Category Archives: Performance

Performing Indonesia: Sumarsam

Performing Indonesia

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Sumarsam, a scholar, puppeteer, and professor of music at Wesleyan University, helped plan tomorrow night’s lecture series. He also will share his talents at our shadow-puppet play (wayang kulit) Thursday evening.

You have a long history with music, particularly the gamelan. How has that passion intersected with your interest in puppeteering? 

I began playing gamelan when I was seven years old, in the village where I was born, in East Java. That was also the time when I became interested in wayang puppet plays, which gamelan groups often accompany.

I continued studying and teaching gamelan at the conservatory and academy in Solo [Surakarta, Indonesia] from 1962–68. When I was a student at the conservatory/academy, no major on puppetry was offered, but students were required to take a course on the subject. So that’s the only formal training I have received on puppeteering. But I was determined to continue learning, so I learned on my own, with occasional guidance. I still feel I am a student of the art of wayang, especially in performing wayang for a Western audience.

How does wayang kulit intersect with music in general?

Gamelan music accompanies wayang performances almost without a break. It is played to accompany entrances, exits, journeys, battles, the puppeteer’s chanting, and dialogues and narrations. Different pieces and songs are performed for the particular moods of the scenes. Kendhang (a two-headed drum) closely accompanies the puppets—certain puppets’ movements are accompanied by certain rhythmic patterns.

The puppeteer (dhalang) has complete control over the music. He (or, rarely, she) signals the ensemble to start and end the music, to cue dynamic changes, and to ask musicians to play certain pieces. The cues are conveyed by sounding a box with a mallet; there are also verbal cues and cues from certain puppet movements. The puppeteer also produces clashing sounds from a set of metal plates that he kicks against the box to accentuate the movements of the puppets. Besides delivering dialogue and narration, the puppeteer sings songs to heighten the mood of a scene.

I think that the complex connections between the play and its musical accompaniment make it difficult to stage wayang performances in the United States. Many rehearsals are needed. I am glad that I have had ample time to rehearse with the Indonesian Embassy gamelan group and with an ad hoc group consisting of gamelan teachers and players, members of the Society for Ethnomusicology.

Tell me a bit about the story that the puppets will tell on November 10.

Here’s a synopsis of Bima’s Quest for Enlightenment:

Durna, a spiritual preceptor, asks his loyal student Bima to search for divine enlightenment. To commence his quest, Bima must go to dangerous places. First, he must search for the “Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind” on the peak of Mt. Candramuka. There, Bima encounters two ferocious ogres who attempt to foil his effort—they are actually transformed gods testing his will and strength by attacking him. Bima repels and kills the giants, but he does not find the tall tree. Disappointed, he returns to Durna empty-handed.

On the second leg of Bima’s quest, his guru orders him to search for lustrating water in the depths of the ocean. Plunging himself into the sea, he is attacked by a dragon monster. Using his long, sharp nails, Bima destroys the dragon. Miraculously, a tiny figure, Dewa Ruci, appears from nowhere. He teaches Bima the highest mystical insight: the divine enlightenment, which includes some aspects of Islamic Sufi teachings.

What do you hope audiences will experience and take away from the play?

In my early years at Wesleyan, I used to perform wayang in the Javanese language. One hundred or more people came to watch the performance. However, after two hours or so, people started leaving; only a dozen stayed until the end.

Like all of my more recent performances, Thursday’s will be about two hours long and presented mostly in English. For me, performing wayang in English is an ongoing project. Finding well-constructed English sentences that suit the mood of wayang is a challenge (not to mention making sure to pronounce English words clearly). Fortunately, several wayang stories and a number of Javanese literary works from past centuries have been translated into English—they are my main references. For example, the eighteenth-century Serat Cabolek (composed by R. Ng. Yasadipura, a court poet) has been translated into English by Professor Soebardi. This classic work has sections that tell the story of Bima’s quest for enlightenment.

The November 10 performance will be a condensed version of an all-night wayang play, featuring only the main episodes of the story. But it will have almost all aspects of a wayang play, including the three-division plot structure of the story (music, fight scene, and clown scene), popular songs and local jokes, and the teaching of a mystical path.

You’ve been closely involved with Performing Indonesia from the start. Why do you feel the festival is important?

I am always happy to be part of the festival to introduce the performing arts in Indonesia, exploring the diversity of their content and context, and the crisscrossing of their national, ethnic, and religious identities. This year’s Performing Indonesia, with the theme of Islamic Intersections, is a way to introduce the dynamic formative and transformational process of performing arts in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The Art of Qur’anic Recitation

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah

The recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents an opportunity to look closely at a Muslim music tradition that may have profoundly influenced black music in the United States. Historians have determined that Muslims made up about a quarter of all Africans forcibly shipped to the Americas through the slave trade. They brought with them long-standing traditions of unaccompanied vocal music that probably fared well under the ban on drums enforced by US plantation owners.

The Muslim call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an are marked by florid melodic lines (multiple notes to each syllable), altered notes outside Western scales, an absence of rhythm, and no instrumental accompaniment. Not surprisingly, a vocal tradition developed among African Americans that bears remarkable similarities to this Muslim heritage—the field holler, a genre that probably predated and influenced the blues.

When historian Sylviane Diouf gave public talks following the 1998 publication of her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, she began by playing audio samples of these two traditions side-by-side. You can hear historic recordings of field hollers on the Library of Congress website, such as this one by Enoch Brown recorded in Alabama in 1939. Compare for yourself by listening to Indonesian reciter Maria Ulfah, who will lead our lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation on Saturday, November 5, at 2 pm at the Hammer Auditorium of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The event is free—no tickets required—and presented as part of Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections.

Performing Indonesia: Ismunandar

This year's Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

This year’s Performing Indonesia festival includes a shadow puppet play on November 10.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates some of the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the people involved with the festival. Ismunandar, head of the education and culture section at the Embassy of Indonesia in Washington, DC, helped plan the 2016 celebration of all things Indonesia. Here, he explains this year’s theme.

Some people associate Islam only with the Middle East. Although Islam was born in that region, Muslims are spread out all over the earth. Globally, there are 1.7 billion Muslims, from the Middle East to Africa, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. Indonesia’s Muslim population is larger than that of the Middle East region.

We are proud that the long history of Islamization in Indonesia has been a peaceful one. Cultural expressions of various ethnic groups were not lost but influenced by Islam. The result is a diversity of expression in the performing arts. This is what inspired the Islamic Intersections subtitle: it summarizes our efforts to show the kaleidoscope encounter of Islam with Indonesian cultures. The theme also complements the Freer|Sackler’s landmark exhibition The Art of the Qur’an, now on view.

In this year’s Performing Indonesia, we proudly present a diversity of Indonesian arts, from the traditional and classic to the contemporary and secular. On Thursday, November 10, for example, we will host a shadow puppet show. This ancient art form was utilized by the Wali Songo, the nine revered saints who first spread Islam in Indonesia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Another way to demonstrate Islam in Indonesia culture is through Qur’anic recitation. In Indonesia, these recitations are performed not only as rituals, but also for festive occasions ranging from national anniversaries to wedding receptions. Plus, every year, a Qur’an recitation competition is held in Indonesia, starting in the districts and reaching the national level. Experience a taste for yourself on Saturday, November 5.

For those of you who are more academically minded, the festival also features a series of lectures. And there are workshops on martial arts and shadow-puppet painting for children and families to enjoy. We hope you’ll join us!

Performing Indonesia: Music from Sulawesi and West Java

Tricia Sumarijanto conducting the House of Angklung.

Tricia Sumarijanto conducting the House of Angklung.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Tricia Sumarijanto is a leading ambassador for the music of angklung, which UNESCO has named intangible cultural heritage from Indonesia. She also is cofounder of Rumah Indonesia and conductor of the House of Angklung, which will perform at Music from Sulawesi and West Java this Saturday. 

 

Tell me a bit about your personal history with Indonesian music.

My musical interest started quite early, focusing on the piano, organ, and angklung. As part of a Javanese family living in the capital city, I did not really listen to Indonesian traditional music. The angklung is the only traditional Indonesian instrument I play. I first played it when I was in elementary school as part of music class. I think most schools in Indonesia teach students to play the angklung because it is such an easy and fun instrument.

I didn’t play the instrument again until I came to the United States in 2007. The House of Angklung (known back then as Rumpun Wargi Pasundan) was looking for a new conductor when someone heard me playing piano in a friend’s house. I was asked to be their teacher, and I accepted.

Since 2009, I have been the music arranger and conductor of House of Angklung. We have become a solid community group and have performed in many different cities and states.

Why do you work to introduce American audiences to angklung music?

The House of Angklung participated in a 2011 Guinness World Records event at the Washington Monument, where more than 5,100 people played angklung together. The experience opened my eyes to the fact that the angklung is an effective tool for introducing Indonesia to the American people.

My most recent programming, Angklung Goes to School, promotes Indonesia in general and angklung in particular to a younger generation of Americans by bringing education on the instrument to schools and universities. With the support of House of Angklung and the Indonesian Embassy, the program is now active in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and it will soon arrive in Wisconsin and North Carolina. In the DMV and Philadelphia, the program has already reached more than 2,000 students. In fact, students in the Angklung Goes to School program performed at the Freer|Sackler as part of the 2014 Performing Indonesia festival.

Angklung Goes to School

Angklung Goes to School

What can audiences expect from the performance on October 22? What do you hope they take away?

The audience will hear the unique sound of bamboo in the angklung in harmony with the sound of wood in the kolintang and other instruments. The angklung is from West Java, where the majority of people are Muslim, and the kolintang is from Minahasa, Sulawesi, where the majority are Christian.

The song selection is a picture of how diverse Indonesia is. We have more than 17,000 islands and about 600 dialects. Indonesian music and arts are influenced by many other cultures, such as those of Spain, India, China, and the Middle East. Despite how diverse it is, Indonesia is one nation, with its motto of “Unity in Diversity.”

I also hope that the audience will see how these ancient instruments can perform modern songs, including Western songs, in the spirit of the philosophy of the angklung: teamwork, mutual respect, and social harmony. Finally, this performance is to show how different religions and cultures interact peacefully in Indonesia through the universal language of music.

High Fashion for Muslim Wear

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

A scene from the Performing Indonesia fashion show on September 10.

New designs from Java strutted down the catwalk on September 10, kicking off this year’s Performing Indonesia festival and its theme of Islamic Intersections. Held at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design, the fashion show featured fresh garments for Muslim women created by Meeta Fauzen and Helen Dewi Krana, two leading designers from Indonesia. Fauzen took the time to answer a few questions about her creations.

Bento: Why have you been inspired to design for Muslim women?

Meeta Fauzen: After returning from the hajj, I started to wear Muslim dress. I wanted to create Muslim wear that fits my style. I learned how to design Muslim women’s fashion to give people more choices.

B: How would you describe your design aesthetic or approach?

MF: My design aesthetic is simple and elegant, to make it easy for Muslim women. And I mix my designs with Indonesian traditional fabrics such as batik and tenun.

B: How have your designs been received at home and abroad?

MF: In Indonesia, I have several customers in my hometown, Bandung, and in other cities such as Bogor, Jakarta, Surabaya, and Batam. And from abroad, I have also some clients in countries where I’ve done my show, such as Perth, Kuala Lumpur, the United States, and eastern Europe, although it’s not a big number yet.

There were big numbers for the show on September 10: a capacity crowd of two hundred guests filled the Corcoran Gallery atrium. The runway presentation was preceded by a lecture and discussion with anthropologist Carla Jones of the University of Colorado, as well as a Q&A with the designers.

The Performing Indonesia festival is made possible through a partnership with the Embassy of Indonesia, and this year is held in cooperation with George Washington University. See what’s in store.

Performing Indonesia: Andy McGraw, musician and teacher

andymcgraw

Andy McGraw plays the kendang drum with Gamelan Raga Kusuma, one of the ensembles that will perform on September 22.

Performing Indonesia: Islamic Intersections, our third festival of Indonesian music, dance, and theater, celebrates the many manifestations of Islamic culture in the island nation, which is home to more Muslims than any other country. We’re interviewing some of the more than eighty musicians, dancers and other performing artists who will appear throughout the festival’s run. Andy McGraw, who was involved in the festival’s planning, is part of two ensembles performing the evening of September 22. An associate professor of music at the University of Richmond, McGraw describes himself as “a dad, an ethnomusicologist with wide research interests and a performer of many kinds of musics.” 

Q: When and why did you take an interest in Indonesian music?

A: In 1995, I was playing in a jazz band in Kansas City (my hometown) when I was contacted by someone in Singapore interested in a temporary house trade. One of the musicians in the jazz band had studied in Indonesia and suggested I go and retrieve some instruments he had left in Bali. So I arranged to have a friend cover my drum-set students, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I headed over to a part of the world neither of us knew anything about.

After exploring Singapore, she headed north to Malaysia and I headed south to Indonesia, without a guidebook or any knowledge of the language. I immediately became lost in the chain of islands between Singapore and Sumatra. I rode sailboats up river into Central Sumatra, where I spent several days believing I was in Java. After several more days of travel through Sumatra and Java, mainly by “goat class” train cars, I ended up in Bali.

Throughout this passage, I was amazed by the striking cultural differences (music, language, food) between villages and humbled by the consistent generosity I was shown. Despite being completely ignorant of local customs, likely committing faux pas after faux pas, I was almost always treated with patience and grace.

When I arrived in Bali, I began studying with I Wayan Gandra. With his father I Madé Lebah, Gandra had led the first Balinese tour to America in 1952 (famously appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show). On my second night on the island, he took me to see not a tourist performance, but a mabarung temple festival contest between two of Bali’s finest gamelan ensembles. I had never experienced such intense musicianship. The cohesion of the ensemble, in absence of conductor or notation, introduced me to social and musical forms I did not think were possible. I was immediately hooked.

andymcgraw1

McGraw plays cello with the kroncong ensemble Rumput, also performing on September 22.

Q: You teach courses about global music. Why should students—particularly American students—study this subject?

A: My primary teaching goal is to introduce students to aesthetic difference: to challenge students’ aesthetic common sense by exposing them to musical systems foreign to their prior experience. This is intended to perform two ethical functions: 1) to demonstrate the mutability and variability of human culture globally, reminding individuals that their own culture is constructed and changeable and 2) to instill a sense of expansive collectivity: that they have a link, and maybe even a kind of loyalty, to people they have never met, to people that represent the cultures they are studying.

Music evolved primarily to foster social relationships. Its very ambiguity (we never agree exactly on its meanings) allows us to connect through it (we can all agree that it feels good). That shared emotion creates empathy. When an American student shares a concrete musical experience of joy with a visiting Indonesian musician, for instance, they establish a connection that would be difficult to forge through writing, or online, or even through casual conversation. But beyond that, it connects that student in a concrete way not only to another individual but to “the Balinese” and “Indonesians” in a way I don’t believe a history book (or, more often today, Wikipedia) can.

It is crucial that young Americans develop a felt empathy for as many cultures as possible. I’m talking about informed, specified understandings and interests in concrete cultures, not some vague, generalized camaraderie or cosmopolitanism, which I don’t think does much to energize a real sense of obligation. Being the foremost military and economic power in the world today, America can wreak historically unprecedented levels of damage globally, but it also holds almost immeasurable potential for enacting positive change. The better informed individuals are about the world and its cultures, the more likely they are to act in ways that sustain and respect those cultures. Most importantly, the more likely they are to listen to those cultures.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

The Richmond-based group Gamelan Raga Kusama, pictured, joins the Momenta Quartet, Indonesian vocalist Ubiet, and soprano Tony Arnold for a Performing Indonesia concert.

Q: Tell me a bit about your plans for the September 22 performance.

A: My primary plans for the September 22 performance are to not make any mistakes! Momenta is a wonderful ensemble, and although I’ve performed with them before, I’ll admit I’m a bit afraid! I am excited about this performance partly because of the wide variety of genres on the program. I Wayan Yudane and Jack Body’s House in Bali is a lush, lyrical work that buzzes with the incommensurable tuning clashes between Western and Balinese instruments. Tony Prabowo’s works lean towards the more austere style of global modernism. Thrown into the mix are Indonesian kroncong asli tunes, which the visiting Indonesian singer Ubiet Raseuki has recently been reviving. Kroncong is a “light classical” form that was very popular in independence-era Indonesia (circa 1950s–60s) with a deeply nostalgic resonance. This form is almost never heard in America. Both Gamelan Raga Kusuma and Orkes Kroncong Rumput, the Balinese and kroncong ensembles we have in Virginia, are working hard in preparation!

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away?

A: I want the audience to take away a sense of the incredible variety and vibrancy of Indonesia’s musical ecology. Most importantly, I hope they come to see Indonesia not only as host to many different kinds of “traditional” music but experimental, modernist, collaborative, and classical musics as well. I hope that audience members do not get aesthetic whiplash! Finally, I also hope audience members feel free to ask questions after the concert and to stick around to interact with the gamelan and kroncong instruments.

Reserve tickets now for Strings Meet Gamelan: Chamber Music from Indonesia on September 22. 

Performing Indonesia: Tickets On Sale!

House of Angklung #4

Tickets are on sale now for this year’s Performing Indonesia, our third annual celebration of Indonesian cultural expressions. Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation made up of thousands of volcanic islands, is home to hundreds of ethnic groups and more Muslims than any other country in the world. We’ll explore these “Islamic Intersections” through a fashion show of contemporary Muslim designs, a puppet play (wayang) about a mystical journey, concerts of music by Indonesian and American composers, a lecture-demonstration on Qur’anic recitation, and a symposium on Islam and the performing arts.

In total, more than eighty musicians, dancers, and other performing artists from Indonesia and across the United States will appear at the festival, which runs from September 10 through November 19. Check out the full lineup and reserve your spot!

Japanese Music for the Summer Solstice

Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

Click to zoom in! Flowers and a brook; Japan, Edo period, 18th century; six-panel screens, color over gold on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1897.27–28

The seasons are frequent subjects of art, but the transitions between them can be difficult to capture. With spring formally becoming summer today, it’s an appropriate time to note the Japanese tradition of narrative paintings that portray seasonal shifts—and the work of a Japanese composer with a similar aim.

One of our Japanese screens from the Edo period (1615–1868), Flowers and a Brook, shows plants blooming in sequence along the shift from spring to summer (right to left). This technique is frequently employed in Japanese screen paintings to depict multiple seasons in a single image. In a musical parallel, Japanese composer Minoru Miki wrote his “Hanayagi” (The Greening) in 1976 as one movement in a larger work representing a year of changing seasons. According to the composer, this work for solo koto “sings in praise of the brilliant life-power of the seasons as they slowly shift from spring to early summer.”

You can listen to this gorgeous ten-minute piece on our concert podcast of koto virtuoso Reiko Kimura, recorded in the Meyer Auditorium in 1998, when she appeared here as part of the Music From Japan Festival (based in New York). Four years before this concert, Kimura joined the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for the premiere of Minoru Miki’s Symphony of Two Worlds at Lincoln Center. Skip to 39:38 and listen to the end to hear the sounds of seasonal change.

World Oceans Day: Songs of Travel

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio. Folio from the Gulshan (Rose Garden) Album. India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1600. Calligraphy by Mir Ali al-Katib (Bukhara, ca. 1540). Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper. Purchase, F1956.12.

Europeans artists and missionaries traveling to Asia in the sixteenth century promoted Western ideas of religion and art. Some of the artwork created during the Mughal Empire (in present-day India) confirms the emperor’s interest in Roman Catholic imagery and European styles of representation, as seen in the border of this Islamic folio.

On World Oceans Day, listen to La Mar de la Musica: Songs of Departure and Return, a concert held at the museum in 2007. The Vozes Alfonsinas ensemble, based in Lisbon, Portugal, and led by director Manuel Pedro Ferreira, performed Renaissance songs of travel that reveal how overseas influences altered Portuguese music (and vice versa). Four-part vocal harmonies were complemented by the sounds of Renaissance-era instruments, including the rebec, vihuela, and theorbo.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L-R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

Top: The ensemble Vozes Alfonsinas performs at the Freer Gallery’s Meyer Auditorium in 2007. (L–R): Maria Repas, soprano; Madalena Cabral, rebec; Susana Teixeira, mezzo-soprano; César Viana, recorders; Gonçalo Pinto Gonçalves, tenor; Nuno Torka Miranda, Renaissance guitar and vihuela; Vítor Gaspar, baritone; and André Barrosa, theorbo. Bottom: The ensemble performs for a family audience in the Sackler Gallery.

As Ferreira, a music professor who has written dozens of papers and books on medieval music and culture, explained in the concert notes:

The conquest of the Atlantic Ocean altered not only the history of Portugal but also its music. Up until the seventeenth century, the Portuguese nation was intimately connected to neighboring Spain. The discovery and populating of the Atlantic islands and the exploration of the west coast of Africa left their mark on the Iberian musical panorama of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The musical influence of the colonization of the Americas became apparent later.

Just as wine returns from a journey with characteristics different from those it originally had, so Iberian musical culture, once tempered by the Atlantic experience, acquired new compositional flavors. This performance calls attention to these outside influences by presenting some written vestiges of this “music of the return journey,” the greater part of which, dependent on oral tradition, has perished in the vortex of history.

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John

These figures from the border of an Islamic folio created in India about the year 1600 depict St. Anthony (left), Christ and the Ship of Salvation, God the Father (upper right), and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John.

This concert took place on July 26, 2007, in conjunction with our exhibition Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust, and audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.