Listening Practice and History: Sound, Erasure


  • Nancy Yunhwa Rao


In narrating the musical life of Chinese immigrants in the United States of the nineteenth century, one of the most difficult challenges is its sound. The sound did not exist. Presumably, one could trace the sound through a careful study of the performing history of Cantonese opera, the popular genre that enchanted Chinese immigrants, the majority of whom came from the Pearl River Delta of southern China. Chinese theaters performing Cantonese opera proliferated in cities and mining and railroad towns throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, with four concurrent Chinese theaters in San Francisco by the end of the 1870s. However, Cantonese opera went through significant changes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving limited sources for scholars to fully grasp the performance practice and repertoire of the nineteenth century. Although books of lyrics of classic verses and scripts of traditional Cantonese opera exist, their relation to the performance practices of this period, which also relied heavily on improvisation, remains little known. Lacking historical sources of the opera genre is not, however, the primary problem. Erasure is.





Symposium on The Race of Sound, by Nina Sun Eidsheim