Notes taken in Jean François Billeter‘s book on Chinese calligraphy titled Essai sur l’art Chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements (Essay on the Chinese art of writing and its origins), published by Allia, France, 2010. Billeter is a respected Swiss sinologist, born 1939, who lived in China during the sixties. The book is a fantastic resource on the various disciplines, philosophies and techniques of calligraphy during Imperial China. This post focuses on the music and calligraphy relationships with examples from the book completed with some Internet research.
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Zhang Xu 张旭 (658-748) was a Chinese calligrapher of the Tang dynasty. Famous for his wild style and for creating calligraphy with his hair instead of a brush when he was drunk, he could never re-create the same calligraphic frenzy when sober. Zhang Xu presumably wrote a hand-written autobiography in caoshu, or cursive script, known as the Ziyantie, or the I-Already-Said-It-autobiography, 714 AD, where facts from his life are collected. In one famous passage from this text, he recollects how he got his inspiration for some of his calligraphic art: “It is when I saw the guard of honour of a princess and some porters fighting for their way in the street, and when I heard drums and wind instruments resonating nearby, that I understood the art of the brush”. Billeter assumes Zhang Xu did not want to recreate the anecdote or the sounds he heard, but to re-enact in his calligraphy the emotions he experienced during these moments. Below: examples from Zhang Xu’s explosive style.
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The Taiyin Daqaunji, or Great Complete Collection of Utmost Sounds, is a 14th c. qin manual published during the Ming dynasty. It has sections on building and tuning a qin, and a repertoire of hand positions for playing the 7 strings. The latter sections lists 33 hand positions and provides 2 illustrations for each: the left one consists of a drawing and a poem, the right one shows how it applies to finger and hand position on the strings. The following example, #31, shows how to produce floating sounds or Hufan 互泛 inspired by dragonflies.
Dragonflies glide over the water,
At times skimming over the surface.
[Forming ripples on the surface]
Their movements inspire me
When I brush the silk strings
To raise harmonic sounds.
From the Taiyin Daqaunji, Hand Gesture Illustration #31
According to Billeter, the art of qin consists in capturing the essence of actual phenomenons, just like calligraphy. By this he means getting inspired by the movement of animals, the physicality of mountains or the power of natural meteorological elements.
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Jean François Billeter lists a number of analogies between music and calligraphy. Three of them are particularly interesting:
- In calligraphy as well as in musical interpretation, there’s no remorse, each brush stroke, each note from an instrument is impossible to retract once executed.
- In both cases, the art is an interpretation via an instrument, which is not only the vehicle of the artist’s psyche, but also influences the artist’s hand (think: a brush and a violin bow).
- In Chinese calligraphy, one brush stroke comprises three moments: attack, development and ending, which is exactly how Pierre Schaeffer characterizes any sound in his 1966 essay Traité des Objets Musicaux. According to Schaeffer, a sound goes through 1) attack, 2) sustain or evolution, and 3) decay.