Kwan-Cheung Au

The Best Collection of Nanyin

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In all fairness, no one's going to call this easy listening. Nanyin is a Chinese style of storytelling which dates from the Song Dynasty, with different provinces having their own styles of singing -- the words themselves are poems -- over a fairly simple instrumental background. Some of the pieces here are new, such as "Autumn Elegy by the Chu River," which was written for the Cantonese Opera a few decades ago; others are ancient, like "A Wanderer's Autumn Grief," which is called "the king of the Nanyin," and one which all the musicians in Guandong province were expected to be familiar with, although it originally took an hour to play in its entirety (this version is almost 24 minutes). The two shorter pieces both have an obsession with death. It's a shame no full translations (although the liner notes do offer a good introduction) are provided for English speakers, which would have made the stories and their poetry more enjoyable. As it is, however fascinating the ideas, there's still an inevitable distance, both of language and culture, to keep foreign listeners at a remove from something that's a Chinese narrative singing institution, since it takes something of a commitment to stay with this for all 75 minutes.

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