Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

***

Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

“Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.”

One thought on “Performance ethnography

  1. Pingback: Interpreting religious symbols | Stephen Jones: a blog

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