The dung-chen is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone of the natural type, meaning it is restricted to sounding only a fundamental and the notes in the harmonic series above it (audio #1). Originating in Tibet, which is now the region of China known as the Autonomous Region of Tibet, the dung-chen today is also found in the bordering areas of India, Nepal and Bhutan where Tibetan refugees settled in numbers following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. The dung-chen is a ritual instrument used primarily in Tibetan Buddhist monastic communities to accompany the chanting of religious texts. Typically used in pairs and played by male members of monastic communities, it is often heard in various combinations with a number of other ritual instruments such as the dril-bu (small hand bell), damaru (small rattle drum), rnga (stick-struck double-headed barrel drum), sbug-chal (large cymbals with pronounced domes), dung-dkar (large conch shell trumpets), rkang-gling (short horns made of human bones), and rgya-gling (oboes). When monasteries mount festivals open to the general public, the sounding of dung-chen from monastery rooftops serves to invite both the general public and deities and guardian spirits to the upcoming performance and feast (Lhalungpa 1969, p.5).
This dung-chen is constructed of thin sheets of copper and brass. Since its conical-shaped tube is made from copper sheeting (the brass is used primarily for decoration and structural strengthening), the more precise name of this instrument is zangs dung (zangs = copper, dung = trumpet). It is made in three telescoping sections (detail #1 shows the instrument when collapsed), the copper sheets rolled into truncated cones the edges of which are dovetailed and soldered together (detail #2). The bottom (distal) section is given a flaring bell (detail #1). The final 7.5 inches of the top section is made of brass (detail #3), as is the shallow and broad cup mouthpiece (detail #4) that is soldered to its narrowest end. A garland around the bell and the three bulging (hollow) ferrules, the top two of which reinforce the copper tubing where the sections connect when the instrument is fully extended, are made from brass sheets and are embossed with floral designs (detail #5). When fully extended (gallery #1 and #2), the overlapping segments of consecutive sections are held tight by friction.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The dung-chen can be sounded with its performer sitting, standing, or walking. When the performer is seated or standing, the bell-end of the instrument will often rest on a special stand. When sounded in procession, the shoulder of an assistant is used to hold the bell-end of the instrument well off the ground. The player uses one or both of his hands to steady the instrument and to control the placement of its mouthpiece against his lips. By controlling the tension of his embouchure and the force of the airstream produced by his exhalation, the dung-chen player produces up to three different pitches: the fundamental of the length of tubing and its first two harmonic partials, the first an octave above the fundamental, the second a thirteenth or octave and a fifth. In audio #1, these three notes are approximately B-flat1, B-flat2, and F3, and the 67.5-inch-long dung-chen pictured here produces nearly the same pitches. However, since dung-chen come in a variety of lengths, the Western pitch equivalents will vary from instrument to instrument. There exists an indigenous graphic notational system used by Buddhist monastic musicians that communicates to them details of melodic contour, pitch inflection, and volume intensity for both instrumental and vocal performance. Therefore, a performed pitch is seldom simply sustained, but animated in a prescribed way. A sense of this can be garnered from the audio #1 excerpt, especially in how the middle note (B-flat2, the first overtone) is given character.
Sources are not forthcoming regarding the history of the dung-chen, other than crediting the instrument to Tibetan Buddhist culture. Various Buddhist traditions and their associated musical practices entered Tibet primarily from India beginning in the 7th century CE, but we found no mention of metal trumpets of any size, much less of the size of dung-chen, being associated with Buddhist practices of that period. Information regarding when it became a ritual instrument in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries was not found, but it seems safe to speculate that it has been used as such for several centuries. However, exactly when during the past fourteen centuries the instrument came into being, what its antecedents were, and how it became an established Buddhist ritual instrument are not at all clear.
Crossley-Holland, Peter. 1999. Liner notes for 2-CD set Anthology of World Music: The Music of Tibetan Buddhism. Rounder Records, CD 5129.
Ellingson, Terry J. 1979. The Mandala of Sound: Concepts and Sound Structures of Tibetan Ritual Music. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Helffer, Mireille. 2014. “Dung-chen.” GDMI v.2: 118-119.
________. 2002. "Tibetan Culture in South Asia." In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music v. 5. South Asia. ed. Alison Arnold. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., pp. 709-717.
Lhalungpa, Lobsang P. 1969. “Tibetan Music: Secular and Sacred,” Asian Music 1(2): 2-10.