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
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 pleasedo 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.
The work of Susan McClary, 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).
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.
And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:
Reception history and performance practice are 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:
And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:
But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.
Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 6.30ish):
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‘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.”
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 curtain—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, I note. To pursue the latest results of my interest in east Europe, 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 12 or 13, 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.
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 Pachelbel on rubber chicken, and Czech trains, see here; and for Alexei’s penchant for Polish cinema, 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 passionor 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 appetising one, see under Jarring here).
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 filmLi Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist)
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]
Some might say that the only good thing about Christmas is that one can bask in Bach. Whatever 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:
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 mediums. Nuns 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.
In 1705 the 20-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach set off from his home in Arnstadt to walk 250 miles to Lübeck, there to meet his hero, the composer and organist Dietrich Buxtehude.
Bach is compulsory Radio 3 listening over Christmas, and apart from yet another excursion on Composer of the week, Horatio Clare’s series Bach walks makes fine slow listening, taking the walk in five episodes, punctuated by musical snippets that seem all the more miraculous. And it stands in tranquil contrast to the hectic claustrophic life that he was to lead through the years of his greatest creativity in Leipzig.
What makes such a modern retracing of Bach’s steps so thoughtful is all the social detail that can be incorporated, along with Clare’s reflections on the present landscape. Bach had actually walked a similar distance when he was 15 to enroll in St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg.
By now you won’t be surprised to learn that this reminds me of the Li family Daoists.
Early-18th-century Germany was more advanced in transportation than rural China in the 1930s, or even the 1980s. And by contrast with many more adventurous composers of the day, Bach spent most of his career employed in a rather small radius within Thuringia and Saxony.
Since ancient times, elite Daoists travelled widely over China to famous temples and religious mountains, seeking the wisdom of other sages and propagating new revelations. One such master was Kou Qianzhi (365–448), who served the court of the Northern Wei dynasty at their capital Pingcheng (modern Datong), and who is often wheeled out by scholars as an instance of the illustrious ancestry of Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. Still today, temple Daoist priests commonly spend periods “cloud wandering” around the main urban and mountain temples.
By contrast, household Daoists are active within a small radius (see map here). Even those who spent their youth as priests in temples before the 1949 Liberation did so only locally—like several boys in Upper Yinshan village in nearby Tianzhen county, who learned their ritual skills in a temple just further east. Occasionally the Li band is invited to do rituals further afield—just east in Hebei or north in Inner Mongolia. Li Qing and the elders used to walk for a whole day to do Thanking the Earth rituals for patrons in Inner Mongolia, because around eighty percent of the Han Chinese population there had migrated from Yanggao, some of whom were quite affluent. But the main area of their work is defined both by walking distances and by the availability of Daoists elsewhere—north around the county-town, west in Datong county, and east in Tianzhen. So even now, with motor-bikes and cars, most of their ritual business is still in the districts of Shizitun, Houying, Baideng, and Pansi. They work quite often just further south in the districts of Gucheng and Lower Shenyu, and sometimes in Dongxiaocun district and in the west of Tianzhen county. But they rarely perform rituals in west Yanggao, or further north in North Xutun district or around the county-town where other groups of Daoists are available.
Until bicycles became generally available from around 1980, people had to walk everywhere, or go by ox-cart, equally slow. Li Manshan recalls wryly, “We didn’t even have Chinese carts (tuche), let alone foreign ones (yangche)!” Occasional visits to the county-town on foot took over three hours. Li Manshan went occasionally before the Cultural Revolution; he recalls walking there with his aunt in 1954 to watch the grand Offering Tribute (xiangong) parade on the 24th of the 6th moon, which was by then a purely secular event.
Horse-cart on the way to Gaoluo, 1989.
For a funeral twenty-five Chinese li away, walking at roughly ten li an hour, the Daoists had to set off at 4am. The hill villages to the east were not so far, but the climb took longer—when Wu Mei was learning with Li Qing in the late 1980s it took him a whole hour to walk from his home in Renjiayao, only five li away. Most gigs might be in the nearby villages, but for longer journeys the more elderly Daoists might send their fitter younger sons and disciples. When the Daoists were invited for funerals a long walk away, there was no need to get the Lis to determine the date on the death, or decorate the coffin—there were men available locally for such tasks.
Until the 1980s when there was a death, the son would walk to Li Qing’s house to invite him to do the funeral—and was then quite likely to learn that he was doing a funeral in another village and to have to make another trek by foot there. From 1980 to 1990 he could make this search by bicycle, and then perhaps by motor-bike; since around 2002 he can just call up Li Manshan on his mobile.
I was amazed to read that bicycles were already common in some central Shanxi villages by the 1930s  —perhaps a hint of how much poorer Yanggao was than areas further south. In the countryside here, most people only began riding bicycles around 1978; before that only some village cadres had them. Li Qing rode a Red Flag bike from around 1981. With a bike costing around 150 kuai, and a Daoist earning 6 kuai per gig, or over 70 kuai a month, one bike cost at least two months’ earnings. In Baideng town, Daoist Wang Xin set up a little stall mending bicycles.
Actually, bicycles speeded up mobility only slightly; in the countryside there was still nothing quite resembling a road, the tracks being deeply rutted until transport arteries began to improve significantly since around 2003. And neither bicycles nor motor-bikes have significantly expanded their radius of activity; they continue to work mainly within a small area.
I also reflect on walking within a funeral (pp.27–8):
In order to allow for a suitably lengthy and imposing procession, the house chosen for the scripture hall should be at a considerable distance from the soul hall where the rituals are performed. Indeed, since the scripture hall is on average around half a kilometer away, they potentially have to walk—playing all the while—seven kilometres a day for the seven routine visits alone, let alone other processions from the scripture hall to the soul hall before leading the kin to the sites for the other public rituals, and again next day for the procession towards the grave. Apart from anything else, this is good exercise.
Over the day the Daoists make seven processions from scripture hall to soul hall and back, as well as processions to the other ritual sites.
But once at a funeral in nearby Yangyuan county I was surprised to find the scripture hall very near the soul hall—and this turns out to be an older custom, so that the Daoists would be on hand to respond promptly for the many rituals once needed. Since the 1980s there is less need for this, and Li Manshan observes that the recent distance also serves to marginalize them. But it is also welcome so they can escape from the din of pop and get some peace.
 Harrison, The man awakened from dreams, p.156. Cf. Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Revolution, reform, and resistance in village China, p.228; Harrison, The missionary’s curse, p.145.
Quite possibly a more plausible Christmas gift than my own books, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: despatches from family life (2013) is hilarious, warm, and perceptive.
In letters to her sister she evokes her life after coming to London to work as nanny to the drôle Mary-Kay Wilmers (of the LRB) and her engaging and challenging kids, in leafy literary Gloucester Crescent in the 1980s.
Anyone taking it at face value may miss its genius. Forgive me if her original letters really had all the book’s subtleties of phrasing, but it seems to me that a lot of subtle mature editing was involved. Anyway, it’s an observational account of a niche tribe, full of linguistic delights—every page has a turn of phrase that leaves me helpless with laughter.
I apologize too for the things I got a bit wrong. Alan Bennett was never in Coronation Street for instance.
She doesn’t take her cultural education lying down:
PS Chaucer. Have you ever read it? Fuck. It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying.
Later at the library:
… borrowed a recording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English. Nearly wet myself listening.
Exams soon-ish. Here is a summary: R&J: Romeo and Juliet hardly know each other, but they think they’re in love and both kill themselves. The nurse is an irresponsible idiot. The Friar is a moron. It’s a ludicrous story.
[…] Winter’s Tale: King is mentally ill. Queen is a fool. Chaucer: W of Bath is an unreliable old bag, but not a hypocrite. Marries for money but likes shagging, thinks women should be in charge.
Another leitmotif is Nina’s grappling with the baffling poncey new cuisine that was coming into vogue.
Tarragon: the cookbook says tarragon is “misunderstood”. Not by me. I understand it. It’s horrible.
Later she comments,
It’s all pasta and couscous nowadays, in London anyway.
Further fine observation:
MK does the big shopping—a mixed blessing—she buys stuff without a plan (I think she copies other people who know what they’re doing). This is the kind of stuff that comes back [list abbreviated here—SJ]:
quark (German style liquid cheese)
rye bread with seeds
balsamic vinegar of Modena (black vinegar)
And other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals. It’s like living in another country.
Which reminds me of Ian Rush’s (disappointingly spurious) comment on his struggle to adapt to Italian life during his one season at Juventus in 1987–88:
I couldn’t settle in Italy—it was like living in a foreign country.
Critics haven’t always appreciated what a fine comic creation is her stolidly mundane portrayal of their neighbour Alan Bennett.
Me: You’re good with appliances.
AB: (proud) Well, I don’t know about that.
Me: You sorted out the car, the fridge, the phone, bike tyres and now the washing machine.
AB: I don’t think I am particularly good.
MK: But it’s nice to know you’ve got something to fall back on.
AB not around. In Yorkshire or New York. I prefer him being around… God knows what he does in NY (if it is NY), can’t imagine him there, being shouted at by taxi drivers and prostitutes. Though his coat would work.
AB himself took issue with Stibbe’s portrayal of him as “solid, dependable and dull”; but while finding some “misrememberings”, he understood—as well he might—that “such is art”.
The BBC TV version worked remarkably well too (like Cold comfort farm—I now realize the ingénue Nina has a distant affinity with confident Flora). As usual when watching, you just have to refrain from clinging onto your own image of the book. As the young Nina would doubtless observe.
* * *
I’ve only recently clocked the useful expression “Is that a thing?” (discussed here, and here), entertainingly used by the great Zoe Williams. A fine discussion on the ever-stimulating languagelog blog seems to date it only to 1995, though comments there hint at earlier variants. Since it makes some clear appearances in Love, Nina (assuming they’re not from a later edit), then we can take it back to the 1980s—e.g. p.132:
He picked up a raw burger and ate it. I was appalled but acted normal. Told MK later and she said it’s a thing (eating raw beef).
[another trademark of Stibbe’s style there—giving pedantic parentheses redundantly clarifying her previous comment].
Mary-Kay has started wearing two shirts at once. I don’t know where she’s picked it up, but it’s a thing, apparently.
Indeed, I guess Love, Nina is basically about striving to define the rules of an alien culture to whose values one aspires—though I can’t be Saussure [cf. my Foucault pun under Visual culture].
As I often observe, the experiences of peasants may be a more fruitful source of information than musty tomes in a library. From my recent article on Xiongxian:
Such local temples, and the amateur associations that perpetuated their traditions, would be unknowable without exploring the area on the ground, village by village. The project is of great significance for our understanding of local history—not just for the late imperial period, but from the Republican era through Maoism and the reforms, right down to today.
Of course, “music” being part of changing local society, this must also be a political issue, as shown by famine studies in China (e.g. Wu Wenguang’s Memory Project) and elsewhere. Here Chinese music scholars still tend to lag behind their colleagues in anthropology.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia and Giovanni (aka Joe Varney) didn’t win:
Or indeed Alexandra in 2017… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].
And now the brilliant Stacey Dooley—who did win, YAY!!! (See also Moon river.) Here’s another Charleston. Now let’s all watch her fine documentaries.
The thing about Strictly is, as with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. The dancers don’t want to go home, but for some reason they do want to go to Blackpool, which is unlikely to feature even on the itinerary of perfectly innocent Russian tourists. Li Manshan hadn’t even heard of the Carnegie Hall, let alone Blackpool, but it’s clearly more appealing than doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe.
Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine review, Strictly proved yet again
that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…
But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive format (see also Alexei Sayle‘s pertinent critique), Strictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there. And for 2020, Bill Bailey reaffirms our belief!
Still, my question is this:
However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?
This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:
Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual
After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music… And since, as Heidi Stephens notes in her drôle Guardian commentaries, what viewers really need is a Journey, what better than Pacing the Void?
Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the Invitation, Beholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.
Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!
I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to
the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York and Maidstone] is always welcome. How can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English? Her only tiny flaw seems to be that she can’t get the hang of clapping (watch her as she applauds couples just voted off). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.
*Tedious footnote: at least in Yanggao vocal liturgy, these two items are in fact quite closely related (my book, pp.267–8, 274–5)—so less than suitable here. Scope for exploration, though.
Such impertinent fantasies, if not for purists, are at least more frankly ironic than the kitsch commodifications from the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see under “The reform era” here).
For Groucho and Anna Mahler, click here.
 Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments (cf. Alan Partridge). But following the public verdict on the moral morass of the Strictly dance/snog of shame—a quandary that will be mercifully obviated by Strictly north Chinese Daoist ritual—there’s (allegedly) a letter in the post from the Beeb about my new concept:
*Click here for main page!* (under Themes > Local ritual in main menu)
Through the 1990s, one of the most fruitful sites for our fieldwork project on the Hebei plain south of Beijing was the area around Xiongxian county, just south of Bazhou, and east of the regional capital Baoding. Recently this whole region has become the centre of a vast and radical new development project to expand metropolitan Beijing; but when we used to visit, it was still very much rural.
As throughout the region covered in this growing series on Hebei, most villages here had ritual associations until the 1950s, and we found many still active in the 1990s. But here we found less vocal liturgy than further north and west on the plain, with no foshihui groups reciting precious scrolls.
Instead, ritual services were now mainly represented by the “holy pieces” of the shengguan wind ensemble to “revere the gods”—here an exceptionally rich repertoire based on long suites related to those of the temples of old Beijing. Not all these groups were still performing, but there is rich material here, not only on the ethnography of local ritual in modern times, but for scholars of the late imperial period.
I’ve just updated my page on Bazhou, one of the most rewarding counties on the Hebei plain for the study of ritual groups, with some more photos and subtle edits…
To remind you, this is part of a major series under local ritualwhere I move from occupational household groups in north Shanxi to amateur (mostly village-wide) associations on the Hebei plain, and thence to some other regions of north China.
Just for the Hebei plain, the list (sub-menu under Themes > Local ritual in the top menu) also includes
One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,
“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”
Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,
“ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTYYY!!!”
Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.
*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.
Alan Bennett’s 2011 diaries begin with typically drôle observations:
6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking around the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman would have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coat hanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.
14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at eleven thirty, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It beings promptly at eleven thirty with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realizes that it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.
This is a new addition to a budding series on Daoist and Buddhist ritual groups on the Hebei plain south of Beijing. The elongated county of Bazhou lies just south of Langfang, Yongqing, and Gu’an. Rather as I did for the southern suburbs of Beijing, here I introduce two main ritual groups:
the Daoist tradition of Zhangzhuang village comes from a former Orthodox Unity temple;
the Gaoqiao village association nearby derives from a former Buddhist temple.
As we move south and east from Houshan, vocal liturgy tends to become subsidiary to the magnificent “holy pieces” of the classic shengguan wind ensemble deriving from the temples of old Beijing—notably the lengthy suites (daqu) whose most majestic form is to be found around Xiongxian county (major page here!).
And as this series of articles on local ritual expands from north Shanxi to Hebei, it’s becoming something of an alternative, grass-roots, history of 20th-century north China through successive social and political vicissitudes.
Thou art gone up on high; Thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men…
Giving Handel and his librettist Jennens** the benefit of the doubt for sexist language, don’t forget the brilliant T-shirt of female composers—”Breaks the ice at parties”, in the words of Monty Python (who did rather let themselves down* on gender equality).
Such seasonal gifts will make a welcome change from socks and after-shave, and can be enjoyed over a sherry in a party hat while blowing a paper horn—a relative of the vuvuzela, perhaps? Laurence Picken could have enlightened us. You can play the party game of identifying festive toy instruments under the Sachs-Hornbostel system (or play Spot the Difference with Daoist ritual paintings, like the Judgment Officers here). The paper horn also evokes the conch in Daoist ritual—indeed, it would make a suitable companion to these early Daoist instruments of the Li family.
* “Let themselves down”: apart from the Proust sketch (from 2.14, notably the voiceover comment “golf’s not very popular round here”), there’s also the classic headmaster’s speech joke.
** Good to see Jennens slagging off Handel’s music, at least:
“I shall show you a collection I gave Handel, called Messiah, which I value highly. He has made a fine entertainment of it, though not near so good as he might and ought to have done. I have with great difficulty made him correct some of the grossest faults in the composition; but he retained his overture obstinately, in which there are some passages far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah.“
BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC, for you to catch online before it disappears again.
Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodskys’ work with Elvis Costello.
I like the early footage of the Allegri led by Eli Goren, predecessor of my teacher Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a select group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:
And among hours of harmless fun on YouTube:
How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.
Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s Daoist band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—a worthy ethnographic topic (see e.g. articles here and here, and Anthea Kreston’s diary on slippedisc.com).
But I digress. I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars (before long we will all look quaint) to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war… Which leads nicely to the delightful thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet!
***For main page, click here!*** (under Images: Li family, in main menu)
Until the 1950s, household Daoists in north Shanxi displayed paintings for funerary, temple, and other rituals—notably of the Ten Kings (cf. Hebei), as well as representations of deities worshipped during other funerary rituals like the Pardon. Such images are now rarely displayed, and I have found few in the collections of Daoist families. Many were casualties both of political campaigns and a more general impoverishment of ritual practice.
One exception to this (recent) paucity of images in north Shanxi is the array of paintings handed down by the great Daoist Li Peisen (1910–85) to his son Li Hua. Some he seems to have painted himself, perhaps in the 1940s; others appear to be rather older.
In the main article I reflect on the specific use of such paintings in space and over time, and their subsidiary role to the ritual soundscape.
UPDATE: Cosmic Justice has at least temporarily proved itself amidst a troubled world—I wrote this in the early stages of the UK tournament, but now Ronnie’s won it yet again in another inspiring display!
With his natural grace, Ronnie O’Sullivan is often compared to Roger Federer, but he’s in a league of his own, transcending sport. If you haven’t watched his maximum break from 1997, then do—it’s not merely a world record that is likely to stand for all time, but a thing of exquisite fluent beauty, reminiscent of the nuanced touch of a great musician.
After the morose introspection of yesteryear, Ronnie has come through the early years of obsession and addiction (lessons here for the claustrophobic hothouse of WAM virtuosos), and he’s on great form these days, with a kind of earthy Daoist detachment.
*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
Mahler 9 is always stunning in performance. The NYO Prom in 2015 was very fine (cf. here), and I’ve just heard Esa-Pekka Salonen doing it with the Philharmonia (reviewed here; cf. here; see also Harding’s Mahler 6 Prom).
I’ve got a lot of time for Salonen—not just because of the wonderful story about his interview for the LA Phil job! There’s something special about composers (also including Boulez) conducting Mahler, some personal identification with his struggles. Mahler anyway foretold the whole torment of 20th-century history—his music atomised, fragmenting, ersterbend—and we can only hear the 9th symphony with our own ears (that link also referring to Taruskin; see also here). Mahler never got to conduct it, or even hear it; while it remains startlingly modern even today, it’s hard to believe that after its belated UK premiere in 1930 it wasn’t played in the USA (where Mahler was fêted even while he was composing it) until 1931. The symphony only became a pillar of the repertoire with the Mahler craze of the 60s—where I came in. Without entertaining any notions of the moral value of WAM, I have a fantasy of getting Chicago street gangs to sit through it.
Salonen brings out the Philharmonia’s talent for making chamber music amidst grand forces. Not having worked with him, I find him easy on the eye, and he looks comfortable to work with—more selfless, less anguished than Bernstein or Rattle, but far from the schoolmasterly air of Haitink or the aloof conductors of yore. Here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil:
and Abbado, always magnificent:
We emerge immersed in the dying sounds of the finale, but as ever, the first movement is a miracle in itself (as commentaries go, Ben Zander has some acute observations, albeit rather hung up on sonata form…). Beginning quietly yet ominously with a rhythmic pattern said to represent Mahler’s own irregular heart-beat, the violins enter with a motif descending from F♯ to E that turns out to be both pervasive and deeply moving—dramatically augmented at the first climax (4.21 in the Abbado performance above) by the 1st violins with a huge leap:
The lyrical aspect of the opening is constantly undermined (sinister brass punctuations from 7.34, a spooky passage from 8.49, more ominous brass from 15.03 and 19.09), becoming still more eery with enigmatic chamber music from 22.48:
The brief hint of tranquility from 24.42 soon fragments again:
My well-meaning initiative of setting up a separate sub-menu for Ritual paintings has promptly been thwarted by my desire to incorporate the whole ritual practice of which such images are part.
So I’ve retained the original introduction, but I’ll subsume paintings from elsewhere (mainly Hebei) in posts under “Local ritual” in Themes. I’ve moved Ritual images: Gaoluo to go with the other pages on Gaoluo under “Other publications” in the top menu.
***For main page, click here! ***
(in Local ritual, under Themes in main Menu)
In the 1990s, ritual activity in the southern rural areas of the municipality of Beijing was patchy. While we found few ritual associations in the counties of Gu’an, Fangshan, and Zhuozhou south of the city, the groups in the suburban counties of Daxing and Tongxian, southeast of Beijing, were still actively providing ritual services.
Like other associations on the Hebei plain, these groups have ongoing ritual traditions, and clear links to Daoist priests and Buddhist monks. But these groups are distinguished by their proximity to Beijing, and by the fact that many groups acquired their ritual only in the 1950s, as laicized clerics sought to transmit their knowledge to villagers. Thus although they are not “old associations”, lacking the early history of most village groups that we found just further south on the plain, they clearly reflect temple traditions of ritual, relating to Beijing and Tianjin as well as to local networks. Again by contrast with most of the amateur village associations elsewhere on the Hebei plain, many of these groups don costumes for rituals, and accept fees.
This whole region was still largely rural when we made fieldwork trips there in the 1990s, but has since been absorbed into the ever-expanding urban sprawl of suburban Beijing—as indeed are villages further south on the plain, where we found many more ritual associations. In a physical and moral landscape that has changed constantly since the 1930s, restudies are always to be desired.
There are many such groups here, but in the article I focus on two:
The Lijiawu Daoist group, derived from the temple priests of Liangshanpo, and
the Buddhist-transmitted group of North Xinzhuang nearby.
This article also complements my various posts on Beijing temples and the transmissions south to villages like Qujiaying.
23 August. […] I’m glad I’m not a theatregoer living in Elsinore. All they must ever get are productions of Hamlet, while what they’re probably longing for is Move Over, Mrs Markham or Run For Your Wife.
His keen eye for footballers’ physiognomy is in evidence again (2010):
7 April. The open mouth of Frank Lampard, having scored a goal, is also the howl on the face of the damned man in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement.
This entry depends on a certain cultural knowledge that might challenge translators:
5 July. A child in Settle is said to have asked what the Mafia was and his grandfather said, “It’s like the Settle Rotary Club, only with guns.”
And he often shows his political involvement. When a speech in favour of the NHS from his early play Getting on is well received, he is encouraged to go on:
25 July, Yorkshire. […] whereas nowadays the state is a dirty word, for my generation the state was a saviour, delivering us out of poverty and want (and provincial boredom) and putting us on the road to a better life; the state saved my father’s life, my mother’s sanity and my own life too. “So when I hear politicians taking about pushing back the boundaries of the state I think”—only I’ve forgotten what it is I think so I just say: “I think… bollocks.” This, too, goes down well, though I’d normally end a performance on a more elegiac note.
As a corrective to all the glowing speeches from divas and the rapturous adulation of their fans, Bill Bailey (don’t miss his Love song!) recalls:
I was at a Whitney Houston gig, it was supposed to start at three—finally at four o’clock she comes on stage and says,
“I just wanna say, I love each and every one of you!”
and this big black guy next to me shouts, “Sing, bitch!”
This is a metaphorical version of the fan hitting the shit.
The brilliant Roy Mowatt (see under comments here), a real bedrock of the early music orchestral scene, was always remarkably tolerant of my violin playing in the section he led. I treasure a remark he made to me over a beer or three in a piazza in Parma after a Mozart opera, c1994 (evoking Hugh Maguire’s comment to Pete Hanson—“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”):
Thing about you, Steve, is that it doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!
You can take that either way, and I think he meant it both ways. I was quite adaptable; yet my intonation wasn’t necessarily helped by tuning up… Cf. “It was in tune when I bought it”.
While I’m in confessional mood, here’s another comment I might add to my CV. Just around that time, a certain maestro took me aside and observed suavely,
Steve, I can’t help noticing that you have a somewhat low threshold of boredom…