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PROGRAM NOTES

Chinese Music for the Phoenix: Washington Guzheng Society


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Program

Chinese Music for the Phoenix: Washington Guzheng Society
Performed in the Sackler Gallery on July 27, 2013, and presented in conjunction with the exhibition Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing's Phoenix Project.

Song (Artist) Track
The Fire Phoenix
Traditional song from Inner Mongolia, arranged by Bing Xia
0:00–4:17
The Phoenix Soars
Traditional guzheng piece
4:28–6:25
A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes
Traditional guzheng piece
6:33–8:22
Phoenixes Flying Together
Modern piece, composed by Huan Liu and arranged by Bing Xia
8:30–11:34
The Phoenix Searches for Its Mate
Traditional piece for qin
11:41–17:11

The podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee.

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Notes

The Fire Phoenix
Traditional song from Inner Mongolia
Arranged by Bing Xia
In ancient Chinese legend, the fire phoenix was the most beautiful bird in the world. It is said to have burst into flames when it became too old to fly, only to be reborn from its own ashes. Perhaps because of this, the phoenix remains a symbol of rebirth and hope. This piece is based on a traditional song from Inner Mongolia: “There is a legend of a great bird, the phoenix. For the sake of love, it could no longer fly, breaking its beautiful wings. From fire to heaven, I want to be a beautiful phoenix. Wandering with my love, staying with my love, never being separated from my love, looking for the paradise of dreams together.”

The Phoenix Soars
Traditional guzheng piece
This piece originated with a popular folksong in Shandong province. The lively rhythm of the song describes the agility and gracefulness of a phoenix in flight.

A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes
Traditional guzheng piece
The artist Xu Bing recounts legends about the origin of the phoenix and its role in his work.

A heavenly bird lost all its feathers while extinguishing a massive mountain fire. In gratitude, the hundred birds of the animal kingdom pulled out their own feathers and offered them to the heavenly bird, which then became known as the king of birds. In another legend, celebrated in this piece, the original phoenix was an ordinary bird, but also the most conscientious and hardworking. Every day it collected fruits and nuts and stored them in a cave while the other birds played. When a severe drought struck the region and the other birds were starving, the phoenix shared all the food it had collected. In gratitude, the other birds plucked their own feathers and wove them into an elegant coat that they gave to the phoenix, making her the queen of birds. Since then, all birds make an annual pilgrimage to the phoenix.

For an eighteenth-century Chinese painting of this scene, see the accompanying slide show.

Phoenixes Flying Together
Modern piece, composed by Huan Liu and arranged by Bing Xia
This piece is inspired by Shijing (Classic of poetry), the earliest surviving collection of Chinese poems dating from the eleventh to seventh century BCE. One of its poems describes how Feng and Huang, the male and female aspects of the phoenix, fly in the air together toward peace and happiness. This image is often used as a metaphor to bless the love of a newlywed couple. The piece also reflects the relationship between the monarch and his concubine.
 
The Phoenix Searches for Its Mate
Traditional piece for qin
This song originated with the poet and musician Sima Xiangru, who wrote it as a tribute to his wife, Zhuo Wenjun, in the second century BCE. The beautiful daughter of the richest man in the country, Zhuo Wenjun was well known for her literary and musical talents. After her husband died, she rejected proposals from a host of high-ranking men and chose instead the impoverished writer Sima Xiangru, whose music and poems she loved. Their elopement created great controversy, but they found happiness together running a small tavern. Sima Xiangru worked his way up the social ladder and eventually achieved fame and prosperity through his art.

The poem for this song inspired other writers, artists, and composers over the centuries and through the Ming dynasty. Ethnomusicologist Fred Lieberman writes that even today, a performance of this piece “calls into play a wealth of allusion which can only enliven the music in the perception of the educated Chinese, for whom all of these references are familiar through poetry, prose, and drama. . . . For the modem scholar . . . this music resonates not only in the heart, but also across the ages.”

Another poem by Sima Xiangru inspired a sixteenth-century painting shown in the accompanying slide show.

Nirvana of the Phoenixes
Modern piece, composed by Deyuan Zheng
Rather than the queen of birds in Chinese myth, the fire phoenix in this song originated in ancient Egypt as the bird of fire in Egyptian folklore. The fire phoenix was said to be a beautiful bird that lived alone in the Arabian Desert. This phoenix absorbed all the evil and unhappiness in the universe. Every five hundred years it set itself on fire, only to be reborn. Through its own fiery death it destroyed all the sin it had collected. The fire phoenix sacrifices its own life so peace and humanity can return to society.

Phoenix Tower
Traditional song from Jiangsu province, arranged by Weiliang Zhang
The legend of the Phoenix Tower is closely related to Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty. When Empress Wu was born, a phoenix circled around the Wu estate for a week before it flew toward East Mountain. Her father, a local governor, renamed it Phoenix Mountain. When Wu Zetian was fourteen years old, she was chosen by Emperor Taizong to become his concubine. After his death, Empress Wu ruled the country for forty-two years.

Phoenix Tower was built on Phoenix Mountain in honor of Empress Wu Zetian. Boasting fourteen stories, the tower rose forty-two meters (nearly 150 feet) into the air. The phoenix image carved on its walls could be seen looking toward the south, the direction of Wu’s birthplace. This is why, in ancient China, the royal residence was called Phoenix Tower.

  • Notes based on materials provided by the Washington Guzheng Society

 

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Performers

Bing Xia

Bing Xia is the artistic director of the Washington Guzheng Society. She majored in guzheng performance at Nanjing Normal University and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She became a guzheng soloist in the Xuzhou City Song and Dance Ensemble. After moving to the United States, Bing Xia was a featured performer in the Sackler exhibition Music in the Age of Confucius and at the Kennedy Center’s Asian Song Festival. She performed again at the Freer as part of the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s 2009 celebration. She was a featured performer at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China for Vice Premier Qian Qichen and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Her performances have been heard on NPR and Voice of America.

Rujia Teng

Rujia Teng was born in Shenyang, China. At age nine, she passed the China National Musical Instrument Artistic Cultivation Performance Examination Grade Seven with honors. In 2004 she received the Outstanding Performance Award in the Shenyang Children’s Talent and Art Contest and won first place in the Liaoning Province Youth Art Competition. After Teng moved to the United States in 2005, she joined the Washington Guzheng Society and continues to study guzheng under Bing Xia. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival (Baltimore), the American Folk Festival (Bangor, Maine), Carnegie Hall, and Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore).

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The Credits

This podcast is coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager.

This podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust and was presented in conjunction with Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

Thanks to Andy Finch for audio recording, SuMo Productions for audio editing, John Tsantes for photography, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Stephen Allee for curatorial review, Betsy Kohut and Cory Grace for artwork images, and especially Bing Xia and the Washington Guzheng Society for permission to podcast this performance held at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

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