The Legend of the Kui Niu 《夔牛傳奇》(2023) – Lan Tung
For erhu, pipa, harp, and percussion
Commissioned by the PhoeNX Ensemble (Toronto) in 2023 for its Jade Emperor and the Great Race Project (JEGR), depicting a story of the ox, one of the twelve zodiac animals, with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Kuiniu 夔牛 or 犪牛 is an old Chinese name for the wild ox or yak. It is originated in the ancient book Shan Hai Jing (山海經 The Classic of Mountains & Seas):
7000 leagues into the East Sea, there was Mount Flowing Wave. On its summit there was an animal. It looked like an ox, with bright blue body, no horns, and only one foot. When it came in and out of the water, strong wind and torrential rain swept above the ocean. Its body gave out brilliant glare like the sun and the moon. Its voice roared like the thunder. Its name was Kui 夔.
The Yellow Emperor 黃帝 captured Kui and made a drum out of its hide. He then took the Thunder Beast’s bone to make a drum stick. The sound of the Kui drum could be heard 500 leagues away. During the Yellow Emperor’s great battle with Chiyou 蚩尤, the pounding sound of Kui drums made all beneath the heaven full of dread.
This one-movement piece consists of the following sections to tell the story:
Misty Mountains 仙山雲霧
According to the chapter of Shun 舜典 in Shang She 尚書, Kui was also the name of a music minister under the ruler Shun 舜 (2294-2184 BC) in prehistoric China. Zuozhuan 左傳, written in the early 4th century BC, mentioned Kui as a legendary music master.
The Di [Emperor Shun] said, ‘Kui, I appoint you to be Director of Music, and to teach our sons, so that the straightforward shall yet be mild; the gentle, dignified: the strong, not tyrannical: and the impetuous, not arrogant. Poetry is the expression of earnest thought; singing is the prolonged utterance of that expression; the notes accompany that utterance, and they are harmonized themselves by the standard tubes. (In this way) the eight different kinds of musical instruments can be adjusted so that one shall not take from or interfere with another; and spirits and men are brought into harmony.’
Kui said, ‘I smite the (sounding-) stone, I gently strike it, and the various animals lead on one another to dance.’ – 舜典, Shang Shu 尚書