Posted in Project 2: Duets

Example 4: The Chinese New Year (A Short Suite) for a Woodblock and Taiko Drum

Note: Before you take a look at my example, please refer to my six-part research, in which I write about woodblocks and taiko drums, which I used for this example. I also mention the three styles of traditional Japanese music, however, more important for my piece is the research on structure of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Finally, in order to understand the context of my work, please refer to the final post about Chinese New Year.

Before I start, I have to point out that I’ve divided my score in this post, in order to put the explanation and analysis in a format that is easier to follow. The full score will be available to download below:

Click here to download audio file

Click here to download full score in pdf

Just like in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, my example starts with a Promenade. My promenades, and actually the whole piece, represent the walk through the wintery nocturnal streets of ancient China during the Chinese New Year. Unlike exhibitions, which are characterized by pictures, the streets are full of different encounters. What is similar though, is the spontaneity that is present in the walk both while viewing the pictures, and the encounters of different events that happen while walking down a street during a holiday. This is also what allowed me to structure my piece with an idea similar to Mussorgsky’s cycle, only in a shorter form.


First promenade starts in 7/4 and in my opinion has quite a nice opening feel to it – as if just stepping outside the door amidst all the happenings found in this lively holiday. Generally, in all promenades, the woodblock itself might be representing the walk, while the sounds of these various events can be heard calling for attention, as depicted by the f of taiko drum, probably chu-taiko that I’ve mentioned is the most used today in kumi-taiko and during festivities. The taiko drum can also symbolically represent snow, which was, as I wrote, one of odaiko’s role in kabuki theater’s geza.  Also, there are accents marked for the woodblock, however, these can be barely heard in Sibelius. The first four bars represent a musical sentence.

In 5th bar, the triple 3/4 measure starts with 16th notes of the woodblock, unlike the previous crochets, and while the taiko played crochet notes before, here it plays quavers. This passage has a sense of hurrying, plus the accelerando that appears in the 8th bar with the culminating triplets. This is as if the steps accelerate excitedly towards the first event of the holiday.

By the way, notice that I’ve written leggiero to indicate the manner of playing, which I will use for all parts through the example. While I know marking this is not a common practice, however, I firmly believe these instruments are be able to produce various effects and tone.

The first Encounter starts at bar 11, titled Demon Nian and Firecrackers, written in 4/4:

demon nian.png

demon nian 2.png

This Encounter depicts the legend I have written about. Whichever version it is, whether the bearded old man, children or villagers battling Nian, I think this theme shows really well the demon’s fierceness, represented by the woodblock, and its fight with firecrackers, represented by the taiko drum, in both the tempo vivace and heavier strokes of pesante, but also in rhythm. There are several imitative elements, usually taiko drum borrowing from the woodblock.

It is structured like two musical sentences both eight bars long. The second sentence adds variations, mostly to the taiko drums – the firecrackers and its louder and more intense cracking, depicted by the trills or rolls, as it all peaks into the demon’s defeat.

Next is the second promenade which starts at bar 27:

Promenade 2.png

The theme is very much the same, and sounds the same. But just like Mussorgsky played with different variations in character, color or tone, I also needed to give a special flavor to every promenade. Mussorgsky didn’t change the rhythm nor time signature, as he had the freedom to use different tonal plans and chords. Since I didn’t have these available, I had to change the tempo, rhythm and the time signature, yet try find the way to make it sound similar. Here I changed the tempo to presto and time signature to 3/4, however, the placement and the order of the timing of the instruments is kept in the theme and the passage.

The theme is two short four-bar sentences, and ends with a three-bar passage similar to the one in the first promenade. However, while in the first promenade, we had an accelerando, this promenade anticipates the next Encounter, the stealthy and secretive Door gods, which is why it slows down.

This encounter is named Men Shen (Door gods) on the Peachwood charms:

door gods 1.png

The slow, largo tempo, silent dynamics and the performance direction misterioso, together with the rhythm, in my opinion, paints the legend I described really well. Taiko drum imitates the door gods guarding the door and silently hunting the ghosts from shadows, while in my opinion, the woodblock symbolically imitates the peachwood or the peachwood charm of the spiritual world. While the trills represented the cracking of the firecrackers, here it adds to the excitement to the careful moving of the patient night-guards, and reminds of the door knocking.

The mysterious piece fades away, and the contrasting – vigorous and energetic Lion Dance takes our attention:

lion dance 1.png

lion dance 2.png

Lion dance is a lively dance, which is why I’ve written for it to be played giocoso, however in order to perform the dance and the challenging acrobatics, the Andante tempo I used is about right. This is especially since the cheerfulness is well expressed through the 32th notes. I especially love the dotted rhythmical figures and used them, as they remind me of the buoyant jumps in the dance. It is very fragmentary, with only clear musical sentence being on the beginning, lasting for four bars. I also used a lot of imitative techniques and other things I’ve used for my first example for percussion duet, hence it gives a bit of a nod to the baroque invention and the research I’ve done for that.

As the lion dance ends, we have the last promenade:

promenade 3.png

This one is a bit shorter, written in 7/8 and moderato tempo. Once again, this changes the character of the theme, however, the timing of the instrument is the same, making it seem intact. It consists of two musical sentences both 4 bars long. In the second sentence though, for the first time, I made the taiko drum also play the first beats with the woodblock.

The last promenade leads to the Lanterns in the wind. Since lantern festival marks the end of the holiday, what a great way to end my piece:

lanterns in the wind.png

This is somewhat of a fandango, if you look at the rhythm, which is something I done on purpose. The performance note says dolce, because lanterns, carried by the wind, move through the sky so delicately. Woodblocks imitate the lanterns, while taiko drum imitates the wind. It consists, like most of the parts, of a musical sentence, this one is eight bars long. It is followed by a seven bar sentence, which is something I’ve done on purpose. This irregular number, with the soft trill of the taiko drum, gave a nice effect of the lanterns disappearing, being carried so far, but with that tiny suspense in the perdendosi, of when exactly they will escape our view.

To finish this post, I think I managed to write a great piece with a great structure, especially for the instruments in question that have quite some limitations. I think it would also be possible to add in other instruments like cymbals and gongs for effect. I liked all of the research I did, but what I liked the most was the fact that I dedicated it to my favorite holiday and my Chinese root.

List of illustrations:


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