By Sari Xu
Gourds, not only the fruits of some flower plant species in the family Cucurbitaceae, but also form its own family in Chinese traditional musical instruments – one of the 8 tones as “gourd tone” (匏). This tone includes Hulusi – which we are now very familiar with, Sheng, Yu, and He, etc. You may wonder are they just made from different shapes of gourds. Of course not! There are more interesting stories behind!
Sheng (笙), similar to Hulusi, is a mouth-blown free-reed instrument consisting of multiple pipes. It’s a polyphonic instrument and is enjoying an increasing popularity worldwide recently especially as a solo instrument, while in the modern large Chinese orchestra, it’s usually used for both melody and accompaniment. Speaking of the history of Sheng, it’s one of the oldest instruments in China, with images depicting its kind date back to 1100 B.C. – its “family members” He and Yu were first mentioned in bone oracle writings dating from 14th to 12th century B.C, while the first appearance of the word “Sheng” existed in some of the poems of Shijing (《诗经》, Book of Odes), dating back 7th century B.C. Traditionally, it has been used as an accompaniment instrument for solo Suona (we’ll discuss later!) and dizi (link previous article here) performances.
Check out the ensemble of a Sheng and a Suona here!
Just like Bangzi and some percussion instruments we’ve discussed, Sheng is also one of the main instruments in Kunqu (Kun opera, 昆曲) and other various forms of Chinese opera. Furthermore, it’s widely played in traditional small wind and percussion ensembles in Northern China.
Unlike single reeds or double reeds, which vibrate at the pitch according to the length of the attached air column, Sheng’s reeds vibrate at a fixed frequency. Covering the holes on a traditional sheng’s pipes would cause the entire length of the pipes to resonate with the reeds’ frequency. If the hole is open, the resonant frequency would not match, and hence no sound is produced – that’s why it has multiple pipes! Interestingly, the player could make a sound by EITHER exhaling or inhaling into the mouthpiece, sounds like a melodica, right? One more tricky skill is that players can produce a relatively continuous sound without pause by quickly switching between the two – much like bow changes for stringed instruments!
Nowadays, musicians classify Shengs into various types including traditional sheng, and keyed sheng (also known as “improved sheng” (改良笙) developed after 1950s. Within the keyed sheng category, there are soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sheng divided based on their ranges, and keyboard sheng in addition. Keyboard sheng, sometimes referred as Pai Sheng (排笙, a row of sheng, like the Pai Xiao, which means a row of Xiao), has a keyboard layout instead of the typical buttons. Pai Shengs have reeds from 37 all the way to 53, which cover the variety ranges from Alto to Bass.
Just as we mentioned at the beginning, instead of Sheng, Yu (竽) and He actually existed first in bone oracle writings and are also classified as gourd musical instruments. Yu, compared to Sheng, is played in single lines melodically rather than providing simultaneous tones in harmony, and generally larger in terms of the size. It was used, often in large numbers, in ancient China’s court orchestras. He (和), in contrast, is generally smaller than Sheng.
Last but not least, what if combining Sheng and Hulusi together? Then, it comes the Hulusheng (葫芦笙). It’s also a free-reed organ just like Sheng, but with a windchest made from a dried bottle gourd like Hulusi! And you may have already guessed – same as Hulusi, it’s very popular in Southern China, mostly in Yunnan Province, played by the ethnic groups there!
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