Guide to a year in blogging

LMS

After a year of frenzied blogging, here’s a seasonal retrospective guide to navigating a diverse ouevre—as much for my sake as as for yours. Meretricious and Happy New Year!

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but taxonomy and indexing are so funky… As you see from the (updated) homepage, the whole site began as an introduction to my work on the Li family Daoists, and my portrait film remains one the most enchanting presences there. The Li family has its own category in the sidebar, with a plethora of articles (not least a whole series on our French tour in May 2017, and an update on Li Bin’s diary).

Other pages in the top menu also tend to be rather substantial, with

Still in the top menu, MY BLOG contains all my myriad posts (“delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse“), with helpful Categories and Tags in the sidebar, as well as a monthly archive there. Here are some of the more stimulating:

As you can see from this post alone, I just love doing internal links (in blue in the text). So whether you first came here for Daoist ritual, football (indeed, Daoist football), punk, Bach, modern China, or even just for the jokes, they’re all connected, so please do click away on the links!

Last but, um, not least, do click on the links to the relevant posts and pages in the photos in the sidebar.

A stunning keyboard break

I keep meaning to give an introduction to the work of Susan McClary, which (both for its ideas and its lively language) has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962. Don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 7.17ish:

Reception history is always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights too (from 21.19ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

Alexei Sayle

Alexei Sayle‘s memoir Stalin ate my homework, on his, um, unusual upbringing, is at once heartfelt, perceptive, and hilarious. And the sequel Thatcher stole my trousers* has insights on the alternative comedy scene, his early standup, and The Young ones.

Born in 1952 to idealistic left-wing atheist Jewish working-class parents—genial Joe and the brilliantly indiscreet Molly—he evokes the conditions of post-war Anfield with wry detail.

Though not universal, it was instinctual among a great many British Communists to be noisily unpatriotic. […] To my parents and their friends it was as if by cheering on the English football team, the cricket team, or Britain’s runners you were somehow revelling in slavery, the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of the Irish, or the Opium Wars.

At primary school:

At break-time in the first week our teacher, Miss Wilson, said to the assembled class, “All right, class, now let’s bow our heads in prayer and thank God for this milk we’re drinking.” At which point I stood up and said, “No, Miss Wilson, I think you’ll find that the milk comes to us via the Milk Marketing Board, a public body set up in 1933 to control the production, pricing, and distribution of milk and other dairy products within the UK. It has nothing to do with the intervention of some questionable divine entity.”

Echoes of Irene Handl’s line in Morgan: a suitable case for treatment: “I mean, we brought you up to respect Lenin, Marx, Harry Pollitt…”

Profiting from [!] the free rail travel available to the family with his father’s position in the National Union of Railwaymen [sic], the family often took holidays abroad: “by the age of five I must have been the most travelled child in Anfield.” They soon began making trips behind the Iron curtainAt a Time when it was Neither Profitable nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe (e.g. here, and here), it’s these vignettes that I’d like to cite here.

For all his parent’s aspirations, Alexei casts a rather more detached view on their holidays. Of course, they could hardly imagine the tribulations of the working people with whom they identified, or even the apparatchiks who hosted them. But with his own background, he does more than merely getting a cheap laugh out of state socialism. These passages are interesting mainly for his own story, in which idealism and cynicism evolved hand in hand, a surreal training that would bear fruit in his later career.

Joe and Molly had taken the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising in their stride; welcoming it as a test of faith, they scorned British Communists who

didn’t understand that the march towards liberty, peace, and freedom couldn’t be held up by a load of people demanding liberty, peace, and freedom.

Enthralled by a visit to the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, with its marionettes, Magic Lantern Theatre, and colourful avant-garde design, in August 1959 visited the country for the first time. Somehow their trip begins at a campsite in the sleepy spa-town of Karlovy Vary. After an interlude at a union-owned miners’ sanitorium, the wheels of diplomacy click into gear and they are rescued by a fleet of black Tatra limousines which takes them on to Prague, where they are chaperoned lavishly.

Next year they organized a group of like-minded comrades for another visit. This time the authorities

had decided what the first delegation of British railwaymen to Czechoslovakia would like to see more than anything else were sights, locations, and exhibitis connected with the wartime assassination of Reinhard Heidrich, the butcher of Prague.

They were among early foreign visitors to see Lidice, scene of one of the most appalling Nazi massacres. On a brighter note, they were taken to the Švejk pub in Prague, and when they got back home his parents bought him a copy of Hašek’s novel. When he eventually read it aged twelve or thirteen, he

wondered if the Czech authorities knew what they were doing promoting with Švejk, letting a pub be opened in his name and selling cuddly toys in his likeness, since the message of the book, while it might have been anti-authoritarian, is certainly not one supportive of the ideals of socialist conformity.

Indeed, The good soldier Švejk soon became very popular in China, where its message must also have concerned the authorities.

Anyway, back in Anfield, by the age of eight Alexei was able to report proudly to an eager young vicar,

“I am a Comrade Cadet, Grade One, Young Pioneers, fourth battalion, based at Locomotive Factory Number One, town of Trutnow, People’s Republic of Czechoslovakia!”

And one already feels a hint of the irony that would later inhabit Alexei’s stage persona (see here), with a substantial ingredient of Švejk.

For their summer holidays in 1961 they visited Hungary, lavishly accommodated in a grand baroque hotel in keeping with their incongruous status as VIPs. On a trip to Lake Balaton Alexei discovers salad, in a passage that will strike a chord with those of our generation:

Back in Anfield we had thought with a certain amount of pride that on Sundays we had been eating salad, but really all we had been eating was lettuce and tomatoes in a bowl, sometimes with a hard-boiled egg on the top and no dressing except perhaps the industrial solvent known as “salad cream”. Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism. There were red, green, and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra, and fresh herbs, all of them covered in rich oils or mayonnaise.

(For Nina Stibbe’s candid assessment of tarragon, see here.)

He accumulates yet more pennants and badges to accompany his hoard of Bohemian glass, dolls, and “folklorique woven things” that he didn’t know what to do with—

It was hard to stop people in Communist countries giving you things [an idea taken further by Elif Batuman].

In 1962 they took their third trip to Czechoslovakia, and in 1963 Joe led a delegation of railwaymen to Hungary. This time Alexei’s feelings are more conflicted:

Sadly, if you are beginning to feel unsettled about people’s motivation then visiting a country in which some six hundred thousand citizens were deported to Soviet labour camps after the Second World War, where they spoke a weird Finno-Ugric language completely unrelated to those around it, where there were great tensions between the various ethnic groupings, Hungarian, Romanian, and gypsy, and where a revolution had been brutally suppressed only seven years before, probably wasn’t a good idea.

Joe and Molly make elaborate preparations for a tour of the northwest by a dance troupe from Czechoslovakia, but it falls through. In summer 1966 they flew to Bulgaria under the auspices of that new bourgeois creation, a package holiday. Meeting some local teenagers in search of Beatles records, he realizes that

up until then we had only ever mixed with people who were part of the system, who were loyal to the party and its allied organizations. […] Clearly there were tensions, but you didn’t get to be a Communist without learning to ignore what was in front of your face.

With his affinity with both railways and Czechoslovakia, he was always going to love Closely observed trains (Jiří Menzel, 1966)—another of those films that also left a deep impression on my student years. For his penchant for Polish cinema, see here.

Following Kruschev’s reforms,

though slightly assuaged by the crushing of revolts in Hungary and East Germany, many in the West’s Communist movements were uneasy with this liberalisation. They didn’t like the idea of a Communist society allowing its citizens to express their opinions freely or have a choice of more than one type of hat. Yet they had nowhere to take their disaffection until the Sino-Soviet split offered these puritan characters a choice of an extra-dour kind of socialism more in keeping with their sententious inclinations.

So, going from frying-pan to fire in a remarkable lapse of judgement, Alexei became a Maoist. You can continue reading his later story for yourself, moving on to his perceptive account of his bohemian life at art school in London, his role in alternative comedy—and Molly’s blooming [see what I did there?] as a foul-mouthed lollipop lady. For more (not least his critique of ballroom dancing), see here.

So while Alexei didn’t get to play the Matthew passion or hang out with Li Manshan (though both are charming fantasies), I regard his upbringing, not to mention his later career, with a certain envy.

For other excellent memoirs in what can be a dodgy field, I think of George Melly and Arthur Smith. And this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:

 

* Sinology could do with some titles like these (for a somewhat less appetizing one, see under Jarring here).

Bach and patronage

Following the riches of Bach on Radio 3 and my recent survey:

Bach’s letters to his patrons are a sad vignette on the sordid realities of working for them. Along with his unsolicited gift of the Brandenburg concertos to the Margrave of Brandenburg [“What does that even mean?”], he wrote this covering letter (in French, courtly language of the time), dated 24th March 1721:

As I had the good fortune a few years ago to be heard by Your Royal Highness, at Your Highness’s commands, and as I noticed then that Your Highness took some pleasure in the little talents which Heaven has given me for Music, and as in taking Leave of Your Royal Highness, Your Highness deigned to honour me with the command to send Your Highness some pieces of my Composition: I have in accordance with Your Highness’s most gracious orders taken the liberty of rendering my most humble duty to Your Royal Highness with the present Concertos, which I have adapted to several instruments; begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him. For the rest, Sire, I beg Your Royal Highness very humbly to have the goodness to continue Your Highness’s greatest favours towards me, and to be assured that nothing is so close to my heart as the wish that I may be employed on occasions more worthy of Your Royal Highness and of Your Highness’s service—I who, without an equal in zeal, am, Sire, your Royal Highness’s most humble and obedient servant.

Sure, we have to read such a letter in the context of the day, but it’s hard to beat for brown-nosing. Servants indeed— to cite Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

… exploiting the workers! By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society… We’re living in a dictatorship! A self-perpetuating autocracy, in which the working classes…

Didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.

And there’s no evidence that the Margrave even wrote back. Pah! I hope Bach told him where to stick it. He might have well as sent the concertos to Tweety McTangerine.

Bach had been happy at Cöthen, where Prince Leopold was an exceptionally musical patron—Bach’s need to seek new employment has been blamed on the Prince’s “airhead” new wife (typical). With the Margrave deaf to his appeal, Bach was soon to find a permanent haven in Leipzig—and the rest is geography. Even there his struggles with patrons continued.

Thing is, despite all such routine tedious scramblings, Bach never stopped creating a wealth of music that stands as a rebuke to all mundane concerns.

And so in imperial China—right down to today, as a chain of fawning operates from grass-roots performers to regional cadres to central pundits. Only with less magical results.

I trust I shall have the honour to remain your faithful and humble servant

Dr S. Jones (available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and screenings of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist)

Cunk on Christmas

Following her probing accounts of Shakespeare, and “femininism”, what better seasonal viewing than the immaculately-researched historical overview provided last year by Philomena Cunk—herself touched by the divine:

Besides the usual bewildered expert interviewees, she consults some “small adults—which are known as children”, who also manage to keep a straight face.

… Jesus Christ—an icon who was almost as revered back then as Beyoncé is today.

Civil war is like a real war—but not abroad, so it’s cheaper. […] According to the Puritans, Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas, ‘cos it’s not in the Bible. Instead, they should be inside a church (which isn’t in the Bible), reading the Bible (which isn’t in the Bible).

At Christmas 1914 there was a brief ceasefire—the fighting stopped, soldiers got out of their holes and joined together in a place called No Man’s Land, showing that even at moments of peace, men will still divide into two sides, and try to beat one another.

She consults a hapless Jay Rayner:

I don’t understand bread sauce […] Bread, and sauce, are two completely different things, aren’t they?
[I’ll leave you to listen to the dénoument]

As ever, it’s not what you say but the way that you say it—her delivery and expression are faultless (see also The art of the voiceover).

Ms Morgan also leapt into print with equal facility (here).

 

A Bach retrospective

Some might say that the only good thing about Christmas is that one can bask in BachWhatever your reasons for exploring this blog, I can’t help regarding his music as an essential basis of our cultural experience!

Apart from all the musical riches to be found elsewhere online (not lest Radio 3, like here), I’m revisiting my blogposts, so here are some highlights from the extensive Bach tag in the sidebar—mediated by my, um, eccentric take:

But as with Indian raga or Daoist vocal liturgy and shengguan suites, Bach’s ouevre is an inexhaustible treasury… For us now, I mean—not that’s it’s “universal” or “eternal”…

Nuns of rural Hebei

*For main page, click here!*

Renqiu nun

In traditional China, ritual activity—indeed, public appearance altogether—appears to be male-dominated. But the role of women in religious life is significant—as worshippers, as members of amateur sects, and notably as spirit mediumsNuns hardly threatened the patrilineal traditions of ritual and instrumental music before the 1950s, but they make an interesting sub-plot.

Moving south from Beijing and Fangshan to Laishui county, this article goes on to gives vignettes (based on brief chats in 1994) on the ritual life of two elderly former nuns in a village in Renqiu county, near the Baiyangdian lake, half a century earlier. Such absorbing glimpses into the world of rural nuns before Liberation deserve including in our picture of local cultures.