During the pandemic, a lot of our lives have moved online — meetings, at-home work, mental health counseling, doctor's visits, and more. Music lessons have also become virtual for some teachers. One Woodstock man went online to keep on teaching music classes — using an ancient instrument, which he makes. His name is Jim Binkley, and he plays, builds, and teaches the most revered of all Chinese musical instruments — the "guqin" (pronounced, in Mandarin, "goo chin").
Binkley is a quiet and modest guy, but when asked how many people in the world make guqins, he answers, "There are a handful of people who have made more than one guqin, but there are really only two people outside greater China [Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan] who have more than five" — and those would be himself, and a fellow on the east coast named Stephan Dydo.
Binkley has actually made some fifteen guqins over time, each one taking him a year or two to craft. A guqin is composed of a top board — which is the soundboard, about 48 inches long and 8 inches at the widest point — and a bottom board for stability. The instrument is fretless, and the nylon and metal strings are plucked by one hand, while the other hand slides to press down the strings to play different notes, as on a cello or violin. (In antiquity the strings were made of silk.) For crafting a guqin, "they say, 'the older the wood, the better'. Paulownia [the Princess Tree] is common," explains Binkley; "But I have been using woods from the Pacific Northwest, such as western red cedar and redwood. I sold one in January made of California redwood, which was salvaged from a garage floor in Ashland."
The subsequent lacquering process is importantly intricate, involving many layers.
Playing guqin is an ancient Chinese musical art. This seven-stringed instrument, dating back roughly 2,500 years, was used in ritual ceremonies of the Imperial Court in the 1700's. Binkley says, "It is more or less a solo instrument, using the oldest written music in the world, because this was the instrument of the old [Chinese] literati class."
Binkley, a retired Portland State University professor who taught computer science from the mid-1990s until 2010, became interested in the guqin in 1975 when his roommate in Taiwan, John Thompson, introduced him to guqin playing.
"I had been playing classical guitar at the time I went to Taiwan, and John decided that I should play guqin, 'as it was similar'," Binkley tells THE BEE.
When Binkley went to Taiwan, he had a BA in Chinese, and then took 1.5 years of intensive Chinese language training while there, including classical Chinese. This ability enabled him later to translate excerpts from "Abiding With Antiquity", a rare Chinese guqin zither handbook, published in Fujian province in China around 1860.
When he returned to the United States he studied for a while at the University of Washington, where he met a guqin teacher who gave him lessons. And he kept on making guqins, as he did while in Taiwan.
In the past, Binkley has given performances. "Mostly solo, and mostly at the Chinese Grden tea house. And a few times at PSU in formal concerts, and elsewhere."
He began giving guqin lessons in the late 1990s, when a friend talked him into teaching him how to play. These days he still teaches a few students online, but he no longer performs, although he is still building guqins. "But, slower and slower", he admits.
For anyone interested in learning to play the guqin, Binkley advises: "Get on Facebook and join the international guqin group. Trying to do it by yourself in the U.S. or outside of China is hard. Talking with others is a good idea because, for example, you can be clued into where to get equipment, or where teachers might be found. The Internet and the pandemic both more or less drove the 'guqin world' online, outside of China."
To learn more about Binkley's guqin adventures in Taiwan, and his translation of the important guqin handbook, read the introduction to his translation: tinyurl.com/4x949zp7
For his own performances of guqin, go online — youtube.com/laoqinyou
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