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Sound of the Ancient Time -- Xun

Last week, we heard the music of an ancient Chinese instrument -- the Xiao, or vertical flute, and today, we'll be hearing another ancient Chinese wind instrument, the Xun, a pear-shaped clay pipe, which is often referred to as the "Chinese Ocarina".

The Xun is usually made of baked clay but you can also find instruments made of stone, and they have six to nine finger-holes. Its soft, resonant tone has a haunting tonal quality.

The music we are listening to is Of Heaven and Earth, composed and played by famous Xun performer Zhang Weiliang, who also plays the xiao. The piece is taken from his album "Of Heaven and Earth" released in 1997, which was the first album of solo xun.

That was Of Heaven and Earth, performed by Zhang Weiliang.

No one is entirely sure how old the xun is, but an instrument was discovered in east China's Zhejiang province which has been dated to around 7,000 years ago.

The earliest Xun was made of stones and bone, and seems to have been used by hunters to trap animals by imitating their voices. But the early instruments wouldn't have been used to play music as we know it on, as the oldest known instrument has only one finger hole.

The xun developed at a slow pace, and by the Shang Dynasty about 3,000 years ago, there were instruments with five finger holes, which greatly enhanced its expressive capacity.

Let's listen to Morning Chirps, another piece from Zhang Weiliang's album, "Of Heaven and Earth". In this piece, you can hear a variety of ancient wind instruments, including the gudi, or bone flute, gushao, or bone whistle, and taodi, or clay flute. They accompany five xun which imitate the songs of birds. Have a listen.

That was Morning Chirps, played by Zhang Weiliang.

The Xun was an important instrument in ancient court music. As early as the Warring States period around 2,700 years ago, the xun was already being widely used in court music, especially during various sacrifice activities. But because of its limited range and its quiet volume, the xun was more often used for domestic court music.

The next piece for xun we'll hear is Bo Zhong Yin, a duet for xun and chi. Chi is another ancient wind instrument, which is made of bamboo and which is often used to accompany the xun. Here Bo and Zhong in Chinese means brothers. In the anthology "Book of Songs" of ancient China, there were such lines as "Brothers quarreling at home join forces against attacks from without", and this piece expresses brothers fighting as one man against external aggression. Have a listen.

That was Bo Zhong Yin, a duet of xun and chi.

The xun comes in various sizes, from the large "goose-egg shaped" instrument to the small "peach-shaped" ones, and the pear-shaped xun is now the most common instrument. In ancient court music, the xun is further divided into two kinds according to their size: the bigger one is called Ya-xun, which has a lower tone and was used in Confucian music ritual, and the smaller one is called Song-xun, which has a higher tone.

Next up is one of the most famous pieces of xun music, For Those Fallen for Their Country. Here, the xun is accompanied by the Guqin, a seven-stringed plucked instrument. The piece is inspired by the poem "Nine Chapters" by the famous poet Qu Yuan of the Warring States period, and expresses the deepest sorrow of the poet who saw his country invaded and the people made homeless.

That was For Those Fallen for Their Country, a duet for the xun and guqin.
Traditionally, xun had between 5 and 7 finger holes in the body and one mouth hole at the top. The range of possible notes was quite narrow. And today, the xun typically has 6 finger holes on the front and 2 thumb holes on the back, giving the instrument a wider range than its ancestor.

In Beijing's Forbidden City, there is a six-holed xun from the Qing dynasty, about 100 years ago. It is 8.5 cm in height and 7 cm in width, covered with red paint and traced with delicate dragon and clouds.

Next is Chu Song. Xiang Yu was a tragic figure who lived over 2,000 years ago. This piece creates the moving scene of great military general who killed his beloved concubine when songs from Chu, his homeland, were played by the besieging army.

That was Chu Song.

As the Xun has a special haunting tone, it is good at creating an hollow and melancholy atmosphere, and these special characteristics make its music sacred, elegant, yet mysterious and a little sad, which were greatly favored by the ancient literati.

Next is an ancient piece composed by Song poet Jiang Baishi, who lived about 1,000 years ago. And this Chang Ting Yuan Man is filled with the sadness of separation, played by famous xun player Zhao Liangshan.

That was Chang Ting Yuan Man, an ancient xun piece played by Zhao Liangshan.

For various reasons, the xun fell out of use at the turn of the 20th century, and it almost disappeared in the 1930s.

Not until the past two decades, was the old instrument revived. A lot of musicians have made further physical improvements to the instrument. And the nine-hole boccaro clay xun is widely used in national orchestras. Professional players are able to play 26 notes on the instrument, and there is now a 10 and 12-hole xun.

Next is An Arduous Journy, played by Zhao Liangshan.

That was An Arduous Journy, played by Zhao Liangshan.

I'll leave you today with two cheerful pieces of Xun music, Lakeland in Early Spring Morning, and Caravan, the first one is a country melody describing people working on the Lakeland, and the second has a strong ethnic flavor, which depicts the exotic scenery of the western areas. The brisk rhythm is achieved by xun, clay flute, and plucked string instruments Guzheng and Pipa

(CRI.com August 10, 2004)

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