More organology

Erqing and WM

Household Daoists Wu Mei and Erqing on guanzi oboes. From my film.

After my little outline of vocal styles, to be further amazed at the infinite creativity of human beings, do check out the Sachs–Hornbostel (or should I say Hornbostel–Sachs?) system of classifying musical instruments.

Also fine, with instructive illustrations, is

  • Geneviève Dournon, “Organology”, in Helen Myers (ed.) Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The new Grove handbooks in music), pp.245–300.

Based on the Dewey system, and constantly subject to fine-tuning, it may seem a tad hardcore, but we’re still allowed to use the common terminology (flutes, drums, and so on)—all this just helps when we need more precise definitions. It may be old hat to ethnomusicologists, who continue to deepen the topic in study groups, but it’s worth adding to the armoury of, um, scholars of ritual… Taxonomy, after all, is among their basic concerns—from zhai (“fasts” or “retreats”) and jiao (“offerings”) to yin mortuary rituals and yang rituals to bless the living (also equivalent to “white” and “red” rituals), and the Li family’s tripartite classification of funerary, earth, and temple scriptures (baijing, tujing, miaojing) (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.25).

BTW, the double-reed guanzi, leading instrument in the ensemble accompanying north Chinese ritual, is a descendant of the ancient bili 篳篥, a pre-Tang immigrant from the “Western regions“—though perhaps not France. It is related to the Armenian duduk, which is so much better known (“Innit, though”, nodded The Plain People of Ireland). Sachs-Hornbostel distinguishes cylindrical and conical bores (zzz)—though that is a complex issue, explored by Jeremy Montagu; but it doesn’t seem very instructive about the difference between oboes like the guanzi and duduk (with lipped reed, overblowing at the twelfth) and shawms (with reed enclosed in the mouth, overblowing at the octave), which is so crucial in north China.

For further useless facts about Chinese instruments, see here. And for another candidate for the Sachs–Hornbostel system, here.

18 thoughts on “More organology

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  12. There really was a French version of the bili/duduk/guan: the douçaine, which has recently been revived for use in the early music world after the only extant one was found in the wreck of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was recovered in 1982 (and is now on display in a dedicated museum in Portsmouth, England).

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