Guide to a year in blogging


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 never loses his surreal edge. In his brilliant Imaginary sandwich bar radio series he plans a sultry film noir aimed at the children’s market,

 Postman Pat always rings twice.

On rationing:

From 1939 to 1945 the government had permitted, indeed had positively encouraged men to bayonet people in the guts or set them on fire with flame throwers or bomb their houses from 20,000 feet, but when they came home they couldn’t have a tomato until 1957!

With the immaculate credentials of his upringing (see his fine memoir Stalin ate my homework), he reflects,

I think despite all the chaos we create, the famines, the gulags, left-wing people are basically good people. Admittedly left-wing regimes might over time devolve into authoritarian kleptocracies whose autocratic rule is enforced by terror and torture, but we do mean well.

Despite my strange enthusiasm for Strictly, I applaud his critique (relevant also to the Chinese heritage flummery):

Everything is wrong with ballroom dancing: the clothes, the music, even the expressions on the dancers’ faces, plus of course the dancing itself. The reason for this is simple—you get points for it. Ballroom dancing is an aethetic pursuit, an art form, which has been turned into a competition, the result of which is that everything is done to attract the attention of the judges. The competitors must try and fit into a series of rules rather than display emotion, artistry and invention, and so a tawdry, flashy, kitsch aesthetic takes over. […] If you see a couple performing a proper Argeninian tango you are watching a dance created in the brothels of Buenos Aires that reeks of melancholy and sex. Then you watch the ballroom version of tango, all gurning faces and robotic, angular, hideous movements. You are seeing a great popular art reduced to a terrible travesty.

He elaborates on the Pannacotta Army line (“ancient figures of soldiers, sculpted out of soft white cheese”), and reminds me of the old Snow White and the Seven Samurai joke, which gave Tom Holt the title for his drôle book. Which might lead us to Nick Helm’s line:

I needed a password eight characters long—so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

To return to Alexei, this chat with Stewart Lee is a match made in heaven:


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 patrons. 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.