On a dark Beijing night two years ago, we walked into a bar to see him. We surveyed the man's dark unkempt shoulder-length tresses and stubbled chin from amid a crowd of observers. His appearance was every bit like the numerous self-proclaimed rock stars of today and looked as if at any given moment, he was going to jump onstage and howl into the microphone. Instead, he picked up a traditional Mongolian instrument, the horse-head fiddle, and approached the stage. With his fingers maneuvering the delicate strings of the instrument and the bow, which together consist of 360 individual hairs of a horse tail, he allowed the instrument to emit hypnotic sounds. Immediately, a previously raucous audience fell silent as if a blanket of quiet anticipation had spread to the four corners of the room.
Music is a universal language unbound by culture or race. Through the music from the horse-head fiddle, we can hear the resonance of nature, explore our inner peace note by note, and rock with the gentle ripples of the melody.
In the hustle and bustle of the world today, people seem to lack inner spiritual dialogue. People fear lonliness. Someone once said, "The streets are filled with lonely souls; no one knows exactly how to deal with their own emotions." As music conveys through this album, some words are best kept in the heart.
Altan Uul stands out among a new generation of musicians in China. Like the 800 year heritage of [horse-head fiddle] that he continues, he cuts a nearly legendary figure
In Mongolian, Altan Uul means “Golden Mountain.” Being traditional parents, Altan Uul’s mother and father would not directly express their love for their son, but gave him a name that represented their hopes and wishes that he would be like a tall mountain full of riches.
From the age of 15, Altan Uul studied [horse-head fiddle] technique and music theory from master musican Qian-Paiyilah. Because of his natural sensitivity to music, he greatly exceeded his peers, and at 20 took the position of horse-head fiddle instructor for the Gansu Province Northern Mongolian Autonomous Region
As a performer and arranger, he has performed for film soundtracks, festivals, and concerts in Canada, Hungary, Singapore, and Hong Kong as well as his native China.
Perhaps because of the restless blood that he inherited from his ancestors, he is not comfortable to remain in one place, let alone on the stage, regardless of the how much applause he receives. Since leaving the broad steppes of Mongolia, Altan Uul has thought of the city as a new place for him to live a nomadic life. He often travels from one city to another, always shouldering his instrument. To Altan Uul, any corner of this wide earth can be a stage. He need not go too far; wherever he wanders, he can let those around him hear the freedom and satisfying feeling of his music
Horse-Head Fiddle: One of the World’s Most Beautiful Instruments
To Mongolians, horses are loyal companions and the personification of beauty. For this reason, Mongolians both love and revere horses. In their legends, the earliest horse-head fiddle were made from the bones, skin, and hair of horses. The horse-head fiddle has both thick and narrow strings, called “yang” and “yin” strings, respectively. The yang strings are made of 150 horse tail hairs, while the yin strings are made from 120. The bow is made from 90 horse tail hairs. In total 360 horse tail hairs go into the construction of the instrument, which represents an entire circle of the seasons, a year of days and nights, and completeness and satisfaction
Thus, we can call the horse-head fiddle an instrument that has its roots in nature. Permeated with the horse’s nature, its sounds resemble the neighing of horses. The language of horses often is tinged with sadness. Like the language of horses, the horse-head fiddle grabs the emotions. Its sound of compassion seems to issue from antiquity or to connect with nature. Disappearing into a distance that none can measure, it can touch one’s heartstrings
But the horse-head fiddle is a very versatile instrument. It can be delicate like a violin, rich like a viola, or passionate like a cello. Although it only has two types of strings, it is still capable of producing a wide variety of timbres and expressions. Even Yoyo Ma has described it as the world’s most beautiful instrument
According to Mongol lore, the sound of the horse-head fiddle is a heavenly melody that the creator gave to humans. Not surprisingly, it is also a sacred sound heard in ritual. In addition, the people of the steppes also invite a master horse-head fiddle player to play for camel mares when they refuse to nurse or even abandon their young. The camels, moved by the sound of the music, will shed tears and return to their calves to nurse them.
Without doubt, the city makes people feel a certain heaviness. Always in a hurry, and without time to reflect, we live our lives surrounded with too much information and commercialism, all of which enter our thoughts. Many truths, beautiful sounds, and feelings have been drowned and covered over by this way of life, until we can no longer feel.
With this in mind, the producer of this album left his familiar way of life and a popular music market dominated by consumer preferences. Two years ago, he began his own nomadic travels through cities throughout Asia, looking for a more primitive and meaningful voice.
When he went to Beijing, he naturally gravitated toward a pub deep in one of the city’s alleyways. There were so many underground bands and singers there, who used their belief in music and exerted themselves to the utmost. They all hoped to have their voices heard throughout the world.
It was not by accident, then, that the producer encountered Altan Uul. When they first met, the producer thought that with his long hair and beard, not to mention his tendency to reverse night and day, Altan Uul was just an ordinary rocker, who was ready at moment’s notice to find a way to express the feelings of embittered youth in powerful music.
But, on that evening, there was neither guitar nor bass. Naturally, there was also no voice like a full throated shout. Altan Uul stepped onto the stage with a traditional Mongolian instrument, the horse-head fiddle, and sat down. Taking the bow in his right hand, and pressing the strings with the left, he hardly took time to adjust the tone when the instrument’s 360 strands of horsehair began to vibrate. The normally bustling pub suddenly fell silent except for the sounds of the instrument plucking at the heartstrings of the audience.
The hour was late and the people silent. This was the sound of emotions set to music.
And this sound had a great power to grasp the spirit. During the quiet hours, it had a kind of heaviness that one could hardly bear. That was the heartfelt response of many of the producer’s friends who heard the recordings after his return to Taipei.
After returning to Taipei for awhile, the producer realized that if the days of modern people are really too bitter the reason is that the complications and pressures of urban life often suffocate modern city dwellers. Increasingly more people hope to find some sort of exit, even if it is for only a brief time. They only wish to give their mind a rest.
He thought of ways to let old songs transcend the limitations of the traditional logic of performance, so that they would connect with the listener, realizing the ambitions of this album. Modern and western elements were added to the traditional logic of performance All of the songs on the album are built upon the structure of traditional tunes and incorporate the creativity of modern arranging. As every note sounds, one’s sense of hearing directly one’s thought to transcend ancient times and today, tradition and modernity, Eastern and Western music, opening one toward a spiritual journey.
Thinking about the process that led this album toward completion is like recounting a pilgrimage. The album was much more difficult to complete than the producer at first thought when first planning it. From the selection of songs to the qualities of the arrangements, from the structure of ancient melodies to the incorporation of modern technology, each frustration and challenge only added to the producer’s confidence.
For ethnic Chinese musics to become recognized globally as is Western classical music, so that it will encourage appreciation and critique, even more effort would be worthwhile.
An Eye Opening Album Design by the Grammy Nominee: Qing-Yang Xiao
Qing-Yang Xiao spent six months to create the design for “White Horse,” which nominee the 2007 Grammy Award for best album packaging. For “Echoes of eight centuries,” he broke his previous record and spent more than seven months to complete his research, design, adaptations, and corrections. But this is the reason that Hsiao has enjoyed his work with independent record labels. These projects have given him ample time and creative space in which to break through restrictions on his work.
As for space, Hsiao believes that as a designer, apart from thinking up a design concept he must also break barriers, using his concepts to support and express concern for environmental protection. In the past, record companies were accustomed to use plastic cases for cds. But this habit has led to the production of large quantities of environmentally harmful materials. With this in mind, Hsiao has begun to employ paper products in his album designs. Through good design, paper products can also protect a CD and can also give the CD an entirely different appearance
In this project, Xiao has completely expressed the internal and external qualities of “Echoes of eight centuries.” The album cover design takes the top of the horse-head fiddle as its central design, but on the obverse there is a partial image of a horse tail. When one opens the album, an entire horse-head fiddle appears, and on the obverse an entire horse tail. The face and obverse of the cd are designed to describe a circle of 360 degrees, thus making a the horse tail and the horse-head fiddle complete. The design thus reflects that the horse-head fiddle is made of 360 strands of horse tail hairs and suggests the completeness of the Taichi and the cycles of the moon and the sun, as described in ancient Chinese thought.
The horse-head fiddle is an ancient Chinese instrument with symbolic meaning and substance. The design thus employed a creative printing technique to hide all of the images and text of the cd beneath a black surface. When listeners pick up the album, the warmth of their fingers or palm will cause these hidden characters slowly to float to the surface. This audacious move brought about the simplest and cleanest design for the album. Like the wide grasslands, it will broaden one’s spirits. The small package of this album thus contains an infinite imagination.
On the album cover, the horse-head fiddle is accompanied by several ancient images of musical and other texts which Xiao and his team collected from rare books. Through these images, Xiao shows that the horse-head fiddle is considered by the Chinese government as a national cultural heritage, having a history dating back to the days of Chengis Khan, more than 800 years ago. It is the instrument through which the Mongolian steppe peoples respond to nature and communicate their feelings
Liner notes for the CD are hidden among the horse tail on the obverse. Hiding these explanations will change the old habit of reading the liner notes while listening, causing listeners to use their sense of hearing to call forth their deepest emotions and to engage in a direct dialogue with their spirit through the voice of Altan Uul’s horse-head fiddle.
Not only will “Echoes of eight centuries” let listeners hear their own inner voice; the elegant East Asian aesthetics of the album design will make one’s sense of vision combine with all the other senses for a full aesthetic experience.