Music styles and the dizi

In the previous set of articles, we provided a litany of ornamentation. This set of ornamentation forms the vocabulary of the musical language of dizi as I understand it today. Like how a dictionary of words does not form a language, the litany of ornamentation itself is insufficient to express the music styles that encompass the dizi due to the historical context.

What we call dizi throughout this entire set of articles with a strong implication of homogeneity is really made up of originally mutually exclusive families of bamboo flutes that had different geographical dominance in China, each with their own set of musical idioms and styles. The main families of dizi include:

  1. The qudi, dominant in Southern China;
  2. The bangdi, dominant in Northern China;
  3. The dadi, dominant in more contemporary pieces.

Later on, as a result of pioneering work by 赵松庭 (Zhao Songting), his students and their contemporaries, the different families and music styles evolve into a holistic ``total'' dizi concept that broadened the palette of the dizi and opened up a whole new realm of dizi playing that advanced it to rival the concert flute, the most advanced flute-family instrument.

But first, a brief discourse on Chinese musicology.

Vocal Traditions as the Foundation

Language plays an out-sized role when it comes to [traditional] Chinese music. What we commonly call ``Chinese music'' these days is really an ensemble of different language traditions that are largely clustered by geographical region.

The source of almost all traditional Chinese music stems from the vocal traditions, be it as a type of accompaniment to spoken-word, folk opera, or ritual music. Before the dizi became an important virtuoso instrument on its own, it was a major accompanying instrument to all these different traditions. And part of the role it played as a major accompanying instrument was to augment the vocal style that the particular spoken-word/folk opera/ritual music that was being played.

The choice of ``vocal traditions'' is deliberate---the inspired styles of the qudi and bangdi are largely based on the accents and associated intonations that each geographically separated regional language uses in all of its forms. Thus, the best way to study and mimic a certain [music] style is to pay close attention to the vocal traditions of the region that plays host to the style at hand, and this does not mean limiting to only the music traditions but to also consider how people of the region speak with each other. This is especially the case when playing folk-inspired pieces of the region---the subtle ornamentations and cadences are mostly not annotated and need to be expressed appropriately.

Folk-inspired pieces will yield their natural phrasing according to their regional language/dialect, and therefore it pays to be immersed in the particular culture's vocal traditions to figure out the right expressions needed.

Geography as Broad Characterisations

While the dizi is an old instrument, it was only near the 1930s that there was a strong effort to professionalise the art form, and thus much of the initial work was dominated by the geographical regions of China where the individual artistes come from.

China by regions.
Division of China be broad geographical regions. From top clockwise: north-western (西北地区 or xibei diqu), north (北方地区 or beifang diqu), south (南方地区 or nanfang diqu), and Tibetan ( 青藏地区 or qingzang diqu). Beijing city is notated by the black writing as 北京. Image modified from original by Yan2776 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

As far as techniques are concerned, we will focus more on the differences between north and south because their repertoire is dominant as at the point of writing. The north-western region or ``inner Mongolia steppes'' style of playing is very similar to that of the northern style, while the Tibetan region is nascent and does not have a very strong dizi music presence.

Northern vs Southern

Physical separation of China into its northern and southern regions come up a lot when it comes to the discussion of its music. Traditionally, geographical regions close to the Yellow River (黄河 or huanghe) are considered Northern China while geographical regions close to the Yangtze River (长江 or changjiang) are considered Southern China.

These days, it is easier to just use the 秦岭淮河线 (or qinling huaihe xian), which corresponds to the 33rd parallel north, to separate the two regions. Broadly, the separation yields a region that tends to be more temperate (northern), and one that is sub-tropical/tropical (southern). These differing climates act as proxies against how the cultures may be different from each other.