知音 — one who grasps your rhythm

After the previous posting of the classical chinese music of the 《十面埋伏》 / Ambush from All Sides from the 中国十大古曲, think I would be remiss not to mention one of the more celebrated pieces of music from that top ten list — the enduring symbol of classical chinese culture and art, the 《高山流水》 / High Mountains Flowing Water.

《高山流水》 / High Mountains Flowing Water

This version of the 《高山流水》 / High Mountains Flowing Water (performed on the guzheng/古筝, one of the many variations), dates from a popular score from the Ming-era.
And the music of the 《高山流水》 / High Mountains Flowing Water alludes to the master qin(琴) musician Bo-Ya(伯牙), a legendary figure of the Spring and Autumn Period mentioned in various historical records.

And it was the following sublime description in the Taoist classic, 列子(LieZi), which left Bo-Ya, his mountains and water (AND the idea of the perfect audience) deeply engrained within the psyche of chinese culture, art and thought:

伯牙善鼓琴,钟子期善听。伯牙鼓琴,志在高山。钟子期曰:“善哉?峨峨兮若泰山!”志在流水,钟子期曰:“善哉,洋洋兮若江河!”伯牙所念,钟子期必得之。伯牙游于泰山之阴,卒逢暴雨,止于岩下;心悲,乃援琴而鼓之。初为霖雨之操,更造崩山之音。曲每奏,钟子期辄穷其趣。伯牙乃舍琴而叹曰:“善哉,善哉,子之听夫!志想象犹吾心也。吾于何逃声哉?”

Bo-Ya is talented at playing the qin (classical zither), Zhong-Ziqi is gifted at perceptive listening. When Bo-Ya plays with his heart set upon the high mountains, Zhong-Ziqi responds:”Wonderful! Such great heights, like Tai-shan!”. When Bo-Ya plays with his heart set upon flowing waters, Zhong-Ziqi exclaims:”Marvellous! The rolling of the waves, like a mighty river!”. Whatever Bo-Ya sets his will upon, Zhong-Ziqi is sure to perceive completely.
Once, when Bo-Ya was roaming the north face of Tai-shan, he met with a sudden monsoon, and took shelter beneath a rocky outcrop; his heart filling with melancholy, he began playing on his qin. Starting with the music of heavy sheets of torrential rain and bursting streams, next with the sounds of the breaking and tumbling rocks of an avalanche. With every tune played, Zhong-Ziqi was able to trace to the root its true essence. Bo-Ya put his qin down and sighed:”How very well you listen to music! Whatever you apprehend and imagine is exactly what I intended! What sound from my qin can escape your ear?”.

-from the LieZi/列子

The stories of Bo-Ya has him as a child prodigy who learnt his art with a famous qin master. But the young Bo-Ya was dissatisfied with his skills and felt that he was unable to truly enter into his music and portray every nuance and emotion there was to be expressed. His old master, knowing his intentions, brought him by boat to the immortal island of Penglai/蓬莱 (sort of the Chinese Atlantis); where Bo-Ya imbibed into his music the natural and harmonious landscapes of the fierce battling sea waves, the rolling and calling of the sea-birds, the rustling and sighing of the trees and leaves of the forests…and raised his art to the highest sublime level.

But the twist in Bo-Ya’s story is that, his one perfect audience who truly understood and appreciated his music, Zhong-Ziqi, was not a musician or artist or indeed, a sophisticate. Zhong-Ziqi was a simple and rustic lumberjack who chanced upon Bo-Ya playing his qin after a violent storm and who grasped within Bo-Ya’s music his expressions of nature experienced.

Alas, the best stories have bittersweet endings.
After celebrating his meeting with his one true appreciative listener, Bo-Ya arranged to meet with Zhong-Ziqi at the same place the folowing year. When the appointed time came, Bo-Ya arrived at the venue but waited in vain; discovering later that Zhong-Ziqi had died of an illness in the past year. Coming before Zhong-Ziqi’s grave, the devastated Bo-Ya knelt before his qin and started playing his 《高山流水》 / High Mountains Flowing Water…for the last time. At the end of the tune, the weeping Bo-Ya uttered:
“从此知音绝矣! (Henceforth, the one who understands my rhythm is no more!)”,
shattered his qin against the tombstone, and never played again.

In the end, the master practitioner/artist, rather than performing for multitudes, needs only that one true 知音 — the soulmate who grasps his intention-rhythm.

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