Flowing Waters

Launched into space in 1977, the Voyager Golden Record, with a rendition of Flowing Waters 流水 by Guan Pinghu 管平湖, flew past Pluto’s orbit, left the edge of our solar system, and entered interstellar space.

My teacher, Lui PuiYuen 吕培源, reintroduced me to this piece. While dating to some time in remote antiquity, this rendition, with 72 gunfu 滾拂 rolls, is attributed to Zhang KongShan 張孔山 of the Sichuan school from the late 19th century.

I find the middle sections the most interesting. Starting from the beginning, though, the opening measures seem to depict the grandeur of majestic peaks. Then, a flutter of harmonics, repeated in octave intervals, along with glissandi, conjure up images of a small trickle, perhaps from fresh snowmelt. Among the towering peaks, rivulets carve channels. They coalesce into a roaring river, with churning waters bursting the banks. Again, droplets of harmonic glissandi spray the listener who sits near the cascading stream. The music broadens as the river widens into an alluvial fan on its way out to sea.


One of the most celebrated guqin pieces, Flowing Waters gained popularity early on. More than just evoking the churning of cascading streams down tall mountainsides, this melody more importantly alludes to a deep friendship that bridges social boundaries.

In the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), a woodcutter from the state of Chu 楚 named Ziqi 子期 developed a close friendship with a literati named Boya 伯牙. Boya was a skilled guqin player, and only Ziqi was able to recognize the meaning of whatever Boya played. When Boya focused his playing on flowing streams, Ziqi exclaimed, “How vast like the flowing waters!” Whatever Boya played, Ziqi understood. When Ziqi died, Boya severed the strings of his qin, never to play again, because there is none other who can understand his music.

兩千年來,民間一直流傳著這樣的故事:伯牙彈琴可以表現出他的『巍巍乎志在高山』或是『洋洋乎志在流水』。而他的知音好友鍾子期,完全能夠準確地領略到他的音樂表現。因此有伯牙作《高山流水》的傳說。據說唐以後將它發展為《高山》與《流水》兩個獨立的古琴曲。 《流水》,在近代得到更多的發展,特別是《天聞閣琴譜》中所載川派張孔山的《流水》。由於它充分運用了滾拂綽注等指法,進一步表現了流水中奔騰澎湃的效果。 —節錄《古琴曲集》。

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