Saung Gauk

Name: Saung Gauk.
Type: Chordophones > Harps > Arched.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 322.11
Country: Burma [Myanmar].
Region: South East Asia.

Description: The saung gauk [in Burmese: စောင်းကောက်, in MLCTS caung: kauk; in IPA sáʊnɡaʊʔ] It is an arched harp, whose traditions are ancient. The saung is regarded as a national musical instrument of Burma. The saung is unique in that it is a very ancient harp tradition and is said to be the only surviving harp in Asia.

History: The saung may have been introduced as early as 500 AD from Southeastern India, based on archaeological evidence, namely in the form of Burmese temple reliefs that depict a long-necked harp very similar to depictions found in Bengal.

The earliest archaeological evidence of the harp is at the Bawbawgyi temple of the Sri Ksetra kingdom of the Pyu people, near present-day Pyay [Prome]. At that site, there is a sculptured decoration where the arched harp with about five strings appears in a scene where musicians and a dancer are depicted. This site has been dated to the early eighth century.

Contemporary Chinese chronicles from the same period cite Pyu musicians playing the arched harp. The harp has survived continuously since that time. It has been mentioned in many chronicles and texts. The current Burmese word for the harp “saung” has been recorded in Bagan temples, as well as in pictorial representations.

The earliest song-poem texts in Burmese date to the early 14th century, although the music has not survived. It is conjectured that this song-poem was harp music since text refers to the siege of Myinzaing and “Myinzaing” is one of the classical tunings and musical forms in use today.

The harp benefited from the cultural renaissance of the Konbaung era [1752–1885]. When the Burmese king Hsinbyushin sacked Ayuthaya, he brought back with him many Siamese courtiers. The captured Siamese actors and musicians fuelled new forms and experiments in harp music. The most significant inovator was the talented courtier Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa [1766–1853], who adapted repertoires of Siamese music into Burmese, rewrote the Siamese Ramayana called Ramakien, into the Burmese Enaung-zat, composed harp music for it, and developed a whole new genre of harp music called “Yodaya” [the Burmese word for Ayutthaya].

U Sa was responsible for increasing the number of harp strings from seven to thirteen, such that the notes spanned two and a half octaves, from C3 to F5. The last Konbaung court harpist, Maung Maung Gyi, added the 14th string. Ba Than, a post-independence harpist, created a 16-string saung. In the 18th century the instrument was introduced to Qing Dynasty China, becoming known as zonggaoji [总稿机, a transliteration of “saung-gauk”].

Construction: The Burmese harp is classified as an arched horizontal harp since the resonator body is more horizontal as opposed to the Western harp, which has a vertical resonator. The main parts of the harp are the body, the long curved neck, carved out of the root of a tree, and a string bar running down the center of the top of the body.

The top of the resonator body is covered with a tightly stretched deer hide, heavily lacquered in red with four small circular sound holes. The whole of the harp body is decorated with pieces of mica [“Mandalay pearls”], glass, gilt and red and black lacquer. The stand is similarly decorated. The ends of the strings on the harp is decorated with red cotton tassels. The saung’s strings are made of silk or nylon.

Playing Techniques: The harp is played by sitting on the floor with the body in the lap, and the arch on the left. The strings are plucked with the right hand fingers from the outside. The left hand is used to dampen the strings to promote clarity and produce staccato notes. Stopped tones are produced by using left thumbnail to press against the string from the inside to increase its tension.

Citations: Bibliography: Miller, Terry E. and Sean Williams. The Garland handbook of Southeast Asian music. Routledge, 2008. ISBN 0-415-96075-4 Williamson, Robert M. 2010. Thomas D. Rossing, ed. The Science of String Instruments. Springer. pp. 167–170. ISBN 9781441971104 Śrīrāma Goyala [1 August 1992] Reappraising Gupta History: For S.R. Goyal. Aditya Prakashan. p. 237. ISBN 978-81-85179-78-0. – …yazh resembles this old vina… however it is the Burmese harp which seems to have been handed down in almost unchanged form since ancient times Becker, Judith 1967. “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”. The Galpin Society Journal. 20: 17–23. doi:10.2307/841500. JSTOR 841500. Muriel C. Williamson  2000. The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Northern Illinois University Center for Southeast Asian Studies ;

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