of the Silk Road.

    That certainly explains why the Yingpan man (my profile picture) was dressed like he was

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