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Professor blows new life into ancient flute
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-04-26 08:47

Few Chinese people have heard of the yue, an ancient wind instrument that belonged to the flute family.

However, this flute, the name of which is pronounced the same as the word for "music" in Chinese, used to be an important instrument in many ancient ceremonial rituals.

In The Book of Songs (Shi Jing), the most ancient collection of Chinese poetry, which was compiled in the 6th century BC, yue is the most frequently mentioned wind instrument.

After the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) about 1,700 years ago, the yue seemed to have disappeared. Two ancient instruments, the dizi, or bamboo flute, which was played transversely and the xiao, another form of bamboo flute, but played vertically, seemed to have become the dominant wind instruments.

The Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) saw a proliferation of musical forms in China, but there was almost no mention of yue in either court or folk music.

The disappearance of the yue was a mystery, and even modern researchers had only a vague idea of what the yue might have been like.

In 1986 and 1987, a number of wind instruments made of animal bones were unearthed in Wuyang County, in central China's Henan Province.

These instruments, about 20 centimetres long and 1 centimetre in diameter, look like the bamboo flute and could produce a complete seven-note scale. They were named gudi, or bone flutes, by Chinese music experts.

Dating tests indicated that these bone flutes were about 8,000 years old. The discovery pushed the history of Chinese musical instruments back a further 3,000 years.

It was heartening news to find out that instruments as advanced as the bone flute existed so long ago, yet musicologists have not found any historical accounts of this instrument, and the blank of several thousand years in the history of Chinese instruments is hard to explain.

However, the enigma of the mysterious yue and the bone flutes seemed to explain one another in the eyes of Liu Zhengguo, a scholar of Chinese music history who is also skilled in playing the transverse bamboo flute (dizi) and its vertical twin the xiao. Liu is convinced that the gudi is, in fact, the yue.

"The gudi should be called guyue," said Liu, who is a professor in the music school of Shanghai Normal University. "It is the ancestor of the dizi and xiao."

Liu became interested in the ancient bone flute when he was teaching the history of ancient Chinese music at South China Normal University in 1992. Because Liu himself is a wind instrument player, he wanted to play the ancient bone instrument for his students when he was discussing it in his course.

When he played a reproduction of the guyue, as he preferred to call the instrument, he found that it was structurally different from the traditional bamboo flute.

There is no mouth hole corresponding to the one on the dizi, so the ancient instrument could not be played transversely like the bamboo flute.

It is not likely that it was played vertically either, for there is no notch at the end of the instrument, as there is in the xiao.

Similar to wind instruments with neither a mouth hole nor a notch, such as the bamboo chou of central China and the ney of the Tajik people, the bone flute has to be played obliquely.

"Oblique blowing is almost a lost technique in China. It can be only found in some less-known folk instruments," said Liu. "This style of playing has connections with the origin of Chinese wind instruments."

According to Liu, among today's instruments, the ney of the Tajik people is closest to the ancient bone flute. They are not only similar in structure, but also are both made of animal bone and played obliquely.

Liu noticed that the name of the ney is close to the Chinese word "lai," which is defined in "Shuo Wen Jie Zi" China's first dictionary, which dates from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), as "a three-hole yue."

The Tajik bone flute is also a three-hole pipe. Thus Liu believes that the so-called ancient Chinese bone flute was actually the yue, which was the father of all other Chinese wind instruments and the Japanese shakuhachi.

While researching the origin of guyue, Liu also practised oblique blowing on a reproduction of the ancient instrument.

"The ancient method of oblique blowing is very flexible, and it should be passed on," said Liu. "Professional wind instrument players should master not only regular instruments like the bamboo flute and the vertical xiao, but should also study the various instruments and playing techniques of folk music."

Liu always wanted to try the original bone flute but had had no opportunity.

The opportunity finally came in 2001, when the archaeology team of the University of Science and Technology of China unearthed another group of ancient bone flutes also at Wuyang, in Henan, and invited Liu to play them.

Liu was very excited when he tried the original instruments, playing about 10 tunes on them, including popular folk songs.

"The original guyue had a uniquely sonorous sound because of fossilization," said Liu. "It is really amazing that an instrument 8,000 years old can still be played."

Liu has published a number of academic theses on the mysterious yue, but has not limited himself to textual research. He aims at something more meaningful: to revive the tradition of oblique blowing and the yue itself.

Because the ancient bone flute was rather limited in terms of expressiveness, Liu decided to develop a contemporary bone flute.

To do that, he read a large amount of related materials and interviewed many folk musicians. After four years of experimenting, he finally developed a nine-hole instrument made of bamboo.

Liu's 70-centimetre-long nine-hole flute preserves the most important structural feature of the ancient bone flute with no embouchure, and it produces music when he blows obliquely from the natural end of the bamboo pipe.

However, the nine-hole instrument is much thicker and longer than the ancient bone flute. The nine holes enable the instrument to produce the complete chromatic scale, and its range covers three octaves.

The most characteristic aspect of the instrument is that the nine holes are arranged according to the natural positions of the human fingers, which makes it possible to play chromatic scales fluidly.

This is especially obvious when Liu plays Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Flight of the Bumblebee" on the nine-hole instrument.

The fast flowing of notes in the work might be difficult for any other Chinese blown instrument to accomplish, yet Liu plays it on his nine-hole yue with ease.

In February 2001, Liu gave two concerts with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in Hong Kong, where he introduced the ancient bone flute to the audience with a rendition of "A Cow's Song," a folk song from East China's Anhui province, where Liu comes from. He also played the Tajik ney accompanied on handdrums.

The programme for the nine-hole yue included Paganini's "Carnaval de Venise," a yue and guzheng (Chinese zither) duet, "Three Variations on the Plum Blossom" (Meihua Sannong), and a nine-hole yue concerto "Snows of Tianshan Mountain," composed by Tang Pulin, a professor from Tianjin Conservatory of Music.

"The nine-hole instrument has a wide range and is very convenient in modulation," said Tang, who is the first person to have composed for the instrument. "With its resonant low range, mellow medium range and smooth high range, the nine-hole yue can be an ideal solo instrument and a new source of sound for Chinese orchestras."

Introducing the new nine-hole instrument into Chinese orchestras as a regular instrument is also one of Liu's dreams.

He said that in the coming years he will concentrate on training some soloists on the instrument, as well as writing a history of Chinese wind instruments.

"I got into the world of yue quite by accident, but now I feel I am responsible for preserving the instrument and developing its repertoire" said Liu. "It takes the work of generations of musicians to perfect an instrument, and I have faith in the nine-hole yue."

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