Transverse Flutes

  October 19, 2021   Read time 2 min
Transverse Flutes
It is suggested that the transverse flute may have originated in the Indian subcontinent. It would be a mistake to judge that suggestion by the small instruments of thin bamboo or other reed often seen in souvenir shops and “traditional craft” places.
The serious instruments are made of much heavier materials, usually bamboo or wood, and are often longer than our own concert flutes, much the length of our alto flute. They normally have six fingerholes, too widely spaced to be covered by the tips of the fingers—using the upper phalanges allows the hand a wider spread. These instruments can be heard today in performances of Indian classical music, and they are also used in folk music. They can be seen from earlier times in paintings and on statues, many times, as we said above, associated with the god Krishna or one of his avatars.
The early Chinese chi that may have derived from it was shorter, as we noted above with those from the tomb of the Marquis Yi, with the embouchure set 90 degrees away from the alignment of the fingerholes. A later version, also introduced from the west through Central Asia around the second century BC or so during the Han dynasty, was similar in length but with embouchure and fingerholes aligned.
Today, the Chinese flute is very different, narrower in bore than the Indian and with more holes—so many that descriptions have sometimes been badly confused. There are more holes than the player has fingers, and their positions make some of them impossible to reach. Nevertheless, one does quite often see mentions of eleven fingerholes! The true description, following down the tube from the embouchure, is first a single hole, some distance from the embouchure, that is covered with a thin membrane made from the inner skin of bamboo. This, because it is thin and delicate, is often missing from examples in museums. In performance, the membrane adds a sweetening, buzzing quality to the sound, a refined version of the comb and paper of our childhood.
Then, at about the same distance from the membrane hole as that was from the embouchure, comes the first of the series of six fingerholes, followed, close to the foot of the flute, by two “vents,” as holes are called that are not fingered but that control the pitch of the instrument. Close to these, but at the back of the body, are two more holes through which should be tied a loop of silk cord that both is decorative and serves to hang the instrument when not in use. As with our own flutes, the embouchure is some distance from the top of the body, and again like ours, this is both for the sake of appearance and to help balance the instrument.
The bore is closed just above the embouchure by a cork or other object. With many examples, the body is lashed with rings of waxed thread between each of the holes and at other points along its length. This version of the dizi is comparatively modern. Instruments of the length we know today date probably from the Song dynasty, around 1000 AD, much the same date as when the transverse flute appeared nearer Europe.

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