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Playing Pipa
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

"Xiban" and "Dacu"

The term "xiban" is interesting, it maybe refering to the old term "xidiao" ("western melodies") of the Hakka group (a sub group of the Han people). All "xiban" are 64 bars long and only get stretched longer through repetitions.  This sequential music shares several common aspects which make the "xiban" pieces which are easy to recgnize. In time measurement, each "xiban" has a 16-24 bars long prelude or initial, ends on the 2nd pitch on bar 8 and on the lower 5th pitch in bar 16 and bar 60. The scales used within are either modal scales buildt on pitch one ("gong") or pitch five (zhi").  Heptatonic or even diatonic scales are rare. The seventh pitch sounds lower than in a western scale, the third sounds somewhere in between major and minor. These latter two pitches are refered to as "bian" (bell) tones and are only used as side tones, most often appearing in downward scales.
While the "Xiban" are truly proscriptive compositions, the "Dacu" (collections and suites of "xiban", "za" and other pieces) provide a bigger freedom in formal aspects, tonal modalities and are easily recognized by their programmatic titles.
 Their more divers tonal material is based on the four modal scales "gong" (1), "shang" (2), "zhi" (5) and "gu" (6), based on the reffering pitches in brackets.  The most common tunings "zheng dia" are based on gong and zhi. The melodies, patterns and motives often follow picturesque titles (like a scale downwards shows us a dragon vanishing in the water), but other than in the "xiban" they are put in a more "individual" asymmetricla order.  Though still being a sequential music, using techniques like augmentation and diminuition, ostinati and inversions and register dispersions, the binary phrases with common target notes still rarely appear the same.
Only trained ears will discover the qu pai melody or the ban motives within this continuos flow of music.

Perspectives

The outstanding position of the Pipa music in the world is established by a dipolic link to different cultures. The Pipa is embedded in the Chinese music tradition, but formal and structural aspects as also the categorization with the picturesque titles help the foreign listener to do some first steps in this beautiful music. The multiaesthetic link to other disciplines like literature and art and the common sense with the intentional expression of both emtional and picturesque topics links the Pipa music to classical music forms worldwide.

Starting next year, several Pipa scores will be published and discussed on these pages.
Please check back often!

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