ISSN 2158-5296
AAWM JOURNAL VOL. 1 NO. 2 (2011)
Fluctuant Grouping in a Silk-and-Bamboo Melody

John Roeder

Liuban is one of a constellation of old tunes (qupai) that are foundational to music of China, and in particular to the rich "Silk-and-Bamboo" music (jiangnan sizhu) of the lower Yangzi region. This essay highlights some of the extraordinary qualities of Liuban by treating its grouping structure not as fixed, but as constructed dynamically by the listener. A processive analysis shows how Liuban deploys its materials elegantly to suggest but then to subvert grouping function, creating fluctuant, protean sensations of beginning, ending, and continuation that are analogous to its gentle varying contour and pitch focus. It manifests not a fixed form but an almost self-antithetical process—a Dao, or path of natural action—through which a moment of maximal conformity simultaneously appears as a moment of maximal possibility. During the preparation for that moment, sensations of symmetry are infused with remembered asymmetrical qualities and vice versa.  The analysis thus provides a dynamically oriented supplement to standard fixed-state accounts of the grouping structure of this melody. It also provides a productive basis for comparing Liuban with other qupai like Baban, and for understanding the "flowered" melodies that are derived from them, thus providing a new approach to this fundamental but as yet little-studied procedure in Chinese music.

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