Peccable logic

Lee Mack is always drôle.

Don’t try this at home. Or rather, only try it at home…

Such peccable logic is eclipsed only by Tucker Carlson’s recent

If the NFL owners are racist, why are 70% of their employees black?

Carlson is “honestly confused”. Yeah, right. His comment was soon compared with

If slave owners were racist, why were 100% of their slaves black?

On visual culture

As with my remarks on punk and so on,

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Or to adapt it to the topic in hand,

You think I know Shag Nothing, but I know CHAGALL!

More genteel would be the old “I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like!” (groan from Myles). So, following Myles, I write this in the spirit of The Plain People of Ireland. As often, I’m seeking clues relevant to my own areas of study, making connections that can easily get buried beneath our individual specialities. Perhaps this post might be entitled Renaissance art for Dummies in the Field of Daoist Ritual Studies—not one of their bestsellers, I suspect.

Sassetta: St Francis giving his cloak to a poor soldier.

I first came across

  • Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy: a primer in the social history of pictorial style (1st edition 1972)

while browsing Rod Conway Morris’s library in Venice, along with Horatio E. Brown’s splendidly-titled Some Venetian knockers.

It’s my kind of book, full of the practical detail of materials, technical skill, and patronage, as well as exploring changing perceptions. Quite short, and eminently readable, it gains much from having grown out of a series of lectures that he gave. It addresses issues that I hardly find in discussions of Chinese ritual and music (for any period), so I’d like to explore it at a certain length.

Baxandall opens by encapsulating, in plain and elegant language,** issues that, um, scholars of Daoist ritual (of all periods) should absorb:

A 15th-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship.
On one side there was the painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it, provided funds for him to make it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions—commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social—that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made.

He observes that

The picture trade was a very different thing from that in our own late romantic condition, in which painters paint what they think best and then look round for a buyer.

Exploring the mismatch between our concepts of “public” and “private”, he notes that

Private men’s commissions often had very public roles, often in public places. A more relevant distinction is between commissions controlled by large corporate institutions like the offices of cathedral works and commissions from individual men or small groups of people: collective or communal undertaking on the one hand, personal initiatives on the other. The painter was typically, though not invariably, employed by an individual or small group. […] In this he differed from the sculptor, who often worked for large commercial enterprises. (p.5)

He meshes all this with detailed technical discussion, like the use of ultramarine:

The exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are likely to miss. (p.11)

Thus in the Sassetta painting above, the gown St Francis gives away is an ultramarine gown.

The contracts point to a sophistication about blues, a capacity to discriminate between one and another, with which our own culture does not equip us.

Baxandall notes change over the course of the Quattrocento:

While precious pigments become less prominent, a demand for pictorial skill becomes more so. […] It seems that clients were becoming less anxious to flaunt sheer opulence of material.

But he goes on:

It would be futile to account for this sort of development simply within the history of art. The diminishing role of gold in paintings is part of a general movement in western Europe at this time towards a kind of selective inhibition about display, and this show itself in many other kinds of behaviour too. It was just as conspicuous in the client’s clothes, for instance, which were abandoning gilt fabrics and gaudy hues for the restrained black of Burgundy. This was a fashion with elusive moral overtones.
[…]
The general shift away from gilt splendour must have had very complex and discrete sources indeed—a frightening social mobility with its problem of dissociating itself from the flashy new rich; the acute physical shortage of gold in the fifteenth century; a classical distaste for sensuous licence now seeping out from neo-Ciceronian humanism, reinforcing the more accessible sorts of Christian asceticism; in the case of dress, obscure technical reasons for the best quality of Dutch cloth being black anyway; above all, perhaps, the sheer rhythm of fashionable reaction. (pp.14–15)

To show how skill was becoming the natural alternative to precious pigment, and might now be understood as a conspicuous index of consumption, he returns to “the money of painting”—the costing of painting-materials, and frame, as against labour and skill.

You will no longer be surprised to learn that the Quattrocento division of labour between master and disciples (pp.19–23) reminds me of Daoist ritual specialists.

Baxandall goes on to note the differences in patrons’ demands for panel paintings and frescoes. He attempts to address the issue (even for the time of creation) of public response to painting:

The difficulty is that it is at any time eccentric to set down on paper a verbal response to the complex non-verbal stimulations paintings are designed to provide: the very fact of doing so must make a man untypical. (pp.24–5)

Aesthetic terms expressed in words are contingent, varying from age to age, and anyway elusive. Even with the vocabulary of such accounts, discussing that of a Milanese agent, Baxandall notes:

the problem of virile and sweet and air having different nuances for him than for us, but there is also the difficulty that he saw the pictures differently from us.

He goes on to explore different kinds of viewers’ own exercise of skill in appreciating a painting, with their different backgrounds:

… the equipment that the fifteenth-century painter’s public brought to complex visual stimulations like pictures. One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing classes, one might say. […] The peasants and the urban poor play a very small part in the Renaissance culture that most interests us now, which may be deplorable but is a fact that must be accepted. […] So a certain profession, for instance, leads a man [sic—SJ] to discriminate particularly effectively in identifiable areas. (p.39)

Whatever [the painter’s] own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit. (p.40)

And given that “most 15th-century pictures are religious pictures”, he asks in detail,

What is the religious function of religious pictures?

His answer, in brief, is that they were used “as respectively lucid, vivid and readily accessible stimuli to meditation on the Bible and the lives of Saints.” But he goes on to enquire:

What sort of painting would the religious public for pictures have found lucid, vividly memorable, and emotionally moving?
[…]
The fifteenth-century experience of a painting was not the painting we see now so much as a marriage between the painting and the beholder’s previous visualizing activity on the same matter. (pp.40–45)

Again he makes the crucial point:

15th-century pictorial development happened within fifteenth-century classes of emotional experience.

Alongside colour, he discusses the beholders’ appreciation of gesture and groupings, adducing dance and sacred drama.

It is doubtful if we have the right predispositions to see such refined innuendo at all spontaneously. (p.76)

And apart from their basic level of piety (largely lost to us today), many of the “patronizing classes” would have assessed the work partly through their knowledge of geometry and the harmonic series.

In Part III Baxandall attempts to sketch the “cognitive style” of the time, with the reservation that

A society’s visual practices are, in the nature of things, not all or even mostly represented in verbal records. (p.109)

Finally he reverses his main argument—that “the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances” (and so “noting bits of social convention that may sharpen our perception of the pictures”)—by suggesting that “the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society” (p.151).

An old painting is the record of visual activity. One has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language; both language and pictorial representations are conventional activities. […]

In sum,

Social history and art history are continuous, each offering necessary insights into the other.

Such reflections seem more sophisticated than the “autonomous”, timeless approaches still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual. To be fair, we are quite busy trying to document ritual sequences, hereditary titles, and so on—but the Renaissance scholars have just as much nitty-gritty to deal with too.

* * *

Carpaccio

Carpaccio: Baptism of the Selenites, c1504–7 (detail). San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

(The painting features a shawm band that I’d love to hear! For Venice’s musical contacts with the East, see e.g. here).

Baxandall ends with a caveat:

One will not approach the paintings on the philistine level of the illustrated social history.

I don’t think he quite had in mind

  • Alexander Lee, The ugly renaissance: sex, greed, violence and depravity in an age of beauty (2014),

a less technical, more sociological book with a firm political agenda that some may find more appealing than others (cf. this review of Catherine Fletcher, The beauty and the terror: an alternative history of the Italian Renaissance (2020).

Poking around beneath the glamorous surface image of the Renaissance, seemingly “an age of beauty and brilliance populated by men and women of angelic perfection”, he observes:

If the Renaissance is to be understood, it is necessary to acknowledge not just the awe-inspiring idealism of its cultural artefacts but also the realities which its artists endeavoured to conceal or reconfigure.

Lowe explores the brutal social universe in which artists were immersed. Like Baxandall, he explores the relationship between artist and his assistants and apprentices:

The relationship was naturally based on work, and hence could often be punctuated by squabbles, or even dismissal. Michelangelo continually had trouble with his assistants, and had to sack several for poor workmanship, laziness, or even—in one particular case—because the lad in question was “a stuck-up little turd”.

Given that patrons were as important as artists in shaping the form and direction of Renaissance art,

Rather than being seduced by the splendor of the works they commissioned, it is essential to uncover the world behind the paintings; a world that was populated not by the perfect mastery of colour and harmony that is usually associated with the Renaissance, but by ambition, greed, rape, and murder.

He shows the often dubious motives of patrons. They often valued a commission “for the contribution it could make to reshaping the image of often extremely disreputable men”. Such works “were intended more to conceal the brutality, corruption, and violence on which power and influence were based than to celebrate the culture and learning of art’s greatest consumers”.

Lowe also seriously questions the image of the period as one of “discovery” of the wider world:

In their dealings with Jews, Muslims, black Africans, and the Americas, the people of the Renaissance were not only much less open towards different cultures than has commonly been supposed, but were willing to use fresh experiences and new currents of thought to justify and encourage prejudice, persecution, and exploitation at every level.

I suspect such angles may not go unchallenged, but I find it refreshing. And these unpackings again augment my comments on the “Golden Age nostalgia” of the heritage industry in China.

* * *

jue

China: jue libation vessel, Shang/Zhou dynasty.

Reception history has perhaps become a rather more established feature of visual culture (including the history of art) than for musical culture. The term “visual culture” itself reflects a more mature holistic approach, like that of “soundscape” for ritual music in China, and indeed the whole inclusive brief of ethnomusicology.

As I dip into Marcia Pointon’s History of art; a student’s handbook, she soon observes:

The meanings of the painting will be determined by where, how and by whom it is consumed.
[..]
Art historians are interested not only with objects with but with processes. […They] concern themselves with visual communication whatever its intended audiences or consumers.
[…]
Art historians investigate the origins, the connections between “high” and “low”, and the ways in which imagery such as this contributes to our understanding of a period of historical time, whether in the present or in the far distant past.

On one hand, as with music, we envy earlier viewers/audiences their familiarity with subjects/languages that we can no longer interpret easily, if at all. At the same time we have also lost the shock of the new.

We’re familiar with the idea of restoring old paintings to their original colours—negating their history?—but we can’t perform a similar operation on our eyes and minds. Doubtless there’s a vast scholarly literature on this, but one might be reluctant to remove the patina from Shang bronzes, restoring them to the condition of glossy Italian kitchenware. For patina, see also Richard Taruskin’s comments on Gardiner’s Schumann.

Just as most people who experienced art in 15th-century “Italy” had access mainly to those works on public display in their particular city, so, long before CDs and youtube, Leipzig dwellers heard little music apart from Bach and the pieces by other composers that he selected, mostly within the Leipzig tradition. Some creators themselves might be so lucky as to travel, gaining a certain experience of other styles. And in both art forms, a majority of such work was contemporary—even the instruments that baroque musicians played were mostly modern.

To try and get to grips with what art and music meant at the time doesn’t make us able to experience it as did the “consumers” of the day—we can’t unsee Monet, TV, or skyscrapers any more than we can unhear Mahler and punk. And I hope our teeth are in a better state.

* * *

I also admire

  • Michael Jacobs, Everything is happening: journey into a painting (2015), [1]

on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)—with chapters by his friend Ed Vulliamy added after Jacobs’ untimely death. As Vulliamy observes,

In this half-book, beyond a fragment, we have not only a typically Jacobs-esque narrative of his life with Velázquez—one of chance encounters, aperitifs, musings and restless autobiography—but also this manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting. (p.146)

Jaccobs does that thing that people always do in blurbs:

cutting a picaresque swathe

—and the picaro simile is fitting. Jacobs was constantly deploring the “sunless” world of academia. He documents the shift in art history that was then occurring widely in scholarship:

Many of the younger lecturers and researchers, conscious perhaps of the lingering popular image of their discipline as a precious and elitist pursuit, began adopting what rapidly became the prevailing art-historical methodology—a pseudo-Marxist one. People who might once have become connoisseurs in tweeds reinvented themselves as boiler-suited proselytisers dedicated to exposing in art revealing traces of the social conditions of a period, often resorting in the process to a hermetic prose peppered with terms I had first come across in Foucault, such as “discourses” and “the gaze”. (p.44)

Oh all right then, I’ll go for a hat-trick:

You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FOUCAULT!

(Note on pronunciation: whereas I can only hear “You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FUCK ALL!” in the caricature-Nazi accent of Karl Böhm, the above bon mot clearly belongs on the foam-specked lips of an angry young Alexei Sayle.)

By contrast with the treatments of Baxendall and Lowe (themselves quite different), Jacobs’ approach is based on including “us”, the viewers, as agents in the picture—whatever his reservations, he was inspired by Foucault.

Proust, writing on Rembrandt, had spoken about paintings as being not just beautiful objects but also the thoughts they inspired in their viewers. [Svetlana] Alpers was cited as saying that “looking at a work in a museum and looking at other people looking at a work in a museum is like taking part in the life story of this work and contributing to it.”

Still, Jacobs ploughed his own furrow. As Paul Stirton recalls,

Michael always believed in the wonder of looking. Yes, there may be a profound message in a painting, but Michael didn’t want to dress it up in philosophical trappings. By all means approach a painting in a scholarly manner, but never lose the wonder. (pp.179–80)

In his book about artists’ colonies at the end of the nineteenth century, The good and simple life, he is scathing about how most painters wanting to live that life considered “the downtrodden country folk … as little more than quaint components of the rural scene. Their social conscience was as little stirred by them as by pipe-playing goatherds in the Roman Campagna.” At moments, though he is the antithesis of a “political” art critic, Michael’s writing reads like Walter Benjamin fresh from his Frankfurt School, but with a glass of Sangria in his hand. (p.182)

From both his own experience and Thomas Struth’s photos of the public response to Las Meninas over several days, Jacobs recalls

All the faces of the bored, the transfixed, the distracted, the deeply serious, the adults whose only concern was to get the perfect snap, the school children who were wondering when their ordeal would be over, the others who fooled around or diligently made notes, the few whose lives were being transformed. (pp.69–70)

So (suitably) like Monty Python’s Proust sketch, Jacobs never quite got as far as discussing the painting “itself”—not so much due to his death, as by virtue of his propensity to dwell on personal reminiscences on modern Spanish history and his own relationship with it and the painting.

He remarks wryly on the images of Spain current in his youth, reminding me of images of China, not to mention Away from it all. He recalls a train journey in the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy, when he was reading a book that

gave no hint of Spain’s repressive military regime, but instead referred to the country’s “growing agricultural and industrial prosperity” and to the “happy coexistence of the old and the new”.
The book’s role as a catalyst for my early, life-changing Spanish journeys was due entirely to its black-and-white photos, which neglected this supposedly modern and prosperous country in favour of basket-laden donkeys, adobe-walled farms, palm groves, sun-scorched white alleys and other such images that endowed Spain with a predominantly medieval and African look. Even Madrid, so regularly criticized by past travellers for its brash modernity, was made to seem more exotic and rural than any other western city I had seen. The sole street-scene was one of a large flock of sheep being herded in front of a neo-Baroque, cathedral-like post-office building popularly dubbed “Our Lady of the Post”. (p.60)

He discusses the fortunes of Las Meninas during the civil war, as well as more recent events:

… closed shops wherever you looked, restaurants offering “crisis menus”, daily protests, and graffiti and posters revealing grievances with everyone and everything, from the monarchy, to the banks, to the multinationals, to the European Community, to the politicians who made Spain the country with the the highest number of politicians per capita in Europe. (p.72)

And he describes the painting’s changing frames and settings:

The Sala Velázquez was like a shrine. […] On entering this inner sanctuary, people took off their hats, spoke in low voices, and tiptoed around so as not to destroy the atmosphere of worshipful solemnity. Every so often someone would be observed bursting into tears.
There were of course others visitors who disliked this room’s churchlike theatricality and the sentimentally nationalistic and mindless emotional reactions it inspired. (p.115)

So as it stands, Jacobs’ book is concerned more with reception history than with the society of the time of the creation of Las Meninas (though he explored this elsewhere, and doubtless had voluminous notes on the painting to supplement existing research). Background on the society of Velazquez’s day is provided mainly by Vulliamy’s fine Introduction. Evoking Lowe, he notes that Seville, far from “the great Babylon of Spain, map of all nations”,

was also headquarters of the Inquisition. Indeed, the “Golden Age” which followed the unification of Spain in 1492 was accomplished, writes Michael Jacobs, “in a spirit of brutal fanaticism”, with the expulsion or enforced conversion of Andalucia’s many Moors and Jews. This dogmatism and what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” [here Vulliamy writes with traumatic personal experience in Bosnia] had a major and insidious demographic impact on the city, yet Seville remained characterized by “an architecture … of great contrasts”, wrote Michael, “for alongside the Muslim-inspired love of decorative arts richness is an inherently Spanish love of the austere”.

    * * *

GL Ten Kings

Yama King painting from Ten Kings series, North Gaoluo 1990.

All these books incorporate ethnography and reception history far more than the fusty old reified appreciation of “autonomous” objets d’art. For China,

  • Craig Clunas, Art in China (1st edition 1997)

makes a useful, wide-ranging, and thoughtful introduction, exploring themes like genres, techniques, functions, patrons, markets, producers, class, and gender.

For instance, discussing a wooden sculpture of the female deity Guanyin from Shanxi carved c1200CE, he describes its original multi-coloured decoration:

All this added to the immediacy of the image for worshippers, but it was covered over at some point, probably about 300–400 years later in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was painted gold in imitation of a gilded metal sculpture. Such an aesthetic change must have gone hand in hand with some change in the understanding of what a successful image ought to look like, a change at the level of both popular belief and the attitudes of religious professionals which is as yet hardly understood. (pp.56–7)

Whereas much scholarship remains based on artefacts in museums and galleries, fieldwork reveals a vast further repository of images still used in ritual practice. One thinks of the vast hoard of religious statuettes found in rural Hunan, subject of fine research.

And apart from statues and temple murals, ritual paintings depicting the Ten Kings and the punishments of the underworld—hung out for temple fairs and funerals—suggest comparisons with Christian equivalents in medieval and Renaissance art. And they too must have changed their meanings for audiences over recent centuries. At least, illiterate rural audiences would be affected rather deeply, and modern viewers may be underwhelmed now that they are saturated with horror films and video games. But we learn rather little about this from the scholarship; Daoist culture tends to be reified. Meanwhile, household ritual specialists have continue to perform Ten Kings scriptures for funerals.

It reminds me, challenged as I am in the field of visual culture, that ritual images through the ages also need unpacking—assessing changing meanings there too, including early sources for music iconography.

This has a lot to do with reception history. Such studies of visual culture may feed into our experience of Bach and all kinds of early and folk music. If even scholars of WAM and Renaissance painting feel it germane, then studies of Chinese musical cultures, and of Daoist ritual, shouldn’t lag behind.

* * *

But I’d like to end with some more populist vignettes (“Typical!”) on the meanings of art.

Among the numerous virtues of Alan Bennett is his accessible promotion of painting, found in Untold Stories (pp.453–514) [2] notably a talk he gave for the National Gallery, with the fine title “Going to the pictures”. These essays are also a passionate plea for culture to remain accessible, a rebuke to mercenary philistine governments.

He recalls an inauspicious early lecture he gave at Oxford on Richard II:

At the conclusion of this less than exciting paper I asked if there were any questions. There was an endless silence until finally one timid undergraduate at the back put up his hand.
“Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

 We’ve all been there. But his remarks on painting are priceless:

Somewhere in the National Gallery I’d like there to be a notice saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. When you’re appointed a trustee, the director, Neil MacGregor, takes you round on an introductory tour. Mine was at 9am, when I find it hard to look the milkman in the eye, let alone a Titian.

We were passing through the North Wing, I remember, and Neil was about to take me into one of the rooms when I said, “Oh, I don’t like Dutch pictures”, thereby seeming to dismiss Vermeer, De Hooch and indeed Rembrandt. And I saw a look of brief alarm pass over his face as if to say. “Who is this joker we’ve appointed?”

He cites his play A question of attribution, about (Michael Jacobs’ teacher) Anthony Blunt:

“What am I supposed to feel?” asks the policeman about going into the National Gallery.
“What do you feel?” asks Blunt.
“Baffled,” says Chubb, “and also knackered” … this last remark very much from the heart.
[… Blunt] tries to explain that the history of art shouldn’t be seen as simply a progress towards accurate or realistic reprentatation.
“Do we say Giotto isn’t a patch on Michelangelo because his figures are less lifelike?”
“Michelangelo?” says Chubb. “I don’t think his figures are lifelike frankly. The women aren’t. They’re just like men with tits. And the tits look as if they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. Has nobody pointed that out?”
“Not quite in those terms.”

In a *** passage AB blends hilarity with insight, evoking Baxandall:

In A Question of Attribution the Queen is made to have some doubts about paintings of the Annunciation.
“There are quite a lot of them,” says the Queen. “When we visited Florence we were taken round the art gallery there and well … I won’t say Annunciations were two a penny but they were certainly quite thick on the ground. And not all of them very convincing. My husband remarked that one of them looked to him like the messenger arriving from Littlewoods Pools. And that the Virgin was protesting that she had put a cross for no publicity.”
This last remark, though given to the Duke of Edinburgh, was actually another flag of distress, stemming from my unsuccessful attempts to assimilate and remember an article about the various positions of the Virgin’s hand, which are an elaborate semaphore of her feelings, a semaphore instantly understandable to contemporaries but, short of elaborate exposition, lost on us today. It’s a pretty out-of-the-way corner of art history but it leads me on to another question and another worry.
Floundering through some unreadable work on art history I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these elaborate expositions—gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth—that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasped by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called “over meaning”. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.
When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. I must have seen Citizen Kane when it came round for the first time, but with no thought that, apart from it being more boring, this was a different order of picture from George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, unthinkingly, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, and induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of the cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

Unpacking the complex attributes of two stock characters, he concludes:

The 20th-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

For a similar case, see here.

* * *

Apart from any intrinsic merit this little tour of visual culture may have, for me it also suggests several angles barely explored for Daoist ritual.

OK then, just one last aperçu—this time from Kenneth Clark (thanks, Rod). On the contrast between and reified art and social reception, here’s his typically urbane formulation in Civilization:

At some time in the 9th century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable.

 

On behalf of the splendid Craig ClunasI accept full responsibility for any inanities in this post. If you all play your cards right, I promise not to do this kind of thing too often.
Craig and any other art historians who have managed to read this far might care to exact revenge by writing Specious Flapdoodle
[famous 19th-century Baptist pastor—Ed.] about early music or Daoist ritual… 

 

** Not, may I just say, the kind of moronic homespun language used by one maniacal Führer about another: “smart cookie” or “total nut-job”? Roll over Cicero.

 

[1] Some stimulating reviews may be found herehere, and here.
[2] Online excerpts include http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/i-know-what-i-like-but-im-not-sure-about-art-1620866.html and https://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n07/alan-bennett/alan-bennett-chooses-four-paintings-for-schools.

More wordplay

This little digest is partly by way of cajoling my friend Nick, distinguished tenor
[cheap at the price], into unleashing his amazing opera anagrams on the world.

Wordplay in English and other languages (not least Chinese) displays dazzling and indeed warped creativity. For “constrained writing”, the oeuvre of Oulipo is most celebrated.

I’ll content myself with one anagram, on Mike Keith’s fine site, an extraordinary version of Dante’s Inferno:

This is a simultaneous anagram and translation. The English text is both an anagram of and an approximate translation of the first four tercets of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, from the original 13th-century Italian.

Original:
Per me si va ne la citta dolente
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
Fecemi la divina podestate,
La somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
Se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE.

Queste parole di colore oscuro
vid’ io scritte al sommo d’una porta;
per ch’io: “Maestro, il senso lor m’e duro.”

Anagram:
I am a portal to a sad place.
I am a cover to eternal fire.
Go, see our pit ooze craven memories.

Elite persistence moved some creator;
Divine omnipotence created me;
I am solo orgies of primal love.

Listen: ere me no denizens used our portal
I quit not, and I last eternal.
FOREGO ALL HOPE, ALL MEN THAT ENTER.

Crazed and curious, in a daze I sat
To see man pour out over a portal;
So I said: “Master, I cannot see its import.”

For more succinct anagrams, see Igor Stravinsky; Charles MackerrasDarcey Bussell—and Maidstone (an unlikely venue for their rendition of the Rite of Spring).

* * *

Among palindromes, [1] I’ve always been fond of

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. “I’d assign it a
name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet”

—attributed to Alastair Read rather than W.H. Auden, it seems.

I like the sound of the Finnish palindrome with 10,102 words—even if, as one commentator candidly observes, “It’s really not that much fun.” We can limber up with some shorter ones (here), like

saippuakuppinippukauppias—soap cup batch trader
[SJ: Aha, perhaps this is useful as Elk lubricant?]

The following are to be found on the sites
http://palindromist.org (“Wary, Alpine Zen: I Play Raw”) and
http://www.cadaeic.net/palind.htm

They can be elegant and suggestive:

Rot, cello collector!

Mao bore Jeroboam.

No more Cicero, mon! [the Rastafarian has had his fill of the classics.]

 Overheard at the flea-market:
“Camel bible, Mac?”
“Cameraware, Mac?”

or the fine

An igloo costs a lot, Ed!
Amen. One made to last! So cool, Gina!

Now Derek can kiss Anais A. Nin, as I, an ass (I, knackered) won.
[extra points for proper names, as Mike Keith notes—the more evocative the better]

Olson, I won—see Saratoga repossess opera! Go, Tara, see Snow in Oslo.

Ajar? Aha! Maybe, Dan, omelet is opposite lemonade, by a Maharaja!

Some men interpret nine memos.

And longer ones like

“Traci, to regard nine men in drag,” Eric (in a play or an ironic art spot) warned, “I am not so bad.” “I’d never even seen knees … never even did a Boston maiden raw,” tops Traci, “nor in a royal panic. I regard nine men in drag —erotic art.”

Or a poem:

Amen, Icy Cinema [title and poem are separate palindromes]
Amen, I can!
I stop elastic ire
To see La Dolce Vita.

Covet?
I moisten nose,
Sonnets I omit, evocative clod!

Ale? Esoteric?
It’s ale! Pots in a cinema!

There are word-unit palindromes too:

You swallow pills for anxious days and nights, and days, anxious for pills, swallow you.

And sure enough, some have risen to the challenge of the palindromic haiku (work in progress), like this one by Ailihphilia (sic):

Oak, dove, temple: hymn
In mutual autumn, in my
Helpmete vodka. O!

Or some by Dalibor.

And then for the gourmet, there’s the menu from the “Moor Room”, a restaurant for palindromists:

Do, O Food [main course]
Tangy gnat
Koalas a la OK
La emu meal
Salad, alas

Gorge Grog [drinks]
Regal lager
Lemon o’ Mel

Desserts Stressed
Sugar a Gus
Bananas an’ a Nab

Some entries from “Drown In Word”, the (fictional) palindromic dictionary:
Gigolo:  Solo gig.
Paranoia:  I, on a rap.
Semantic:  It names.
Pa Plato:  Total pap.

This (from here) is pleasing:

palindromes

I note that “fear of palindromes” is Aibohphobia.

Finally, the erudite David Hughes, himself no mean songster, draws my attention to this:

* * *

True, while any sophisticated artistic activity (which perhaps excludes the KKK songbook and poetry competition) may be seen as a bulwark against philistinism, none of this quite butters any parsnips in the task that currently confronts us—to resist with every pore the barbarity of the putrid tang emanating from the drab pot toilet of the White House. T. Eliot, top bard, would have been sad too. I’d assign it a name, all right.

 

[1] See e.g.
http://www.cadaeic.net/palind.htm
http://www.cadaeic.net/silopolis.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2762,00.html
https://www.dailydot.com/debug/worlds-longest-palindrome-sentence/

More authorship

Further to Ted Ibert’s Pique Nique, I just got a promo from Amazon (“based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this”. Pah!):

Homer

Helpful of them to clarify the author underneath, too. My “recent activity” evidently led them to believe that I might still be confused.

Cf. the TV quiz question (which floored some contestants)

Who wrote Beethoven’s 5th symphony?

Mind you, in the case of Homer, they were right to protest too much. Rather than being “composed” by a single blind bard, the “work” that has come down to us seems to have been more like a fixed version of a fluid oral tradition. Amazon’s insistence recalls the famous story of the dogged convict in the prison exam.

The brief of ethnography

Gaoluo 1989

Recently on Twitter, following a post on my work with the Gaoluo village ritual association, an urban Chinese worker sent me a succinct and intriguing reaction:

中国农村地方的风俗,我不喜欢!— I don’t like local Chinese rural customs!

Well, tough! 罗卜青菜各有所愛, chacun à son trou, “it’s a free country”… But actually it’s a valid point, highlighting an important issue.

Rural customs are what rural dwellers do; it’s hard to belittle the former without rejecting the latter. It’s not just a lack of tuanjie solidarity within the Labouring Masses, between the gong workers and the nong peasants; there has long been a more general alienation anyway among the urban educated. This feeling that Chinese tradition is “backward” dates back well before the 20th century, despite the efforts of Chinese folklorists since the 1920s to document the, um, heritage.

Today those older urbanites who endured banishment to impoverished villages under Maoism (like Kang Zhengguo, or the countless, and hapless, zhiqing educated youths from 1968) have good reason to feel ambivalent about rural culture (see also here).

Younger cityfolk may not have had to endure rural life like their elders. But steeped in pop music and video games, when they are dragged back to the poor countryside to attend the funeral of a grandparent, they too may find village customs irrevocably tainted by poverty and backwardness.

Moreover, apart from those duped by the media into regarding folk culture as a theme park, those younger cityfolk (not least those bravely seeking social justice) have been further alienated by rosy state cultural propaganda—quite understandably.

Of course, the arcane concerns of academia generally may not float their boat. Anyway, they’re unlikely to be excited by the links of some Daoist ritual to manuals from the Song dynasty.

But ethnographers don’t have to be misguided mouthpieces for official patriotism. It’s not about praising traditional culture—more about documenting it, complete with all the problems of rural life. Ethnography aims for the descriptive, not the prescriptive. I’ve already given some traumatic examples of participant observation in fieldwork—Germaine Tillion’s notes on her own incarceration in Ravensbrück concentration camp, and Sudir Venkatesh’s work among Chicago street gangs.

So it’s always worth documenting society, and history, without romanticizing it as some ideal “living fossil” of an illusory golden age. Along with any grandeur that pundits may impute to ritual in rural China, there belong power struggles, violence, the plight of women and blind outcast shawm players, and all kinds of tribulations under imperial, Maoist, and modern regimes. And while studying folk culture, it’s proper to note the alienation of younger urban dwellers from it, as I do. Indeed, I’m not naturally thrilled by Morris dancing—but when you get to know a little about it, you can see how it fits into the changing social culture of rural England.

However rapidly the Chinese rural population has been diminishing since the 1980s, documenting rural life is just as important as studying urbanites, of all classes—including the workers’ struggle and their expressive culture. We don’t have to “like” ♥ (grr) the songs of either those workers or household Daoists, but they all need documenting.

Descriptive ethnography doesn’t necessarily imply standing aside entirely from judgment. Now, as it happens I do indeed admire many aspects of village ritual, but that’s not the point. More adventurous fieldworkers (like De Martino) may seek to spell out some respects in which ritual is life-enhancing, offering consolation and cohesion; or, conversely, ways in which it serves to entrench delusion and conflict, or fortify irrational power. Or—quite likely—they may entertain both hypotheses at once. And both need to be tested, not assumed.

So to that underwhelmed Chinese worker on Twitter, I might say: as the great Tsinghua-university-based anthropologist Guo Yuhua can tell you, far from obstructing the quest for social justice, ethnography can be a contribution to it. Apart from urban workers, if anyone has been downtrodden, it’s the peasantry.

However much the official version may seek to reify and sanitize culture, yet factory workers, household Daoists, village cadres, spirit mediums, army recruits, sectarian groups, vagrants, and entrepreneurs are all part of the social spectrum, whose lives deserve to be documented.

All this reminds me of another gem from Nigel Barley. Arriving at his field site in rural Cameroon, he grapples with police bureaucracy (The innocent anthropologist, p.38):

The commandant turned out to be a huge Southerner of about six foot five. He summoned me into his office and inspected my documents minutely.  What was my reason for being here? […] He was clearly very unhappy as I tried to explain the essential nature of the anthropological endeavour. “But what’s it for?” he asked. Choosing between giving an impromptu version of the “Introduction to Anthropology” lecture course and something less full, I replied somewhat lamely, “It’s my job.”

 

 

 

Chords

All in a chord is a stimulating series of short programmes on BBC Radio 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b088tzkv/episodes/guide

including the horrifying Scream from Mahler’s 10th symphony (above); The Rite of Spring; and an exploration of the minimalist style through Terry Riley’s In C. Making connections between them, Ivan Hewitt and his discussants provide fine social context, to boot—”harmony as a reflection of history”.

Meanwhile, most of the world’s societies have always got along perfectly well without harmony. “But that’s not important right now“.

I’ve always understood harmonic language more by instinct and experience than by theory. I trust plenty of other orchestral musos are more erudite about chords and harmony, but it is jazzers who are most deeply imbued in the language—and not just the keyboard players.

Some Venetian greetings

On the Li family Daoists’ 2012 sojourn in Venice in 2012 we were guests of the Fondazione Cini, staying virtually alone on the tranquil little island of Isola San Giorgio, just across from bustling San Marco.

Chatting with our Cini hosts, the fragrant Chiara and Sabrina, they told me that when Venetians come across each other by chance they like to exclaim

Fatalità!” (pronounced “Fataità!”)—“Fate!”

A quaint English equivalent might be “Fancy bumping into you!”

Venice 2012

Fatalità! Venetian dwellers with the Li band, or “Selling the Daode jing at the door of Confucius”  在孔子門前賣道德經。

I gather “Fatalità!” is more commonly an interjection, as when telling a story (“And what should happen but…”) or (in reacting) “Fancy that!”. It can also be a humorous way of accepting fate, almost like the English “Typical!” or “That’s life!”.

Without regard to expense or the feelings of the public, the erudite Rod Conway Morris, himself a long-term chronicler of Venetian mores, has obligingly ferreted out a little discussion by Sandro Mattiazzi (Veneziani: Figli del Leone Alata, 2002), with pleasantly arcane examples of a quarrel between gondoliers and a dispute during the war with the Turks, both defused by the timely exclamation.

Fatalità is chance [caso], the fortuitous event that is yet the result of a necessity great or small, and is typical of the Venetian mentality. […] Don’t despair if you can’t find the way to your hotel, or if you’ve left your bag on top of some well. Chance, which has aided the Venetians for almost two thousand years, will surely come to your aid.  Fatalità means that by randomly following another tourist you will arrive at your lost hotel, where perhaps you will find your bag on the porter’s desk. [my translation]

“Fate!” recalls fado, or (as I explained to Li Manshan) the Chinese ming 命… Those terms aren’t part of any such greeting, though in classical Chinese chen 臣 equates with the hackneyed “Ciao!”—itself borrowed from Venetian, and cognate with slave and Slav (for an erudite discussion, see here). Or the English “your humble servant”, mercifully abbreviated from “I trust I shall have the honour to remain your humble servant”, which is of course the correct form of address for foreigners to employ when staggering out of an East End pub at closing time.

Following an arcane exchange in The Times (“Have these people got no Holmes to go to?”—Myles. Mind you, I can’t talk) wherein it is established that Gautier’s Tra la, tra la, la-la-laire is not in fact a reference to the call of the inevitable ubiquitous gondolier, Rod observed in a letter (whose date of 1st April 2016 he assures me is merely coincidental—remember, the word “gullible” doesn’t appear in the OED):

The traditional gondolier’s cry (especially when rounding blind corners in canals) is “O-i!” This is also sometimes used by the inhabitants of the city as a jocular greeting.

I respectfully submit, m’Lud, that had they gone on to use the honorific form of address, the greeting might have become “O-i vo-i!”, evoking Venice’s Jewish heritage (I’ll spare you my fantasy reconstruction of the temporal and spatial vowel-shift). And given the city’s Turkish connection, I’m also still hoping Rod will further unearth the greeting “Ey-up!“—which, in turn, became the correct form of address when entering a kebab shop in Barnsley (cf. my haiku on Morris dancing). The joys of multiculturalism…

Inspired by Rod’s stimulating review, if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over the arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequined pantaloons to a regatta—actually, even if you haven’t, which (let’s face it) is more likely—then you should tip your imaginary hat to the Venetian language.

Time for another gin.

Temple murals of north China

Temple ritual, Yuxian 2014. Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

Further–waay further—to my page on the Guangling DaoistsHannibal Taubes has a fine, ever-growing, website documenting his ongoing research project (worthy of further funding!) on the iconography of rural temples in north China, with wonderful photos of murals taken by him and his assistants.

One of his main sites is the Yuxian–Guangling–Yangyuan region on the border of Hebei and Shanxi. The project—reminiscent of that of Willem Grootaers in the 1940s—is another illustration of the hidden depths of ritual culture in north China, so long a poor cousin of the south.

Such work can be a valuable adjunct to fieldwork on ritual practice. I hesitate to look forward to Hannibal expanding his already vast project to ritual paintings, and incorporating temple steles too…

Material like this may be more fruitful for the study of deities than for actual ritual life. But just a couple of examples from the website that do suggest the latter, from village temples in Yuxian just southeast of Yanggao. This is from a Dragon King temple in Yuxian, perhaps dating from the late Qing:

full mural lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Here’s are two details of the procession at the foot. Leading the way, as ever, is a shawm band—in uniform, which by the 20th century was discarded:

chuishou lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

Bringing up the rear, on the left (after the temple helper bearing the ritual umbrella) it shows a Daoist band—with chief vocal liturgist, a drum master, and players of the sheng mouth-organ, yunluo frame of ten gongs (now quite rare in the area), and guanzi oboe. The outsider might easily fail to notice that the latter figure (far right) is playing the guanzi—but locals, experiencing the shengguan ensemble at their village rituals all their lives, will recognize it at once.

yinyang lowres

Photo: Hannibal Taubes, 2018.

I won’t quibble with the marching order—the drummer always leads the way, but hey.

Below we see a similar quorum from another nearby Dragon King temple, dating from 1709. Here they wear the same red costumes as household Daoists today—as do the two trumpet players leading the way, though they should be from a separate shawm band…

Daoist procession

Photo: Hannibal Taubes.

As with any such iconography (one thinks of Renaissance depictions of angel musicians), we are confronted with the issue of how “realistic”, or how generic and idealized, such depictions may be as a portrayal of local ritual life at the time. This detail from my photo of a ritual painting by Li Qing’s Daoist uncle Li Peisen undoubtedly shows an authentic view of a 1940s’ ritual band (standing) such as the one that he himself led, with a group of seven—two guanzi, two sheng, yunluo (only three gongs?!), drum, and small cymbals:

painting-detail-cropped

The dizi flute, usually a member of the full shengguan ensemble, was perhaps less often used on procession—indeed, it’s largely fallen from use in this area since the 1990s. For the public ritual in the painting, the Daoists wear their red fayi costumes over their black dashan costumes, just as today. Interpreting such details is naturally informed by knowledge of the current scene.

Apart from another ambitious collaborative project on Shanxi temple murals, Hannibal is now further presenting his vast archive in a separate website, which I introduce here.

Of course art is a valuable adjunct to our studies of ritual and religious life, but with my own stress on performance I find myself frustrated that it’s static, two-dimensional, and silent. But whatever your angle on Chinese religion, Hannibal’s sites are fantastic new material, with rich potential. For his recent article on the use of perpectival painting, click here.

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, Sellars–Rattle, ENO, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation Day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special. Note also his book Playing with history.

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

More orchestral drôlerie

As part of our ongoing series on the war of attrition between musos and conductors, not unlike the celebrated story about the opening of the Beethoven violin concerto:

During a rehearsal, as some tedious conductor insisted on honing the opening phrase of some symphony ad nauseam, making us repeat the first four bars for what seemed like hours, one player eventually piped up from the back:

“Excuse me Maestro—I believe bar 5 is rather good too!”

Note again the exemplary sarcastic deployment of the term Maestro.

Diary of a household Daoist

LMS 1992

August 1992: In a brief break between ritual segments of a funeral led by Li Qing, his son Li Manshan consults with another family to determine the date for a future burial.

In my book (pp.18–21) I gave instances of the daily ritual schedules of household Daoists Li Manshan and his son Li Bin. They’re always so busy that Li Bin has only just found time to report back to me on what they’ve been up to recently. Apart from all the necessary research into the ancestry of ancient ritual texts, and so on, such diaries are an illuminating aspect of the ethnography of Daoist ritual practice. Apart from my film and book, Li Bin is also one of the protagonists of Ian Johnson’s The souls of China.

Li Manshan, now 72 sui, has recently been scaling down his activities a bit—mainly doing funerals in the immediate vicinity, and determinining the date. But since the band’s “triumphant return” (Kaixuan guilai 凯旋归来, on which more anon) from our mini-tour of France in May—and indeed throughout the previous months—Li Bin has hardly had a moment of free time. As he tells me,

The thing that’s the most hassle is when I get two or three concurrent funerals, having to arrange personnel and all the equipment. Each band needs suitable liturgists, wind players, percussionists, and someone to write the documents. And I have to make sure all the various sets of costumes and equipment are complete.

Until the 1950s their ritual work consisted of three types of “scriptures”: funerals, temple fairs, and (through the winter) Thanking the Earth rituals for individual families. The latter two types are now rare, so since the 1980s’ revival the vast majority of their business consists of funeral rituals and all the associated proprieties surrounding a death. But for reputable Daoists like Li Manshan and Li Bin, this alone can be a full-time occupation. In this area south of the county-town they are the most popular group performing such tasks, but there are others.

Before we look at Li Bin’s diary day by day, some more background. Funerals commonly last one and a half days. It’s very tiring work, performing from 7am to nearly midnight on the first day, with a whole series of long processions. As I say in my book,

Excuse the facile analogy with Western art music, but just the seven visits to the soul hall are like doing two motets and five cantatas over the course of the day—plus a few oratorios, and (previously, for temple fairs) six long symphonies.

For the wind players (like Li Bin) especially, accompanying the liturgy is tough physical work.

And on the following morning they make the lengthy burial procession from 8am to midday—as well as all the solo work of Li Manshan or Li Bin in exorcizing the house and checking the precise alignment of the coffin in the grave. Apart from singing the vocal liturgy, they have to double on the wind instruments and ritual percussion.

As I have also described (my book, ch.17), in addition to the two other core members Golden Noble and Wu Mei, Li Bin and Li Manshan need a pool of deps—some regular, others occasional—from the ranks of other local Daoist families and shawm bands. Using his smartphone, Li Bin has to keep a careful note of the fees he owes them; and he’s constantly driving round from village to village with his car packed with ritual equipment—ritual instruments and costumes, paper artefacts, mourning weeds for the kin, duilian and diaolian mottos to paste up at the soul hall and scripture hall, and so on.

Li Manshan prepares most of the mottos at home; he, Li Bin, or Golden Noble will also have to find moments during the funeral to write other ritual documents to be burned for particular ritual segments. At least recently they have deputed to the junior Daoists the lengthy and fiddly task of decorating (and later dismantling) the soul hall.

Usually the first day’s rituals come to a close around 11pm with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (magnificent percussion coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual) and the Escorting Away the Orphan Souls segment (see my film, from 1.11.07), but sometimes the host asks them to do a lengthy Sitting through the Night sequence into the small hours (playlist, track 3—see my notes). Until quite recently the six Daoists routinely dossed down for the night in a row on the kang brick-bed of the “scripture hall” (making room for me too, a fond memory), but now with the improved road network, given the rather basic conditions of most scripture-hall hosts, they sometimes zoom off back home on their motor-bikes. If the funeral isn’t too far away, Li Bin often drives back to his home in town—not least in case he needs to bring more equipment for the burial next morning or his next stop thereafter. But each night on reaching home after a seventeen-hour day, he always remembers to light incense before the statuette of Zhang Daoling in his funeral shop.

Apart from determining the date for funerals, siting the grave and decorating coffins (also both lengthy processes), booking the band, and then performing the rituals—not to mention the daily business of running his funeral shop and making paper artefacts with his wife—Li Bin is always busy doing consultations to determine the date for weddings, construction work, journeys, and so on.

I have to field constant phone-calls every day. Sometimes I determine the date over the phone for “moving the earth” (dongtu 动土) for building work. Over the phone people can go on for ages about weddings or opening a new business—often when I’m right in the middle of some really busy arrangements. It’s a real hassle, but I can’t refuse…

Free-lance musos in London would be only too happy to have such a full diary, but it comes at a cost. As a freelancer myself, I’m glad he’s in work; he has bills to pay, but I hope he gets a bit of time off occasionally. We can well understand why Daoists don’t want their sons to continue in the family tradition.

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin (Li Manshan’s son, 9th generation) on sheng, 2011.

These notes cover the period from their flight home from Paris on 22nd May through to 8th August.

From the map below we can also see the rather typical radius of their ritual activity. Apart from the occasional funeral in Yanggao town, and a rare visit to Datong city, they work mostly in a small area in east-central Yanggao, around the Li family’s old home of Upper Liangyuan and Gucheng district just south. You can click on the place-names in the sidebar to see dates. For another map of the area (also indicating location of other Daoists groups now and before the 1950s) see here.

The Li band may cater to the mortuary needs of many of these individual villages a dozen or so times each year. And they have done so for several generations, with many trusted friends in places like Yangguantun, Pansi, Luotun, and so on.

May
22: we take 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing;
23: landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station.

  • 24: our train from Beijing arrives at Yanggao at 3.44am. At 4am [!] I drive down to Upper Liangyuan (dropping off Li Manshan at home) to help the Sun family prepare for funeral, then I drive back to town again to fetch equipment for them. I determine the date of the burial for 3rd June. 8am: to Shangzhuang to determine the date for a burial there (1st June).
  • 25: I decorate the coffin for Shangzhuang.
  • 26: I decorate the coffin for Upper Liangyuan, and site the grave.
  • 27–28: funeral at Upper Liangyuan for Zhao Xilin (date already determined before French tour).
  • 29: making paper artefacts, preparing for the Shangzhuang and Upper Liangyuan funerals.
  • 30–31: two concurrent funerals at South Luoyao and Pansi
  • 31–June 1: funeral at Shangzhuang.
    June
  • 1: after the Shangzhuang burial, to Houguantun to determine date for burial (12th June, a simple solo “smashing the bowl” ritual—see my book, pp.193–4).
  • 2–3: Upper Liangyuan funeral. After burial, back home to make more paper artefacts.
  • 4–5: funeral at Anzao.
  • 6: making paper artefacts.
  • 7–8: funeral at Zhaoshizhuang.
  • 9–11: three days free to make paper artefacts. Hardly any rest since we came back from France.
  • 12–13: two funerals, at Huiquanzi (in Yangyuan, Hebei) and Houguantun.
  • 15–16: funeral for Sun family in Upper Liangyuan (Li Manshan’s home village).
  • 20–21: two funerals, in Wangguantun and Yanggao county-town.
  • 22–23: funeral at Shizitun; 23 pm I determine the date in Luotun, for burial on 4th July.
  • 25–26: funeral in Lower Liangyuan.
  • 28–29: funeral at Shizitun; 29 pm I determine the date in Yangguantun, for another burial on 4th July.
    July
  • 1–2: funeral at Yousuoyao; I also determine the date in Houguantun, for burial on 8th July.
  • 3–4: funeral at Luotun. [4: burial at Yangguantun]
  • 7–8: two funerals, at Yangguantun and Houguantun. 8: after the burial at Yangguantun, another old person has died, so I go to determine the date—for 5th August.
  • 9: three families come to determine the date for their weddings.
  • 11–12: funeral in Datong
  • 14–15: concurrent funerals in Anzao and Zhanjiayao.
  • 16: coming-of-age party (yuansuo 圆锁) in town for friend’s son (cf. the scene of the party for Li Bin’s own son in my film, from 5.25).
  • 18: massive downpour in the northern hills; two killed as floods carry off a tractor [Li Manshan summoned to determine the date for a burial there].
  • 20–21: funeral at Upper Liangyuan.
  • 22–23: funeral in the county-town.
  • 27–28: funeral at Fantun (just east in Tianzhen).
    August
  • 2–3: funeral at Lower Niangcheng.
  • 4–5: funeral at Yangguantun.
  • 7–8: funeral at Sibaihu. On the afternoon of the 8th, after the burial, just northeast all around Jijiazhuang, Lanyubu, and South Xutun, extreme windstorm and hailstones destroyed cornfields; one family in Jijiazhuang lost 40 mu of peppers.

For Li Manshan’s ritual schedule for 2019, see here; and during the Coronovirus scare, here.

 

With thanks as ever to Li Bin and his son Li Bingchang
(also an Ariana Grande fan, I learn).

A modest literary pedigree

1918 to use

Edith Miles (left, in white) with her parents, sister Alice (centre), and brothers Ernest (in uniform) and Charlie, 1918.

My only smidgeon of a literary ancestry appears in the slight figure of my great-aunt Edith Miles (1898–1977; on my mother’s side of the family), who from 1929 published a succession of novels “for girls”.

Along with my granddad (also wonderful) and two other siblings, Edith grew up in Potterne, near Devizes.** Their father, Thomas Draper Miles, was the village craftsman bootmaker, last in a family line said to go back two hundred years. And that may make a distant connection with my work on rural artisans in China…

Here’s a remarkable photo of my great-grandfather (d.1946) taken by Edith’s other brother Charlie, probably in the 1930s:

Cobbler lowres

I don’t know how the Great War affected the teenage Edith, but there was evidently something of a studious air in the house at Potterne. Apparently my Granny used to say that visiting there was a trial because all they did—even during meals—was read books!

Edith went on to qualify as a teacher, and from 1920 she taught in the East End of London—what a contrast from rural Wiltshire! She must have begun writing stories then. What kind of music would she have heard? I wondered if she might have became at all politicised—there’s no hint in her novels. Indeed, I now learn that she corresponded with George Bernard Shaw; and her brother Charlie was an ardent socialist (a rare breed around Devizes, I suspect, though the Liberals were gaining ground). I imagine how Edith might have gone on to emulate not Enid Blyton (born a year earlier) but (for example…) Vera Brittain (who lectured for the League of Nations in the East End in the 1920s) or Stella Gibbons (who didn’t—although she was a wry observer of rural–urban contrasts…).

Eastenders, 1920s—Edith’s potential audience.

1925 wedding

Wedding of my grandparents, 1925. Edith in back row, second from right.

Meanwhile, after the militant suffragette movement had been put on hold to support the war effort, women over the age of 21 were eventually given the right to vote by 1928. Surely Edith must have come into contact with the movement in the East End, but alas we have no inklings.

But then a cruel blow struck. In 1927, after seven years of teaching, a bout of scarlet fever resulted in the gradual loss of her hearing. A letter from the London County Council, dated 20th April, states:

The School Medical Officer is of the opinion that the state of your health is such as to render it necessary for you to give up your School duties in London.
In these circumstances you should not resume your duties after the Easter holidays.

On 27th April she received a handwritten testimonial from the Rev. Wilfred H. Abbot in Haggerston, E8:

In the whole course of the seven years no single complaint of any kind has ever been made by parents or children against Miss Miles and her work.
No higher recommendation could ever be given about anyone at the present day when parents and children are so apt to find fault [sic!—SJ]. I am quite sure that Miss MIles will always prove herself efficient in any work that she undertakes. We part with her with great reluctance.

The authorities provided Edith with a modest superannuation allowance, but she must have been devastated at her abrupt turn of fate. As a door onto a world that had been opening up for her was abruptly slammed back in her face, she retired back to the family home at Potterne.

The spotted book, the first of her eleven novels, was published in 1929. I am most attached to the copy of The red umbrella (1937) that she gave me; it enjoyed considerable success, running into several reprints. Well, more success than my books on north Chinese ritual, I trust… Perhaps the chapters (“The postman”, “The chimney-sweep”, The baker”) subtly prepared me for writing the lives of ordinary people.

Red Umbrella coverRed umbrella lowres.jpg

The girl chums of Norland road is a fine title too. I’m not sure if I can also count such works as my feminist ancestry… Over the other side of the world, we shouldn’t neglect the role played by the wives of household Daoists in Yanggao villages .

Visiting Auntie Edith in Potterne when I was little, she seemed as quaint and exotic as the old house. She fitted the bill for what, thankfully, is no longer known as a “spinster”, “maiden aunt”, or “old maid”. A certain spark in her eyes hinted at her alert sense of humour, though even I could pick up an inevitable air of sadness. While she could lip-read, there was a youthful frisson for me in passing little notes across the kitchen table to help us communicate.

Having hardly thought of her for several decades, I now find myself moved both by her fate and by her equinanimous resilience. I also discover further fanciful connections. I was too young to articulate the thought, but the im-p-pediment of my stammer must have made me identify with her (another link to my work with blind shawm players in China?). And looking back, I feel that her enforced isolation made her seem pleasantly unworldly, before I dabbled in the hippy values resisting the growing consumerism of the 60s.

Strangely, I know a lot more about Li Manshan’s family than about my own. Now that I learn of the tribulations of my Chinese mentors through the period, and the convulsions of Europe, I wish I knew more about Edith’s experiences—a bright rural girl setting off to teach in a tough bustling urban environment, later to become a solitary single deaf author in troubled times, striving to eke a living by writing from her silent house in a little Wiltshire village.

With thanks to my uncle John and cousin Mark for precious material.

 

**Cf. another of my granddad’s favourite jokes (and another story that can be dated quite precisely): “Why do they eat boiled potatoes in Wiltshire?” “Cos they ain’t got no Devizes for Chippenham!”

 

Metamorphosen

The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.

(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half. But with the band standing, now playing from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)

* * *

Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.

Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.

Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1980. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustrabut how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity.

* * *

Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).

Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.

As Michael White observes,

As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”

Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.

* * *

In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):

For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.

As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with The four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:

Ritual and sport: the haka

haka

Since I am wont to make blithe analogies between the performances of ritual and sport, the pre-match haka of the All Black rugby team makes a fine illustration, also revealing the enduring depth of folk culture. In its constant adaptations, both in sporting and other ceremonial versions, it’s deeply impressive.

The wiki articles on the traditional and sporting versions make a useful introduction, and there are many fine YouTube clips.

As a Māori ritual war cry the haka was originally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess in order to intimidate the opposition. But haka are also performed for diverse social functions: welcoming distinguished guests, funerals, weddings, or to acknowledge great achievements, and kapa haka performance groups are common in schools. Some haka are performed by women.

Its social use has become widespread. In 2012 soldiers from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment performing a haka for fallen comrades killed in action in Afghanistan:

In 2015 hundreds of students performed a haka at the funeral of their high-school teacher in Palmerston, New Zealand.

In 2016, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, New Zealand firefighters honoured the victims with a powerful haka.

And here’s a moving recent wedding haka:

In 2019 students performed a haka to commemorate the Christchurch shootings:

* * *

The New Zealand native football team first performed a haka against Surrey (!) on a UK tour in 1888. The All Blacks have performed it since 1905. After witnessing the haka in Paris in 1925, James Joyce adapted it in Finnegan’s wake. For the 1954 version at Twickenham and evolution in the wake of TV, see here. The sequence below begins with 1922 and 1925 renditions, passing swiftly over the comically inept low point of 1973, to the increasingly choreographed versions of recent years:

So it’s no “living fossil”, being subject to regular adaptation. In 2005, to great acclaim, as an alternative to the usual Ka mate the All Blacks, led by Tana Umaga, introduced the new haka Kapa o pango, modified by Derek Lardelli from the 1924 Ko niu tireni:

Its adaptation to the sporting event compares favourably with Chinese concert versions of ritual. However it’s done, it never descends to the kitsch of such adaptations—it’s always performed with great intensity and integrity, giving an impressive glimpse of a serious ritual world. The pride that they take in performing it with such practised commitment contrasts strangely with the casual way in which they sing the national anthem that precedes it—even the Brazilian anthem doesn’t inspire its footballers to such intensity.

As a spurious link to a fine story, I note that the team performed a kangaroo version in July 1903:

Tena koe, Kangaroo                 How are you, Kangaroo
Tupoto koe, Kangaroo!           You look out, Kangaroo!
Niu Tireni tenei haere nei       New Zealand is invading you
Au Au Aue a!                             Woe woe woe to you!

* * *

From the sublime to the ridiculous… Several YouTube wags have suggested suitable responses from opposing teams: a burst of Riverdance by the Irish team, or (from the English) the hop-skip-hand-behind-the-back routine in Morecambe and Wise’s Bring me sunshine.

Morris dancing might unsettle the All Blacks too (music added later; in memoriam George Butterworth, killed in the Great War):

The Intangible Cultural Heritage rears its ugly head again—perhaps the English team could emulate the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, a 150-year-old troupe of Lancastrian clog dancers.

Not quite à propos, and Don’t Try This at Home—or in the Matthew Passion:

As a further riposte to the haka, even I can’t quite imagine the Daoist “Steps of Yu” (Yubu 禹步), but how about the Sacrificial dance of The Rite of Spring, complete with Roerich’s costumes and Nijinsky’s choreography? That really might take the lead out of the All Black pencil.

But we should celebrate the deeply serious nature of folk culture, and the evolving transmission of performances like the haka.

At the barbers

“Barber” by Sidney Gamble, Wenchuan, Sichuan (Item ID 43A-231). Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.  Reproduced by permission.

Notwithstanding the constant transformation of Chinese society, Sidney Gamble’s photo from around 1917–19 shows a scene that is still common in rural China today (for his remarkable collection, see here; and for the Miaofengshan pilgrimage, including Gamble’s early film footage, here. And for more fine historical images, see this site).

I was wont to have my head shaved even before I began doing fieldwork in China. But since the older generation of peasants in north China tend to do so (mainly for the sake of hygiene), I emulate them while I’m there.

Early in the course of my long-term work with the ritual association of Gaoluo, one demonstration of our developing relationship was my decision to have my hair cut in the village. From my Plucking the winds (pp.205–6):

Our visits through the hot summer of 1993 were our first since our initial one in 1989. Though now engaged on a general survey of many villages, we were increasingly drawn to Gaoluo, returning there frequently, and despite the recent theft, we spent many happy times together. We used to sit outside on low stools in the shade of He Qing’s courtyard, with Cai An, Li Shutong, and others gathering round for a chat and a smoke. This was the time when we appreciated the depth of He Qing’s knowledge. And our major musical discovery that summer was the vocal performance of the magnificent Houtu scroll (audio playlist, track 6, and my notes here].

GL haircut

He Junqi prepares to cut my hair. Left: our fine MRI driver Little Deng; behind him, in white, maestro He Qing.

I admired the closely cropped heads of many of the musicians, and tend to do without much hair in the summer myself. He Junqi (then 54), a regular visitor to He Qing’s house, son of the sweet elderly flautist He Yi, used to cut the musicians’ hair for them, so I asked him if he’d like to do mine. Everyone stood round having a good laugh, while He Junqi gave me the most meticulous haircut and shave of my life, scouring my scalp with local “White Cat” washing-powder.

And since 2011, a regular haunt of mine on visits to Yanggao to hang out with Li Manshan and his Daoist band is the Barber for Old, Middle-aged and Young (Laozhongqing 老中青) in town, just round the corner from Li Bin’s funeral shop.

laozhongqing

Photo: Li Bin.

Since we all agree that I look years younger with my head shaved, we soon glossed the name as “Old Jonesy is younger” (Lao Zhong qing 老钟轻)—yet another in our series of merry puns

More Rachmaninoff

I’ve already posted a wonderful performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony, but the recent Prom included another moving version, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. I Like the Cut of his Jib, as Adrian Chiles observed prophetically about Guus Hiddink’s managing of the South Korean football team in 2002. Nor is the BBC Scottish to be sniffed at. I loved their Mahler 5 at the 2015 Proms, with Donald Runnicles.

With typical Prom flair, the concerto and symphony were introduced by concert versions of Orthodox liturgy sung by the Latvian radio choir. You can find the whole concert here for the next month.

After the 3rd piano concerto, the encore of Vocalise led me to Rachmaninoff’s 1929 studio recording of his orchestral version:

Of all versions, you can’t beat it on theremin:

On physiognomy

It’s been a while since we heard from Alan Bennett.

His 1988 diaries describe a visit to Russia in the company of writers like (sic) Timothy Mo and Sue Townsend, arranged by the Great Britain-USSR Society (yet more “international cultural exchange”):

 I am disturbed to find Melvyn Bragg working in the hotel as a doorman. He pretends not to recognise me.

To Massenet’s Werther at the Bolshoi. It is an indifferent production, the scenery and sets almost Music Hall, but the house is packed and Nina and Galina, our guides, say that this is the first time for years they have managed to get a ticket, which makes us all feel worse for not enjoying it. Someone who is enjoying it is Melvyn Bragg, this time in the back row of the chorus.

Another visit to the Bolshoi, this time for an evening of ballet excerpts. […] By now I am unsurprised to find Melvyn is in the ballet as well as the opera, and he even takes a curtain call, accompanied, as ballet calls are the world over, by a deadly hail of tulips.

This is brilliantly observed, working perfectly for our images both of Bragg and of the various scenarios in which he appears.

Talking of lookalikes, à la Private eye, my friend Hugh observes that Li Manshan is a dead ringer for Andy Capp.

LMS as Andy Capp

Might they perhaps be related? I think we should be told.

 

A Swedish psalm

Following my thoughts on musical complexity, and the taxonomy of singing:

While I rejoice in the intensity and economical language of much popular music, generally I’m underwhelmed by the upright Victorian simplicity of Christian hymns—although of course Bach’s chorales are in another league.

The Swedish psalm Härlig Är Jorden, sung a cappella, is Complete Perfection, Pure Simplicity:

Glorious is the Earth
Glorious is the Earth, glorious is God’s heaven,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of souls
Through the fair kingdoms of the Earth
We go to paradise with song

 Ages come, ages go
Generation follows generation
Never is the sound from Heaven silenced
Of the soul’s glad pilgrim-song

 The angels sang it first for shepherds of the land
Beautifully it rang out from soul to soul
People, rejoice, the Saviour has come
The Lord bids peace upon the Earth

BTW, notwithstanding the critiques of Alan Lomax’s ambitious Cantometrics project, this does seem to illustrate one of his notable insights:

that sexually restrictive and highly punitive societies correlated with degree of vocal tension. The tendency to sing together in groups, tonal cohesiveness, and the likelihood of polyphonic singing were all associated with fewer restrictions on women. Multipart singing occurs in societies where the sexes have a complementary relationship.

The Real Group sings the psalm divinely, but it can be just as moving in less polished amateur versions. This is nothing to do with our recent British penchant for Scandi noir. Of course, not being Swedish, I can’t assess what layers of association it may have for various strata of Swedish society today. For me, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, another likely image of religious purity (and another of those changing traditions à la Hobsbawm), is highly conflicted—Dudley Moore expressed this well, if not entirely reverently. I doubt if all young Russian liberals are so entranced by Orthodox liturgy as I was on Mount Athos.

So as with Bach, there is no “correct” way to experience a piece like this: it will vary by class, time, region, and so on.

While we’re relishing the singing of the Real Group, I can never resist a bit of Bill Evans:

For a wonderful a cappella Bruckner motet, see here.

Spiritual and marvellous mysteries

I recall with deep admiration the unsung scholar Yuan Quanyou 袁荃猷 (1920–2003).

Wang and Yuan
While a student in Beijing she studied with her future husband, the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang 王世襄 (1914–2009) (see wise and affectionate tributes by Craig Clunas [1] —another great Ming scholar—and now here). After Yuan Quanyou graduated in 1943, they married in 1945.

Wedding of Yuan Quanyou and Wang Shixiang, 1945—after the defeat of the Japanese, on the eve of civil war.

Yuan Quanyou had studied the qin zither with Wang Mengshu 汪孟舒 from the age of 14 sui. Through the 1940s she took part keenly in the activities of the Beiping qin society, among a dazzling array of illustrious qin masters. She later became a disciple and colleague of the great Guan Pinghu.

Wang Shixiang soon found that his wife’s skills focused on the traditional literati accomplishments of “qin, chess, calligraphy, and painting”, to the exclusion of more mundane activities like cooking. So it was he who became a fine chef; and he considered himself her “qin servant” 琴奴. Several online pages about the couple describe their lifelong rapport by the term zhiyin 知音 “kindred spirits”, a bond whose etymology derives from music.

Complementing Wang Shixiang’s refined literati tastes, through his enthusiasm for falconry, badger-hunting, cricket rearing, and pigeon fancying he had gained what Craig Clunas calls “a raffish reputation” (as you do…). I also learn that he loved football, “as anyone who has tried to make conversation while he is watching soccer on the television can confirm”—cool by me. He retained a rare passion for both elite and popular culture.

From the early 1950s Yuan Quanyou worked tirelessly in the archives of the Music Research Institute (MRI) in Beijing, alongside the great Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe, as well as a whole host of qin masters like Guan Pinghu and Zha Fuxi, and their students—including Xu Jian 许健, and the fine female qin player and scholar Wang Di 王迪 (1926–2005). [2]

GPH and students

60th-birthday photo of Guan Pinghu with his students, 1957:
(left to right) front row Xu Jian, Guan Pinghu, Zheng Minzhong;
back row Wang Di, Shen You, Yuan Quanyou.

By 1957, while her husband was also busy publishing ground-breaking research, Yuan Quanyou’s close collaboration with Yang Yinliu resulted in the publication of the fine iconographical series Zhongguo yinyueshi cankao tupian 中国音乐史参考图片 [Reference illustrations for Chinese music history] (see also here).

CKTP best

Some treasured volumes in my library.

Yuan Quanyou 1950s lowres

All this activity took place under extremely trying conditions. As Craig notes:

The published curricula vitae of Chinese scholars often give a false idea of the continuity of their employment, and conceal the long periods of frustrating idleness caused by periodic political campaigning.

After the 1949 “Liberation”, Wang Shixiang was employed at the Palace Museum, but he was wrongly jailed for ten months and expelled from the museum in 1953. In 1957, he was branded a “rightist,” a stigma he bore for twenty-one years. Craig’s account of the couple’s enforced inactivity during the Cultural Revolution is also worth citing. Despite Wang’s undoubted sufferings after being sent down to a “Cadre school” in Hubei province, he could “make the experience sound positively bucolic”. While callow young Red Guards were duped into destroying as much of the heritage as they could find, the exiled Wang wrote poetry in the classical style (“much of it on his work as a swineherd and cowherd, which draws on deep-rooted traditions of verse by those who were out of office and out of favour at court”), and even managed to cook gourmet delicacies.

But the mental pressure cannot but have been considerable, since no term was set to the period of banishment, and little or no news was available as to the fate of family or friends.

Old portrait photos are all the moving when we consider the troubled stories behind people’s lives (intellectuals, urban and rural dwellers alike) under Maoism, as evoked by films like The blue kite and To live (see also my tribute to Li Jin). Craig’s aperçu about Wang Shixiang’s renewed energy in the 1980s, “as if making up for lost time”, also resounds in both Chinese music studies and folk culture. Meanwhile, a discreet amnesia took over. (For the concurrent tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars and artists, see here.)

ZGYYSTJFrom 1986 I used to visit Yuan Quanyou in her office at the dilapidated yet numinous MRI compound at Dongzhimenwai, her beaming face greeting me between high stacks of ancient documents. There, with unassuming industry she was still producing further volumes in the MRI’s wonderful annotated series of iconographical collections on Chinese music history, such as the 1988 Zhongguo yinyueshi tujian 中国音乐史图鉴 [Illustrated history of Chinese music].

Even as my interests were moving from Tang history to the modern transmission of folk culture, I relished her detailed article on the medieval konghou harp.

Remarkably, after the end of the Cultural Revolution Wang Shixiang had managed to reclaim much of their precious collection of Ming and Qing furniture and artefacts. By the 1990s he and his wife began the process of bequeathing it to the Shanghai Museum, where it now forms a major and prestigious exhibit.

With her calm acuity and beautiful accent, Yuan Quanyou exemplified the refined virtues of old Beijing. She was closely involved in the remarkable work documenting the history and changing performance practice of the qin zither—including research on the 1425 Handbook of spiritual and marvellous mysteries (Shenqi mipu, aka Wondrous and secret notation), most numinous of all tablatures for the qin, compiled by the Emaciated Immortal (as the early Ming prince Zhu Quan styled himself).

Now, this may hardly atone for my recent challenge to the mystique of the qin, but I treasure the precious copy of the 1956 reprint of the 1425 score that Yuan Quanyou inscribed to me in her elegant calligraphy in 1987, for me to “study and practise”.

SQMP

BTW, having chosen that lower page rather casually (mainly for the numinous Daoist title “Zhuangzi dreams he is a butterfly”), I now find myself moved by Zhu Quan’s wisdom—in utter contrast to the “living fossils” flummery of recent years, culminating in the befuddled Intangible Cultural Heritage. The opening of his introduction reads:

The Emaciated Immortal says: “The ancient version of this piece has long since been lost.”

These days it’s all “The ancient version of this piece has been transmitted continuously for 2,000 years.” [Expletives deleted—Ed.].

Jinfeixibi 今非昔比 (“Things ain’t what they used to be”), as Li Manshan reflects at the end of our film.

Wang and Yuan later

 

[1] See https://www.academia.edu/34156645/The_Apollo_Portrait_Wang_Shixiang_Apollo_127_November_1987_pp._350-1, and https://www.academia.edu/34156683/_Wang_Shixiang_Spiritual_Resonance_and_the_Ten_Thousand_Things_in_Fariba_de_Bruin-Derakhshani_and_Barbara_Murray_eds._The_2003_Prince_Claus_Fund_Awards_The_Hague_2003_pp._17-23.
Among many other reports, see e.g. http://www.china.org.cn/english/NM-e/170145.htm, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_2580161, and this tribute from Yuan’s granddaughter: https://kknews.cc/culture/2ao24jz.html, with further lovely old photos. Among several biographies and collections is Chen Zhou 晨舟 Wang Shixiang 王世襄(2002).

[2] For an English introduction to the (pre-ICH) Beijing Guqin Research Association, successor to the Beiping qin society, see Cheng Yu, “The precarious state of the qin in contemporary China”, CHIME 10–11 (1997). Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 has written fine tributes to Guang Pinghu and Wang Di:
“Xian’gen: Guan Pinghu yu Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo” 弦根——管平湖与中国音乐研究所, Zhongguo yinyuexue 2016.3; and
“Daihuo jiaotong yun ben bei: qinjia Wang Di xiansheng” 带火焦桐韵本悲——琴家王迪先生 Mingjia 名家 49 (2015) (on several online sites e.g. here).

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 鍾思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Peking University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 鍾馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 鍾子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname (see here), but hey. Not to mention the huangzhong 黃鍾 and linzhong 林鍾 pitches of the ancient tonal system!

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen”, a transliteration of “Stephen”.** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

Without the bamboo radical at the top, the character di 弟 following the si would be a female name: “wanting a little brother”—one that peasants, disapppointed at having a daughter (yeah I know), do indeed sometimes adopt. And one cultural official in Yanggao, moved to write an article about my fieldwork there, somehow miswrote the character as 娣, with the female radical at the side. When I showed it to Li Manshan, we had another typical exchange:

Me: “WTF?! Doesn’t he know how to write my bloody name by now?”

Li Manshan (peering pensively at the character): “Maybe he thinks you’re a hermaphrodite…”

Anyway, as my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.

* * *

One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, di’er “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange“.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong 老钟), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”. (For nicknames in the music biz, see here.)

For Craig Clunas’s Chinese name, click here.

 

**Talking of transliterations of foreign names (see here and here), “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Cinema Paradiso

As a change from the Rite of Gran visits York and Li Manshan, I do hope you know Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), and its soundtrack. Morricone’s* music comes into its own in the overwhelming final sequence—not merely sentimental but a triumph over prurient censorship. You really have to watch the film all the way through—but hey, here goes:

Even in concert, the Big Tune is irresistible—all the more so with violin playing like this, from a 2011 Prom:

In the right hands, it would sound great on the erhu too.

For more on Italian film, see here, and indeed here.

 

* Actually, it being a father–son collaboration, I should perhaps write Morricones’—hmm.

NYO Prom: The Rite

Rite

Forty-seven years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms.

In The shock of the new I reflected on the scandalous première, the ballet, jazz and HIP versions, and a rendition on organ.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9; cf. here), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

The complete BBC4 broadcast included a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...

Taruskin on early music

***Link to this page!***

I’ve finally got round to reading the great Richard Taruskin properly. Among his wide-ranging themes, in this page (under WAM in Menu), I discuss his seminal comments on early music, informed by my own humble experiences of the scene.

As he links it with modernism, placing it firmly within the context of our contemporary culture, this is no mere niche topic, it’s profound, essential reading on culture in modern society— and with maestro-baiting galore!

Even if one disagreed with every word of the book, the writing is always a joy to read.

Sappho and Hildegard

T-shirt

Taking pride of place on the fine T-shirt of female composers, Sappho is the subject of an engaging Radio 4 programme by Natalie Haynes, both educative and hilarious—I can’t find this episode online at the moment, but here’s the link.

Proceeding in an orderly fashion further down the T-shirt, it was also good this Monday to find Hildegard of Bingen in The Birth of Polyphony on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zdbb7

The tracks are very fine (for further discography, see here), but I don’t quite know how I want such music to sound. Indeed, as Christopher Page commented,

There’s no real reason to think that any of Hildegard’s songs were ever performed at all. Hildegard writes these pieces as acts of prayer in themselves, and exactly what use they were put to, if any use at all, is something that we don’t really know. It’s possible to imagine Hildegard or somebody else humming them or singing them softly in the context of private prayer, for example.

Despite contemporary medieval groups that immerse themselves in medieval sources, and resulting fine “experiments” in vocal style (Jantina Norman, North African, and so on), most recordings sounds exactly what they are—Oxbridge-educated choral singers since the 1970s. And they communicate with the type of audiences that like to hear that kind of thing. Our ears. The problem lies partly in the medium: the acoustic of recording, or concerts.

The modern sound ideal might succinctly be described as virginal, but I’m not sure a 20th-century Oxbridge virgin sounds quite the same as a 12th-century German one. But after Taruskin, we can all relax.

For “The hottest 900-year-old on the charts”, an entertaining and informed review of recordings and performances of her work, featuring the Hildegurls, see here.

 

 

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.

Sheherazade

And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade. At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Bach and Stravinsky

Useless musicological sleuthing of the day…

I like to think that I discovered this—on tour in Spain with the Sixteen, early 1990s:

The numinous opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring, rather than deriving from a folk melody on the elusive dudka, may instead be borrowed ingeniously from the Matthew Passion, 1st violin part in the 2nd orchestra (no.43, not long before Erbarme Dich):

Bach:Stravinsky

with Stravinsky varying Bach’s pitch and rhythms to his taste. Amidst the fray of the crowd scene, investing the phrase with inexplicable care, I always chuckle to myself, “Not a lot of people know that…” [Weirdo—Ed.].

Gaoluo: a restudy, and my role

Thankfully, I am rarely the object of interview—far more often the interviewer asking fatuous questions. I mentioned one such encounter where I failed in my task of giving snappy predictable answers, as well as Jack Body’s original take on my stammer.

Far more in-depth in nature is the new PhD thesis

  • Zhang Lili 张黎黎, Lun Zhong Sidide Nan Gaoluo yinyuehui yanjiu 论钟思第的南高洛音乐会研究 [On Stephen Jones’s research on the ritual association of South Gaoluo] (Beijing: Zhongguo yishu yanjiuyuan 中国艺术研究院 2017),

on my own relationship with the ritual association of South Gaoluo village, and my whole approach. Referring to my book

she consulted me over a long period with frequent and detailed emails, and it has been most stimulating for me to reflect on my fieldwork. Her thesis (supervised by the illustrious Tian Qing) is enriched by several visits to Gaoluo—allowing her to make what is effectively a restudy, updating my history of the village and its ritual practice in the light of their later adoption into the dreaded Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) razzmatazz, with all the problems that it entails.

She reflects on the association’s memories of my visits—prompting further reflections from me here, leading to this page suggesting my challenge to the official narrative. She also discussed our work on Gaoluo, indeed our whole project on the Hebei ritual associations, with my fellow-fieldworkers Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao—a fruitful collaboration that stimulated us all.

MYL played

Taking part in the New Year’s rituals, 1998.

And my work in Gaoluo (from 1989 to 2001) may be seen as a blueprint for my later in-depth study with the Li family Daoists (going back to 1991, but intensive since 2011). The subject of the former was an amateur village-wide group, whereas the latter are an extended occupational family of household Daoist ritual specialists—but the principles of thick description and participant observation remain similar.

On my own “method”, at first I can’t really see what the fuss is about: isn’t this what anthropologists do?! Even in China there are many fine ethnographers, such as Wang Mingming, Guo Yuhua, Jing Jun; and in music (apart from Xue Yibing and Zhang Zhentao), Xiao Mei, Qi Kun, Wu Fan, and so on. They’re much better equipped than me for such work.

But sure, two decades ago my approach was more detailed, and personal, than was then the norm in Chinese musicology. The anthropologists whose work I was myself only beginning to digest—even those fine Chinese scholars who were later to become leading figures—were still hardly known in China. I was educating myself by reading up on both modern social-political background for China and wider ethnomusicological studies (Plucking the winds, Appendix 1). By now, such an approach is less remarkable, but then I found myself somewhat ahead of the game in ethnography—certainly within Chinese musicology, where the “living fossilsflapdoodle has remained hard to erase. Another approach that I took for granted was participant observation—a routine expectation in ethnomusicology, but still virtually unknown either in Chinese musicology or in studies of Chinese ritual.

Anyway, it will be good to see Zhang Lili’s restudy of Gaoluo, with further illustrations of the perils of the ICH.