Nanyin, improvisation and my longing for The Fluid Piano™

March 27th, 2012

For the last few weeks I have been attending regular rehearsals of the XMNYT (Xiamen Nanyin Troupe), just across the street from my accommodation. Nanyin is one of China’s oldest forms of traditional music, native to this particular area of the country. I had read about Nanyin before my arrival and was keen to experience it firsthand. My introduction to this beautiful music was just over two weeks ago at one of the free Sunday afternoon concerts put on by the XMNYT. One of the first things that struck me was the total absence of clutter – nothing but melody and subtle embellishment exist. All of the pieces follow a set structure (sort of): an introduction, which develops into a slow but unfolding melodic line, gradually gaining momentum at the centre of the piece before giving way to a slower coda section – signalling the close of the piece. As the pieces are typically between seven and fifteen minutes long (and performed from memory), it is staggering how the melodic line is kept in a constant state of development, exhibiting little sign of repetition.

Nanyin is comprised of vocal (Qu), divertimento (Zhi) and instrumental (Pu) pieces – utilising only one scale, which I scribbled down in my notebook whilst listening to the performance:


I subsequently found that traditional Nanyin notation is comprised of beautifully-notated Chinese characters within what I would describe as a sort of Nanyin ‘fake book’ (to use the Jazz nomenclature):

This immediately laid to rest any thoughts that I might have been able to communicate any compositional intentions with traditional wetsren notation! However, a problem of a different kind had become immediately apparent: that the marriage of a well-tempered instrument with fixed tuning (such as the modern piano) with non-well-tempered traditional instruments (with far more flexible or fluid tuning options) is not going to be an easy one! Brighton-based composer, musician and inventor Geoff Smith, has invented a piano that will at last free the instrument from its hallowed place within the institution of the western classical tradition (and from the shackles of ‘fixed’ tuning) forever – The Fluid Piano™. Take a look at the videos of this incredible instrument on The Fluid Piano™ YouTube channel (and for sales enquiries write to Geoff at

As for my involvement with the Xiamen Nanyin Troupe, I have decided that, rather than engage in the action of trying to write and perform my own compositions with the XMNYT, or even write solo piano compositions in the style of Nanyin (which I think would be a rather crass thing to do on many levels); I would instead absorb and deepen my relationship with this music not only through daily listening at XMNYT but also by seeking out other Nanyin performers, looking at how this music exists in different contexts and performance settings, trusting my own sense of musical atavism to guide my interpretations of these influences by way of intuitive improvisational performances that will hopefully sit contiguously alongside this ancient music.