Bach and the oboe

My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.

In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.

Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player (for John Eliot Gardiner’s ambitious connections with world shawms, see under The ritual calendar).

Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):

Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:

And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).

Quia respexit from the Magnificat:

But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say. For more, see under The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons.

Buddhist ritual in south Shaanxi

***Link to this page!***

Most of my accounts of local ritual in north China (under “Themes” in main menu) concern Daoist practice. This new page mainly concerns folk Buddhist ritual traditions transmitted by former temple monks around Yangxian county in south Shaanxi.

It’s even more sketchy than my introductions to some other areas that I haven’t visited, but again, as I continue to regret the superficiality of the ICH material, I’m hoping to entice people to go and do some serious research. I’ve also revised the introductory page on Buddhist ritual.

Yangxian nianjing


Daoist ritual and football

Daoist football

WOW. Following my post on the Haka, Chinese football has just gone one better. On 23rd September a Henan team had a Daoist ritual performed on the pitch, going on to get their first home win in months—and getting a slapped wrist from the Chinese FA, what’s more:

Sure, unlike the Haka, in this case it’s not the players themselves who perform the ritual—yet.

Chinese Twitter is buzzing with discussion. Daoist fans aren’t taking the stern rebukes lying down: pointing out that Daoist ritual is protected under the brief of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, they deftly play the old “culture, not feudal superstition” card.

有道教网站转发新闻办的微博称:来来来,我给建业支个招,各地的道教音乐中包括全真十方韵,全国很多地方都有批准为非物质文化遗产, 建业去问问那次的道长是传承自哪里,在比赛前进行音乐演奏,非遗文化表演。是受非遗法保护的。《中华人民共和国非物质文化遗产法》里 面有支持其参与社会公益性活动。这么喜闻乐见不如看怎么合理弘扬?

Others worry that it may give rise to competitive rituals in which the other team employs their own ritual specialists to break the magic of the opposition’s Daoists. Of course, it has long been common to hire two or more groups (Buddhist, Daoist, Tibeto-Mongol lamas…) for a single ritual event—competing between each other but not for rival patrons.

Another article defends the move by pointing out various international instances of teams seeking divine assistance (for a recent one, see here).

For a related debate, see here; note also the rebuttals of local government’s restrictions on funeral observances in Shandong.

Early Chinese versions of football were popular, though I’m not going to devote much time to searching for specific blessing rituals in Song-dynasty ritual compendia… Not will I detain you here with a discussion of the constant historical adaptations of Daoists to their patrons…

football painting

Chinese women’s football. Du Jin, Ming dynasty.

I note that during the Song dynasty only one goal post was set up in the centre of the field—now that would be an intriguing modification to the FIFA rules. Further to the magnificent ripostes of young female footballers to the British FA, at a match in the Tang dynasty

records indicate that once a 17-year-old girl beat a team of army soldiers.

YAY! Could it have been after this match that the men shifted the goalposts? Typical!

Under Maoism a leading CCP apparatchik (can anyone put a name to this fine pundit?) observed twenty-two players chasing around after one ball, and in a spirit of egalitarianism, unhappy with the conventions of what he supposed was a misguided capitalist invention, declared grandly:
“We’re a socialist country now—why not give them a ball each?”

Anyway, my new dream is for the Li family Daoists to perform a ritual to help Arsenal win the Champions’ League.

For more on women’s football, see here.

Lost for words

Besides the Pearl and Dean theme tune, and the potentially cruel There was a young man from Calcutta, another song that might make a suitable anthem for the Stammering Association is Rossini’s Mi manca la voce, or “My voice fails me”, from his 1818 opera Mosè in Egitto:

Apart from the sheer beauty of the music, it reminds me of group therapy sessions I’ve taken part in. Despite their protestations, all four (unusually, both male and female) stammerers seem to have overcome their imp-p-pediment; but again, singing does often offer a temporary reprieve.

The specious connection with stammering didn’t occur to me when I first relished the quartet from the pit at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in the early 1980s. Of course, joking aside, this is an excuse to play an exquisite composition, a departure from our usual diet of Bach, Daoist ritual, and Billie Holiday.

That’s the best version I can find online. I’m sure scholars of Italian opera can discuss at length the authenticity of such a style—one might assemble a less, um, operatic vocal ensemble, but that’s just me and my knit-your-own yogurt purism for you.

* * *

My distinguished friend Hugh in Verona (where long ago I did my time in the pit at the Arena) draws my attention to this sextet (see also here), which might also be part of a group therapy session for stammerers:

Apart from simple consonants, diphthongs can also pose a challenge. But syllabic, rhythmic speech is an outmoded technique that offers only temporary relief…

As Hugh observes, such operatic set-pieces are known as concertato dello stupore—perhaps “ensemble of the nonplussed” rather than the charming “stupefaction ensemble”.

Here’s another wacky and exhilarating Rossini tongue-twister (with dindin for bells, tac-tà for hammer, bumbum for cannon, and so on):

For more stammering songs, click here; and for another tongue-twister, here.

The speaking voice

Since I write a lot about performance, as well as fluency and disfluency, I’ve been thinking about public speaking.

Having endured innumerable dry lectures over the years, I’ve only belatedly got used to giving talks myself—while they’re rather informal in style, in delivery my stammer still limits the ease with which people can listen. Introducing the Li family Daoists on tour, at least, I rise to the occasion. True, for me to discuss public speaking is like an old celibate man in a frock offering women advice on family planning. Oh, hang on…

That aside may lead us on to the astounding Michael Curry:

A tradition of oratory inherited by Michelle Obama, indeed. And now we have the presentations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both forensic and impassioned—there’s already a wealth of moving speeches to choose from, like this:

And DO listen to the amazing speech of Amanda Gorman at the 2021 Inauguration—not just the text, but her passionate delivery and expressive hands:

But it’s not just a question of performance style and personal charisma, it’s also the quality of the voice itself. Timbre remains one the least well defined aspects of vocal music, but it’s also crucial to how successfully the speaking voice communicates.

So I’ve become very aware of various delightful engaging media voices. Women, gifted with empathy, clearly have an advantage. You can compile your own lists, but I think of the informative and funny Natalie Haynes, irresistible Sharon Horgan—and Brian Cox, born with a sweet smile while digestibly divulging arcane mysteries. And having praised Keith Richards and his passion for the open-string tuning, here he is, imparting his experience seriously in between conspiratorial chuckles:


A most engaging presenter (and now a brilliant dancer on Strictly!) is Stacey Dooley, who has all the virtues of rapport that fieldworkers need.

But for me the all-time most inspiring voice is that of Mariella Frostrup—wise, sensuous, and intimate:

Anyway, neither style nor timbre seems to be on the agenda of academics reluctantly obliged to communicate. Just as in fusty WAM, text often seems to outrank act. And the more obscure your subject, the harder you need to work at communicating. We could all learn a lot from standup comedians, honing their delivery to perfection for maximum effect. But that’s a different thing: here I’m thinking mainly of the natural quality of the voice.

All this is not to be sneezed at.

To end on a somewhat different timbre (an occasion for the old “I don’t like yours much” snowclone):

Of course, ways of communicating are always determined by social milieu—but with all due respect, I think I’ll stick with Mariella and Keef.

Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But Seriously Though Folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Celibidache, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always had the score in front of him, and the result was electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.


Just a few instances. Here’s the magical Carlos Kleiber conducting Brahms 2 in 1991, with an unrepentantly all-male Vienna Phil (using free bowing!!! and 1st and 2nd violins seated opposite!!!):

In the words of a Classic FM presenter, “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it? Give us a call.”

And here’s S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

I also feature Abbado’s performances of Mahler 1Mahler 5,  Mahler 2, and Mahler 6. And don’t miss him accompanying Magdalena Kožená in Ich bin de Welt abhanden bekommen, and the divine Hélène Grimaud in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto.

Chamber groups like the Chiara quartet have also found playing from memory fruitful. Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

Note this roundup of posts on conducting.

More Daoists of Yanggao

** Link to this page!**

Following my pages on local Daoist traditions scattered around north Shanxi (ShuozhouTianzhen,Guangling, and Datong county!), I return to my base of Yanggao.

From my film and book on the Li family Daoists of Upper Liangyuan (and indeed throughout this site) you can already see that Yanggao is a hive of Daoist activity. Until the 1950s over twenty Daoist groups performed ritual around Yanggao; this page gives brief sketches of three more lineages with a long Daoist history, who are also still active today.

The Pardon, 1991

Yet more Mozart

Mozart’s divine A major piano concerto came on the radio while I was reviewing Blair Tindall‘s story of the conflicting feelings of professional musicians as they try to maintain youthful ideals when confronted with the harsh realities of the music business.

One doesn’t have to have a long relationship with a piece (whether “classical” or popular)—it can be amazing to make a discovery in later years. But a cumulative personal listening-history is enriching.

All the late Mozart piano concertos (and most of the earlier ones too) are special, but hearing the A major concerto again, my immersion in it is a cumulative result of accompanying it in my teens (actually, even practising it, in the days when I could also play piano), and later for Mozart’s own incarnation, Robert Levin (also here).

(YouTube BTL comments always entertaining:)

Was this recorded using period microphones too?
Yes and it needs period listener too.

But (you know me) I also have to offer Hélène Grimaud playing the slow movement—sod the purists, it’s no less enchanting to the ear than to the eye:

See also The death of Stalin.

Daoists of Datong county, Shanxi

**Link to this page!**

This is a new page in the sub-menu  “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu, on the Daoists of Datong county.

In my work on Daoist ritual specialists in north China, I often stress that the notional dichotomy between Orthodox Unity and Complete Perfection branches is largely academic at the village level. Still, so far it looks as if the received portrayal of household Daoism in north Shanxi as being dominated by Orthodox Unity is mistaken. With household Complete Perfection groups active in Tianzhen, Guangling, Shuozhou, and Yingxian counties, the Orthodox Unity Daoists of Yanggao (such as our Li family in Upper Liangyuan) are beginning to seem an exception.

But in Datong county, the Daoist groups are also Orthodox Unity—and what’s more, here we have a clear connection with former temple priests!


Ute Lemper

In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.

In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuse is a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).

Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).

Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplane clip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—

I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemper in concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.

As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.

For a recent incarnation of the femme fatale, see here.

Daoists of Tianzhen, Shanxi

***Link to this page!***

Click above for the latest in my surveys of household Daoist groups in north Shanxi, including Shuozhou and Guangling (not to mention Yanggao, main subject of this blog), as well as Changwu in Shaanxi. They’re now grouped in a sub-menu “Local ritual” under the “Themes” menu.

Here I outline the history and ritual practices of three families of Complete Perfection Daoists in Tianzhen county—a tradition derived from the Nanmen si temple in Huai’an just northeast.

Ning statuette


Mein Gott

I’ve already offered one Crucifixion joke, and you can find more online. The devout may wish to look away now.

Musos often tell this one, a true story about a performance of the Matthew Passion in Bristol, and an extreme instance of corpsing. I’ll refrain from naming the performers, though I do rather feel they deserve to be immortalized rather than crucified (not a choice vouchsafed to Our Lord).

As the Jesus du jour (fortunately this was a scratch gig) wailed an anguished cry to his Father:

Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?

on declaiming the first cry of “Eli“, he spontaneously essayed an extra dramatic flourish by giving a resounding stamp with his foot. Finding the effect rather pleasing, he followed it up with another stamp on the second “Eli“.

This already had the other soloists, seated nearby, struggling to hold it together— it was even funnier considering that Jesus, up there on the cross, wasn’t exactly in a position to stamp his foot. But when it came to the evangelist’s turn to translate Jesus’s words (That is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to the same melody, for scrupulous accuracy of live reportage what else could he do except stamp again in his two equivalent cries of “Mein Gott“? The performers now totally lost it.
Lama 1

Lama 2

It strikes me that this may be even funnier the more deeply we engage with the anguish of the scene.

For good (or bad) measure, an encore of Always look on the bright side of life seems appropriate:

For more cognitive dissonance, see A deflated pupil.

At such moments, it behoves me to stress that the Bach Passions are among the great monuments of Western civilisation…

Summer holiday

Further to my mission to “delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, this is among the most extreme tests of my inkling that musics of the world are equal—in a way that my posts on more fashionable genres like Country or Punk don’t.

With my youthful (1963) awareness of popular culture then submerged beneath Beethoven and—imminently—Euripides, I was devoted to the Beatles but little else in the field. Summer holiday (the wiki entry is unusually frugal—I’m looking for an in-depth musicological analysis, guys) became an embodiment of fatuous kitsch almost as soon as it emerged from Cliff’s immaculate lips. Still, it was pretty much inescapable, even for me.

Seeking a more global comparison, if you google “music 1963”, you only get pop music. Typical! So I’ll just offer Messiaen‘s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste. Hmm. I’ll leave you to imagine new songs emerging from Lagos, or Jakarta.

OMG, I’ve just realized that my mother (who didn’t exactly have her finger on the pulse of popular culture)* must have taken me to Cliff’s film soon after it came out in 1963! However could she have done that—surely I couldn’t have begged her to take me? That would be hard to live down—a skeleton in my closet such as Bachelor Boy Cliff may or may not have.

Now I hear it again—actually listening—it’s fascinating. Those irritating catchy syncopations that Cliff seems makes a token effort to rescue from cliché, the casual triplet on “sea is”, the instrumentation (great little instrumental opening, later used insistently as an interlude, worthy of Chinese shawm bands!), the classic upward shift in key. There is some serious, um, craftspersonship going on here.

After post-war drabness, that 60s’ spirit of optimism that most of the really brilliant bands, including the Beatles, were soon to undermine… Summer holiday is a major document in the social history of the day—and one that still means a lot to many people.


*Talking of the Beatles, in my book on the Li family Daoists I describe our 2009 Carnegie Hall gig:

The Daoists know nothing of the Carnegie Hall, and have to take it on trust that it’s a big deal. As my mum said of the Beatles, “Well I’ve never heard of them—they can’t be famous!”

My new business enterprise

If my Daoist ritual joke-book (example here) inexplicably fails to soar into the charts (other reviews here), hastening rather than subsidizing my retirement, I have a cunning backup plan—inspired by both Myles and Hašek’s The animal world.

At the entrance to the escalators on the London tube, one often finds a sign that may bemuse travellers, particularly hapless tourists:

Dogs must be carried on this escalator.

This has already been unpacked by generations of drôle pedants before me. The grammar of the sign is nicely explained here:

  1. All dogs should have a chance to go on this wonderful escalator ride
  2. This escalator is for dog-holders only
  3. You can’t carry your pet on the other escalators
  4. When riding with a pet, carry it.

None other than Terry Eagleton drew attention to this in his Literary theory: an introduction, along with classics like

Refuse to be put in this basket.

(YAY! No pigeonholing for me!) See also here.

So here’s my solution (©Stephen Jones 2017), a boon both to passengers and to my own modest bank-balance:

I am designing two booths, one at both ends of the escalator, where you can hire a dog of your choice (selection of breeds available to suit all moods) for the brief duration of the ride, in either direction, returning it as soon as you step off. At off-peak hours I can maintain a skeleton dog-team [fine use of hyphenEd.], with an elaborate Heath-Robinson-esque system of pulleys to whisk an animal speedily to whichever end the needy traveller awaits..

The cost of feeding and training the dogs will be slight compared to the handsome profits to be made from stranded passengers, and should keep me in Bombay Sapphire for years.

Mozart in the jungle

Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs, and classical music (2005) is the kind of book that I (if not my imaginary bank manager)* am glad I didn’t try and write. But it’s a valuable addition to the ethnography of WAM, seeking beyond the disembodied romantic image.

Despite its salacious subtitle, it’s of an entirely different order from fictional romps like Jilly Cooper’s Appassionata. As an insider’s account, it’s all the more revealing for being, um, “true”. The “muckraking” hype may make it seem like tabloid fodder, but I’m all for lifting the lid on the orchestral business with thick description.

Those reading it for the kiss-and-tell stories may get bogged down in the detailed accounts of arts funding—and indeed vice versa—but as one reads on, it’s well worth it. As I seek to integrate the thick description of contemporary Chinese life with the more arcane minutiae of ancient Daoist texts, I take this to heart.

While not initially sympathetic, the story later becomes a bravely candid and noble indictment. Fighting through depression. when Tindall finally escapes the twin prisons of the Allendale (graveyard of many a career—“a squalid rat-infested building where musicians lived because they had no choice”) and her stagnant orchestral life, you want to cheer. As if to explain and put in perspective the reinventions that Taruskin unpacks, she comments:

I was in a narcissistic industry that that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape. (247)

As she finally tunnels her way out of the Gulag to a journalism course in Stanford, she wonders,

How could I have allowed such an insular, incestuous business to rule me for a quarter century? (291)

* * *

Ethnographies are always specific to their time: for orchestral life, Vienna around 1900, 1950s’ Leeds, Dubai in 2015, and so on. Here we have New York from the eve of AIDS into the 21st century. But whatever the time and place, it’s always about real people seeking work.

Tindall argues against the kind of cloistered education she received. Soon she is plunged into the fray of the New York scene. Freelancing, all over the world, is an insecure life. She makes a terrifying debut with the NY Phil, doing Tchaik 5 with Tennstedt, soon followed by The rite of spring with Bernstein. Sounds glamorous, eh? What could possibly go wrong?

She describes the transition from the initial excitement, during a boom, to the decline of the 90s as ideals hit the rocks. Such stultifying routine is well observed by Alan Bennett in 1950s’ Leeds. After the Golden Age of the 1980s, Tindall notes the irony of the transition:

The culture boom was fizzling, yet the business of the arts were gaining momentum.

With an on-off relationship with the NY Phil, she schlepps around on out-of-town gigs with her friends. And she’s just as good at describing the life of the pit band for shows, a more dependable livelihood to which her career “descends”. Getting a regular job in Aspects of love, she

discovered an unusual skill possessed by about 10 percent of Broadway musicians. I could read a magazine while playing my part simultaneously. Those without the gift passed the time in other ways, plugging in transistors, knitting, making lists, or doing crosswords. One trumpeter studied maps.

This puts in perspective the reported churlishness of the Berlin Phil towards S-S-Simon Rattle—at least they have secure jobs, playing different masterpieces every night with a highly sympathetic conductor.

Tindall notes adverse changes in the recording industry. On an increasingly rare film session she comments:

As I watched the violinists’ bows going up and down in unison, reflected against glass beyond which sat the film’s production team, I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of people. In the booth sat men who made money out of trying a new idea, succeeding or failing and then trying another. On my side of the business, musicians returned to the same kinds of gigs, playing someone else’s music and earning a per-service wage. As the bows went up and down, I was reminded of a scene in Ben Hur in which galley slaves rowed without much idea of where they were headed. (275)

As she admits, she was proud to be unable to identify a pop song from the Beatles to Blondie (90). Indeed, she was missing out on a vibrant period for popular culture in New York—just as I would have, and indeed did, in London.

A full-time symphonic job evolves into monotony for many players. Orchestra musicians saw away like factory workers, repeating the same pieces year after year. Once a player is employed in a desirable orchestra, career advancement is severely limited. Perfectionism and injuries wear musicians down. Nighttime and holiday work disconnect them from mainstream life. Players complain that they forfeit autonomy to an omnipotent conductor who works a third of their schedule, is paid as much as twenty musicians [so little?!—SJ], and gets credit for the music they make.

In a world where the livelihoods of the rank-and-file are so tenuous, Tindall attacks the grossly inflated fees of conductors, soloists, and management with detailed arguments (see also here).

Reminding me of a survey of trusted professions in China, she cites a survey of job satisfaction of workers in a variety of industries,

in which orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in overall job satisfaction than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. (215–16)

I doubt if people go into hedge-fund management, or restaurant service, burdened by particularly high spiritual ideals. So it’s the disjuncture of lofty youthful dreams of making beautiful music (and the enduring rosy public image) with the harsh mundane realities of eking a living that can make for such soul-searching. Even those aspiring to some other professions—like becoming a cook, or a teacher or nurse—are better armed with cautionary tales.

The book is full of poignant passages like

I was tired of pretending I wanted this. Tired of my hopeless reed-making. Sick of the same old excerpts. Sick of spending every cent trying to win a job that offered only a minimal salary. After twenty-five auditions, I had spent $30,000 on flights, hotels, private oboe lessons, and missed work, most of it accumulating on a credit card. Even if I had won this gig, I’d never get out of debt.
I signaled the bartender and ordered a double Dewar’s. He wiped down the bar. I swallowed the burning whiskey and cleared my throat.
“I tried out for the Nashville Symphony today,” I told the bartender. He didn’t know Nashville had an orchestra. He loved music though, playing a little guitar himself. What was my instrument?
“Oboe,” I said simply. “I play the oboe.”
Oh-boe?” he asked, and stopped wiping, rag suspended over the bar. “What the heck’s an oh-boe?”(186–7)

* * *

Perhaps the more deviant behaviour that Tindall describes is prompted by the mismatch between ecstasy and drudge. For London since the 1970s, the main drug of choice was alcohol—as well as the elephant in the room, beta-blockers. Tindall reflects on drug use (“substance abuse was almost a badge of honor”), and its often-tragic consequences, with elegant summaries:

There were plenty of reason for musicians to get high—to soothe the frustration of spotty employment or to dull the repetitious nature of practicing and performing the same works over and over again. For others, it was the pursuit of perfection in an art whose quality cannot be measured. (106–10)

Noting that Tindall used to sell bags of weed as a teenager to subsidize her budding career, if you don’t know the Family Guy song, then you must!

She notes gender relations, with the ratio improving more quickly than the attitudes of the still-dominant male elite (86–7). Personal life can suffer too (as in the UK musos’ motto “touring doesn’t count”). Moaning with a girlfriend about the difficulty of finding a suitable partner, she observes:

Back in my early twenties, men my age lived in squalor, and the ones I met in orchestras were either geriatric or already spoken for. By their thirties, though, responsible guys had jumped ship for a career that could support a family. That left people outside the business, who were difficult to meet and had peculiar notions about us anyway. Outsiders were forever intimidated by musicians, whom they imagined as erudite superintellects.
“Ha! Musicians are more like blue-collar workers than PhDs,” Sydney joked. She had a point. Music performance was a specific craft that was perfected more by practice than by analysis. Our colleagues’ narrow focus sometimes made for dull conversation too, centering around dirty jokes, shop talk, and expensive wining and dining that everyone pretended they could afford. (226)

* * *

Tindall acknowledges some positive recent changes in symphony orchestras that put the needs of their communities first (301). Yet in the end the concerts she attends leave her cold. She sums up:

The role of classical music has changed in American society since 1960. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, [“classical”—SJ] music had been a part of everyday life for Americans, many of whom played instruments or sang together as amateurs. Today, classical music has become peripheral and irrelevant to mainstream life. It is regarded as an incomprehensible art that must be performed perfectly or not at all. […]
Today, amateur musicians are conservatory-trained professionals who cannot find work. Typically, their lives are the reverse of the 1950s amateurs—highly trained in their hobby but uneducated in whatever becomes their money-making career. […] They […] may flounder through life doing non-musical work that does not use the high levels of ambition and intelligence many gifted musicians possess. […]
I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. […] What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. (306)

The book is unlikely to transform the staid image of WAM, but that’s not the point at all (she comments wryly on the rampant “sexing-up” of WAM). As Tindall herself commented on young audiences in interview,

My experience with them is that when people see live musicians wearing clothes that they wear, who look like them, they’re mesmerized by it. But when it’s presented as something very highfalutin, it’s frightening. The wall comes down right away.

* * *

As an oboist, Tindall sprinkles the book liberally with shavings from reed-making and all its paraphernalia, reminding me of Wu Mei and Ciaran Carson:

Jimmy dug into his satchel. Oboists carry reed tool kits: knives, mandrels, pliers, sharpening stones, plus cigarette papers for leaky keys. He shook a plastic film canister filled with water for soaking reeds. He put it aside and grabbed a second canister, tapping out some pot to roll a joint. We smoked dope, got naked, and embraced. (100)

It’s good to find an early source for my casual reference to TFL’s use of classical music at London tube stations. As she schlepps back from a church gig in New Jersey, she passes through the bus station at Port Authority, known as a magnet for crime:

Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray”. […] The technique had first been used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. […] I thought about the message of Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime. How could we, the industry producing the stuff, demand that our fans pay top dollar for the same treatment? Ironically, the public’s distaste for classical music opened up a new market for repackaging symphonies and sonatas as cultural spinach. Mozart may be yucky and boring, went the reasoning, but it’s good for you. (205)

* * *

As Edward Smith notes in a finely-titled review,

the sex and drugs are peripheral to the much more important things she has to say about the music industry and the broader relationship between society, finance and the arts. […] By the time Tindall turned pro in the 1980s, the classical music industry still expected a deference that it no longer commanded. Supply outstripped demand.

Given such insights, Smith’s conclusion seems unkind:

First Tindall used sex for advancement in one profession, now she has used writing about sex for advancement in another.

Anne Midgette’s review also has some reservations:

There’s a lot wrong with the classical music business. But there is a lot wrong in other fields, too. Plenty of people in this country are stuck in dead-end jobs even more repetitive and less interesting than Ms Tindall’s. Plenty of them can’t afford health insurance. Plenty of industries need fixing. Plenty of people used a lot of drugs in the 1980’s. Plenty of workers die in car accidents during their daily commutes. So these arguments alone are not a strong indictment of classical music per se.

Of course the frustrations and injustices of other professions are indeed important topics, but ethnographers like those of Tindall are valuable partly in order to deflate a dangerous myth that is less common elsewhere.

Aaron Bady gives a fine review of the book along with the more recent, and predictably more benign, Amazon TV series:

She spent the first half of her life trying to be a good musician in a system that no longer had a place for her, yet a system that needed her drive and passion and desperation to keep itself viable… but that would never allow her a life in which she could thrive. Once she understood this cruel fact, she left.[Tindall describes]
how trickle-down austerity feels on the bottom of the pay-scale, how economic disparities become social exploitation, and how an appeal to idealism and doing-what-you-love becomes a ticket to poverty for those foolish enough to believe it (all against the backdrop of a data-driven journalistic analysis of how overpaid administrators have mismanaged classical music into oblivion).
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Amazon’s version is a point-by-point response to Tindall’s critique. If Tindall tries to disillusion us, Amazon gives glamorous cameos to Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, and Anton Coppola, the very same rich and famous stars who (as Tindall showed) luxuriate in a system built on bloody hands, broken lungs, and crushed ambitions. Their participation in the show is fun, perhaps because it puffs up the mythology that Tindall was trying to deflate.

 For more reviews, see here.

* * *

Of course, the life of a few elite orchestras doesn’t represent the totality of music-making, even in urban areas. The classic ethnography (largely free of sex and drugs) is Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians, on all kinds of musical life in Milton Keynes. Tindall’s account should also take its place alongside all the jazz biographies detailing another side to New York musical life (vibrant yet also insecure), and all the ethnographies of local music-making in world societies.

Some orchestral players, both in regular jobs and freelancers, take the rough with the smooth and find considerable fulfilment. But I suspect they are outnumbered by those who reach a point of frustration and helplessness. This book should be compulsory reading for idealistic young musicians—not necessarily to dissuade them from a musical “career”, but just to increase awareness and encourage debate.

* Remember them? They had bowler hats and moustaches and caught the 7.46 from Surbiton.

Interpreting pinyin

Shabi Dingxing 1995

Another irreverent exploration of the wonders of the Chinese language:

At least until it caught on as an input method for texting, the pinyin system of transliteration was slow to catch on in China, at least in the countryside. I took this mystifying picture of a shopfront in Dingxing county (Hebei) in 1995, as a little interlude between hanging out with ritual specialists, filming rituals, and photographing—aww, you guessed it—ritual manuals.

It’s actually an electrical and lighting store—the relevance of this only transpires gradually, since such tenuous relations as the notional pinyin may bear to the Chinese characters above it are only intermittent and haphazard. On closer inspection, some of the letters (indeed, a couple of characters too) have dropped off (as in the classic “His R’s fell off”).

Interpreting ancient literature can be like that—I think, for instance, of the labours of Sir Harold Bailey in deciphering fragmentary medieval texts excavated from Khotan. So perhaps this is where a certain sinological training comes in handy.

The cryptic motto begins to make more sense when we add speculative punctuation—evoking two aspiring young Cali actors (let’s dispense with “actresses“) embarking on a Bollywood-themed club night (a text alerting the paparazzi, perhaps):

Jan ‘n’ Dia—L.A. den “Bhabi!”

Or is it even an invitation to anagrams?

Dahlia nabbed ninja
A banal jihad binned
Albania Hadj bin-end

I should’ve gone to Specsavers, but as I pondered the sign in a desperate search for meaning, the reason I took the photo was that I misread the final word as SHABI, “fuckwit”—actually a very popular expression that is considerably less shocking in Chinese than its literal meaning of “stupid cunt”. Anyway, I still like to think that SHABI is what it says.*


* Upon mature [sic] reflection, I strongly suspect that was indeed closer to the effect they were aiming for. If we posit a missing final character dian 店, then the last two words would be SHANG DIAN (“shop”), but either they couldn’t tell the difference between their stock of S, B, and D letters, or they just didn’t have enough of them—you know, the old fridge-magnet dilemma. Anyway, with superfluous letters suitably discarded, it really could emerge triumphantly as SHABI.

Ruin an Irish book in one letter

Following my glowing paean to the Great Man, as a belated tribute to the Flann O’Brien Society’s recent competition —and supplementing my efforts regarding Chinese and orchestral cliché (see also Myles tag)—I hereby submit my weighty ethnomusicological ethnography:

The catechism of Clichy: vocal liturgy in a Parisian suburb.

For further scholarly works that I haven’t really published, see here.

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 10th symphonies this season, I just went to hear the 6th, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the 4th symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next? * Here they are with a bearded Bernstein, c1977:

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

And here’s Abbado live, conducting from memory, in 2006:

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the 4th and 5th symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the 5th symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3

* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”

More Hammer and Tickle

À propos humour under state socialism, and further to my irreverent Chinese lesson, I dare say this joke is in Hammer and Tickle, but I found it in Anne Applebaum’s (also excellent) discussion of various types of subversive manoeuvres in Eastern Europe (Iron curtain, pp.446–51).

I’m going to adapt it for China:

Two friends are walking down the street. One asks the other, “What do you think of Li Peng?” “I can’t tell you here,” he replies. “Follow me”.
They disappear down a narrow hutong. “Now tell me what you think of Li Peng,” says the friend. “No, not here,” says the other, leading him into the hallway of an apartment block.
“OK, here then.” “No, not here. It’s not safe.” They walk down the stairs into the deserted basement.
“OK, now you can tell me what you think of Li Peng.”

“Well,” he says, looking around nervously, “actually I rather like him.”

And here are some jokes from Hungary.


Another great theme tune

Having regaled you with the Pearl and Dean signature tune, not to mention the priceless Parks and recreation, let’s not forget Soap, whose brilliant characters were also introduced by a finely-wrought theme:

Apart from its meandering pentatonic opening “statement” (only rescued from banality by its whimsical syncopations), interrupted by a suitably weird temporary modulation and then gratuitously repeated, I love the way the Middle Eight (or rather Four), leading precisely nowhere, is peremptorily brushed aside. Nor is the kitsch orchestration to be neglected. Getting stuck towards the end, it just gives up. Altogether, How Like Life…

Wonderful as it is, reading the BTL comment

I want this played at my funeral… sums up my life really

I’m not sure that the tune quite reflects all the rich variety of the manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse.

Yet more Chinese wordplay


Time for another irreverent Chinese lesson (Yeah I Know—blind leading the blind: try this).

Two classic stories (favorite entries in our Fieldworkers’ joke manual) illustrate the dangers of misconstruing the division of polysyllables—as well as the endless humour and creativity of the Labouring Masses in adversity:

  • The postfix xing 性 makes the previous term adjectival (even sometimes before an adjective); but xing also means “sex”. At our thankfully rare encounters with upright apparatchiks, they may be perplexed to find us corpsing as they make some grandiose toast to “international cultural exchange” (guojixing wenhua jiaoliu 国际性文化交流). Just the slightest hesitation between guoji and xing converts the fine phrase into
    guoji xingwenhua jiaoliu “international exchanges in sexual culture”.
    It’s just as good without the wenhua:
    “international sexual exchanges”.
    For SPICE, the Society for the Promotion Prevention of International Cultural Exchange, see here.
  • After that gentle introduction, this one works on the same principle:

Under the commune system in the 1950s, before New Year the Party Secretary makes an announcement in front of his sullen and freezing villagers. The commune, which as we all know is deeply concerned for the welfare of its poor peasants, has decided to give them all a one-off cash payment.
Not highly literate, the Secretary peers anxiously at the directive. Faltering, he announces, “In recognition of the New Year’s holiday, the Party has generously decided to give everyone…

yicixing shenghuo buzhu 一次性生活补助
of 5 kuai.”

Yici means “once”, so yicixing— all in one breath—means “one-off”: so the directive actually means
a one-off living supplement.

But the Party Secretary, struggling with the characters, hesitates fatally before “xing”, and not enough after it—so that what the villagers actually hear him saying is

yici xingshenghuo buzhu
“just the once, a supplement for sex life”.

Excited, the villagers clamour to clarify the directive. One old codger sticks his hand up and goes,
“Secretary—supposing I do ‘er twice, do I get 10 kuai?”
Another, a poor bachelor, asks,
“Wot about if I do it on me own—do I still get me 5 kuai?”

So similarly, now whenever anyone says “one-off” in Chinese, in any context at all, we all fall about laughing. I remember when disposable chopsticks first became common in Hebei in the 1990s. They’re called yicixing kuaizi, “one-off chopsticks”—or if you’re not careful, “one-off sex chopsticks”.

And here’s a fine example spotted by David Cowhig—not only Party sex 党性 and Advanced sex 先进性 (popular college modules that come with a heavy course load), but a revealing rendition of “Serve the People” as “Behave the People”:


  • This story (my book, pp.118–19) isn’t about linguistics, but it’s also about the communes, so it makes a fitting interlude:

During the Great Leap Forward (or Backward) the village cadres had no choice but to go along with pressure to report ridiculously exaggerated harvest yields. Li Manshan chuckles over a bitter joke that I adapted from the Soviet Union:

A delegation comes down from the commune to inspect the harvest. The village brigade chief blurts out nervously,
“Oh yeah, we’ve had the most amazing harvest! If we piled up all our potatoes, they’d reach all the way up to the feet of Old Buddha in Heaven!”
The chief of the commune Propaganda Bureau takes him off to one side and whispers:
“Hey, don’t you realize? This is a socialist country now, we’re all atheists here—there is no Old Buddha, there is no Heaven!”
“So?” shrugs the brigade chief. “There ain’t no potatoes…”


  • An only slightly more decorous set of misconstruings (in Chinese, best found here) is among several celebrated stories about Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia. I’ll need a few more large gins before I’m prepared to share one of them (not to mention the Shakespeare story…), but this one (among the very first with which my esteemed mentors at the Music Research Institute regaled me in 1986) is just about repeatable:

Late in the Cultural Revolution, one Mr Jia was head of the Forestry Commission in Linze county of Gansu. He had to assemble his employees daily at 8am for study sessions, at which he read out the latest official news to them.

The major report that morning concerned the visit to Beijing of Prince Sihanouk, known in Chinese as Xihanuke qinwang 西哈努克亲王 (for wacky transliterations, see here). Innocuously, the report read

西哈努克亲王八日到京, 外交部长姬鹏飞到机场迎接, or
King Sihanouk arrived in Beijing on the 8th. The Foreign Affairs Minister Ji Pengfei went to the airport to meet him.

But our Mr Jia, somewhat challenged in the literacy department, was confused by the strange names and the telegraphic style of the communiqué, and again he misconstrued the punctuation. Instead of “Xihanuke qinwang, bari daojing”, he read “Xihanuke, qin wangba* ridao jing”; and, unfamiliar with the illustrious name Ji Pengfei (whose last character means “to fly”), he read “chang jipeng, feidao jichang…”
So alas it came out as:

西哈努克, 王八, 日到京,外交部长姬鹏到机迎接, which means
Sihanouk, consorting with bastards, shagged his way to Beijing.** The Minister for Foreign Affairs Ji Peng flew to the airport to meet him.

This had the assembled forestry workers, and future generations, rolling in the aisles. It may further serve as a caveat for sinologists attempting to decipher unpunctuated ancient texts.**

Such are the stories that punctuate our earnest collection of data on rural ritual life… Pace Hammer and Tickle, this is but the tip of the iceberg of jokes about the Maoist era. And while it’s not the same at all as my choice phrases from Teach yourself Japanese, if you missed that post, do read it too.

For an almost related sequel on pinyin, see here; for more International Cultural Exchange, here.


* The traditional term wangba, of course, features in the traditional litany of social outcasts wangba, xizi, chuigushou 王八戏子吹鼓手 bastards, opera performers, and blowers-and-drummers—which appears in The dream of the red chamber, no less. So there.

** Call me innocent, but only recently has a still more filthy reading occurred to me. Some might even hear ridaojing 日到京 (“shagged his way to Beijing”) as 日到精, “shagged away till he came”. With both jing characters being pronounced in the high 1st tone, this is a common pun in several other stories. For ri as a colloquial term for “shagging”… you can do your own online research. Nor do Chinese sources pick up on the use of qin as a verb (“consorting with”), so again I may be over-elaborating.

*** I’m sure there are plenty of similar instances of mis-punctuation in English. The only one that occurs to me right now is the repunctuated placard of the embittered diminutive job-seeker:


For a headline desperately in need of punctuation, see here.

Hector moves furniture

I’ve written about the Symphonie fantastique before—not least the wonderful Rozhdestvensky’s solution to conducting the opening (by not conducting it).

Apart from Berlioz’s prophetic evocation of a 1960s’ curry-house, another respect in which he was well ahead of his time is in his meticulously verité depiction of an irritating upstairs neighbour giving furniture-moving lessons * at 3 o’clock in the morning, just as the drama of the 1st movement is unfolding—an unwelcome interruption to the Rêveries-Passions of its title. You know, one of those disturbances you can’t quite be bothered to get out of bed for to bang your broom on the ceiling.

This touching domestic scene is economically evoked with a random series of little grunts in the double basses (from 12.06 in the recording below) punctuating little wind phrases in the brief lull after the first throbbing climax is interrupted (to evoke Susan McClary):

Berlioz moves furniture

Apart from John Eliot Gardiner’s rapport magnifique with French music, and the venue formidable, site of the première, [Uh-oh, he’s off again—Ed.], I use this live 1991 performance, led by the fine Pete Hanson, for the meretricious reason that I played a typically bijou role in it:

We don’t look quite so young now—interrupted rêveries and passions can take their toll.

For Berlioz on oriental music, see here.

* Could Sir Malcolm himself have been among the clients?

Ethnography: Geertz, Nettl


Commenting on my post The brief of ethnography, Keith McGowan draws our attention to a fascinating video that illustrates the conflict between rural and urban values:

* * *

One of the most influential and inspiring ethnographers is Clifford Geertz (1926–2006).

Two seminal articles based on his fieldwork in Indonesia are illustrative—both instances of his blending of theory with his signature “thick description” (shenmiao 深描). They should also be compulsory reading for Chinese fieldworkers. Most basically, they are dynamic interpretations.

* * *

Geertz describes a ritual “which failed to function properly”—a funeral for a young boy, held in a small town in eastern Central Java, revolving around a slametan communal feast, with all its attendant psychological and social tensions. But the article is so good that a summary can’t possibly suffice: just read it!

Early in his article he explains, in a passage highly relevant to our studies of Daoist ritual:

As has been noted by several writers […], the emphasis on systems in balance, on social homeostasis, and on timeless structural pictures, leads to a bias in favor of “well-integrated” societies in a stable equilibrium and to a tendency to emphasize the functional aspects of a people’s social usages and customs rather than their disfunctional implications. In analyses of religion this static, ahistorical approach has led to a somewhat over-conservative view of the role of ritual and belief in social life.

His reflections are based on a detailed case study:

A young boy, about ten years of age, who was living with his uncle and aunt, died very suddenly but his death, instead of being followed by the usual hurried, subdued, yet methodically efficient Javanese funeral ceremony and burial routine, brought on an extended period of pronounced social strain and severe psychological tension. The complex of beliefs and rituals which had for generations brought countless Javanese safely through the difficult post-mortem period suddenly failed to work with its accustomed effectiveness. To understand why it failed demands knowledge and understanding of a whole range of social and cultural changes which have taken place in Java since the first decades of this century. This disrupted funeral was in fact but a microcosmic example of the broader conflicts, structural dissolutions, and attempted reintegrations which, in one form or another, are characteristic of contemporary Indonesian society.

In principle, through the slametan (“a quiet, undramatic little ritual”) the spirits are appeased and neighborhood solidarity is strengthened. But

in all but the most isolated parts of Java, both the simple territorial basis of village social integration and the syncretic basis of its cultural homogeneity have been progressively undermined over the past fifty years. Population growth, urbanization, monetization, occupational differentiation, and the like, have combined to weaken the traditional ties of peasant social structure; and the winds of doctrine which have accompanied the appearance of these structural changes have disturbed the simple uniformity of religious belief and practice characteristic of an earlier period. The rise of nationalism, Marxism, and Islamic reform as ideologies, which resulted in part from the increasing complexity of Javanese society, has affected not only the large cities where these creeds first appeared and have always had their greatest strength, but has had a heavy impact on the smaller towns and villages as well. In fact, much of recent Javanese social change is perhaps most aptly characterized as a shift from a situation in which the primary integrative ties between individuals (or between families) are phrased in terms of geographical proximity to one in which they are phrased in terms of ideological like-mindedness.

Such tensions increased sharply during the year Geertz was in the field.

It seemed as if the ritual were tearing the society apart rather than integrating it, were disorganizing personalities rather than healing them.

Geertz queries the functionalist explanations of social disintegration or cultural demoralization—that rapid and disruptive social change are reflected in a disintegrated culture, with the broken society of the kampong mirrored in the broken slametan of the funeral ritual, cultural decay leading to social fragmentation; or that the loss of a vigorous folk tradition weakened the moral ties between individuals.

But as he goes on,

It seems to me that there are two things wrong with this argument […]: it identifies social (or cultural) conflict with social (or cultural) disintegration; it denies independent roles to both culture and social structure, regarding one of the two as a mere epiphenomenon of the other. Religion here is somehow the center and source of stress, not merely the reflection of stress elsewhere in the society.

He warns:

We cannot attribute the failure of the ritual to secularization, to a growth in skepticism, or to a disinterest in the traditional “saving beliefs,” any more than we can attribute it to anomie.
We must rather, I think, ascribe it to a discontinuity between the form of integration existing in the social structural (“causal-functional”) dimension and the form of integration existing in the cultural (“logico-meaningful”) dimension—a discontinuity which leads not to social and cultural disintegration, but to social and cultural conflict. In more concrete, if somewhat aphoristic terms, the difficulty lies in the fact that socially kampong people are urbanites, while culturally they are still folk.
Thus when an occasion arises demanding sacralisation—a life-cycle transition, a holiday, a serious illness—the religious form which must be employed acts not with but against the grain of social equilibrium. The slametan ignores those recently devised mechanisms of social insulation which in daily life keep group conflict within fixed bounds, as it also ignores the newly evolved patterns of social integration among opposed groups which balance contradictory tensions in a reasonably effective fashion. People are pressed into an intimacy they would as soon avoid; where the incongruity between the social assumptions of the ritual (“we are all culturally homogeneous peasants together”) and what is in fact the case (“we are several different kinds of people who must perforce live together despite our serious value disagreements”) leads to a deep uneasiness of which Paidjan’s funeral was but an extreme example. In the kampong, the holding of a slametan increasingly serves to remind people that the neighborhood bonds they are strengthening through a dramatic enactment are no longer the bonds which most emphatically hold them together. These latter are ideological, class, occupation, and political bonds, divergent ties which are no longer adequately summed up in territorial relationships.

In sum, Geertz deduces an incongruity between the cultural framework of meaning and the patterning of social interaction, due to the persistence in an urban environment of a religious symbol system adjusted to peasant social structure.

The driving forces in social change can be clearly formulated only by a more dynamic form of functionalist theory, one which takes into account the fact that man’s need to live in a world to which he can attribute some significance, whose essential import he feels he can grasp, often diverges from his concurrent need to maintain a functioning social organism. A diffuse concept of culture as “learned behavior,” a static view of social structure as an equilibrated pattern of interaction, and a stated or unstated assumption that the two must somehow (save in “disorganized” situations) be simple mirror images of one another, is rather too primitive a conceptual apparatus with which to attack such problems as those raised by Paidjan’s unfortunate but instructive funeral.

This is the kind of integration of thick description with theory to which we should all aspire.

* * *

The other article I’d like to recommend here is Geertz’s

  • “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (1972: ch.15 of The interpretation of cultures).

Along with a critical discussion, you can view the article here (a useful site). It contains much thoughtful analysis of the place of cock-fighting in Balinese society, but here I”d just like to cite his description of his own relationship with the village —which again remind me strongly of my experience in China.

Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. A small place, about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was its own world. We were intruders, professional ones, and the villagers dealt with us as Balinese seem always to deal with people not part of their life who yet press themselves upon them: as though we were not there. For them, and to a degree for ourselves, we were nonpersons, specters, invisible men.

They moved into an extended family compound, and were soon ignored by most of the village population. But

The indifference, of course, was studied; the villagers were watching every move we made and they had an enormous amount of quite accurate information about who we were and what we were going to be doing. But they acted as if we simply did not exist, which, in fact, as this behavior was designed to inform us, we did not, or anyway not yet.

Ten days or so after their arrival, a large cockfight was held in the public square to raise money for a new school. Most such fights were illegal—with echoes of Chinese values, they were regarded as “primitive,” “backward,” “unprogressive,” and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation. For several reasons the villagers supposed that they could hold this fight without attracting the attention of the law.

But they were wrong. Soon a truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up, with villagers scattering in all directions. Geertz and his wife followed suit, following another fugitive as he ducked into a compound—his own, it turned out.

As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.

A policeman soon arrived.

Seeing my wife and I, “White Men”, there in the yard, the policeman performed a classic double take. When he found his voice again he asked, approximately, what in the devil did we think we were doing there. Our host of five minutes leaped instantly to our defense, producing an impassioned description of who and what we were, so detailed and so accurate that it was my turn, having barely communicated with a living human being save my landlord and the village chief for more than a week, to be astonished. We had a perfect right to be there, he said, looking the Javanese upstart in the eye. We were American professors; the government had cleared us; we were there to study culture; we were going to write a book to tell Americans about Bali. And we had all been there drinking tea and talking about cultural matters all afternoon and did not know anything about any cockfight.
The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions. But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.
In Bali, to be teased is to be accepted. It was the turning point so far as our relationship to the community was concerned, and we were quite literally “in.” The whole village opened up to us, probably more than it ever would have otherwise (I might actually never have gotten to that priest and our accidental host became one of my best informants), and certainly very much faster. Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid [SJ: cf. my own run-ins with the Chinese constabulary] is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside view grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” that anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get. And, perhaps most important of all, for the other things might have come in other ways, it put me very quickly on to a combination emotional explosion, status war, and philosophical drama of central significance to the society whose inner nature I desired to understand. By the time I left I had spent about as much time looking into cockfights as into witchcraft, irrigation, caste, or marriage.

On the Li family Daoists, there are modest echoes of Geertz’s approach under “A flawed funeral” in ch.19 of my book, introduced in this post.

* * *

Meanwhile next door in ethnomusicology, Bruno Nettl (always a pleasure to read—for a roundup of posts, see here) has outlined types of musical change in his magisterial

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.19, pp.272–93.

This outline has since been constantly refined, and of course after Geertz’s level of detail it may seem simple. But in brief Nettl suggests a rudimentary four basic types (or levels) of change, with stimulating examples:

1) Substitution: a population that shares and maintains one musical system abandons it for another—an extreme case for which Nettl actually finds no instances.

2) Radical change in a system of music whose new form can definitively still be traced in some way to the old.

3) Gradual, normal change: “any musical system is likely to contain, or require, a certain amount of change as part of its essential character. Most societies expect of their artists a minimum of innovation, and some demand a great deal.” But he goes on to suggest the lesser degrees of change expected in folk societies. “An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”.

4) Allowable variation: “For musical artifacts such as songs, or in song types, groups, repertories, a certain amount of allowable individual variation may not even be perceived as change.”

As he notes, “all societies may experience all four types of change, but probably to varying degrees”. For those societies where change seems slight, he suggests he goes on to suggest various possible reasons, such as simple technology; societies where musical and social systems have achieved a certain equilibrium; those genres within a culture which resist change—notably religion. Similarly, he notes cultures where change is rapid and dramatic.

This embryonic taxonomy complements his next section, “Adaptation, preservation, survival”, mainly concerning responses to the growing hegemony of Western musics of all kinds, and again with instances. Here he considers three main headings:

1) Abandonment (again, rare)

2) Impoverishment or reduction: diminishing repertories, replacement of instruments, standardization, and so on; in social behaviour, adoption of Western habits like concerts, applause, and so on.

3) Isolated preservation: “relegation to a museum”—particularly relevant to the whole heritage debate. This comment hits the nail on the head:

The desire is to preserve this older music without change, to give it a kind of stability that in fact it probably did not experience in the past, and to do this at the expense of permitting it to function as a major musical outlet for the population.

Again, all this should be essential reading for anyone working on Daoist ritual.

* * *

Apart from heavier scholarly tomes, I may also adduce another book by Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave—a diverting exploration of the local meanings of mortuary rituals worldwide.

Critical reviews

I won’t have a word said against S-S-Simon Rattle.

But here’s one, by Alex Bruggemann (Die Welt am Sonntag, 2004), about a concert he gave with the Berlin Phil. Indeed, I found it posted with uncharitable glee on the notice board of the Chicago Symphony when we were doing a gig at Symphony Hall—our stay in Chicago another welcome opportunity to slope off to bars afterwards to hear some amazing blues.

I cite from the review not as an endorsement, you understand, but for the charm of the image:

While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband.

No pleasing some people. It was just a phase they were going through.

A more inadvertent critique was offered by a Radio 3 announcer introducing Brahms’s Tragic overture:

We don’t know which particular tragedy Brahms had in mind when he composed this overture. … But here it is, conducted by Richard Hickox.

Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign

In my post on the brief of ethnography in response to a jaded urban Chinese worker, I mentioned the tribulations under Maoism of many urbanites on being sent down to the countryside.

The memories of my splendid Chinese fieldworker friends are just as painful. Among various Beijing colleagues who have accompanied me over the years, one recalls his family starving as a young boy in Shandong around 1960; another, witnessing colleagues being crushed to death in dangerous mines in Gansu in the Cultural Revolution; yet another, being exiled to a rural “May 7th Cadre School”.

For our local assistants, the countryside may have even more direct associations: I sometimes found myself taking them back to the very villages where they had taken part in “tempering through manual labour” during the Four Cleanups campaigns of the early 1960s.

From bitter personal experience, they have no reason to idealise rural life. Thankfully, the bright new generation of Chinese fieldworkers have been spared such sufferings—though this also makes it harder for them to empathise with the life stories of our peasant masters.

So as our fieldwork in Hebei and Shanxi took off in the 1990s, my friends must have felt as if they were being dragged back into “going down to the countryside to join in the brigade” (xiaxiang chadui 下乡插队). But it wasn’t me who was dragging them—I was following them—and they too were following in the footsteps of intrepid previous generations of Chinese fieldworkers.

XYB Huaiyin 1992

Xue Yibing (centre) with villagers in Huaiyin, Shanxi, summer 1992.

We were all aware of the phrase attributed to Confucius, no less:

“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”
   li shi qiu zhuye 禮失求諸野

Indeed, the thoughtful and prolific Zhang Zhentao 张振涛 called an early collection of his articles “Records of seeking music in the countryside” (Zhuye qiuyue lu 诸野求乐录).

ZZT Houshan 1995

Zhang Zhentao with members of the Xiaoniu village ritual association, Houshan temple fair, Yixian 1995.

Still, occasional forays were all very well, but I began to feel the need for longer stays. For me—safely armed with my passport and return air-ticket—sleeping on the kang brick-bed of my wonderful host Cai An in Gaoluo, fetching water from the well, slurping noodles with doufu and cabbage from chipped bowls at funerals, and even visiting the latrine by the pigsty, still had a certain exotic frisson.

While my Chinese friends shared my excitement at discovering such a wealth of material on ritual life in society, their other consolation was that this new rural exile was (semi-?!) voluntary—and that there was a clear time-limit on it. In those days their living conditions in the dilapidated Music Research Institute in Beijing were far less comfortable than they were later to become, with the huge improvement in living standards and their own growing reputation. But apart from the demands on their time in Beijing, extended stays might be somewhat beyond the call of duty. Still, they entered the fray with spirit, and the fruits of their labours are outstanding.

Zhuanlou 1992 caifang

Learning about shawm fingerings with the Hua family shawm band during a break at Zhuanlou village funeral, 1992. Holding shawms: Xue Yibing (left) and Jing Weigang (right).

See also my Plucking the winds, pp.234–5.

By the way, Zhang Zhentao keeps writing about how much I inspired him, but it was entirely mutual. Along with my other trusty fieldwork companion Xue Yibing, we forged our approaches in the 1990s on the anvil of the major project on Hebei ritual associations (qv). And both Zhang and I ended up writing three books on “northern” musical cultures—on Hebei:

  • Yinyuehui: Jizhong xiangcun lisuzhongde guchuiyueshe 音乐会: 冀中乡村礼俗中的鼓吹乐社 (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi chubanshe, 2002),


  • Shengman shanmen: Shaanbei minzu yinyuezhi ‪声漫山门:陕北民族音乐志 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu cbs, 2014),

and Jinbei:

  • Chuipo pingjing: Jinbei guyuede chuantong yu bianqian 吹破平靜: 晋北鼓乐的传统与变迁 (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2010).

He has also written a plethora of fine articles.

For more on our respective blind spots, see this post on Morris dancing.