Traditional Chinese Orchestra

The traditional Chinese orchestra is a by-product of the modernisation programme of China in the late 1940s. The intent was to create an all-ethnic instrument national orchestra that could play pieces that were at the scale and intensity of the symphonic orchestra. In that regard, many ethnic instruments from all over China were gathered to form the Chinese orchestra.

The organising principles of the traditional Chinese orchestra are inspired by (but not the same as) the philharmonic. The strings were the chief melody carriers (mainly the 二胡 (or erhu) family of instruments), the plucked strings (弹拨 or tanbo) act as a rhythm-based harmony section, the metal reeds handling harmony (笙 (or sheng) family), the double reeds providing colour in melody to replace the brass (唢呐 (or suona) family of instruments).

Orchestration

The dizi often plays the upper envelope of the composition due to its higher pitch and ease of projection. There is almost always at least one bangdi and one qudi part in a traditional Chinese orchestra arrangement. For more modern pieces, there may be a requirement for a dadi or two to play multi-part harmonies while blending the entire dizi section with the rest of the orchestra.

The Right dizi for Each Part

This is often written up front in the piece itself. Sometimes composers merely write in 笛子I/II without any other indication, in which case some work needs to be done to decide what is the right dizi to use.

Normally for a two-part dizi section, the first part is often some bangdi and the second part is some form of qudi. An assumption of using the G bangdi and D qudi respectively is more often correct than not. Another common combination is a G bangdi and C qudi.

If in doubt, consider choosing the dizi using the techniques outlined under the picking the dizi for a key. Usually it is more important to work out the details for the first dizi part since it is usually the higher pitched and is likely to be carrying the melody---once that is chosen, the second dizi part is usually the dizi that is pitched a perfect fourth lower, unless the low tone of the tonic appears, in which case the dizi that is a perfect fifth lower ought to be the one instead.

As for the dadi, it usually appears in three-part dizi section, and is most likely to be the G dadi. The other dadi are rarely used because composers are often less aware of their capabilities, and that they can be considered rare instruments outside of solo work.

Cheating at Weird Keys

There are sometimes occasions where either the composer or logical choice causes a weird-keyed dizi being required. In our context, a weird-keyed dizi is any dizi whose key is not C, D, E, F, G, A, or B♭. The best option is of course to approach a [good] dizi maker and commission the weird-keyed dizi.

A more economical but musically dubious way is to find a normal keyed dizi that is a minor second higher than the key required, and pull out the tuning slide/tenon until it detunes to the required key (e.g. using a G bangdi to detune to sound like a F♯ bangdi instead). The amount of lengthening is at least the length of the largest tone hole on the dizi. The problem with this is that now all the holes (i.e. mokong and tone holes) are likely to be in the wrong positions for the new length, and thus the intonation of all the notes will not come as easily/smoothly as when playing in the original key. This means that lots of embouchure adjustments are needed per note, and even that does not guarantee good intonation.

The exaggerated length also wreaks havoc upon the alignment of the higher harmonics, making all the high notes very sketchy and potentially impossible to play. Finding the right fingering patterns to ensure that such a detuned dizi is playable in an intonationally consistent way is out of the scope of this series of articles---I do not recommend cheating.

If a piece is important enough to use the weird-keyed dizi, then it is important enough to spend the money to get the correct dizi for it without resorting to such sketchy actions.

Intonation

When playing in a traditional Chinese orchestra, it is important to identify the role the dizi is playing for a specific part. As noted in the overview article, the expected intonation is highly dependent on the role that the part is playing. While the bangdi is often the high melody player, it can also play [high] harmony parts as a tone-colour variation, especially when supporting the suona playing the melody. At the pitches that the bangdi are playing with the highly projective nature of the instrument, getting the right intonation is of exceptional importance.

The qudi is often orchestrated to either play in unison with the bangdi, an octave lower, or more commonly, a third lower. In the last case, it is important for the qudi player to tweak the pitches played to provide the harmonic support of the main melody that is pushed by the bangdi.

Articulation

Unlike the [earlier] dizi solo pieces that were folk-song inspired, traditional Chinese orchestra repertoire are often composed by Western classical trained composers. This means that for the most part, the expected articulation is similar to that of woodwind from the symphonic orchestra---all notes need to begin with a clean articulation. Legato playing is usually eschewed unless the dizi is playing lead, in which case the manner of articulation is highly dependent on the amount of expressiveness required.

Ornamentation

Again due to the nature in which traditional Chinese orchestra music is written, the full set of ornamentation used is not usually annotated for two possible reasons, namely:

  1. The nature of the orchestration is using the dizi as a reinforcement of a melody/harmonic that some other instrument is already playing;
  2. The player is expected to introduce style appropriate ornamentation as is necessary to play the melody sketch provided.

From merely looking at the dizi parts, it is often hard to determine which of the two reason are the correct ones. It is only through rehearsals that the correct reason be ascertained. By default, all music should be played ``as is'' with no additional ornamentation. This adheres to the principle of ``the least wrong''---at worst, if the second reason is the case, the piece will just sound boring rather than being expressed wrongly.

If it is determined that the second reason is the one, it is often instructive to let the principal dizi player (or equivalently, principal bangdi player and principal qudi player) decide on the ornamentation, and more importantly, to annotate it in the scores. The second step is important because it helps to ensure that the entire dizi (or bangdi/qudi) section has the same type of expression which projects the part much stronger than if everyone ad libbed.

Additionally, if one were the principal player equivalent (or if you're playing alone in the section) and need to figure out what is appropriate for the style, it is often instructive to listen to a few related pieces [in style] to hazard a guess. It may not be perfect, but it will beat trying to do so without any form of research.