Notes on music and Chinese calligraphy

Jean François Billeter – Essai sur l'art Chinois de l'écriture et ses fondementsNotes 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 (658-748)

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.

Zhang Xu's wild styleZhang Xu's wild 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.

Hand Gesture Illustration #31 from the Taiyin Daqaunji

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
[personal translation]

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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Ancient Chinese music making

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.

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2 Responses to “Notes on music and Chinese calligraphy”

  1. 1 tripmaster June 6, 2011 at 10:19 am

    fascinating! reminds me of the jet li film “hero” where parallels are drawn between both swordsmanship and music with the art of calligraphy. i think it’s also important to understand the taoist influence behind all of these philosophical metaphors involving the oneness of nature and art, to fully grasp what these great masters were trying to achieve.

    loved that last analogy noting the attack, sustain and release. i never realized it before, but it’s very true!

  2. 2 continuo June 6, 2011 at 10:41 am

    The book that inspired this post makes a clear distinction between Taoist and Confucianist influences on calligraphy, the latter being more prevalent according to the author. It might indeed be interesting to investigate the swordmanship’s vocabulary and techniques and compare it with calligraphy. Notions of attack, sustain and release are probably present as well in the art of Dao. Ultimately, the other analogy the author makes in the book is between calligraphy and dance, which is also rather stimulating.
    Thanks for your comment.

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