True story:

Applicants for the post of principal conductor of the LA Phil were asked to submit a list of works they’d like to conduct in their first season. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s list was full of pieces by challenging contemporary composers. At the interview, the chair of the board looked severely over his application, turned to him and said,

“I don’t quite know how to put this to you, Mr Salonen, but… here at the Phil, we prefer our composers… dead.”

This may still apply to a considerable extent within the echelons of WAM; yet ironically, when those dead composers were alive, the core repertoire was contemporary: baroque and romantic audiences came along expecting to hear new music.

For China too, as I show in Appendix 1 of my book Daoist priests of the Li family, I attempt not a normative reconstruction of some timeless ancient wisdom, but a descriptive account of ritual life within changing modern society. See Debunking “living fossils”.

For the great maestro Salonen, see also here and here. For more interview stories, click here.

Theory and practice

The lack of dietary restrictions among household Daoists is all the excuse I need to cite Woody Allen’s Hassidic tales:

A woman stops a great Rabbi and asks, “Rabbi, why are we not allowed to eat pork?”

“We’re not?” the Rabbi said incredulously. “Uh-oh.”



In this photo, the woman on the far left is often claimed to be Mozart’s widow Constanze (1762–1842), just imagine (see here)… Or is it? For doubts, see wiki.

Many would like to believe it. If it is her, then it will be one of the most surprising things you will ever see. OK, it was taken in 1840, when Wolfgang was long gone. Few wives outlived their husbands. Given the harshness of the times, she hardly looks 78.

As Sean Munger comments, Constanze became the Yoko Ono of the 19th century. Wiki also cites the Grove dictionary:

Early 20th-century scholarship severely criticized her as unintelligent, unmusical and even unfaithful, and as a neglectful and unworthy wife to Mozart. Such assessments (still current) were based on no good evidence, were tainted with anti-feminism and were probably wrong on all counts.

* * *

If only we had photos of the Li family Daoists (and their wives) from the late imperial era… Even the photo of Li Peisen and his wife from the 1940s is rare enough. Indeed, in a world where female members of a family are taken for granted at best, people remembered her as exceptionally able and intelligent too.

Lost in translation

Two gems I found on a room service menu in Beijing, 2015: 

Fuck to fry the cow

Discredited mandarin fish of Mount Huang

Translations on menus provide rich entertainment, of course. For East Asia, Victor Mair gets to grips with some on languagelog (some links here), and that site has many more Silly signs.  See also my Temple Chinglish.

For a menu pun, I’m most taken by this—as if inviting a Chinese franchise of Flann O’Brien:


which indeed leads nicely into Lyrics for theme tunes


Allegedly, a lunchtime recital by two fine UK musicians was advertised thus (read it aloud…):


Shades there of “Bach’s Organ Works” too. BTW, in a “proper” index to this blog, more detailed than the sidebar tags, it would give me great pleasure to include Bolton among several numinous place-names in the index to my largely Daoist ouevre:

In the Scunthorpe entry, the page-reference under Messiah is genuine (in my Daoist priests of the Li family); I’ve imagined the others, since (intriguingly) they add to the drôlerie. Do click on the links!

See also The joys of indexing.

* In a rare burst of decorum, I’ve refrained from posting this one so far—perhaps the unspoken allusion is more subtle.

The string quartet

The violinist David Martin led a string quartet which they imaginatively decided to call The Martin String Quartet. Once after a gig for a regional music society, he received a letter of thanks that opened

Dear Mr String,

Another music society story:

An up-and-coming young tenor was to give a recital for a music society. Time was short, so he phoned the club secretary to read out his programme for printing. It included the item Could I but express in song. Perusing the programme when he arrived, he found the title

Kodály, Buttocks pressing song.

which does indeed have a somewhat plausible folk cachet.


Of all the beautiful things you can do in 5 minutes and 20 seconds (like playing Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body at the end of the Transferring Offerings ritual), the divine Ronnie’s 1997 maximum is likely to remain unmatched in human history:

Beats 4’33” any day, with all due respect to John Cage.

I shouldn’t need an excuse for showing this, but here it is. After taking Li Manshan to a conference in Hong Kong (my book, p.333), I was staying with him in a posh hotel in Beijing when we switched on the TV to find Ronnie playing in the world masters snooker. Snooker has become staggeringly popular in China, but Li Manshan hadn’t seen it before, and his amazement was delightful. So I showed him this 147, which is flabbergasting even if you don’t quite know how ridiculously difficult it is…

After the lavish banquets in Hong Kong, at which we both felt rather uncomfortable, we were happy to eat a simple bowl of noodles in peace together in a little caff over the road. Next day I took him to the station to take the train home and get on with his routine of determining the date, decorating coffins, and funerals.

My favourite expression of snooker commentators is “he’s eying up a plant” (see here, and here). Tang poetry is all very well, but I wonder how you say that in Chinese…

Since Ronnie is often described as the Mozart of snooker, I note that Mozart enjoyed a game of billiards.

For more on Ronnie and snooker, see this roundup.

Homage to Tang poetry


Lest anyone suppose I frittered away my time while studying classical Chinese at Cambridge, here are three poems I composed then in the style of the great Tang masters (though even Bai Juyi’s ouevre was variable). I think they display precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings. OK, the finer rules of prosody have always eluded me, but I borrowed most of the phrases from original Tang poems, giving them what I believe is known as a contemporary twist.

A smoke behind the cricket pavilion
This was prompted by the pun on chan: “Zen” , and “cricket” in the sense of cicada; from there I punned with another kind of cricket. “Smoke”, of course, is what you see wafting from a rural hamlet at sundown.

獨坐蝉亭后                      Sitting alone behind the cricket pavilion
輕聞白衣玩                      Hearing vaguely the cricketers playing *
忽然含烟氣                      Suddenly I retain the smoke vapour
畏有蝉師来                      What if the cricket master should come?

* Inspired by Alan Marett’s sound comments below, I now add this wacky footnote, in the style of Mots d’heure: gousses, rames and the faqu series (see under A Tang mélange):

“Cricketers” for baiyi, “white clothes”: at least in later dynasties, this might be understood as referring to White-clothed Bodhisattva Guanyin.

A version of this poem recently discovered amongst a collection of apocrypha [sic] in cave 17 at Dunhuang gives this variant of the second line:

柳條擊革聲 The thwack of leather on willow

Liutiao “willow branch” seems to allude to the rain ceremony (highly efficacious—“rain stopped play”)—indeed, White-clothed Guanyin is often depicted as holding a willow branch (or “bat”);
ge “hide/skin” is one rubric under the ancient eightfold classification of musical instruments—the membranophone used in this rain ceremony being spherical in shape. For football in the Song dynasty, see here.

I may add that this was long before I experienced the ritual of smoking with Daoists.

On receiving a visit in late spring from Mr Yan and his friends
This is the title of a poem by Wang Wei, which conjured up sinister images of the mafia in a B-movie (“We wouldn’t want this vase to get broken, would we? Oh dear me, how clumsy…”).

贵居来人少                    Your esteemed abode has few visitors
黄髮君已老                     You are old now, with your grey hair
一時破此瓶                      Just suppose this vase got broken
惆怅悲無際                      Such sadness, limitless grief!

At the pictures
Inspired by the original phrase “old overcoat”, and the common occurrence of the term “washerwoman”, this poem charmingly describes an indecent exposure at the cinema.

春寒著弊袍                 The spring is cold—I put on an old overcoat
上堂来人少                 The cinema has few visitors
静坐依浣女                 Quietly sitting, I nudge a washerwoman
一閃啼連天                 One flash, and the howls reach to the heavens!

Note also On visiting a hermit, and many posts under the Tang tag.

Silly questions


One prominent badge of fieldworkers, distinguishing them from the natives, restless or not, is their asking stupid questions. Nigel Barley, as ever, has a good illustration (The innocent anthropologist, p.41):

“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”

Among many posts on fieldwork exchanges, note Bruce Jackson’s fine exposition, and Speaking from the heart.

Mind your language

I can’t resist citing a charming story from a Chinese anthropologist documenting a village in Shaanxi province: [1]

One sunny afternoon in February 1992, I went to the main village by myself. Since it was not long after the Chinese New Year’s day, everyone in the village was still in new dresses. When I was walking around, trying to talk to people, I met an old woman who carried her little grandson whose age was no more than three or four. The little boy was dressed up in a new green suit designed like the People’s Liberation Army uniform, and he was wearing a brand new green hat with a red star in the middle. He looked so pretty that I bent over to say “hello” to him. To my surprise, the little prince quietly said to me, “Fuck your mother”. I was so embarrassed that I did not know if I had done anything improper. The old woman slapped her grandson and told him, “No, you little fucking bastard! Don’t say that to Teacher Liu. He is a fucking nice person.”


[1] Liu Xin, Zhao villagers: everyday practices in a post-reform Chinese village, PhD (Dept of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS, 1995), p.183—cruelly censored from the published version In one’s own shadow (2000)!

Drunken Zhong Kui

Zhong Kui

I wrote this programme note for a festival of Chinese music at the Carnegie Hall, about the plot of a Hokkien puppet opera:

Zhong Kui is a famous classical scholar, but he is extremely ugly. The Tang emperor, judging him by his appearance, rejects him for an official post. Feeling humiliated, Zhong Kui commits suicide, whereupon the God of the Underworld gives him a job as God of Exorcism. With innumerable demons to quell, Zhong Kui is troubled. The more he drinks, the worse his problems become, but he can only focus on the endless war against demons and evil spirits.

What is the moral here? That ugliness, depression, and substance-abuse must not detract from the ongoing war on terrorism?! Discuss.

 OK, that last bit got judiciously cut, but still.

More Irish music

There I was on tour in Ireland, playing Mozart’s first opera Apollo and Hyacinthus, which enjoys the added blessing of being short, so we could go on to sessions in local pubs. One night in the pub after a gig across the border in Armagh, an old codger got chatting to me, and told me of his father Jimmy.

Notionally a shopkeeper, Jimmy gave little thought to the business, instead spending all his time in his back room with his mates playing old tunes and getting pleasantly pissed. They were all pretty rubbish, but had a great time, scraping away ineptly on their fiddles. One day in a break Jimmy switches on the wireless to hear a solemn announcement:

“It is with deep regret that we announce the death of the celebrated concert violinist Mr Jascha Heifetz.”

One of the guys looks at him with a tear in his eye and sighs,

“Bejaysus, Jimmy, there ain’t many of us left.”

I wish I’d been able to tell my teacher Hugh Maguire that one. For more stories about Irish music, see the great Cieran Carson; and for Paul Bowles’s story about Yehudi “Monahan”, click here. My posts on Irish music are rounded up here.

Irish music

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Paul Carthy (1911–2006)

Paul Carthy (1911–2006).

In his brilliant Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson devotes a chapter (“The standard”, pp.91–8) to the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. A few instances:

Deirdre was once asked to adjudicate the fiddle competition in the County — Fleadh. Unfortunately, the event attracted no entrants; but the competition had to happen and a winner be selected. It so happened that a Mr X, generally regarded as the best fiddle-player in the area, might well have gone in for it; however, he couldn’t be got out of the pub, except for the official free high-tea that it was his duty to attend. Deirdre was dispatched to the tea-room above the hall, and managed to inveigle Mr X into playing the requisite reel, jig, and slow air, in between the soup, the salad sandwiches, and the jelly trifle. He was then presented with an enormous trophy, much to his surprise.


I was once present at a singing competition in the town of —, in the province of —. The adjudicators were the well-known singers Mr Y and Mr Z. The venue was the local Temperance Hall. The competition started rather late, as the adjudicators found it difficult to leave the nearby pub. They eventually arrived with a brown paper bag which they discreetly shared under the trestle table. At the finale, everyone was awarded medals. The adjudicators sang a duet. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt well-adjudicated.

Another story, from the 1908 Freeman’s Journal:

“Our country musicians are possessed of the talent of music and have in their minds the beautiful in it, but they cannot reproduce them, for they lach the technical means of doing so.” Applause. “Were they reasonably educated they would produce a race of musicians worthy of our history. Again, we had those who believed that Irish music should be rendered in scales of unusual construction. [SJ: shades of de Selby?!] Many scales existed in ancient times, but, alas, those who could teach us have gone. Because a singer or player, through lack of technical means, sang or played with a total disregard of any correctness of intonation, that did not qualify them to claim that they were using a scale of unusual construction. The majority of them did not adhere to the accepted musical scale, not that they used any other form of scale, but that their ear being totally untrained, they involuntarily produced a music not in any one scale, but in an infinity of scales of impossible construction.” Laughter and applause.

Mr Darley then gave his violin recital of Irish airs.

Most delightful is Carson’s citation of a fine story from Mick Hoy—a caveat to reverse musical snobbery:

There were these three fiddlers once upon a time.
And they were in for this competition
And the first one came up
and he was dressed in a dress-suit
and he had a dicky-bow and bib on him.
And the fiddle-case was made out of crocodile skin.
And when he brought out the fiddle,
what was it, but a Stradivarius.
And he started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

And the second fiddler came up
and he was wearing a nice Burton’s suit
and a matching handkerchief and tie
and socks with clocks on them.
And he had a nice wooden case
and not a bad fiddle in it,
so he got it out and started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

 And the third fiddler came up
and the elbows was out of his jacket
and the toes peeping from his shoes,
and the fiddle-case was tied with bits of wire
and when he brought out the fiddle,
there was more strings on the fiddle
than there was on the bow.
And he started to play.
And beGod, he was desperate too.

Note also Alexei Sayle’s pithy critique of ballroom dancing.

It’s the only language they understand

In the early 1990s, arriving with my long-suffering friend and colleague Xue Yibing in a typically bare and grimy office of the Bureau of Culture in a county south of Beijing, we settle down to courtesies with the Bureau chief, to clear our way to go down to the villages. I launch into my routine again—delighted to be in this fine county, heard so much about your wonderful music, blah-blah, most grateful for your support, international cultural exchange blah-blah.

The Bureau chief is looking even more nonplussed by all these pathetic clichés than one would expect, and eventually, as I flounder around searching for yet more sonorous bullshit with which to impress him, Xue Yibing interjects,

“Do you understand what he’s saying, Bureau chief?”

He replies earnestly,
“Well, if Mr Jones could speak Chinese, I might understand a bit!”

OK, my accent may not be perfect, but really! Xue diplomatically explains,
“Mr Jones doesn’t speak Chinese so well…” which prompts me to joke with him,
“My Chinese is a lot better than your fucking English, mate—wodya mean, motherfucker?” Needless to say, these choice expressions come out in perfect Chinese readily understood by all. The assembled cronies are bemused.

This story soon became part of our Fieldworkers’ joke manual (cf. Writing English: the etic view), and has even been immortalized, if somewhat modified, in a little article I published in a Chinese conference volume. [1]

* * *

Gao Liwang 1993

My confidence was restored soon after, when we visited an old-people’s home where we were told a fine former Daoist priest was living. We find him, and are soon chatting in the sunny courtyard with a crowd of lovely old geezers assembled. They haven’t had such fun since the Red Star Chairman Mao Thought Propaganda Troupe arrived to perform classic hits like We are little screws in the revolutionary machine and Thrust into the Enemy Rear. As I explain to the old Daoist,

“Old Wang in your home village told us we might find you here, he said you used to do some great rituals…”,

one old guy bursts out,

“Hey, this is amazing—their language is the same as ours!”

His ears were more finely tuned than those of the Bureau chief.

For challenges to communication in “English”, see here.


[1] “Cong ‘Jiaru Zhong xiansheng neng shuo Hanyu dehua’ shuoqi”  从《假如钟先生能说汉语的话》说起, in Qiao Jianzhong 乔建中 and Xue Yibing 薛艺兵 eds., Minjian guchuiyue yanjiu 民间鼓吹乐研究 (Shandong youyi cbs, 1999), pp.407–13.

Feudal headdress, liberal belly

Hui'an women 86

Women of Hui’an, 1986. My photo.

One of the delights of returning to Beijing after a stint in the countryside is catching up on the news. Our resident publication the English-language China Daily is full of gems, and it’s gratifying to find that my colleagues there don’t stint on documenting folklore:

The dress of Fujian women on show is also interesting. Perhaps most eye-catching is that of the women of the coastal Hui’an county. They adorn their hair with several combs or bows and wrap their heads in colourful scarves, sometimes topped with broad-brimmed hats made of bamboo strips or rice straw. Their coats, primarily black or blue, decorated with embroidery, are purposely short to reveal a bit of the midsection; the trousers, by contrast, are oversized and baggy. So there is a local saying: “Feudal headdress, liberal belly; thrifty coat, extravagant trousers”.

Catchy, eh…

For more on Hui’an, see here.

Social commentary

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall around 1980 I recall this public information poster. Heading a map of the Thames, showing areas of London at risk of flooding, was the stern question


In that selfless spirit of social involvement that makes musicians’ life so enriching, someone soon added a reply:

Breaststroke *

Another seasoned free-lancing wag added, in an incisive piece of reflexive ethnographic commentary:

Accept a gig in the north of England


* Also the punchline to “Waiter, what’s this fly doing in my soup?”

Early music put in its place

One evening after doing the Monteverdi Vespers, or should I say Vespas [No you should not—Ed.] in St Johns’ Smith Square I had to get somewhere else in a hurry, so I jumped into a taxi.

The driver goes, “So wot you bin up to then?”

Me: “Um, been playing this amazing piece by Monteverdi, it’s, um, like, old stuff—like early music, you know?”

“Oh right—you mean like Frank Ifield an’ that?”

Me: “Er, yeah, that’s the kinda thing…”

* * *

“But you know”, as Alan Bennett’s sermon goes, “he put me in mind of the kind of question I feel I should be asking you here tonight”: what is early music, and is it closing time yet?

For another detached review of early music, see here (among many stories under the humour subhead of the WAM category). And here’s a comment from Larson.

Lives in jazz


Billie Holiday‘s 1957 TV appearance must be among the most moving videos ever, with Billie in rapture, showing the depth of the rapport between great musicians (for the making of the film, see here). Don’t miss the final trumpet solo from Roy Eldridge!

For my personal Billie Holiday playlist, see here. As to books on her, don’t get me started…

Apart from the experience of listening, jazz biographies are just as captivating as jazz photos. If only I could bring the Li family Daoists to life with such detail as we find in books like

I discuss Chet Baker here, and here. And for a brilliant biography of Lenny Bruce, click here. See also Frank Morgan and Art Pepper.

More academic, but (sic) masterly, is

  • Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz.

In books like this, it’s not just the social and personal detail that impresses, but the technical aspects of their constant musical strivings—the musos’ obsession with chords, timbre, and so on. From Charlie Parker’s use of the Rico number five reed (Russell pp.10–13) to Keith Richards‘ sheer exhilaration at discovering the open five-string tuning (in Life p.270ff., no less captivating than the many gaudy experiences throughout the book).

We could compile lists of similar excursions in world music, but jazz leads the way…

While I’m about it, don’t forget

* * *

Here’s a fun party game. When reading Life, be sure to read it in Keef’s voice—his inclusive conspiratorial chuckle is one of the great primeval sounds of nature.

Conversely, Miles’s autobiography should be read in the voice of the Queen, Brian Sewell, Jacob Wee-Smug [aka The Haunted Pencil]—or (for yet older readers…) the presenter of Listen with Mother. If serialised on Radio 4, it could be called Listen with Motherfucker. For a related story from Turkish trumpeter Muvaffak “Maffy” Falay, see Jazz in Turkey.

Family history


Overheard (allegedly) by Flann O’Brien:

“D’you know, Geoffrey, only last night I learnt many interesting things about my family. D’you know that my great-grandfather was killed at Waterloo?”

“Rayully, sweetness, which platform?”

The golden head was tossed in disdain.

“How ridiculous you are, Geoffrey. As if it mattered which platform.”