Ethics and interpretation

A much-told story about the late great Paul Foot goes something like this:

He was choosing some oranges to buy at the market when he noticed the Outspan label. (Quite correctly) full of righteous indignation about apartheid, he declared roundly,

“I’m not buying these! They’re from South Africa!”

“Quite right, sir,” said the stallholder. “All those nasty black hands touching them!”

What’s on in Stoke Newington

To complement my post on Alexei Sayle and his early travels behind the Iron curtain:

The other day, finding myself (in the old-fashioned, not New-Age, sense—what do you take me for?) in Stoke Newington, I recalled this fine routine—a historical vignette that already needs exegesis, given the area’s later vibrant image:

Alexei may have mellowed over the years since his angry standup and his cameos in The young onesbut he hasn’t lost his surreal edge, as we can hear in his recent BBC Radio 4 series Alexei Sayle’s imaginary sandwich bar.

Sandwich bar

He plans a sultry film noir aimed at the children’s market,

 Postman Pat always rings twice.

On rationing:

From 1939 to 1945 the government had permitted, indeed had positively encouraged men to bayonet people in the guts or set them on fire with flame throwers or bomb their houses from 20,000 feet, but when they came home they couldn’t have a tomato until 1957!

With the immaculate credentials of his upringing, he reflects,

I think despite all the chaos we create, the famines, the gulags, left-wing people are basically good people. Admittedly left-wing regimes might over time devolve into authoritarian kleptocracies whose autocratic rule is enforced by terror and torture, but we do mean well.

Despite my inordinate enthusiasm for Strictly, I applaud his critique (relevant also to the Chinese heritage flummery):

Everything is wrong with ballroom dancing: the clothes, the music, even the expressions on the dancers’ faces, plus of course the dancing itself. The reason for this is simple—you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aesthetic pursuit, an art form, which has been turned into a competition, the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges. The competitors must try and fit into a series of rules rather than display emotion, artistry and invention, and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. […] If you see a couple performing a proper Argentinian tango you are watching a dance created in the brothels of Buenos Aires that reeks of melancholy and sex. Then you watch the ballroom version of tango, all gurning faces and robotic, angular, hideous movements. You are seeing a great popular art reduced to a terrible travesty.

On the topic of TV competitions, he might like the recent Mash Report headline:

Bake Off winner discovers you can buy cake from shops

Alexei elaborates on the Pannacotta Army line (“ancient figures of soldiers, sculpted out of soft white cheese”), and reminds me of the old Snow White and the Seven Samurai joke, which gave Tom Holt the title for his drôle book. Which might lead us to Nick Helm’s line:

I needed a password eight characters long—so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Among many gems is his account in Episode 2 of how a casual expression “Soup, swoop, loop de loop”, recycled as a forgotten piss-take after a London dinner party, came to be exported to New Zealand and immortalised in the dissertation

“Soup, swoop, loop de loop”: shamanistic incantations in Rarotongan food preparation rituals, University of Topeka, 2001.

I’m also enjoying his latest BBC Radio 4 series The Absence Of Normal.

Subtle revenge

Prague opera

Another Strange But True story from my mentor Paul, again bearing on the surreal Czech imagination:

In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. Between performances the band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.

Learning: Hu Zhihou

The guanzi oboe, leader of the shengguan melodic ensemble that accompanies temple and folk liturgy throughout north China, also has a foothold in the conservatoires—though it is far less popular a solo instrument there than the erhu or pipa. Just as I noted for the suona shawm, there is quite a gulf between folk and conservatoire versions of the guanzi.

Back in 1987, my official “unit” for my second half-year stint in China was the Central Conservatoire in Beijing. My main supervisor there was the great Yuan Jingfang, who (resigning herself to my frequent excursions to the countryside) managed to teach me a lot about the instrumental ensemble music on which she is the leading expert. My first book Folk Music of China was in large part a result of my studies with her.

While I already realized that folk ritual and instruments were to be learned through constant ritual experience rather than in the arid setting of the classroom, I thought I’d better show willing by taking the odd lesson from the guanzi master Hu Zhihou, himself a pupil of the great Hebei Daoist master Yang Yuanheng in the 1950s.

Turning up for lessons every Monday morning at 8am, the warm-up breathing exercise Teacher Hu set me was to smoke a couple of cigarettes with him. This was a real challenge for me, since at the ripe old age of 33 I had still only succeeded in training myself in the consumption of alcohol—absorbing that aspect of my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s education but not his cavalier smoking habit.

Even my exploratory first fieldtrips to the countryside in 1986 were conducted without the social lubricant of sharing cigarettes. I was now becoming a fully-fledged yanjiusheng (研究生 “research student”, or 烟酒生 “scholar of fags and booze”)

So, egged on Teacher Hu, I obediently puffed away in the classroom before spluttering into the guanzi, failing to make much progress in coaxing more than a weedy squawk out of the poor instrument. Fiddling around with reeds and working out fingerings certainly stood me in good stead for my later (passive) immersion in the world of folk guanzi playing, but I can hardly claim to have made the most of his wisdom.

When in 2013 I brought the Li family Daoist band to Beijing to give a recital at my alma mater, I was delighted to find Hu Zhihou in the audience.

He had always been a keen student of folk guanzi playing. While I was “studying” with him, he was leading the suave conservatoire version of the Zhihua temple repertoire—albeit rather distant from the haunting original style. And like Yuan Jingfang, he had made an early  fieldtrip to Yanggao, where he admired the playing of Liu Zhong in Li Qing’s Daoist band—we were all spellbound by Liu Zhong then, in the days before it transpired that there were other Daoist guanzi players there who were even more respected.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing, 2009.

So now I was delighted that Hu Zhihou could relish the brilliant playing of Wu Mei. As I introduced them after the concert, I observed boldly:

“Teacher Hu, I must admit that you never managed to teach me the guanzi! But one thing you did teach me really well, for which I am eternally grateful, is smoking!”

Sure, it’s possible to do fieldwork in rural China without it (I refrain from drinking “white spirit” there, for instance, so I don’t completely go native), but the conviviality of the exchange of cigarettes may seem a necessary temporary expedient—a sacrifice for our art.

Writing about music

This succinct critique by no means invalidates musicology (if it does, then Uh-oh), but I’m fond of the expression

With All Due Respect to Ms Anderson, and indeed Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello,  Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Clara Schumann (now that’d be some jam session: cf. my fantasy dinner party), its many variations have been widely attributed. It’s another snowclone going back in sentiment to the Mists of Time (well, 1918), as in this fine piece of detective work.