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Bai Ju-Yi (772-846): The Pipa Song
I came in closer contact with the Chinese pipa during a workshop that Taiwanese musicians Huikuan Lin and Chaoming Tung gave at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna in December 2014. I Immediately fell in love with this fascinating instrument, which possesses a long tradition enriched with stories and tales. I was astonished when I listened to classical pipa music, specifically that written in the "war music" style, which sounded like Jimi Hendrix at his best. Although this music stems from the middle ages, its variety of expressions and sound colors is incredibly rich.
I understood that writing a piece for such a highly-developed instrument would require a thorough knowledge of idiomatic playing techniques. I therefore began investigating the sound properties of this instrument myself, approaching the process with a childlike curiosity. My main purpose was not to learn this instrument properly, but to discover new sound possibilities beyond the traditional techniques.
While working with Huikuan Lin, I asked her whether she could refer me to poetry about the pipa. To my delight, she told me about the famous Chinese poet Bai Ju-Yi, the author of the well-known "Pipa Song," dating back to the 9th century. I asked Huikuan to recite this poem and made a recording of it. Though I could not understand a single word, when I read the translation, several key words grabbed my attention: autumn leaves, the moon, and the river. I understood them as the mission for my piece: trying to combine these images into a piece of music, or better: a flow of sound.
Immediately, the old jazz tune Autumn Leaves came into my mind, and later also Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, both of which have no structural relations to Chinese music at all. It took quite some effort to transform these well-known "earworms" into a representation that could evoke some vague allusions without just quoting the originals.
With the aid of a computer program developed for this piece, I was able to create an ever-flowing stream of sounds from the live input of the pipa, shaped by the voice of the recorded poem; at certain points, the pipa begins to speak and to sing, telling her melancholic story of love and farewell.
Karlheinz Essl: Autumn's Leaving (2015)
Performed by Huikuan Lin (pipa) and Karlheinz Essl (live-electronics)
Taipei, Eslite Performance Hall (Taiwan) on May 1st, 2015
Karlheinz Essl 教授， 1960出生於維也納，1987畢業於維也納音樂院，主修器樂作曲和電子音樂創作。1989年發表論文「安東・魏本的合成概念」，取得維也納大學的音樂學博士。1993年接受巴黎的電子音樂中心IRCAM委託創作。1995－2006在奧地利的布魯克納大學教授電腦準則作曲。2007年開始迄今，在維也納音樂暨表演大學專任電腦音樂教授，是奧地利重量級的電腦音樂作曲家和權威。
A few lines from Bai Ju-Yi's Pipa Poem which have been recorded for this piece with the voice of Huikuan Lin; a passage that describes the broad palette of sound qualities that can be produced on a pipa.
Only after many goads did she come out of her place,
Still holding the pipa that blocked half of her face
The bass strings rumbled like thunderstorms pelting.
Rumbling and rustling interleaved at a fast rate.
Performance at the Eslite Performance Hall in Taipei (TW)
with Huikuan Lin (pipa) and Karlheinz Essl (live-electronics)
1 May 2015
Performance at the SonicLab of the Bruckner University Linz (A)
with Min Wang (pipa) and Karlheinz Essl (live-electronics)
17 Nov 2015
Karlheinz Essl: Composing for Pipa, lecture with Chinese translation by Fan Wei-Tsu
Chinese Culture University Taipei
28 Apr 2015
The score of Autumn's Leaving can be downloaded for free. Please note that the music is protected by copyright.
Correct position of the contact microphon on the pipa
The realtime processing of the Pipa is executed by a computer program written in Max. It is distributed as a standalone application which doesn’t require Max to run.
Updated: 19 Jan 2019