I will never forget the first time I saw a live performance of jingju, what is usually known in English as Peking opera. I was totally confused! I could not make sense of anything that was going on on stage: the deafening gongs and cymbals, the piercing timbre of both instruments and voices, the costumes, the make up, the way of talking, the way of moving… How is this “opera” at all? Full of frustration, I just looked around me, and discovered that an old lady sitting not far from me was crying out of emotion! How could it be that the same visual and aural presentation was moving one person to tears, while it was creating in me nothing more than perplexity? I decided that I had to understand what was happening there.
That performance took place at the Concert Hall of Peking University, where I was a visiting student of Chinese. After finishing my studies there, I decided to stay in China to try to understand how music in jingju is able to move its audience. This search brought me to the musicology departments of the Minzu University of China (Beijing) and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. However, I felt that studying this tradition from within its own culture would not fulfil my necessities, since my teachers were relying on some implicit knowledge which I didn’t know how to access. This is when I knew that I needed the methodological tools that ethnomusicology offers for studying a music tradition. And this need took me to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), where I obtained my Master’s degree in Ethnomusicology. There I learnt that no music can be understood isolated from the culture where it stems from, and that it is through talking to the people that practice and enjoy it, and even by practicing and learning to enjoy it myself, how understanding can be achieved.
I was able to put these methods in practice during my doctoral research, carrying out field work at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts (Beijing), where I tried to learn some basics of performance. Luckily, I could join the CompMusic project at the Music Technology Group from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona) for my PhD, and there I learnt how useful computational methods for music research are for complementing and expanding ethnographic approaches with statistical information. Since then, I apply such methods in my research, combining both qualitative and quantitative analyses.
Taking jingju lessons with the actor 李正平 Li Zhengping at the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts
(Beijing, June 2016)