Depping with master singers

Just home from Paris after an unforgettable time with the Li family Daoists. It already seems like a dream.

Nanterre encore

Our encore, Centre Mandapa. Photo: Nicolas Prevot.

As an encore [English term—Ed. When in France say bis!] I joined in with the Li band, singing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella (audio playlist track 3, cf. 2001 version, track 2: commentary here).

For anyone fortunate enough to do fieldwork on Daoist ritual, I thought this might remind us of the benefits (indeed the very possibility) of participant observation; but it was also an opportunity for me to keep my hand in after a year apart from the Daoists. Having remoulded the proverb “Mr Li wearing Mr Zhang’s hat”, I enjoy refuting another popular one, “The monk from outside knows how to recite the scriptures” (wailaide heshang hui nianjing 外来的和尚会念经).

Long schooled by accompanying Mark Padmore and the Monteverdi Choir on my violin, I now have to set aside my instinct to invest words with meaning, instead trying to latch onto the lugubrious timbre of the voices of Li Manshan and Golden Noble, and Wu Mei’s guanzi. Li Manshan’s bushy eyebrows are a useful image here.

During rituals, when we sing a cappella hymns we stand in two rows of three, facing each other across the altar table. So usually I’m either playing small cymbals over the other side from Wu Mei, or playing gong at the other end. But this time I found myself standing right next to him and Golden Noble for the encore, with Li Bin (also brilliant) on my right, all of them subtly supporting me. I realised Wu Mei is not only one of the greatest wind players in the world and a brilliant player of the bo cymbals, but (like Li Manshan and Golden Noble) a fantastic singer too. Not just his nasal timbre and the projection of his voice, but the taste of his choices—where to inject extra volume and fervour, rise up high, or put in a tiny variation. Listening carefully to each other as always, dovetailing, with subtle “rules” about where to take a breath and where to sustain. There’s much more to their singing than meets the ear—the texts of the a cappella hymns are rendered with great intensity and concentration.

Over fags outside the hotel we had worked out an edited version of the Mantra, segueing smoothly from the end of the 1st verse directly into the coda of the 3rd verse. With a very subtle accelerando, its exuberant repeated final couplet begins from a high do the first time, soaring to an exuberant high mi on the repeat:

Vowing this evening to attend the ritual assembly,
Leading the deceased spirits to ascend upwards towards the Southern Palace!

We noted a nice pun, glossing “ritual assembly” (fahui) as “French concert” (Faguo yinyuehui)—the extra characters to be recited silently (monian), like a secret formula. Li Manshan congratulates me again on my silent recitation—”The only thing you’ve learned properly, Steve!”

In rituals back home they don’t always give their all, but on tour, wanting to put on a good show, they are magnificent. Standing in with the Li band—whether at a Paris concert or at a Yanggao funeral—is one of the great musical experiences of my life, “and I’ve had a few in my time I can tell you” (take your pick—Christmas Oratorio in Weimar, B Minor Mass in the Barbican after a tour of Japan, and so on…).

After all my tedious academic questions, being right in the middle of the action with these master Daoists (not “musicians”!) is overwhelming for me. Li Manshan, Golden Noble, and Wu Mei are right on my case. There are no passengers—Erqing and Wang Ding (Li Manshan’s pupil, a welcome new recruit to our touring band) are great too. Focusing on the vocal ensemble, surrounded by Li Manshan’s sparse and subtle drum patterns, the regular crotchet beat of the gong, and quavers on the bell, I also have to remember where to beat out the occasional syncopated cadences on the small cymbals with Li Manshan’s drum accents.

It reminds me of my occasional depping with them in Yanggao for funeral segments (my book, pp.325–6) when they’re one short—waiting on the substitutes’ bench. It also has a disturbing echo of my orchestral experience—that’s another depressingly familiar phone-call from orchestral fixers,

“Can you come and do a Messiah next Tuesday in Barnsley? I’ve tried everyone, we’re absolutely desperate!”

Thanks a lot…

Our chats turned to the singing of the revered older generation of Li Qing and his colleagues. Li Zengguang was admired as a vocal liturgist; Li Qing’s own voice declined somewhat with age. Some had fine voices but less mastery of the texts; other masters who knew all the texts perfectly were somewhat variable in intonation and vocal ability. Apart from their astounding instrumental ensemble, I doubt if there’s ever been a more brilliant vocal group than the present band under Li Manshan, working together almost daily for thirty years.

8 thoughts on “Depping with master singers

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