Transmission/Transformation: Sounding China in Enlightenment Europe

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All eyes are turned toward China, as it continuously grows in global importance. This phenomenon may have a contemporary ring to it, but the eighteenth century was equally enthralled by the Middle Kingdom. Everything about the distant empire was fascinating to the western world, including its music. Fanny Peabody Professor of Music Alexander Rehding, in conjunction with graduate students Peter McMurray and Meredith Schweig and the students in Music 220, “History of Music Theory,” have developed a library exhibit that retraces the voyage of this music from Qing-dynasty China to the urban salons, drawing rooms, and coffee houses of Enlightenment Europe. The exhibit, Transmission/Transformation: Sounding China in Enlightenment Europe, opens in the Loeb Music Library February 1, 2012.

“The whole idea for the course grew out of a score [Acting Loeb Librarian] Sarah Adams showed me a couple of years ago,” says Rehding. “It was a English arrangement from 1796 of a song transcribed in China. It became clear to me that this apparently insignificant piece of music encapsulated the whole story of the transmission of Chinese music into Europe: from the— faulty— transcription of a popular Chinese tune to its setting in a manner that could be easily sung in a bourgeois parlor. In many ways, these simple arrangements were the precursor of the radio and the CD player: they provided simple musical entertainment at home, but in this case with an additional educational and exotic flavor.”

The class gathered material for the exhibition throughout the fall semester. To enhance the visual experience of the exhibit the class worked on digital augmentation—audio files of music, documentation, film files—for some of the pieces.