Nanguan (南管), an ancient style of Chinese music that has seen a gradual revival over the last couple of decades, is about simplicity — the kind of simplicity that can only be achieved by a lifetime of dedication. Wang Xinxin (王心心), the founder of the Xinxin Nanguan Ensemble (心心南管樂坊), has established herself as one of the foremost exponents of nanguan music on the contemporary scene, and her achievements are being given international scholarly recognition in a concert and lecture tour to Paris, Lisbon and Heidelberg later this week.
The origins of nanguan are lost in the mists of time, but by the end of the first millennium, it was already associated with China’s southern province of Fujian, particularly to the then prosperous port of Quanzhou (泉州). The word nanguan translates as “southern pipes,” and its primary development has been in the form of chamber music, usually a quartet, sometimes with vocal accompaniment. It is particularly known for its extremely slow thematic exposition, a feature that has made it a hard sell to contemporary audiences.
Wang’s love of nanguan’s almost meditative simplicity is at odds with her role as a performing artist in contemporary Taiwan. Nanguan’s roots in amateur musical associations in which musicians performed primarily for their own pleasure have created obstacles for its development as a public entertainment. Taiwan’s Han Tang Yuefu (漢唐樂府), one of the first groups to develop nanguan as a theater event, derives much of its impact from creating lavish visual settings that provide a feast for the eyes when the slow pace of the music leaves audiences floundering.
Wang, a Quanzhou native and former member of Han Tang Yuefu, established her own company in 2002 to pursue a different vision. Her productions are not without theatrical elements, for as she admitted — with regret — this is the only way nanguan can survive as a performance art in the modern world.
Speaking of the art of nanguan singing, Wang said “the performer should not respond to any of the emotions expressed in the lyrics. Everything is expressed through tone, timbre, and other aspects of musical expression. Every hint of theatricality should be banished. In nanguan, we talk about going to ‘hear’ a show, not to ‘see’ a show. Many people at a nanguan performance may even sit there with their eyes closed, their bodies moving trancelike with the music.”
The stage effects and narrative links in Wang’s shows are intended to provide a doorway into the music.
“We try to create a meditative atmosphere through our stage settings. In some respects, you might almost say it adds to a performance. It sets the mood for the audience; the visual elements aim to sooth and calm their emotions before the music begins. If they had to get straight into the music, for modern audiences, this would be very difficult,” Wang said.
Wang’s main interests are in fusing nanguan with classic Chinese poetry, adding to the music’s already heavily literary associations, especially with the great romantic tales of Chinese literature (which almost invariably end in tragedy). She is also interested in exploring musical possibilities in combination with other instruments. In the case of her current tour, she has joined together with guqin (古琴) master Huang Chin-hsin (黃勤心). The combination of nanguan music and guqin is a radical departure from tradition, though perhaps not particularly obvious to outsiders.