Writing about music is difficult. How many times have you read a well-written review of a concert or recording, and then still had no idea at all what to expect when hearing the music?
That’s why I find this excerpt from a Tang Dynasty poem so remarkable:
“The thick strings splattered like a rain shower,
the thin strings whispered privately like lovers,
splattering and whispering back and forth,
big pearls and small pearls dropping into a jade plate.
Smooth, the notes were skylarks chirping under flowers.
Uneven, the sound flowed like a spring under ice,
the spring water cold and strained, the strings congealing silence,
freezing to silence, till the sounds couldn’t pass, and were momentarily at rest.
Now some other hidden sorrow and dark regret arose
and at this moment silence was better than sound.
Suddenly a silver vase exploded and the water splashed out,
iron horse galloped through and swords and spears clashed.
When the tune stopped, she struck the heart of the instrument,
all four strings together, like a piece of silk tearing.
Silence then in the east boat and the west.
All I could see in the river’s heart was the autumn moon, so pale.”
From “Song of the Lute” by Bai Juyi (772-846)
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping