The zithers of Southeast Asia
an overview written by Ingo Stoevesandt
Among the rich diversity of chordophones worldwide, we find the Asian zithers to be outstanding in the way in which they resound the cultural identity of what we may consider as „truly Asian“. Not far away from the plugged hunting bow leading to the first monochord instruments, the simple and pure idea of spanning several chords over a resonance box in order to plug them should be assumed to be one of the oldest ideas of mankind for creating melodies.
The word “Zither” derives from the Greek “Kithara”, which stands for an old multistringed instrument of five to twelve chords analogue to the ancient Lyra. In Europe, this can be understood as a link to the word “Guitar”, it first was used for the medieval lute Cister, which actually was a fiddle before, and if we now jump to the multitude of plucked, hammered and bowed dulcimers and the rich forms of harps all over Europe and Asia, we discover that the term “Zither” is covering many instrumental meanings.
According to the ethnic diversity of Asia with it’s huge amount of different instrument forms and shapes it is necessary to reduce this overview to the actually most important and most common instruments.
I will try to give a short description about appearance, sound and playing technique for each instrument. At the end of this article you will find a list of according websites with further information about the instruments themself, about famous artists and composers and about dealers and manufacturers of these instruments.
The Asian zither: A living history
The common Asian zither might be imagined as a wooden soundbox with a minimum of three chords spanned over it.
All one-stringed soundboxes are monochords, the two-stringed soundboxes are fiddles or lutes.
The wooden soundbox or resonator is actually mostly made of good resounding material like rosewood, the strings are either nylon or metal strings which nowadays come from industrial production, in contrast to the instruments themself which mostly are manufactured by masters who follow an old family tradition.
Of course companies like Dunhuang (see internet links below) also produce the most common instruments in serial, but if you want to buy quality which will last long, you will have to buy from a manufacturer, as most manufacturers in Asia are highly skilled players themself and know exactly how to turn the instruments into professional ones.
The Asian zither: A living history (follows)
In Asia, one fascinating aspect of the actual and traditional musical instruments lies in the fact that many instruments are just made out of materials which people find in their daily life. These instruments appear to be simple but often surprise the listener (assuming a skilled player) with their wide variety of musical possibilities.
Bamboo is one of the most important bases for resonance in Asia.
In Malaysia, the ethnic group Senoi (Negrito) of the Orang Asli play a bamboo tube zither called Keranteng. These tube zithers consist of a big bamboo tube of about 80 cm length, have seven chords, and are both idiochord as also sometimes heterochord. There are idiochord instruments with only three chords called Kereb which maybe only have been played by women. I am not quite sure if these instruments still exist today, but if we keep in mind that we can find these bamboo tube zithers all over Southzeast Asia (for example the Latek of the Moken in Thailand), it might trace us to one of the ancient origins of zithers in Asia, maybe even reaching back to preneolithic ages.
Far away from speculations, one of the most important ancient instruments in Asia is still alive and used today:
The sound of Confuzius: The Qin
The earliest zithers entombed in China date back to the year 1500 BC. The most fascinating aspect of finding these old instruments was the fact that the basic shape and appearance of these instruments did not change until today. So in fact, these instruments are a part of human history for more than three thousand years! The Qin was one of the first instruments worldwide with a written notation, an own script depicting which hand plucks which chord on what manner and position. This is putting researchers in the lucky situation to follow the Qin music back over the millenia, back to its musical roots and makes the Qin very important for the understanding of the whole musical development in China from past to present. The ancient Qin (or Gu Qin) had five chords, spanned over the body carved out of the Wutang tree. Tuned in a pentatonic scale, each chord symbolizes a divine principle. Today, the Qin is a bass zither of seven chords, tuned this way:
The Wutang wood body is about 130 cm long, 20 cm wide and appears in different shapes (each shape with an own name and meaning).
The wood should be at least two hundred years old or it does not give the resonance expected. The black colouring of the wood does not stand all over the years, so if the instrument gets older, the colour will plaster of and break. The more break patterns in the colour are found, the older the instrument might be. The seven chords are made of metal or metal spun nylon. They are fixed on the back of the instrument at two standing feet, then lead over the top body to the other side, where they go over a bridge and down a hole back to the back side, where the chords are fixed on tuning knobs called Rong Do.
Despite of other zithers in Asia this instrument has no movable bridges under the chords.
On the instruments body 13 marks indicate where to press down the chord and where to find the harmonics. The chords are plucked with the right hand fingers, while the fingers of the left hand produce an overtone or press down at a mark creating the pitch.
Usually no plectrum or fingernail-elongation is used to struck the chords. Today some players grow long fingernails or use elongations to increase the volume of this very low, intimate sounding bass zither.
The Qin knows three different kinds of tones:
1. The empty chord is pictured as the sound of earth
2. The chord played with a pressed finger or thumb is the sound of human
3. The chord played with the Flagolet is the sound of heaven
Normaly a Qin composition starts with the sounds of earth, followed by the sounds of man thus ascending to the sound of heaven. I think this picturesque development of ancient compositions already shows that the Qin is far more than “just” a musical instrument. Not only the instruments body significates the harmony between heaven and earth, the very low, silent sound of the instrument demands a highly contemplated and truly observant listener, it also demands a highly concentrated and disciplined player. Here we find the instruments intuition to form a higher selfdiscipline within both player and listener, thus following the idealism and philosophy of Confucius. The Qin was never intended to be an ensemble instrument or to be played in front of a big audience. It was always there to be played intimately, for the players ears and commonly not more than one listener. Until the 1960ies it was even forbidden to make recordings of a Qin, as it is believed to be too personal to become presented to a bigger audience. Each instrument has its own name. This name and the name of the owner is carved into the instruments body, showing that this instrument has to be treated like a person itself and only belongs to the owner. In some traditions, if the owner dies, the instrument gets buried with him.
If you try to play a Qin you try to play the most difficult instruments among the Asian zithers. It is one task to learn how to read the instruments notation (with Chinese letters, but no rhythmical notation, which is up to the player and his mood), another is how to reproduce all these gestures and techniques on the instruments itself, not speaking of the tuning which is also not easy and also needs some body strength, because you have to stretch the chords over the instruments body with strength and tighten them tothe right tone. The tuning pegs are only supposed to help fine tuning the instrument. As there are no frets and the marks mostly indicate the overtone positions only, it is not easy to find the tones or to do the sliding correctly. Improvisation on the Qin is more than a pleasure, but not really the instruments intention, which wants to compete the player to learn how to play (and read) the traditional tunes.
The Chinese GuZheng
With the Qin being a very silent instrument, the ancient Chinese soon developed another zither with a bigger soundbox in order to compete with much louder ensemble instruments. After a while the first Guzheng appeared in ensembles (following the antique Se) and was getting popular very fast, as this instrument was used more often and not indicated as an instrument for the elite like the Qin. There are many forms of this instrument existing in China, ranging from 16 to 25 chords, but, since the 1960ies, the form with 21 strings is the most common.
The Guzheng is the biggest zither in Asia besides the Japanese Koto (see below). It is about 150 cm long and about 50 cm wide. It is placed on stands. The 21 strings are tuned in a pentatonic scale (Do – re – mi – sol – la, starting from D, ranging over four octaves), and each chord holds a movable bridge (made of wood, mostly in pyramid shape), which can easily be moved in order to change the pitch or fine tuning. Ranging over four octaves, the sound of the Guzheng can be described best as “orchestral”. It is able to reproduce different tone colours, different volumes and a skilled player might be able to reproduce polyphonic patterns as well. Due to it’s large resonance box, the sustain of a single note is loud and long, so even stopped notes get the echo of the resonators reverb, making the sound “wet”. The right hand of the player uses a plectrum or fingernail extension for each finger, attached to it with some tape. The left hand is used to press down the plucked chord to create a vibrato, glissando or gliding. There are also artists today who try to play the chords with a bow, which shows how popular this instrument is. Like the Qin the Guzheng is mostly played solo. Though it was thought to be an ensemble instrument its warm and wide ranging sound makes it a playground for modern aspects of virtuosity. It is an instrument that gets more and more popular worldwide. It is also indicative for its history dating back over 2500 years and is the basic instrument which preceded other forms like the Japanese Koto or the Vietnamese Tranh.
The Vietnamese Tranh
The smallest derivate of the Chinese Guzheng is the Vietnamese Tranh. It is a little smaller than the Qin and sounds much higher, because the used metal chords are very thin and the body is made of light wood. Like the Guzheng, each of the 16 chords tuned in a pentatonic scale (starting from G) has a movable pyramid bridge attached beneath the chord. The Tranh is only played with three fingers: Thumb, index and middle finger plug the chords with a plectrum or finger-extension, so the sound of the Tranh can be described as metallic, high and intensive, but very beautiful. It is mostly played in ensembles, but with the growing popularity of zithers in Asia it is also played solo. In Vietnam, mostly only women perform the Tranh. This is very interesting, as it points out the question whether the Asian zither has to be understood as a “female” instrument or not. To avoid the discussion of gender questions in Asian instruments, which surely would brake the borders of this article, I would like to mention that mostly all zithers in ensembles are actually played by women, while the Chinese Qin with its intellectual intention is only played by men. After one thousand years of Chinese “protection” in Vietnam, it is a temptation to underestimate the Vietnamese origin of the Tranh and just put it in comparison to its bigger sister, the Chinese Guzheng. All playing techniques and compositions for the Tranh truly point out that this instruments tradition is unique, truly Vietnamese and not really comparable to the Chinese zither culture. Learning to play the Tranh in traditional ways should be estimated as difficult as learning the Guzheng.
The Japanese Koto
With a length of over 180 cm the Japanese Koto is the biggest zither in Asia. Historically spoken the Koto once was a Guzheng. It was brought to Japan around the 8th century and was integrated in the court music ensembles. In the Edo era (17th century), first attempts were made to compose for it as a solo instrument.
The Koto has 13 chords with the moveable pyramids beneath. It is a little bigger than the Guzheng and can be recognized by the two circles of rolled up strings at the left end of the instrument. Normally, like on all zithers mentioned before, the moveable pyramids are only used for retuning before playing, they cannot be used to retune while performing. The strings are plucked with the right hand, using a plectrum called “Tsume” for the thumb, index and middle finger. Here we find the same playing techniques as with the Vietnamese Tranh, but the resounding music can not be compared in any way. The chords are made of silk (expensive versions) or nylon (cheap versions) and, regarding to the instruments size, very big. The sound of the plucked string is warm, low, not very loud and, for physical reasons, rather short. The resonating box does not produce a long sustain like the Chinese Guzheng.
Even more important for the characteristics of the Koto is the tuning system: All Koto-scales and every modus contains semitones, which seperates the Koto from all other zithers in Asia who traditionally only use anhemitonic scales. In the anhemitonic scales, every tone could be used as basic tone for a scale, in the Koto scales, the semitones and quarter steps equal it to sound “minor” (regarding to the Western minor/major system), thus making the scale so characteristic that you will always recognize them as “Japanese Koto style". For example, the most common scale “Hira tyoshi” starts with the characteristic falling fifth, followed by a nearly chromatic circeling of the nearest fifths above:
d – G – A - #A – d - #d – g – a - #a - d’ - #d’ - g’ - a’
Playing and tuning the instrument is not as easy as it appears. The first problem a player faces is the “lack” of sound, it needs some practising before the instrument starts to sing along with the melodies. The reason lies within the soundbox that is more flat than
that of the Guzheng.
The Korean Kayagum
Before the Koto came to Japan, as early as in the 5th century BC, it is believed that a refugee from the Kaya state presented a Guzheng to the ancient Silla court. After surviving in Korea with it’s special form, the now assimilated Guzheng traveled on to Japan to become the Koto.
This way, to put it easy, the Guzheng was the grandmother of both Koto and Kayagum. Compared to the Koto, there are only slight differences: The instrument owns 12 silk chords which are plucked by hand without a plectrum or finger extensions. The tuning also knows the characteristic fifth at the start but also differs slightly:
G – c – d – g – a – c’ – d’ – e’ – g’ – a’ – c’’- d’’
As you can see from the scale, the instrument sounds higher, but still warm and intensive. It is not easy to play, even if the missing of the plectrum seems to make it easier, the finger techniques of both right and left hand are complex enough to fill several books. The Kayagum is mostly played solo and also gave birth to an own style called “Sanjo” which is a term for instrumental pieces which could be compared to an Indian “Raga”. Starting 200 years ago, the Sanjo style combines modal improvisations with rhythmical cycles that create a music full of virtuosity. Most instruments sold today are “Sanjo” style Kayagum, which are a little smaller than the instruments used for the ensemble or court music.
Nearly all mentioned zithers above are nowadays mainly used as solo or chamber music instruments. This way the zither stands for a wide horizon of instrumental music in Asia, thus making the outstanding position of this instrument reasonable.
With this background it seems as if the future of these instruments might be unquestioned and secure. But, if we look (only for example) at the Khmer zither named Takhe which was part of the Pin Peat ensemble, it nowadays perished in the tumults of the Vietnam war and its subsequent terror of the reign of the Khmer rouge.
So, if we travel to Cambodia now, one can be lucky if he still finds this outstanding zither, which seems to be a combination of a guitar with a zither that lies horizontally to the ground. Sometimes one may face it in Thailand under the name Chake, which regards to its appearance looking like a crocodile.
An equally perished instrument one can happily find on the Philippines and Indonesian islands is the big Kecapi zither, which truly belongs to Java and normally accompanied the Suling flute. Sometimes it still can be found in Gamelan ensembles in an exhibition of a western museum , or in a rare concert with Sundanese music.
Speaking about future developments, we still have to face the fact that all cultural traditions nowadays mix up, change and sometimes even get forgotten. On the other hand, many contemporary artists are very conscious and aware of the danger that these instruments and their rich traditions are about to be forgotten, and they act by composing, arranging and creating new works for these instruments, as well as engaging in performing the “old” traditional pieces and songs in front of foreign audiences in order to save these instruments for the future.
For example, in my humble opinion it was a good decision to open up the deep knowledge about the Qin zither to the public interest - like for example Manfred Dahmer does for German audiences. If we do not find more artists and scientists like him, the danger of loss of these instruments still is not extinct.
It is another question (or discussion) whether these instruments may only be played in traditional manner or not, but it remains quite clear that the only hope for this wonderful instruments to survive is a good “PR” and the engagement of us all in order to bring these instruments and their sound into peoples mind..
(written in Germany, 2009)