A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life.[1]

I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him carefully explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realize where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu and Huang Xiangpeng were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence.

Having helped him out with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. My initial reason for going was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to play his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting to one side what we might call historical musicology in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD), it reminded me that very few (Chinese or Western) have done any serious analysis of Chinese instrumental music—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analyzing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess— within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use, was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku.[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or Nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves”[3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to  select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence retained committed to the qin after his initial studies with Zha Fuxi and Xu Yuanbai in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty.

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from Laurence’s chamber music gatherings, another cherished memory is him playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.


And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for the memorial service:

Music from the Tang court: Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the music of the early-8th-century Tang Chinese court. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small changgo drum, a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu, and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese, if not necessarily Tang Chinese…

[1] Just a few partial references:
On film:
[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.
[3] Ibid. p.221.

5 thoughts on “A tribute to Laurence Picken

  1. Pingback: Recreation | Stephen Jones: a blog

  2. Pingback: Taking it on the qin | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: Tone of voice, and audiences | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: A tribute to Yang Yinliu | Stephen Jones: a blog

  5. Pingback: The beauty of the sheng | Stephen Jones: a blog

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