Suona -- Eight-eyed monkey with the bad rap
I've always hated suona music that reminds me of those vulgar music played during folk weddings or funerals. But there was an exception when I happened to hear a piece of suona music in the field at dusk during a trip to collect folk songs in North China. Facing a blood-red sunset glow, I heard the endless grand somber timbre of suona music. Perhaps that's another face of suona. Anyway it's still an instrument perfect for celebrations, like a carnival.
-- Local music critic Wang Shu
The suona or Chinese oboe, sometimes called a trumpet, is the loudest Chinese instrument, and as it is passionate and lively it frequently sets the rhythm and beat for a band. It is the musical mainstay at weddings, celebrations, parades and funerals.
It has earned the reputation, unfairly, as a rustic, low-class instrument because of its often piercing loud sound. The suona, in fact, is capable of subtlety, of plaintive, sentimental performances.
It also can create a brilliant sound of hundreds of singing birds. All this depends on which size the suona and how it is played, of course, but the reputation stuck.
“The distinctively loud and high-pitched sound of suona was perfect for outdoor performances. It had been used for festival and military purposes and currently is widely used in traditional weddings and funerals in the countryside of North China,” says suona performer Hu Chenyun from the Shanghai Chinese Music Orchestra.
“That gave people an impression that it was not a decent instrument, but only created some bustling noise.”
The suona was originally introduced to China from Central Asia, developed from Central Asian instruments such as the “surnay” or “zurna,” from which its Chinese name probably derives. A musician playing an instrument very similar to a suona is shown in a drawing on a Silk Road religious monument in what is now the western Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, dating back to the third to fifth century AD.
“Suona was formerly made all of wood and it was used in military processions as bugles,” says Hu. “People later used brass or copper to make the mouthpiece for a even louder and brighter sound.”
But it was the unique loud and bright sound that had attracted French composer Krystof Maratka to write a concerto for suona., He was the youngest of the eight French composers, who were recently commissioned to write music about Shanghai using traditional instruments and Chinese melodies for a project titled “Presences China” last year.
“Other composers chose other instruments after coming to China, but Maratka decided on the suona when he happened to hear an album of the instrument in France,” says Hu.
After coming to Shanghai, Maratka asked suona performer Hu to demonstrate different effects on the instrument -- the lightest or the highest pitches, the most passionate or the saddest emotions.
“Suona's timbre is so loud and characteristic that during a concerto it could never be drowned out by a symphony orchestra. But it's also very hard to write a composition for suona because it's so characteristic.”
As a result, the suona concerto “Chan G'hai” won the first prize after audience vote. (Click Multimedia on the left to listen to excerpts of this piece.)
The humble suona is a simple and inexpensive instrument. It has a conical wooden body, similar to that of the European oboe. However, it uses a brass or copper mouthpiece to which a small double reed is affixed, possessing a detachable metal bell at its end. The best suonas are made of old rosewood, costing only a little more than US$100.
These instruments are used in the woodwind sections of traditional instrument orchestras in China and Singapore. Chinese rock star Cui Jian once featured a suona in his song “Nothing to My Name,” which was played by a saxophonist.
“But unlike Western oboes which have keys to control the pitches, the two-octave suona has only eight holes, and they rely on the breath and fingers of a performer to control the pitches and tunes,” says Hu. “But with such a simple structure, the instrument can vividly imitate the talking, singing or even Chinese opera singing of a human being.”
Mastering the suona is difficult and the eight-hole instrument has been called the “eight-eyed monkey” because like a monkey it is difficult to control.
Hu prepares a several suona in different sizes for performances.
“The bigger ones sound lower and deeper, with a more melancholy touch while the smaller ones sound more crispy and joyful,” says Hu. “Some composers tend to use suona of different sizes in different chapters of a concerto to express a variety of emotions.”
As a suona performer, Hu has encountered a lot of misunderstanding and even discrimination due to the stereotype of the instrument as simply loud and common, lacking sophistication.
“I was chosen by a musical teacher to learn suona during childhood but gradually I truly fell in love with the instrument,” says Hu. “I find playing suona, which allows me to breathe in a special way, is good for my health. It's such a magical instrument that can quickly stir up your emotions.
“It is very loud but it also can produce some very touching, deep timbres. Suona can perfectly express feelings, like the crying and shouting of a man, which gets you directly to the heart of the performer.”