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Appendix C - Musical and Vocal Terms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2023

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Summary

Singing

Kunqu singing, often called water-milled singing (shuimo qiang 水磨腔), is characterized by slow tempi, sustained pitches, and melisma, in which syllables are sung over several notes (Marjory Liu 1974, 65). Voice is usually accompanied by the flute which is the most important instrument in the orchestra. Most scenes have a principal aria (zhuqu 主曲), considered central to the scene's performance. In kunqu the melody is always carried by the singer and the orchestra together, and unlike in many other xiqu genres arias feature no orchestral bridges (guomen 過門). Given that there are “no instrumental interludes where the voice can rest” (Strassberg 1976, 52), where and how to breathe becomes an important consideration, and is often marked on scores.

Arias are divided into two melodic modes, the northern-style melodies (beiqu 北曲), with their seven-note diatonic scale, and southern-style melodies (nanqu 南曲), which are fundamentally pentatonic, using the other two notes only for ornamentation (Mark 2013, 21). Kunqu circles generally consider the former to represent the “spirit of the north” as it is more “male, exalted, lively, and rapid,” while the latter is considered to represent the “spirit of the south” as it is “soft, fluid, and melodious” (Tsiang Un-kai 1932, 14), using slower tempi, more melisma, and “expansive rhythmic structures” (Nine Modes Manual Online 2022). Broadly speaking, northern-style arias may be more martial and strident, and southern-styles more romantic and mellifluous in character.

Since Chinese is a modal language, the melody is deeply structured by the tones associated with each character (Marjory Liu 1974). The pronunciation of certain characters also depends on whether the aria is in the northern or the southern style. One of the most important phonetic distinctions between singing northern- and southern-style arias involves the entering tone (rusheng 入聲) characters. In southern-style arias, entering tones are usually sung with a glottal stop, ref lecting pronunciations in Wu dialects (and other forms of southern Chinese) and furnishing a “tremendously dynamic effect … which brings out every detail of the melismatic patterns and yet does not destroy the overall coherence” (ibid., 84).

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2022

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