Ritual images: Gaoluo

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GL Dizang

This first page under a new series on ritual images again concerns Gaoluo.

Apart from their ritual manuals and gongche solfeggio scores, all four ritual associations in North and South villages of Gaoluo have collections of images, including god paintings, diaogua hangings and donors’ lists, from various stages since the 19th century—displayed for calendrical rituals of the village community.

Ritual paintings of north China

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(under Themes, in main Menu)

SGL old pantheon detail

For aficionados of visual culture:

The main focus of our fieldwork on the Hebei plain through the 1990s was the ritual performance of amateur village-wide associations there. But of course we also documented the material artefacts of these groups—including ritual manuals, gongche solfeggio scores for the shengguan wind ensemble, donors’ lists, and so on.

I now realize that by comparison with elite painting, temple murals, and so on, what we may call “folk art” is not so well represented—either in print publications or online. So this is a new sub-menu for ritual paintings of village groups, mainly from Hebei. I’ve already included some of them in various posts/pages, but now I’m adding many more (mostly from the period since the late 19th century, but also some painted since the 1980s).

Most of these images are displayed for calendrical rituals (notably the New Year) and/or for funerals—the Ten Kings images are used for both.

Of course, these material artefacts are a sub-theme; our main material consists of a rich archive of audio and video recordings of ritual performance. Contemplating such images in a museum is a last resort: they are the backdrop to the ritual soundscape of vocal liturgy and “holy pieces” of shengguan wind ensemble, and a representation of the changing spiritual life of local communities. As you digest these pages, you might even listen to the items of vocal liturgy and shengguan on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

Nicknames

As Kate Fox observes, the creativity of the English language reveals itself at multiple levels.

The fragrant Gary Lineker recalls how the the team-mates of the footballer Kiki Musampa called him Chris (think about it). There are more where that came from, like Fitz Hall—known as One Size.

Brian Smith, a “straight” symphony-orchestra violinist who became a semi-detached admission to the rarefied early music scene in the 1980s, had a whole series of drôle nicknames for his new colleagues, making his conversation surreal: “I think Identikit’s gone off with Ironing Board”. Once word got round that I was making regular trips to China, I became The Missionary. He only used the real names of musos who had a life outside early music and thus qualified as Real People.

Conductors’ nicknames are another rich vein under the rubric of maestro-baiting. The great Charles Mackerras was known as Slasher—not an allusion to his conducting technique, but an abbreviation of his anagram: Slasher M. Earcrack.

Shadow puppets and Satie

Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Among a select group of films on rural life in China, little-known but brilliant is

  • Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (58 minutes, Pan Records, 2007).

Fruit of the collaboration between Frank Kouwenhoven and the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck of the CHIME foundation in Leiden, it evokes the changing lives of itinerant troupes in the poor villages of Huanxian county in east Gansu. Both in the scenes of villagers chatting and in their performances, you can feel the film-makers’ empathy with rural dwellers.

The puppetteers often perform as part of the Crossing the Passes (guoguan) ritual to protect children.  A similar ritual in Shaanbei is shown in my film Notes from the yellow earth (with my book Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, p.37); see also my note for Daoists in Changwu in Shaanxi, not far away.

The sound-world of the puppetteers is remarkable, with gutsy percussion, fiddles, and shawms accompanying passionate vocals. [1] On the Chinese shadows soundtrack, piano music (Howells, Smetana, Janáček, and so on) makes a disorienting contrast with the guttural sounds of the Gansu singers and their earthy instrumental accompaniment. At first I had reservations about this choice, when we have so little opportunity to savour the sounds of village China—but I’ve come round to it as an effective personal reflection of the film-makers.

In similar mood, also lesser-known than some of Satie’s other Gnossiennes is the fifth:

Frank used it to elegiac effect in his portrait film of Antoinet’s life, a tribute shown at her funeral.

 

[1] The 2-CD set The beauty of Chinese opera (今夜来场戏) is one of an excellent series of historical recordings from Wind Records, also including folk-song, narrative-singing, and instrumental music—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc. See my article and discography in The Rough Guide to World music: Europe, Asia & Pacific, pp.495–506.

 

Sacred river

Radio 3 doesn’t seem to be speaking to Radio 4.

Like Neil MacGregor’s thoughtful series on German history, his new BBC Radio 4 series Living with the gods is typically urbane and engaging. As he immediately disarms my reservations about material culture and museums, the series makes an accessible mission-statement for the anthropology of religion. And the BBC Radio 3 marathon Sacred River (see also the love-in on https://twitter.com/bbcradio3), the latest of many epic broadcasts, seems like a fine idea to complement it.

I’m most reluctant to cavil at my favourite radio station, and normally I’d be grateful for such a playlist of glorious music (cf. my paeans to the Proms). But it seems something of a retreat from the global perspective of MacGregor’s series. Whereas in Living with the gods he can discuss social contexts, with music examples making evocative soundbites, it’s proved less easy for a programme of “spiritual music” tailored to a Radio 3 audience to address world soundscapes within their regional societies.

Radio 3 is generally rather good on, um, world music (a tradition going right back to David Munrow), but here Neil MacGregor’s stimulating introduction is soon deflated, as one “masterpiece” of (let’s face it, Christian Europe) WAM choral music follows another. My own blog is full of Bach, Mahler, and Messaien—but in Sacred river, whereas one might wish for more challenging juxtapositions from around the world, here a mere five out of fifty tracks are devoted to other world genres (and that’s a generous count: OK, a bit of plainchant, but Ladysmith Black Mambazo? Trio da Kali with The Kronos quartet? Hey!), choices like the Pathétique symphony or the Allegri Miserere hardly open our ears to new horizons. It’s The Great Composers in a new costume. And though “music and ritual” is a rich topic in ethnomusicology, the site offers few links to further sources—even from its own output.

Inevitably, I think of the percussion coda Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body of the Li family Daoists, that concludes their Transferring Offerings ritual. Of course neither this nor most other ritual traditions around the world might work on the radio on their own. But listeners deserve more than the Usual Suspects like qawwali, “Find your inner peace with the sound of Buddhist chant”, and “the oldest song in the world”. Sure, they might not necessarily conform to the hackneyed message of Peace and Love, that cramped ghetto from which Neil MacGregor rescues us. But if the Radio 3 team had half his imagination (as I write, he’s discussing royal power, sliding effortlessly from Zadok the priest to bronzes from Benin and China, with asides on Trump and Putin), they could have found more stimulating and offbeat tracks, even from their own archive—aboriginal dream songs, ritual shawm bands, Andalucian saeta, gospel, you name it. So Sacred river ends up undoing the fine work of Living with the gods. Do keep exploring Radio 3, which is full of creative programming—including—such as Late junctionWords and music, and notably The listening service.

Of course, what it needs is a TV series. Alas, since a little heyday in the 1980s there has been little appetite for informed anthropological documentaries on local cultural life—in which ritual features prominently.

Hey-ho. Just saying, like…

Recording and editing

After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.

Typical exchange during rehearsal:

Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
Rowan: No.

For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.

It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:

27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation.  Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.

The Feuchtwang Variations

The wise and infinitely supportive Stephan Feuchtwang continues to inspire generations of anthropologists in China and worldwide (see also here) with his work on Chinese popular religion. He has just celebrated his 80th birthday—and so do we all!

Stephan's invitation edited

Design: Lotte van Hulst.

For the party at the Tabernacle (a great venue, and, um, marker of the changing territorial identities of West London religious life!) his wonderful family played some popular and moving musical items, with the assembled guests on kazoos (anyone have a funky collective noun for kazoos in English, or measure word in Chinese?). And following my little foray into a world-music version of Bach earlier this year, we did a warmup act as a heartfelt tribute to Stephan, essaying a little medley from the Goldberg Variations—with me on erhu fiddle and Rowan Pease (unsung Lucy Worsley of East Asian popular culture, currently embroiled in the China Quarterly struggle for academic freedom) on sanxian banjo (or should I say friction chordophone and plucked lute?) [Nah, give it a restThe Plain People of Ireland].

Not Rowan, not playing the sanxian.
beggars BYS 2001

Neither Rowan nor me (honest), not playing Bach—beggars at Baiyunshan temple complex, Shaanbei, 4th-moon fair 2001.

That makes a total of five strings—and all without a safety net. Since Bach never wrote for either piano or sax (shades of WWJD), if his music can sound great (to us) on those instruments, then why not erhu and sanxian, eh. We haven’t tried adding a kazoo yet, though. As I said in my intro:

Just imagine that the Italian missionaries, like Pedrini[1] at the court of the Qianlong emperor in 18th-century Beijing had invited Bach for a sabbatical—and indeed Stephan, although that was perhaps a little before even his time… So we’re going to essay a little medley from what should now be known as The Feuchtwang Variations[2]

Since among Stephan’s many talents he is also a viola player (“Not a Lot of People Know That”), I can avail myself of a couple of the muso’s classic excuses:

It was in tune when I bought it…
and
I didn’t really study any place, I just sort of… picked it up..

[studiously] After intensive research on the performance practice of both Leipzig and Beijing in the 1740s, I can now say with some certainty that…  it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
[Cf. John Wilbraham’s remark.]

If you enjoy this half as much as we do, then we will have enjoyed it twice as much as you.

Framed by the Aria (itself infinitely enchanting—molten, ethereal, suspended in time), we played the first variation (blimey), then numbers 18 and 25—a perfect selection, eh. Short of recording daily until Steph’s 90th birthday, we’re never going to play it to our satisfaction (editing this is a similar challenge to editing one of my voiceovers), so meanwhile here’s an almost-recognizable attempt, just to give you a flavour—It’s the Thought that Counts. Just think yourselves lucky we didn’t do the repeats. Take It Away (and don’t bring it back):

Stephen Jones (erhu), Rowan Pease (sanxian, vocals).
Recorded in Maidenhead, 14th November 2017.

“They said it couldn’t be done”—and they were right! (Cf. Bob Monkhouse).

Just to make our chinoiserie version sound a little less banal, here’s the opening of the Aria on Lego harpischord—differently charming…

Li Qishan band 2001

Li Qishan’s family shawm band, Shaanbei 2001.

Never having played the Goldberg Variations on a keyboard, I (like millions of others) am deeply familiar with it through recordings—notably that of the iconic Glenn Gould, of course. So at the age of 286 I’m almost in the position of a young player in a Chinese family shawm band, who begins to play the melodies on shawm after many years of aural experience (and let’s just be grateful I didn’t do an arrangement for large Shaanbei shawms—yet). Similarly, I hardly needed to consult Bach’s notation, except out of curiosity. At the same time, anyone playing the piece is inevitably conditioned by the experience of hearing Glenn Gould’s version.

We played the medley in F rather than G—less as a result of all my erudite research into 1740s’ pitch standards (not), but just because I like a lower tuning on the erhu.

Bach party

Blending with invisible singers to left of picture. Stephan in red on left. Photo: Cordelia Pegge.

For the ecstatic Variation 18 we recruited a backing band consisting of Stephan’s daughters Rachel and Anna, along with Harriet Evans (outstanding scholar of the status of women in China). I arranged some personal lyrics, often in a kind of verbal hocket, incorporating (in stave 3) anthropology (with a little jest on the challenge, for some of us, of mastering the abstruse nature of Stephan’s theory!), (in stave 4) his dear wife Miranda, and his love of cycling:

Goldberg Var 18 in G

For the recording, without vocal backup, Rowan and I take the upper parts wordlessly, in more ethereal vein. Do feel free to sing along with a partner of your choice (cf. the karaoke versions of Daoist ritual percussion in my film, from 24.09).

And then the slow and intense minor-key Variation 25 is just amazing. Here Rowan’s singing supplies further harmonic intensity, evoking Glenn Gould’s own occasional inadvertent vocals. [3] And with the sustained sound of the erhu, and all my one-finger chromatic slides (1st finger on the way up, 4th finger on the way down), it sounds even better—or rather, it could do in the right hands. Not unlike a Chinese ondes martenot—trad keyboards just can’t compete with the vocal quality of bowed instruments.

And OMG, how about this:

Sure, our version goes a tad faster—again, not resulting from any holier-than-thou baroque authenticity, but because it helps the whole harmonic logic.

Returning briefly to the modern piano—Bach was of course performing and composing modern music, and maybe what appeals to me in Joanna MacGregor’s version is that it seems tastefully rooted in her whole experience of our own contemporary piano sounds. Here’s the hallucinatory final repeat of the Aria:

Still, Bach is amazing on tuned percussion too, like this:

It can also sound wonderful as a string trio—I’m still searching for a suitable recording, but you can explore.

All this wealth of divine music I offer in tribute to the great Professor Feuchtwang!

 

[1] For Pedrini’s sonatas, click here. “They come over ‘ere, with their fancy harpsichords…” I’d better write a separate post about the court music of the Qing dynasty…
[2] Maybe I can concoct a couple of Chinese musicians in 1740s’ Leipzig from the Bach archives. If north African wind players were active at European courts of the day, then why not… International cultural exchange, eh. Note also Bach and Daoist ritual—not least Li Manshan’s classic remark.
[3] This encomium could come in handy for Rowan’s CV:
“Less irritating than Glenn Gould”—Dr S. Jones.