Selling Songs for Supper: The Cry of the Clapper or Abing in the Marketplace

Here I shall begin from the end and with a notated subject that i fear most of you will not read/hear/ even intuit from the script alone. There is a point to this, though. What we see (leave it at that) is a persistent but impossible to translate sequence module characteristic of most – just about all – stage or open-air “aria” song, usually as sung by fem-gendered voices, called (a confusing translation!) “tune-counter”, counter in the sense of marker or chip, or even a card, 牌 pai. A kind of label with internal hint (key, rhythm, BUT NOT MELODY) of the opening line of the song to come. For reasons no one has tried to explain, this mini-overture (never sung, always left to voice-mimetic instruments, mainly the 2-string “fiddle” or erhu) is almost always inserted as the “counter for xxyy” before XXYY is heard.

What is it, and what is its function?

Author’s Transcription of “Wuxi Lakeside Miniature” (xiaoxiao Wuxi jing) as recorded in film erquan yingyue (1979): “tune-counter” in msrs 1-6, much abbreviated.


To my excitement I learned yesterday that the new in-plan subject for the annual Sinomusicological “summit”, hosted by CHIME, will be “Sound, Noise and … Everyday Soundscapes in contemporary China” ( Aarhus University, Denmark / CHIME, 21-24 August, 2014).

According to the initial announcement, 4 of the (over many) possible topics include:

Sound and Music
Defining Urban Soundscapes
Defining Rural Soundscapes
Sound and the Everyday

At the most obvious level, I suspect what accounts for the qupai pre-announcement is (just as with the overture) the need to get audience attention, a kind of throat-clearing without overdoing it. It seems likely to me to be a technique that street-“musicians” of all stripes – before/without the tool of amperage-boosting megaphones – adopted to fashion any sort of recycling, messaged song (from hawker’s cry to what I shall call “begging-bowl opera/beggar’s ballad) to reach out to a consuming/buying open-air crowd. Which in turn makes it part of as well as a response to the noise (acoustical chaos) that always surrounds outdoor anything, most of all the public concert.


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