I first encountered the idea of “original-ecology music” early in October, on my way back to northern New England from Knoxville. The occasion was the conference at Northeastern University in Boston, celebrating the publication (in English) of a book entitled Discourse in Music, edited by Zhang Boyu, director of the world music program in ethnomusicology at the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing.(1) Professor Zhang had invited me to Beijing to lecture on music and sustainability in 2009, so I was looking forward to seeing him again, presenting a paper at the conference, and helping celebrate this milestone, as very little scholarship by Chinese musicologists and ethnomusicologists is currently available in English. Three of the book’s articles were concerned with “original-ecology music” in one way or another.(2) Was it possible that Chinese scholars were thinking about music and sustainability in terms of an ecological model?
The answer is both no and yet, embedded in the Chinese language, yes. It turns out that “original-ecology music” is a linguistic back-formation from the written Chinese characters for the phrase “original style.” That is, according to the article by Tian Liantao, “The phrase ‘original style’ in Chinese includes the word ‘ecology’. . .” (Discourse, 118). Moreover, “folk song of original style” was “first proposed [around the year 2002] by show business rather than the music society [i.e., music scholars]” in order to distinguish the older folk song performances, felt to be more authentic in melody and performance style, from performances rendered by professional Chinese folksingers, which show modern and Western influences (Ibid., 119).
The three Chinese musicologists who wrote about original-ecology music in the volume are specialists in the music of Chinese minorities. China, like Europe and North America, has a history of cultivated, semi-professional, and professional folk music. Coupled is the familiar idea that there is, or was, a more authentic, spontaneous, uncontaminated folk music expression. “In my understanding,” Professor Yu Renhao wrote, “‘original-ecology music’ generally refers to folk music formed in the natural economy, which hasn’t been affected too much by foreign culture. . . . Its ‘original flavor’ is reflected not only in the tunes, but reflected even more in the performance form and style. . .” (Ibid, 255). This untutored folk music is said to be characteristic of peasant and minority people in the “natural economy” of remote rural areas. There, it is thought that traditional agricultural life and music was and to a far lesser degree still is relatively unaffected by travel, trade, towns, cities, merchants, money, scholars, government bureaucracy, formal educational institutions, and foreign influence.
Western ethnomusicologists of my generation were taught that Chinese scholars and bureaucrats, like those in the Soviet Union, collected, edited, transformed, and composed and promoted folksongs to reflect the kind of worker’s consciousness desired by the government after the Communist Revolution in 1949. But as Jonathan Stock pointed out in Worlds of Music, Chinese government officials had for centuries been collecting folk music and putting it to their use.(3) “In ancient China, the emperor sent out officials to gather song texts to help him judge whether the people were happy or not,” while seventeenth century Chinese scholars collected folksongs but published only those which they felt had literary merit (Worlds, 372). Francis James Child, the Harvard professor who collected and published his famous 5-volume anthology of English and Scottish ballads in the nineteenth century, employed similar criteria. The concept “folk song” is a construction of the educated, literary class, sometimes put to use by various political groups.
Professor Yu concluded that “In order to avoid misunderstandings, I suggest using the term ‘native folk music art’ in lieu of the so-called music of ‘original ecology’” (Ibid., 58). Still, it intrigues me that the Chinese characters written for “original style” contain the character for “ecology.” This linguistic formation suggests that style does not exist primarily as structure, or even as a combination of structure and performance. Rather, embedded directly within the etymology of the Chinese language is the idea that structure and performance style interact with the surrounding natural and cultural communities. That structure and performance style interact with the surrounding cultural community is constitutive of ethnomusicology, and one of the axioms that in the 1950s established it as a new discipline and separated it from its ancestor, comparative musicology. But that structure and performance style also interact with the surrounding natural community is an idea only now gaining momentum within the West.
As I have mentioned in numerous blog entries earlier this year, Thoreau was the pioneer in this line of thought concerning nature and sound-worlds, in the mid-nineteenth century. John Cage, Murray Schafer, Steve Feld, Bernie Krause and Ted Levin are among those composers and scholars who have promoted this idea more recently. But a relation between music, sound, and the natural world is not only embedded in the Chinese characters that make up the Chinese language, it has precedent in ancient Chinese writing. Unaware of “original-ecology music” when preparing my presentation to the conference at Northeastern, I nevertheless had tried to find common ground between Thoraeu’s ideas of sound in the natural world and ancient Chinese thought. Here is what I said to them at the conference:
“Thinking about our Chinese guests today, I was reminded of the ancient Chinese legend of the origins of music in the discovery of bamboo tubes that blew overtones in fifths. Looking a little further in ancient Chinese history, I came upon the Daoist text called Zhuangzi, named after the Chinese author who lived nearly 2,500 years ago. In English translation, the text reads as follows:
“Zi-Qi said, ‘. . . You may have heard the notes of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.'
Zi-You said, 'I venture to ask from you a description of all these.'
The reply was, 'When the breath of [Nature] comes strongly, it is called Wind. Sometimes it does not come so; but when it does, then from a myriad openings there issues its excited noise; have you not heard it in a prolonged gale? Take the projecting bluff of a mountain forest - in the great trees, a hundred spans round, the [openings] are like the nostrils, or the mouth, or the ears; now square, now round like a cup or a mortar; here like a wet footprint, and there like a large puddle. (The sounds issuing from them are like) those of angry water, of the arrow’s whizz, of the stern command, of the inhaling of the breath, of the shout, of the gruff note, of the deep wail, of the sad and piping note. The first notes are slight, and those that follow deeper, but in harmony with them. Gentle winds produce a small response; violent winds a great one. When the fierce gusts have passed away, all the openings are empty (and still) - have you not seen this in the bending and quivering of the branches and leaves?'
Zi-You said, 'The notes of Earth then are simply those which come from its myriad openings; and the notes of Man may just be compared to those which (are brought from the tubes of) bamboo- allow me to ask about the notes of Heaven.'
Zi-Qi replied, 'Blowing the myriad differences, making them stop [proceed] of themselves, sealing their self-selecting - who is it that stirs it all up?’”
1. Discourse in Music: Collected Essays of the Musicology Department, Central Conservatory of Music, ed. Zhang Boyu. Beijing: Central Conservatory of Music Press, 2012.
2. Tian Liantau, "Original Style: 'Original-State' or 'Original-Ecology'?", pp. 118-124; He Yunfeng, "Some Doubts about 'Protoecological' Music," pp. 153-161; Yu Renhao, "Music of Original Ecology and Original Ecology of Music," pp. 255-258, in Discourse in Music (see n.1).
3. Jonathan Stock, "East Asia," in Worlds of Music, 5th ed., Jeff Todd Titon, gen. ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009.