Musicking

There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.

Musicking

It should go without saying that “music” (and, by extension ritual), in all its manifestations, is not some trivial diversion; nor is it some disembodied object for solitary contemplation. Rather, it’s a basic part of what makes us human.

Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening (1998), by Christopher Small (1927–2011), is already a classic. While his insights have long been part of the basic unspoken credo of ethnomusicology, the book is more accessible than some weightier tomes, and deserves a far wider readership—not least in Daoist ritual studies…

A deeply personal work, it’s also part of a corpus that approaches WAM with the same mindset that we would apply to any genre of world music (cf. Nettl, Kingsbury, McClary, Taruskin, Finnegan, and more recently Cottrell), inviting a global view of the meanings of performance within social interaction.

It’s worth citing the opening at some length, as it expresses such a basic way of understanding:

In a concert hall, two thousand people settle in their seats, and an intense silence falls. A hundred musicians bring their instruments to the ready. The conductor raises his baton, and after a few moments the symphony begins. As the orchestra plays, each member of the audience sits alone, listening to the work of the great, dead, composer.

In a supermarket, loudspeakers fill the big space with anodyne melodies that envelop customers, checkout clerks, shelf assistants and managers, uniting them in their common purpose of buying and selling.

In a big stadium, fifty thousand voices cheer and fifty thousand pairs of hands applaud. A blaze of colored light and a crash of drums and amplified guitars greet the appearance onstage of the famous star of popular music, who is often heard on record and seen on video but whose presence here in the flesh is an experience of another kind. The noise is so great that the first few minutes of the performance are inaudible.

A young man walks down a city street, his Walkman clamped across his ears, isolating him from his surroundings. Inside his head is an infinite space charged with music that only he can hear.

A saxophonist finishes his improvised solo with a cascade of notes that ornament an old popular song. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and nods absently to acknowledge the applause of a hundred pairs of hands. The pianist takes up the tune.

A church organist plays the first line of a familiar hymn tune, and the congregation begins to sing, a medley of voices in ragged unison.

At an outdoor rally, with bodies erect and hands at the salute, fifty thousand men and women thunder out a patriotic song. The sounds they make rise toward the God whom they are imploring to make their country great. Others hear the singing and shiver with fear.

In an opera house, a soprano, in long blond wig and white gown streaked with red, reaches the climax of her mad scene and dies pathetically. Her death in song provokes not tears but a roar of satisfaction that echoes around the theater. As the curtain descends, hands clap thunderously and feet stamp on the floor. In a few moments, restored to life, she will appear before the curtain to receive her homage with a torrent of applause and a shower of roses thrown from the galleries.

A housewife making the beds in the morning sings to herself an old popular song, its words imperfectly remembered.

So many different settings, so many different kinds of action, so many different ways of organizing sounds into meanings, all of them given the name music.
[…]
But none has succeeded in giving a satisfactory answer to the question—or rather, pair of questions—What is the meaning of music? and What is the function of music in human life?—in the life, that is, of every member of the human species.

It is easy to understand why. Those are the wrong questions to ask. There is no such thing as music.

Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing music is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely. This habit of thinking in abstractions, of taking from an action what appears to be its essence and of giving that essence a name, is probably as old as language; it is useful in the conceptualizing of our world but it has its dangers. It is very easy to come to think of the abstraction as more real than the reality it represents, to think, for example, of those abstractions which we call love, hate, good and evil as having an existence apart from the acts of loving, hating, or performing good and evil deeds and even to think of them as being in some way more real than the acts themselves, a kind of universal or ideal lying behind and suffusing the actions. This is the trap of reification, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato, who was one of its earliest perpetrators.

Note how he could have used more “exotic” examples from further afield, but rather chooses cases that we take for granted in Western society. As he goes on to unpack the meanings of a symphony concert with Geertzian thick description, he doesn’t belittle his (and my) heritage, but asks What’s really going on here? In a personal passage that will strike chords, he observes:

It is my heritage and I cannot escape it, and I understand well the continuing urge on the part of performers, as well as of musicologists, theorists, and historians, to explore those repertories and learn their secrets. I myself continue to love playing such piano works of that tradition as are within the reach of my modest technique and take every opportunity to do so, both in public and in private.

But from the moment when I began to attend large-scale public concerts, I have never felt at ease in that environment. Loving to hear and to play the works but feeling uncomfortable during the events at which they are presented has produced a deep ambivalence that has not lessened over the years. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have come nearer to pinning down what is wrong. I do not feel at ease with the social relationships of concert halls. I can say that they do not correspond with my ideal of human relationships. For me there is a dissonance between the meanings—the relationships—that are generated by the works that are being performed and those that are generated by the performance events.
[…]
It seems obvious to me that performing these works under certain circumstances generates different meanings from performing them under others. For instance, when I, an amateur pianist using material provided by Josef Haydn under the name of Piano Sonata in E-flat and charging nothing for admission, play the piano to a couple hundred of my fellow citizens of the little Catalan town where I live, people from a variety of occupations that could be called working-class as well as middle-class, most of whom I know and who know me, at least by sight in the street, I think: we are together making different meanings from those made when a famous virtuoso pianist performs from that same material to an anonymous paying audience in a big concert hall. At the same time, since we are both playing from the same material, making more or less the same sounds in the same relationships, there must also be a residue of meanings that are common to both performances. Maybe if we knew completely where the differences and the similarities lay, we should understand completely the nature of musical performance. In any case the first step is taken when we ask the question What’s really going on here?

Rotunda

Contrasting the social behaviour reflected in and encouraged by earlier buildings (like the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, painted by Canaletto in 1754, with people standing or walking about, talking, coming and going), Small unpacks the assumptions of modern concert-going—such as architecture, planning, organization, tickets, programming, programme booklets, sponsorship, dress codes, behaviour.

On the 19th-century invention of the concert hall, sealed from the outside world, with its “quiet opulence” and discreet colours:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this building is that it is here at all. For musicking, even large-scale musicking, does not need a building such as this.

and the audience:

A grand ceremonial space such as this imposes a mode of behavior on those who are unaccustomed to it. They become somewhat self-conscious, lowering their voices, muting their gestures, looking around them, bearing themselves in general more formally.
[…]
The very form of the auditorium tells us that the performance is aimed not at a community of interacting people but at a collection of individuals, strangers even, who happen to have come together to hear the musical works. We leave our sociability behind at the auditorium doors.

Small cites George Lipsitz’s comment on sharing “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”. Indeed, as in other contexts like theatre, sporting events and popular concerts,

the building is designed to discourage social contact between performers and listeners.

By contrast with the premiere of the Rite of spring,

today’s concert audiences pride themselves on their good manners, on knowing their place and keeping quiet.

At rock festivals, as at any kind of musical event, there were, and are, right and wrong ways to behave, right and wrong ways to dress, to speak and respond, both to one another and of course to the musical performances.

Comparing WAM musicking in the 18th century and today,

That audience took from the performance what they wanted, and we take from it what we want. Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by human beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships. These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.

Musicking is reduced to consumers and producers. Meanwhile scholars of Western music,

rather than directing their attention to the activity we call music, whose meanings have to be grasped in time as it flies and cannot be fixed on paper, have quietly carried out a process of elision by means of which the word music becomes equated with “works of music in the Western tradition.”
[…]
This privileging of Western classical music above all other musics is a strange and contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, it is claimed to be an intellectual and spiritual achievement that is unique in the world’s musical cultures; […] on the other hand, it appeals to only a very tiny minority of people, even within Western industrialized societies; classical music records account for only around 3 percent of all record sales.
[…]
It is regarded as somehow unique and not to be subjected to the same modes of inquiry as other musics, especially in respect to its social meanings. […] It is in fact a perfectly normal human music, an ethnic music if you like, like any other and, like any other, susceptible to social as well as purely musical comment.

He rails against the concept of “autonomous art”, encapsulated in Walter Benjamin’s maxim “The supreme reality of art is the isolated, self- contained work” (sure, discredited in more enlightened circles, but still widespread), where

What is valued is not the action of art, not the act of creating, and even less that of perceiving and responding, but the created art object itself. Whatever meaning art may have is thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simply there, floating through history untouched by time and change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out.
[…]
It suggests also that music is an individual matter, that composing, performing and listening take place in a social vacuum; the presence of other listeners is at best an irrelevance and at worst an interference in the individual’s contemplation of the musical work as it is presented by the performers.

Instead,

Neither the idea that musical meaning resides uniquely in musical objects nor any of its corollaries bears much relation to music as it is actually practiced throughout the human race. Most of the world’s musicians—and by that word I mean, here and throughout this book, not just professional musicians, not just those who make a living from singing or playing or composing, but anyone who sings or plays or composes—have no use for musical scores and do not treasure musical works but simply play and sing, drawing on remembered melodies and rhythms and on their own powers of invention within the strict order of tradition.
[…]
Music’s primary meanings are not individual at all but social. Those social meaning are not to be hived off into something called a “sociology” of music that is separate from the meaning of the sounds but are fundamental to an understanding of the activity that is called music.

On orchestral musicians, Small’s remarks anticipate Cottrell. As he notes, they live in a paradoxical world. Highly tuned virtuosi, proud of their skills, generally well paid, their profession enjoying a social status that is respectable and even considered glamorous:

Although any glamor they themselves might initially have felt the job to have quickly wears off under everyday work pressures, [cf. Alan Bennett!] they do feel themselves generally to be heirs and guardians of a great tradition.

But most orchestral musicians do not investigate their feelings about this very deeply. […] They resemble, in fact, the members of any other occupational group in that they will engage in any amount of shop talk, gossip, and locker-room humor.
[…]
In general their attitude is more that of the craftsman than that of the autonomous artist.

Like Cottrell, Small notes the “guerrilla warfare” they wage on over-paid conductors.

With its rigid division of labour and social hierarchy,

the modern professional symphony orchestra is in fact the very model of a modern industrial enterprise.
[…]
What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration.

On the conductor—a rather recent job-description, with a defined geographical base, of course—Small discusses the changing authority of the “heroic” conductor (or industrial boss), “the incarnation of power” (cf. Lebrecht):

He is the magus, the shaman, who immerses himself in the sacred book and summons up the spirit of the dead composer.

He goes on to unpack the myth of the Great Composers, and the sacrosanct nature of the score. Again he notes things we take for granted—like the music stand, a humble piece of furniture without which the performance could not take place. As he observes, notation is the exception rather than the rule in human musicking.

Invoking Susan McClary, he explores the dramatic conventions of tonal harmony, and is disturbed by the violence of Beethoven.

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being produced by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward signs of the experience they are all presumably undergoing. It is no wonder that members of other musical cultures should find it a curious, if not downright comical, scene.

All this is punctuated with three theoretical Interludes exploring the nature of performance—The language of gesture (based on Bateson), The mother of all the arts (on ritual), and Socially constructed meanings.

While it is fruitful to view WAM as just another genre of world music, it may seem like an eccentric form of behaviour in many respects. But despite the prestige claimed for it by elites, it is far from a dominant form of musicking worldwide.

Criticisms
Though the book has been criticized, it’s a refreshing and valuable tirade. Those deeply invested in WAM will feel threatened (tough); even ethnomusicologists have reservations about his romantic contrast with ideal local communities.

In the final chapter he evokes a solitary African herdsman playing the flute. Even with no clear social relations involved, he imagines the technology of the instrument’s construction (based on personal relationships), and the generational experience involved in mastering its playing, with its different style of complexity from which musicians in Western industrial societies enjoy, and its delicate inflections, timbre, and rhythms.

Whatever he is playing, it will not be invented from nothing. No human being ever invents anything from nothing but is guided always in his invention by the assumptions, the practices and the customs of the society in which he or she lives—in other words, by its style.
[…]
How he plays will be within the limits of the style he has received from the group, and in playing in that style he will be exploring, affirming, and celebrating the concepts of relationships of the group, as well as his own relationships within it and with it.

Such relationships, he notes, stand along a continuum of conformity–innovation.

He himself notes that some of his friends found this characterization

too much like a totalized representation of the “other” that has beset European thinking about the rest of the human race.

In the Postlude he contrasts the Western divorce of musicianship from society with the way that children grow into music in traditional societies.

I report this, not to demonstrate any inherent superiority that Africans may have in this regard (it happens, in fact, to various extents and in various ways, in most traditional societies), and certainly not in any sentimental spirit of harking back to imagined “simpler” times, but to show that the universal distribution of musical ability is not a fantasy but in many societies and cultures an everyday reality.
[…]
The big challenge to music educators today seems to me to be not how to produce more skilled professional musicians but how to provide that kind of social context that leads to real development and to the musicalizing of the society as a whole.

Earlier he observes,

What is going on in this concert hall is essentially the same as that which goes on during any musical performance. Members of a certain social group at a particular point in its history are using sounds that have been brought into certain kinds of relationships with one another as the focus for a ceremony in which the values—that is, the concepts of what constitute right relationships—of that group are explored, affirmed, and celebrated.

Despite his explanations, I still take issue with his “explored, affirmed, and celebrated” mantra, when (as he would have been the first to observe) all kinds of performances (whether in the concert hall or the notional village community) are so contested and conflicted, often taking place in social milieux that are far from ideal (cf. Geertz).

* * *

Small’s plea for musics of the world to take their place within academic musicology has to some extent already been realized (though see here). Like other disciplines, ethnomusicology can be arcane, jargon-ridden, and forbidding, but Small spells out its mission in an accessible fashion. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for detailed analysis of musicking in every society, including WAM. However—and mutatis mutandis this is a caricature that runs through academia since the 1960s—corduroyed professors churning out earnest lectures analysing Renaissance polyphony are now up in arms that their birthright is being threatened by trendy young whippersnappers presiding over jam sessions with nose-flutes and bongos. ** “Whatever next—will women will be allowed to vote? PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Small (and indeed ethnomusicology) provides us with the tools not only to appraise musicking in all kinds of changing social contexts (a Prom, a Sardinian festa, a Chinese or Javanese funeral)—to make critical reflections, observing how participants experience such events as successful or flawed.

In the end I love this book for raising issues that were so long submerged.

 

** More harmless fun for all the family: create your own parody of the perfect fusion gig, along the lines of

Throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, kora, and didgeridoo!!! In a yurt, FFS.

 

 

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

 

And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

 

Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary

 

Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

Madonna
In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing her as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. But as she comments, what most reactions share is an automatic dismissal of her music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work).

Her pieces explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

in her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture.

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous youtube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:

 

In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!

 

.

More wisdom of the elders

weather

With weather in the news (some classic headlines here), and following my granddad’s wise words, this story appears on several sites—I’ve adapted it somewhat to the version I first heard: **

It’s fall, and the Indians on a remote reservation ask their new Chief if the winter is going to be cold or mild. Being an Indian Chief in a modern society, he’s never been taught the old secrets, so when he looks up at the sky, he can’t tell how the weather is going to be. But to be on the safe side he reports back to his tribe that the winter is indeed going to be cold, and that they should all collect firewood so as to be prepared.

Also, being a practical leader, he gets an idea. He goes down to the phone booth, calls the National Weather Service and asks, “Is the coming winter going to be cold?”

“It looks like this winter could indeed be quite cold,” the meteorologist at the weather service responds. So the Chief goes back to his people and tells
them to collect even more firewood.

A week later, he calls the National Weather Service again. “So are you still predicting a really cold winter?”

“Yes,” the man at National Weather Service replies, “there’s now a 73.8% chance that it will be a very cold winter.” The Chief goes back to his people again and orders them to collect every scrap of wood they can find.

Two weeks later, he calls them up again. “You got an update on how cold it’s gonna be?”

“Sure,” the man replies. “There’s now a 97.6% chance that it’s going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”

“Wow, that’s an amazingly precise science you got there—may I just ask how you can be so sure?” the Chief asks.

The weatherman replies, “The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy.”

 

**From Alex, like the job interview joke.

Sardinian chronicles

Bernard Irgoli 1995

Bernard Lortat-Jacob entertains villagers, Irgoli 1995. Photo: Maria Manca.

I’ve already mentioned some of the more accessible bibles of ethnomusicology, like the works of Bruno Nettl, Susan McClary, Ruth Finnegan, Christopher Small, Paul Berliner, and Cieran Carson. Another justly popular one is the slim tome by

How I envy Bernard his fields of study—apart from Sardinia, also Morocco, Romania, Albania…! As with flamenco (first of three posts here), he explores the riches of regional folk cultures around the Mediterranean, integrating changing musical and social practices into everyday life—which is precisely what fieldwork should be about (see also fieldwork tag).

His publications are enough to make anyone want to become an ethnographer. He also blazed a trail in making audio and visual anthropology an indispensable part of our oeuvre.

* * *

So far I’ve only mentioned the riches of the regional folk cultures of Italy in the context of de Martino’s early work on taranta. The concept of “Italy” is rather recent anyway, and there’s still a huge amount to explore in its regional traditions. So taxonomy falls short again: to subsume the folk culture of Sardinia under Italy is no more suitable than discussing Tibetan or Uyghur cultures under China (ha). And it’s another illustration how very blinkered is our search for sun and sea (cf. fado, football, and Fátima).

Sardinian chronicles is popular not only by virtue of its brevity and its engaging style, akin to travel writing, but from its rich ethnographic observation and its musical, social, and indeed psychological detail, with a series of encounters with individual musicians and their families—musicking as part of social interaction within changing local communities.

Like the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck for China, Bernard is gifted with a natural rapport. And as he unpacks his own involvement, his delights and tribulations form part of the picture. Sardinian chronicles has become a model for later texts—certainly mine (not least my latest film and book).

Despite the luxury tourist enclaves of latter years, the poverty of Sardinia is striking, far from the glamorous life of Tuscany or north Italy. Vendettas remains chronic among Sardinian shepherds—like the feuds of rival clans in south Fujian, and child chimney-sweeps, among the traditional heritages that UNESCO won’t be supporting…

Complementing his book, this beautiful 1989 film by Bernard (with Georges Luneau) makes a fine introduction to various kinds of musicking in Sardinian life:

Here one truly feels the “red-hot sociality” attributed to Chinese temple fairs.

Canto a tenores
This style of a cappella vocal quartet (see e.g. from 16.40 in the film above) is one of the most entrancing vocal sounds anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe. Its sound ideal makes a fascinating contrast with that of the Swedish psalm—more for Lomax’s Cantometrics to explore. Though recently, inevitably, sucked into the heritage razzmatazz (nowhere is safe!) and a regular guest on the world-music circuit, commodification can’t hijack its presence in local society.

Liturgy
On Lunissanti Holy Week in Castelsardo in northwest Sardinia (cf. calendrical rituals, or Athos), Bernard Lortat-Jacob has another gorgeous book

  • Canti di passione (1996; French edition 1998),

with photos by Bachisio Masia—a brilliant innovation of a scholarly work on folk liturgy which doubles as a coffee-table book!

Like Berliner’s Lives in jazz, it is just as detailed in musical as in social analysis—and as with Indian music, or indeed Madonna, a basic grasp of musical features can only enhance a more physical and intuitive response. Apart from the wonderful scenes in Bernard’s film (from 28.26), some video from 1992:

and 2011:

Here the magical canto a cuncordu vocal style evokes that of the secular tenores.

Launeddas
The launeddas (Sachs–Hornbostel #422.3!!!) is another microcosm, with its locally renowned players and makers. With three pipes (one drone, two melodic), it’s a very distant cousin of the Chinese sheng mouth-organ. Again, Bernard’s film has some insightful scenes (from 46.14).

An early pioneer of launeddas studies was Andreas Bentzon (1936–71):

The minimalists would love the constant imperceptible transformations in these riffs!

CD

Prominent among the masters with whom Bentzon studied were Efisio Melis and Antonio Lara (yet more rivals who made a tactical truce!). Their recordings from 1930 and 1961 are featured on a fine CD.

I haven’t yet caught the launeddas in situ, but I was delighted to hear the great Luigi Lai at the City of London festival in 1998, to which I had invited the equally distinguished qin master Lin Youren. Here he is with Totore Chessa in 2011:

The manic melodic quality of the style is the basis for that of the organetto—one accordion type that Annie Proulx doesn’t quite cover (and to lower the tone, Captain Pugwash perhaps sowed the seed for my generation in Britain). A brief appreciation (of the organetto, not Captain Pugwash, as Nina Stibbe would explain) features below.

* * *

By contrast, to show the limitations of casual visits by an outsider like me, here are some vignettes from a holiday I spent there with my partner from Mantua in the summer of 1998, when Bernard affably introduced us to his adopted village of Irgoli—his chapter about which in Sardinian chronicles is itself a kind of love song, with beautiful insights on guitar song (another major genre) in the bar.

Writing up my notes mainly on the beach, the contrast with my fieldwork in China was extreme—I was deep in my studies of Gaoluo and the Hebei ritual associations at the time.

And despite the ethnographic riches of, um, Chiswick, it’s ironic that I should be writing all this stuck here, sweltering (insert suitable headline here)—I should be there! I guess it’s called work­–life balance.

Our hosts Totore Vacca and Doloretta are friendly—warm and natural. There are lots of musos around. We get by with speaking Italian, though of course they all speak Sardinian together.

On our first evening we go along to a festa for children’s singing, meeting the breezy, nay manic, organetto star Totore Chessa (see e.g. here and here; also featured in Bernard’s film above, and on the Sardinian chronicles CD). Totore uses his big fisarmonica (rather than his organetto) to accompany our hosts’ daughter Francesca. To conclude, the local priest makes a speech that reminds me of a Chinese cadre: family, pride, culture, blah blah.

One evening Totore drives us, manically, to the festa of Santa Margherita Bultei. The gig on a stage in the piazza is furnished with loud amplification. Several groups of dancers perform, one of which Salvatore accompanies, with singers and guitar. The other dance groups have their own organetto accompanists; and there are three groups of tenores, including the fine group from Orgosolo. An old codger goes round liberally dispensing local wine. This sure beats the Nether Wallop church fête.

The costumes seem rather fabricated to me, but it doesn’t affect the authenticity of the performances. The parameters of the music seem simple, narrow, but it’s still hard to grasp.

After the festa ends at 2.15am, the local organetto player Mario Bande invites Totore back to his place for a drink—which turns into an all-nighter. We’re tired enough after the long festa, unprepared for this further private party, but given that Totore is our lift, we tag along with some of the dancers. Their animated talk is incomprehensible, even to my Italian partner; yet if we had managed to understand more, it would have been a wonderful insight into local musical values. Story of my life…

The two of them are subtly sounding each other out. Mario’s uncle and grandfather were great players, and the latter collected many folk pieces, some of which Salvatore is said to have ripped off.

First Mario brings out various instruments for Totore to try out and appraise, then they have a protracted argument about the uniqueness of local dance styles. Totore, defending himself against the taint of plagiarism, makes the point that there can be no evidence that such pieces originated in this one village alone.

They’re not just arguing passionately about aesthetics (the local dancers are also vocal in support of the Bultei faction), with all the loving exploration of craftsmanship of instrument-making that Annie Proulx describes, but they also have a deep and insatiable need to keep playing and dancing. As soon as anyone even tries out a phrase, the dancers can’t help gyrating—a contagious kind of dancing mania. Everyone (except us!) gets involved. Eventually the party winds down, with diplomatic decorum apparently maintained, though we’re not privy to the nuances of their probings.

Totore is pure, other-wordly, childlike, living only for the organetto. He talks just the way he plays, in quickfire bursts and abrupt cadences, always upbeat, hectic, alert to the spark of the moment. People know he’s different.

Here he is with Luigi Lai in 2011:

Back to my notes, covered in wine and suntan lotion:

Totore drives just like he plays too. Still chattering away, he navigates the mountain roads at breakneck speed as the sun rises. He clearly know the roads as well as he knows his keyboard—like Daoist Li Bin as he chases round doing funerals in Yanggao. We get back to Irgoli by 7am. Only later that day do we learn that a shepherd had been shot dead at the edge of the village at 5am—another victim of local vendettas.

Another evening we take our hosts for a pizza in Orosei. They’re keen to go to a screening of Titanic. We make excuses—another of those moral dilemmas of the fieldworker. Solidarity (“Becoming at One with the People”) suggests that we try and share their world, but hey, we’re on holiday… Instead we find Totore Chessa propping up the bar. He drops in next day to invite us to another festa, but we’ve agreed to go to a gara poetica poetry joust in Orosei—which is no longer quite like this:

(As often I tend to cite older clips because they hint at change—more recent footage is easily found!)

On a visit to the museum at Nuoro we get a glimpse of how very much life has changed in Sardinia. Then Bernard and Maria arrive; after a trip to the beach we go to the wedding of their friends, where the tenores di Bitti and a group from Castelsardo are singing. As in China, this is how to experience folk music, rather than in sanitized stage renditions. Sure, it’s all a continuum

tenores 1998

And of course this is yet another instance of the diversity of all the cultures of Europe (like those of China, or Africa) from which Some Brits now seek to isolate themselves…

A plea to publishers

Ansai 2

I’d like to discuss in-text citations—yeah, funky, I know. I guess this issue has been subject to debate over the years, but (like Brexit) nothing seems to be happening.

I’ve just been admiring an excellent, well-argued book on Chinese folk culture. Having resigned myself to leaping the constant hurdles of parenthetical references, I finally lost it when, right in the middle of a purple passage, I was confronted with an indigestible mouthful:

Ansai1

That’s not just an Olympic hurdle, it might defeat even a motorbike jumper.

Sure, such references may be useful—in the form of notes (and between footnotes and endnotes, the latter make for a more readable text). But please, I really don’t want to choke on Ansaixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Yanjiu Weiyuanhui 1989! When forced to adopt in-text citations I sometimes give abbreviations (in this case, perhaps ASX 1989; in my latest book I often cite the Yanggao xianzhi as YG, though a more pedantic publisher might expect me to pepper the text with a longer citation).

There’s endless guidance about in-text citations, and I’m not going to address house-style here. But even short in-text citations are irritating. I know we’re used to it; often we just get in the habit of skipping over the parenthesis. If you’re interested in following up, then look at the note, FFS. Often the reader won’t be, in which case a parenthesis is seriously tedious.

And while I’m about it, even if we really want to limit our audience to sinologists, Chinese characters in the text are another distraction. Again, it suggests, “Look at me! I’m a sinologist!” Characters are useful; but assuming one gives them on first appearance, then it’s too much to expect us to try and search back for the characters a couple of hundred pages later. The place for characters is in a combined Glossary–Index.

Most authors are happy enough to get their research in print with a reputable publisher. They are helpless victims. But it’s galling that all their hard work in making their text more reader-friendly than their PhDs should be cancelled out by this fusty academic convention. Meanwhile academic publishers don’t care, as long as they fulfil quotas.

Thing is, as technology improves constantly, there’s hardly an economic argument to be made. Such issues are solveable—as long as publishers care whether their authors’ texts can reach out to a wider audience. It suggests that they simply don’t care if all their authors’ hard work is readable (“Hey, no-one’s gonna read this book anyway”); or perhaps that the very hallmark of academic excellence is to be unreadable. Yet distinguished works of detailed research published outside the narrow ghetto of academia provide notes, not in-text citations; and—surprise surprise—such books sell very well.

Academics seem to be getting mixed messages: even amidst all the modern pressures to “outreach”, academic publishing remains a bastion of obscurity. Scholarly prose is quite impenetrable enough already without these further obstacles.

Meanwhile on a blog like this, apart from the luxury of including colour photos and maps, while I do include some notes (and even some in-text citations), it’s a great feeling to be able to provide online links—like the way that de Selby footnotes increasingly take over the text of The third policeman.

Discuss…

Resistance and collaboration: Les Parisiennes

Fabius

ravensbruck

Ravensbrück, 1945.

Still belatedly educating myself:

After writing at some length about the traumas of Germany during and after World War Two (notably posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and the work of Philippe Sands), and noting the troubled history of tourist sites, I now learn much from

  • Anne Seba, Les Parisiennes (2016).

Relating history through the lives of women has become a major theme, as in Guo Yuhua’s account of Maoism in a Shaanbei village.

With most men absent, Paris was feminized, the burden falling heavily on women, having to negotiate with the male occupiers. They faced agonizing choices, with constant moral ambiguity, shades of resistance and collaboration.

For women, choice often meant more than simply how to live their own lives but how to protect their children and sometimes their elderly parents too.

Was it collaborating to buy food on the black market if your children were thin, ill and vitamin deficient? Was sending your children to a cousin with a farm in the countryside acceptable? Was it collaborating to perform on stage for or to sell fruit and vegetables to Germans? Or to sell jewellery and high fashion to them, when French women at home had nothing? Was it a choice to walk out of a café or a restaurant if German soldiers walked in, or was that deliberately courting danger given that behaving disrespectfully could have fatal consequences? [1]

Yet again, Neil MacGregor’s question arises: “What would we have done?”

* * *

Paris was iconic for the Parisians, the Germans, and everyone. British people suffered grievously too, all over the world, but least they weren’t occupied. It’s disturbing that the closer I get to home, the more easily I can identify with them. All over vast areas further east, populations were brutalized still more thoroughly—and were then further occupied for decades. Yet the traumas of past eras continue to haunt us.

Anti-semitism was as common in France as elsewhere in Europe, and the population was already swollen with refugees from further east as well as Spain. The initial German occupation didn’t seem too bad, as Gitta Sereny, then a teenage nurse, observed (“The German officers with whom I had to negotiate for food, clothes or documents were always courteous and often extremely helpful.”) Museum curators and librarians played a major role in the budding resistance, including those at the Musée de l’Homme—and the great ethnographer Germaine Tillion, whom I have praised in several posts already.

Mass deportations escalated for Jews and resisters. 3,710 “foreign” Jews were arrested on 14th May 1941, and then three months later a further 4,230, both French and foreign. 13,152 Jews were arrested in July 1942, and further roundups continued. They were held in French internment camps before being sent to Auschwitz or Ravensbrück. The latter, subject of Sarah Helm’s brilliant book, features especially.

Perhaps rather at the expenses of documenting ordinary people’s lives, Seba describes all the salons and soirées of high society and fashion; and the compromises made by women in entertainment, like Édith Piaf. But such hedonism makes a suitably hideous contrast with the lives and deaths of those sent to the camps; as Seba observes, by contrast with high-profile stars in the arts,

there has been a prolonged and inequitable silence in France about the role of so many ordinary women who in some way resisted the occupiers—like the young woman who, persuaded by her Catholic priests, cycled around Paris distributing anti-German newsletters, […] an activity for which she could have been imprisoned if caught…

Following the guillotining of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud in 1943, the film Le corbeau, about anonymous denunciations, was controversial—and remained so. Violette Leduc’s 1964 autobiography La Bâtarde shows the struggles of poor women in a patriarchal system. The role of church and family in Vichy France recalls that in Portugal and Spain.

Pétain used such occasions to bolster the moral and political conservatism of his authoritarian regime, glorifying the family as an institution in which the man was head and the woman occupied her place by virtue of being a mother.

Seba introduces the story of the female agents recruited to the French section of the SOE by Vera Atkins—subject of another great book by Sarah Helm. A sense of guilt as well as duty clearly played a role as Atkins sought to discover the fate of her charges (their average life expectancy in the field was six weeks). Among them was Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44)—yet another pupil of Nadia Boulanger, incidentally. But their whole story deserves another post.

 

A constant struggle went on between the needs to forget and to remember. Many of us will have met survivors while hardly realizing it. I only belatedly documented the successive flights of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). Now I find that Marie-Claude, whom I sometimes see at my local bridge club, is the daughter of none other than the heroic resistance fighter Odette Fabius (1910–90). Interviewed in the book, asked to reflect on whether it was right for her mother to risk her safety when they travelled together by putting documents and false papers in her case, Marie-Claude replies evenly that “she could never have been different. That was who she was.”

In 1943, when Marie-Claude was 12, Odette left her in a cinema while she went on an urgent mission to try and warn her resistance colleagues they were being watched. But she was caught by the Gestapo, soon to be deported to Ravensbrück.

Long after the film was over, Marie-Claude eventually gave up waiting for her mother and decided to make her way to family friends where her father, in due course, came to look after her.

In Ravensbrück, Odette tried to escape but was brutally punished after being captured. Unlike most inmates, she did somehow survive.

As Sarah Helm also notes, the later French arrivals at Ravensbrück made an incongruous and separate group amidst all the degradation. Seeming pampered, they suffered a double oppression, from both the SS and fellow prisoners; succumbing more quickly to sickness, they had to learn survival techniques swiftly.

* * *

As throughout Europe, the end of the war was far from an end to suffering, as Keith Lowe describes so well in his book Savage continent.

After Paris was liberated, many were shocked by the brutal misogynistic punishments for women accused of collaboration horizontale. This was also related to class. Arletty, star of the classic Les enfants du paradis (first shown in March 1945), though compromised, spending some weeks in the squalor of Drancy, was not punished by head-shaving as were many ordinary women. Others found the épuration sauvage inevitable, a minor suffering compared to all those women tortured and murdered in the camps. But those who returned, sick and emaciated, still found life difficult, receiving scant sympathy; Parisians didn’t want to be reminded of their recent pain by these skeletal figures. Not all the survivors could bear to speak of their tribulations anyway, but there was little audience for those that did feel a need to do so. Oblivion soon reigned.

Still, Lucie Aubrac, delegate in the new parliament,

was keenly aware of the gendered response to Liberation as France enjoyed its new-found freedom, and she was determined that the country should resist falling for the simplistic notion that the women had collaborated while the men had fought. She insisted it was women who had given the resistance its breadth and depth—the women who had been the essential mailboxes because they were at home, the women who had become couriers because they looked less suspect carrying suitcases, as well as the women who had daringly used weapons. Not everyone was prepared to hear her voice—most were preoccupied with trying to resume normal life.

There were further painful complexities:

Half of those deported for resistance activities returned, but only 3 per cent of of the Jews (2,500 out of 76,000 deported), an unwelcome statistic for those in France denying that a genocide had taken place. Yet the attitude which saw resisters as patriots who had been involved in combat entitled to a higher level of compensation than the deported Jews, perceived as victims, persisted until at least the end of the 20th century in some quarters. […] It also fed into the notion that to have been deported as a resister was noble, but to have fallen into German hands as a victim was shameful.

And disparities were shocking: while British, Americans, and rich Parisians resumed a lavish lifestyle, ordinary Parisians were still on the brink of starvation.

On 27th October 1946 the constitution was finally amended “guaranteeing women equal rights to men in all spheres”; despite several magazines urging women to return to a life of innocence and femininity, the mood was changing. But French society was divided.

Meanwhile Barbara Probst was working to publicize the neglect of Spanish anti-fascists, who had played a major part in the liberation of France.

I was intrigued to learn that Anouk Aimée made her first film in 1946, aged 14; in 2003 she starred in the harrowing 2003 film La petite prairie aux bouleaux, as a Jewish woman coming to terms in later life with her time at Birkenau:

* * *

So after all these years of naively relishing the street life and art galleries of Paris, it’s high time for me to seek out memorial sites and plaques, and camps like Drancy and Fresnes.

1971

Odette Fabius awarded Officier de La Legion d’Honneur, with Geneviève de Gaulle, 1971.

Little did I know that in 2015 Ravensbrück survivors Genevieve de Gaulle and Germaine Tillion were posthumously honoured with a ceremony in the Panthéon.

At the very end of the book Seba gives a succinct list of questions to discuss, some of which I’ve mentioned above:

  • Why has it taken so long for the women’s version of events to become known?
  • How different was it for mothers? Some gave away their children to a passeur without knowing where they were being taken; Odette Fabius abandoned her ten-year-old daughter in the cinema. Did mothers have a responsibility to stay with their children? Was it justifiable for some mothers to compromise their children by using them to carry documents for the resistance?
  • Why do you think fashion continued to matter to Parisiennes during the war? Was it vanity or can it be justified as a demonstration of self-respect and pride?
  • To what extent did all women have a choice during and immediately after the Occupation? Do you think Parisiennes behaved understandably after 1945 or do you think the (largely Jewish) political resisters should have been more supportive of the Jewish resisters who returned from concentration camps?
  • After the Liberation, why were so many women punished—often without trial—for collaboration horizontale, while male economic collaborators avoided repercussions? Was head-shaving ever a justified punishment? [SJ: videos like this, with gloating men surrounding helpless women, are hard to watch.]

 

[1] Here I’ve combined text from p.xxxii and the book’s final list of questions.