This research paper seeks to understand the chemistry of composers and engineers in relation to the evolution of the Suona instrument. After analyzing the mechanical structures and compositions of the Suona from past to present. This paper shows that the Suona is progressing along with the contemporary era, through the support of engineers, composers and performers. The Suona’s everlasting traditional voice is inherent in the structural simplicity of the instrument, alongside its persistent cultural significance. It is no tall order to suggest that further evolutions to the instrument’s musical style will continue to be realized through the coming decades. As music continues its march towards international compatibility, the Suona’s significance as a culturally relevant and musically profound instrument perseveres, in spite of its mechanical alterations, its essence remains intact.
The Suona is one of the most iconic and musically dexterous instruments of Chinese music. It is a traditional Chinese instrument that is gradually becoming more popular in the international contemporary classical music scene. For centuries, it has been an instrument played in Chinese ceremonies and celebrations because of its loud and shrill timbre, but modern composers are using new compositional techniques to explore its inner potential, creating new sonic possibilities within contemporary concert music. Composers have experimented with the Suona in different Western musical forms such as chamber music and orchestral music, as well as using it on its own as a soloist. Still, the mechanical structure of the Suona is one limiting factor preventing a smooth transition; it does not produce semitones effectively, hence it is unable to perform a significant portion of Western repertoire. To circumvent this, instrument makers sought to invent new variants of the instrument to facilitate this transition. As a result, the Suona is experiencing an evolution both mechanically and musically as it progresses in this contemporary era, leading to its continued use and relevance in contemporary orchestral lineups.
Historically speaking, the Suona was not created in China, having originated from Middle Eastern regions some time during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). The etymology of the word ‘Suona’ is linked with the Persian term ‘Sur Nay’ — a term translated to mean, literally, ‘feast or banquet reed’. For this reason, historians theorize the Suona’s distant link to the European shawm — whose name stems from the Latin word for ‘reed’ — owing to their etymological similarities. The Suona is an instrument associated closely with the three stages of human life —birth, marriage and death — and is frequently employed at celebrations or ceremonies. This symbolism, alongside its historical use as a religious instrument, rendered the Suona a high degree of cultural significance which later led to the rise in the instrument’s popularity and subsequent synonymy with Chinese music.
The Chinese instrument world is divided into four distinct families of instruments, namely wind instruments, plucked-string instruments, bowed-string instruments, and percussion instruments. The Suona (see Fig. 1) falls into the winds category. Crafted out of two materials, wood and brass, its frame is carved and fitted about a wooden bore and a metal bell leading to a reed top fastened by a metal reed join and a Qipai — a kind of lip disc.
Fig. 1. Picture of traditional Suona.¹
Traditional performances of Suona employ a wide range of developed instrument-specific techniques. These techniques can be identified across two categories — fingering and embouchure — serving to emphasize individual characteristics of Suona music. Summary sounds, such as Dayin, a lilt formed by playing a lower note, followed quickly by an actual landing note; Huayin, a gliss from one pitch to another; and Tuyin, single, double, and triple tonguing. Furthermore, the Suona’s aural dexterity means it has been used as a visually connotative instrument alongside its uses as an instrument. For instance, in one of the most famous and highly acclaimed Suona pieces, A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix, the Suona is used to emphasize the titular birds’ titters via a blending of pitches with alternate fingering and embouchure techniques, capped off with alternating tonguing techniques and leading to melodiously alternating, bestial lilts reminiscent of birds. In Fig. 2, m. 80, the Suona is presenting a combination of Dayin, Huayin and Tuyin to mimic bird chirping sounds (see Fig. 2).
Fig. 2. An excerpt of A Hundred Birds Paying Homage.²
In recent decades, Suona music has seen a rise in popularity within the international composition scene. Utilizing newly developed compositional techniques to take advantage of the many unique sounds afforded by the instrument, much of modern Suona composition revolves around blending its sound to contemporary modern music. This has led to an equivalent cross-culture of the instrument across different musical forms — in chamber music, for instance, the instrument has been used alongside Western instruments.
As early as the 1920s, Chinese music has gradually become symphonized, adopting the style and practices of Western orchestral music. With this restructuring of its standard compositional lineup, Chinese orchestras have largely dropped the Suona, owing to the instrument’s inherent incompatibility with Westernized orchestral lineups. The mechanical design of Suona does not allow for semitones, therefore disqualifying it from a significant portion of the Western repertoire. In an attempt to modernize the use of this instrument, an alternate, more compatible form of the Suona, known as keyed Suona, was invented. Styled in a Boehm manner like that of the Clarinet, the keyed Suona (see Fig. 3) was a mechanically altered Suona, crafted with the flexibility of conducting key changes. This has led to the keyed Suona becoming a standard instrument within the alto, tenor, and bass lineups of the Chinese orchestra. However, this modern adaptation of the instrument has resulted in the loss of traditional Suona playing techniques. The new mechanical changes erased the necessity of relying on finger techniques to conduct a blending of pitches, simultaneously losing one of the most important colors of Suona.
Fig. 3. Picture of Keyed Suona.³
Yet, in recent decades, further developments to the Suona’s mechanical structure have been implemented in an attempt to preserve the intricacies of traditional Suona techniques. In 1992, Suona maestro Guo Yazhi invented a movable Suona staple — the Huoxin (see Fig. 4) — as a sliding tube retrofitted for the Suona. The Huoxin permitted the raising the pitch of the instrument by one semitone by allowing the length of the instrument to be shortened. This invention has seen the revival of traditional Suona techniques within contemporary compositional scenes. By allowing the Suona to play semitone passages through the pushing and release of the Suona’s tube, the Suona’s viability within modern orchestral lineups has been preserved, as has room for its variety of fingering techniques for the purpose of pitch blending.
Fig. 3. Picture of Keyed Suona.⁴
The significance of the 1992 Huoxin invention can be felt across subsequent composition pieces involving the Suona. For instance, within the third act of Guo Wenjing’s Chou Kong Shan (1992) for Dizi and orchestra. This piece is in his mountain composition series, inspired by Li Bai’s long poem The difficulty of the Shu Road. To accentuate the colors of Shu Road, Guo uses the combination of atonal material with a series of glissandos ascending and descending, either by a major or minor second, in the wind section (see Fig. 5). In 1993, Guo rearranged this concerto for a Dizi with Chinese Orchestra instead. Thus, Guo changed the soprano and alto Suona sections to use the Huoxin Suona to realize Guo’s utilization of a chromatic scale alongside transitional, blended tones — a technique not afforded by the mechanical structure of the keyed Suona.
Fig. 5. An excerpt of Chou Kong Shan.⁵
Furthermore, Qin Wenchen’s Suona concerto Beckoning the Phoenix (1996) features traditional techniques of Suona with atonal harmonies, yet another flexibility afforded by the Huoxin invention. Qin was inspired by a painting series titled Phoenix in Fire, painted by Tang Xiaohe. Qin was interested with the idea of a phoenix coming to the world, growing up, then maturing through the ablution of fire and finally ascending to the sun. These ideas are similar to the characteristics of the historical background of the Suona; which is associated closely with three big stages of human life — birth, marriage and death. The instrument is frequently employed at celebrations or ceremonies having to do with a person’s birth, marriage or funeral. Qin was using the colors of the Suona to emphasize the Phoenix evoking a sense of the national spirit and mettle of ancient legends.
Fig. 6. An excerpt of Beckoning the Phoenix.⁶
The Suona is ranked as one of the most iconic and musically dexterous instruments of traditional Chinese music. It has become one of the most culturally relevant instruments of Chinese composition, featuring a bounty of historically developed, traditional techniques that enrich the instrument with a wealth of iconic sounds which, alongside numerous mechanical alterations of the instruments, have led to its persistent use and its relevance in contemporary orchestral lineups. Throughout the evolution of Suona music, instrument engineers have been improving the mechanical structure of the Suona repeatedly to modernize the use of the instrument. Unfortunately, pedagogy to use these new inventions is much slower in its progress and often lags behind. Early keyed Suona performers must learn the new system on their own when the instrument was introduced. Moreover, the Huoxin Suona was discontinued in 1995 – two years after it was invented. Hence, most Suona performers have never seen a Huoxin until it was reintroduced again via its third generation of design in 2016. Although the Huoxin allows a performer to play the instrument using the same set of fingerings as they would on the traditional Suona, it still takes practice and training on push and release the sliding tube intuitively on demand in order to master all the key changes and chromatic scale. At present, the Huoxin Suona is only used by a small number of Suona performers.⁷
In all, the Suona is one of the most musically diverse, culturally significant, and historically evolved instruments within Asian music. Featuring a wealth of historical instrument techniques and aurally dexterous sounds, it is an instrument that is still progressing in this contemporary era, with the help of contemporary mechanical alterations. Composers have been experimenting Suona in different musical forms such as chamber work, pure and mixed instrumentation between western instruments and traditional Chinese instruments, concerto, and also solo. It is utilized by modern composers who, taking advantage of the Suona’s unique sounds and rich history, continue to concoct culturally relevant, emotionally impactful pieces that jar and impact the musical world to this day. With the inherent structural simplicity of the Suona, alongside its persistent cultural significance, it is no tall order to suggest that further evolutions to the instrument’s musical style will continue to be realized through the coming decades, as music continues its march towards international compatibility, and as the Suona’s significance as a culturally relevant and musically profound instrument perseveres, in spite of its mechanical alterations, its essence remains intact.
¹ Chenwei Wang, JunYi Chow, and Samuel Wong, The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 2019), 93.
² Jiaqi Chen, Suona Qu Pu, (Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, 2006), 161.
³ Wang, Chow, and Wong, The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, 114.
⁴ Wang, Chow, and Wong, The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, 108.
⁵ Wenjing Guo, Chou Kong Shan: Concerto for Zhoudi and Orchestra, (Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, 2007), 108.
⁶ Qin, Beckoning the Phoenix: Suona Concert, 53.
⁷ Wang, Chow, and Wong, The TENG Guide to the Chinese Orchestra, 108.