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‘Instrument of Flesh’: The Operatic Voice in Late Ming Musical Culture
Keynote Webinar in Sound and Noise in Asia Symposium with Judith T. Zeitlin of the University of Chicago

In a previous article on theories of the sounding voice in China, I argued that it is only at specific historical moments, in certain kinds of discourse, and for certain kinds of purposes that the human voice is disentangled from a matrix of undifferentiated sound, often by likening the voice to other musical instruments and valorizing it above them. In this talk, I will discuss how the rise of the Kun opera (kunqu) in the sixteenth century is another such moment, when the singing voice is explicitly theorized and championed as part of a new art form emphasizing vocal virtuosity and connoisseurship within the entertainment world. To analyze the aesthetic categories and performative context of this musical discourse, I will concentrate on the writings of two key figures: Precepts of the Aria (Qulü), attributed to Wei Liangfu, the shadowy “forefather” of the Kun operatic style, and the personal essays of Pan Zhiheng (1556-1622), who earned the moniker “Venerable Chronicler of Courtesans.” Pan is the most outspoken late Ming proponent for the preeminence of the human voice, for exalting an ideal of the voice (both in the most abstract and concrete ways), as something exceeding the words, something even exceeding the music, something even beyond the fusion of text and music. In the final part I will consider the larger implications of conceptualizing the voice as “flesh,” both in terms of late Ming claims for the power of qing (love, desire) and anthropologist Tim Ingold’s suggestion that we think of “the body ensounded” rather than “sound as embodied.”

Nov 5, 2020 04:00 PM in Mountain Time (US and Canada)

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