Culture

Guqin music – 无羁 (Wu Ji)

One of my 2021 New Year’s resolutions is to write a blog post each month. There’s been so many topics popping up that I’ve been struggling all month to settle upon anything concrete to write about. There are days when it feels humanity is falling apart at the seams. In the end I decide to focus on something fun rather than dedicating more time to anxiety inducing news like Covid vaccination rollout (or lack thereof), Reddit users taking on Wall Street or the Doomsday Clock advancing to 100 seconds from midnight due to (among other concerns) political inaction on climate change.

I began studying the guqin (古琴 – a seven string Chinese zither) back in 2011 while working in China. If founding myths are to be believed, the guqin was invented by the Yellow Emperor (or alternatively the Yan Emperor) himself at the dawn of Chinese civilization. Mentions in historical texts aside, what is known is that intact guqins have been excavated from tombs dating back nearly 2,7000 years to the early Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Many of the traditional repertoire played today is traceable back to the Tang Dynasty.

For this post, I wanted to play something more contemporary. A growing trend in recent years is to feature the (fake) playing of guqin by leading characters in period dramas as a way to visually confer status and refinement; similar to the way clothing and decorum is used in Downton Abbey or Brighton. One vexing aspect though is that many times not only is the playing obviously fake with the guqin being placed incorrectly on the table, but the music heard is actually of other instruments. The music itself though is highly melodic. And so I thought why not try playing it on the guqin?

Upon settling down on the song selection – I went with Wu Ji (无羁), the theme song from The Untamed (陈情令), as it’s a personal favorite. Wu – I proceeded to scour the web in hopes of finding existing transcriptions for guqin. None that I found were to my liking, I found the figuring on most to be especially awkward. The remaining solution was to transcribe the melody myself.

For this post, I wanted to play something more contemporary. A growing trend in recent years is to feature the (fake) playing of guqin by leading characters in period dramas as a way to visually confer status and refinement; similar to the way clothing and decorum is used in Downton Abbey or Brighton. One vexing aspect though is that many times not only is the playing obviously fake with the guqin being placed incorrectly on the table, but the music heard is actually of other instruments. The music itself though is highly melodic. And so I thought why not try playing it on the guqin?

Upon settling down on the song selection – I went with Wu Ji (无羁), the theme song from The Untamed (陈情令), as it’s a personal favorite – I proceeded to scour the web in hopes of finding existing transcriptions for guqin. None that I found were to my liking, I found the figuring on most to be especially awkward. The remaining solution was to transcribe the melody myself.

It quickly became obvious why no good guqin transcriptions existed – the melody, clearly written for other instruments, is extremely difficult to achieve on the guqin without having one’s fingers jump all over the place. Not one to easily call quits, I powered on; the entirety of Saturday flew past in a whirl of concentration and frustration.

Though not exceeding thrilled with the end result, I did learn much about the characteristics of the guqin in the process – what is suitable, what is possible, what is not. Transcription is below is you want to give it a try yourself.

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