The seasoned traveller

From Alan Bennett’s 1987 diaries, on a trip to Egypt:

Every day in the late afternoon the hotel fills with tourists, and after breakfast empties again as they depart for Luxor and the boat up the Nile. Many are English.

“Palm trees are nothing to us,” one said today—“We’re from Torquay.”

Living in the past

In the 1980s a story did the rounds in the Central Conservatoire in Beijing, about a group of students sent to do fieldwork in a remote part of southwest China. In one village the peasants seemed not to have heard of Chairman Mao, and when asked “So who’s in charge, then?”, they hesitantly replied “Um… is it called Ming dynasty?” They hadn’t even heard of the Qing.

Of course this sounds apocryphal, a kind of Shangri-La story. Generally, however backward the conditions of places we visit, the scars of Maoism are evident. But I’m not sure we can dismiss it entirely…

Mozart balls

Amidst all the hype surrounding Alma Deutscher, she is the only one talking sense:

I love Mozart very much, he’s probably my favourite composer, but I don’t really like it when people call me “Little Miss Mozart” because I don’t like being called “little”. I’m very big, and secondly, if I just wrote everything Mozart wrote again it would be boring.

Another one for the T-shirt of female composers… And further mature proto-feminist wisdom.

A flat miner

That, of course, is the punchline to

What do you get if you push a piano down a mine shaft?


Among classical musos this is a popular story, whose punch-line often crops up in rehearsals:

A burly murderer, sentenced to life, is doing his Grade V Music Theory in prison. The well-meaning Associated Board examiner (a perfect part for Michael Palin, surely – not that he exactly needs the work) shows up, and goes through all the exam questions nervously in a little room, seated at the piano with the prisoner standing at his side.

It’s all going rather well till they get to the last question, where the candidate has to identify chords. The examiner says pleasantly,
“Now I’m just going to play you a chord—and I’d like you, if you would be so kind, to tell me if it’s a major or a minor triad!”

and plays a major triad with an encouraging smile. The prisoner looks at him dourly and grunts,
“It’s minor”.

The examiner smiles nervously and says,
“Now I’ll just play it again and see what you think…”
Prisoner goes “It’s minor”.
Examiner, with ever more desperate encouragement: “Ah yes, very good… now I’m just going to play it One More Time, and this time I’d like you to pay attention to that teeny little note in the middle—see whether you find it a little on the low side, or is it, perhaps, rather, um, somewhat high, and bright, and happy…?”

The prisoner walks over to the piano, puts his huge gnarled hand on the examiner’s puny corduroyed shoulder, and says slowly and severely,

“I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

Often in rehearsal when there is discussion of the appropriate continuo chord in a figured bass line, we all snowclone in chorus, “I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

For F hashtag minor, see link here; and for a music lesson from Bill Bailey, here.

The shock of the new


“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life. Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticized view of folk culture! (For a “pagan” ritual performer among the Cheremis, see here; and for the New Year rituals of Gaoluo in China, here.)

Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music—the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:

Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:

For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here.

Among endless discussions, try this. And here’s an attractive quandary:

Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:

If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version

sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,

then good for him.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:

A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:

In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:

My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.

On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.

By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.

An unwitting put-down


For WAM buffs, a story about Erich Leinsdorf, conducting Mahler with the Boston Symphony in the 1970s:

Driving along the freeway on his way into town for the concert in Symphony Hall, Leinsdorf has cut it a bit fine, so he puts his foot down, and sure enough the cops pull him over.

He’s getting really late now, so he blurts out,

“Look officer, you gotta let me go, I’m a real famous conductor, I gotta go and conduct the Boston Symphony, they’re counting on me—my name’s Erich Leinsdorf!”

The cop (chewing gum languorously) looks at him skeptically and goes,

“I don’t care who you are, bud—you could be Arthur Fiedler for all I care!”

Bach on film

Just jotted down a few impertinent ideas about Bach, and Daoism, under the WAM menu. Sure there will be more…

Re Bach, two fictional films from the 60s, despite their extreme musical contrast, are linked both by their intensity and by not just accepting but probing our own modern values:

  • Pasolini’s The gospel according to St Matthew


  • The chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet—with  Gustav Leonhardt as Bach!). Here’s a trailer:

(These links come and go. I’ll try and keep an eye on them, but you can do your own YouTube searches if they disappear. For the latter film I found a version enriched by Japanese subtitles, like the Greek subtitles of Johnny the shoeshine guy…)