Zithers

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

A brief discourse on three separate East Asian long zithers:

• The Chinese zheng: Has 21 metal strings. The lower strings are copper-coiled, and the upper strings are straight steel, wrapped in silk and plastic to dampen the twang. It's played with picks. "The Chinese vibrato is fat and shallow," Clark said. "Most of the repertoire is socialist, realist-type stuff."

• The Japanese koto: Has 13 strings made of silk or Tetron, a hard plastic. Is the longest, six feet, of the three long zithers. The player finger-picks with one hand while using the other hand to pluck, strum or press on the string behind the bridge. "The Japanese have a really traditional kind of instrument," Clark said. "They have plastic strings that look like silk, but you can play more brilliantly, louder and with less vibrato."

• The Korean kayagum (kay-yah-gum) or kayakeum: Has 12 silk strings and, often, a chestnut backboard. Is played with the flat part of your fingers. "It differs from the other instruments," Clark said. "Much of the music is in a triple meter, and it uses a deep vibrato, very earthy-sounding."

"There's a lot of playing with the strings," Clark said. "The music is the most abstract. The Koreans are sort of stylized and natural. The pieces are all technological and westernized, relating to science and technology."

• All three have strings stretched over a hollow soundbox.

• All three are often made out of pauwlonia wood.

• All three have moveable individual bridges.

• All three can be traced genetically back to the seventh-century.

• "There's a legend that the zither came from the se, an instrument with 25 strings that came from the Confucian temple," Clark said. "Two princesses of the Emperor were fighting over the instrument, and it broke in half, into one with 13 strings and one with 12 strings. The one with 13 went to Japan. The one with 12 went to Korea."

"The main difference between the instruments is the music that's played on them," she said. "They all adapted to the indigenous traditions of those cultures."

"I heard someone say once that If there's going to be a concert outside in the fall, on the East Coast where they have trees or leafs, or in Asia, the Chinese will sweep all the leaves away and make a bare ground. The Koreans will just leave everything as it is and play their concert. The Japanese will sweep everything away and place a few leaves here and there. This statement comes out in the music."

- Information from Jocelyn Clark and the Roland World Instrument glossary.



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