Music and Martial Arts:
Heroic Display through Violent Musicking in Kung Fu
Studying sound and movement together is valuable for understanding socio-cultural relationships and values embodied in performance. Dancing to music is a typical example. Many types of martial arts also integrate music, but these practices have received relatively little scholarly attention, with the exceptions of Brazilian capoeira and, more recently, Indonesian/Malaysian pencak silat. This oversight leaves aesthetic ideals of heroism in martial arts studies underexplored when martial concerns command more attention than artistic ones. Such considerations include the “proper” expression of violence, which is a significant aspect of how people understand what it means to be powerful, courageous, and indomitable. This paper addresses martial arts performed with music as a type of violent musicking that can reveal a heroic display ethos. My research focuses on the percussion played by practitioners to accompany their demonstrations of Cantonese martial arts and the lion dance ritual at Toronto, Canada’s Hong Luck Kung Fu Club. This style of performance is typical of many types of Southern Chinese martial arts more generally—both in diaspora and in Greater China. Drawing on eight years of performance ethnography and observant participation, I explore the choreomusical connections between fighting skills and drumming. I also investigate the discourses of self-defence—implicit and explicit—that are central to kung fu in order to reveal how they inform public performances. I argue that kung fu’s violent musicking manifests an ideal of self-strengthening that undergirds a delicate balance of civility against viciousness in self-defence. My research builds on work in martial arts studies that frames hand combat systems as more conceptual than realistic, as well as references discussions of sonic warfare in sound studies. Despite the relative safety of modern society, the aesthetics of conflict remain significant aspects of contemporary global culture.
Colin McGuire holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology from York University and is currently an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Cork. His research looks at music and martial arts, with a focus on Chinese kung fu, by examining transmission processes, body-experience, film music, and heroic display. Through investigations of intertextual meanings, transnational identity construction, and resistance to oppression, McGuire contributes to broader discussions of embodiment and diaspora. He is also interested in how being attentive to choreomusical connections between movement and sound can further our understandings of not only idealized social values, but also the rhythm of combat.