Professor Builds Program to Preserve, Perform Ancient Music


Roger Williams, associate vice chancellor for University Relations
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Melissa Blouin, science and research communications manager
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- University of Arkansas Distinguished Professor and world-renowned conductor Sarah Caldwell wants to take music unheard by human ears for over 1,000 years and bring it to life by transcribing it, performing it and preserving it for future generations.

To support her endeavors, the University of Arkansas is working to create a World Center for Ancient Asian and Mid Eastern Music Preservation.

"There's so much music, that is part of everyday life, which we need to preserve before it is destroyed," Caldwell said.

The center would start its preservation and performance work with music from the Tang Court. This music, which spans the era from 618-906 AD, was imported from the Tang dynasty in China to Japan by emissaries from the then-young state.

At its peak, the Tang dynasty stretched from Turkish city-states in the West to Japan in the East, and from Siberian tribes in the North to Vietnam in the South. People traveled from other countries, including Japan Mongolia, India, Korea and Turkey, to learn about the Tang culture. Towards the end of the dynasty, however, the rulers closed the country's borders, fearing the destruction of their civilization.

Over hundreds of years the music of the Tang dynasty disappeared from the mainland. It remained forgotten until the 1970s, when musicologist Dr. Laurence Picken, Distinguished Professor at Jesus College, Cambridge University, unearthed ancient manuscripts tucked away inside Japan's Imperial Library. The uncovered repertory includes music from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Turkish Central Asia, medieval Korea and seventh century Persia.

Picken began documenting the Tang musical forms, which predate the earliest known European sources by six centuries. Because the music had never before been seen, Picken had to crack the musical "code" before the music could be played. In addition to the music, there were detailed descriptions of the instruments used to play different pieces and detailed notes on how to tune them.

Picken's research has resulted in the publication series "Music from the Tang Court," of which six of a projected 24 volumes have been published. Two members of Picken's research team, Drs. Elizabeth Markham and Rembrandt Wolpert, researchers currently at work at the University of Otago, New Zealand, continue the work on this project.

The music includes pieces for ballet and opera as well as religious music for various religions and songs, like one reported to be Confucius's favorite song. The instruments used included the bamboo flute, the lute, the zither and the mouth organ, for which there are modern Asian equivalents.

Caldwell has performed some of this newly-transcribed music in a premiere with the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Orchestra in Ekaterinburg, Russia, and is currently recording a set of compact discs featuring this music.

"This music puts us in touch with times far back," Caldwell said. "You get the sense of being spoken to over the centuries."

The Russian audience, the first audience to hear the music in more than 14 centuries, absolutely loved the music they heard, Caldwell said.

"It's music you can listen to and grasp," she said. "The difficulty is to perform it with simplicity and yet show its complexity."

Some of the music has a similar beat to modern-day marches, but other pieces feature a syncopated beat, Caldwell said. Each instrument also has an opportunity to improvise and embellish, much like players would in some modern musical forms.

"You can imagine jam sessions much like today's jazz instrumentalists," she said.

Caldwell's work in the area of ancient Asian music extends from her position as director of the Library of Congress's International Music Preservation Program. She has long supported the idea of preserving the music of different cultures before it becomes lost. This quest has taken on urgency in recent years, with the globalization of societies worldwide.

"Fifteen years ago, when I first conducted in Beijing, I was conscious of a civilization far older than mine," Caldwell said. "But many people are eager to become Westernized." In some countries this has meant a transition from playing native music on local instruments handed down through generations to carrying boom boxes that blast rock-n-roll, she said.

Caldwell believes music preservation integrates history, languages, social and cultural anthropology, religious studies, linguistics and computer sciences. With a center for music preservation, the University would have incredible opportunities to grow and collaborate with other researchers in all of these areas.
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