Reader email: Chinese woodwinds

Some dizi and xiao from my collection

I recently got email from a reader about the use of Chinese woodwinds in theater and film music. I did my best to answer his questions, and I’m posting them here in case they are of use to anyone else. Both questions and answers are edited here for length and awesomeness.

My question for you is about bamboo flutes. I see the term bamboo flute thrown around (such as in the reed 1 book for Aida) and I wonder what exactly that means. Do those musicians own 12 bamboo sticks with holes drilled in them, or do they use a specific style of bamboo flute from a particular part of the world?

If the part calls for “bamboo flute” with no other clarification, I think that leaves it pretty well open to interpretation by the flutist and musical director. Aida is set in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, where, according to my Wikipedia research, bamboo per se did not grow. Probably the best-known bamboo-ish Egyptian flutes are neys, made from bamboo-like reeds.

My guess is that most woodwind players would substitute some variety of bamboo transverse flute, such as an Indian bansuri, a Chinese dizi (perhaps with the buzzing membrane replaced by a piece of tape), or a non-culture-specific bamboo flute like those sold by Erik the FlutemakerDoug Tipple’s PVC flutes make an excellent and economical substitute for bamboo, with nice tone (I dare you to hear the difference) and consistent intonation and response. You might be able to contact musicians who have worked on specific shows, and find out what solutions they came up with; the Internet Broadway Database is a good starting point.

Your listing for The Lion King is much more specific, which brings me to my next question: dizi keys. I happen to be in China right now. Tunable dizi flutes are cheap, and one-piece dizi are cheaper. Do I need 12 tunable dizi? What keys are actually played in theater and film in the US?

I was lucky enough to make a very short trip to Beijing a few years ago, and picked up some dizi and some xiao while I was there. It seemed like lots of tourist-oriented vendors were selling very cheap and low-quality instruments. I made use of the excellent concierge service at my fancy hotel (someone else was paying!) and got them to put me in a cab to a more musician-oriented shop downtown. (I mimed to the proprietor what I wanted, and we haggled over prices by typing our counteroffers into a calculator.)

Tunable seems like the way to go if you can afford it—it doesn’t hurt anything to have a little flexibility. I’m not aware of good-quality dizi that aren’t tunable; is it possible the non-tunable ones you’ve seen are of “souvenir” quality or intended for feng shui use (in other words, barely playable)?

The most common keys seem to be D and then C for solo repertoire, and G and then F for Chinese opera. (Remember, the key on these refers to the three-holes-closed note, not the six-holes-closed note.) I think you would have to deal with a real specialty shop to find others, but they do exist.

What is used in Western film and theater depends, I think, largely on the knowledge of the composer/orchestrator. I think sometimes parts get written for bamboo flutes in whatever key is convenient for the singers’ range, perhaps without a second thought that the flutes aren’t fully chromatic like Western instruments. If the composer collaborates with a dizi player, though, I think the parts are likely to be in one of those common keys.

Do I need a xiao (end blown Chinese bamboo flute)? They seem widely-used in Chinese opera, but I’ll only ever play Broadway-style shows.

I’m not aware of any use of the xiao in Broadway-type shows, and in terms of pure usability for gigs, I would give it a fairly low priority. One instrument that I have been hearing now and then in television and film is the bawu, a sort of transverse reed instrument, which I’m anxious to get my hands on. I don’t know of any Broadway uses of it yet.

I hope that helps.

Best,
Bret

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