London film screening!

I’ve just added details of the next London screening of my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist to the Upcoming events in the sidebar. Do come along if you can—it’s always good to watch it in company, and the post-match discussions can be lively…

The free event is hosted by the SOAS China Institute—details here.

Slapping the coffin, and headgear

LMS huacai

Li Manshan decorates a coffin.

Apart from the liturgy of the Daoists that is my main topic, many other concomitant mortuary observances tend to fall under the domain of “folklore”.

After a death in rural Yanggao, among all the complex arrangements shown in my film, there’s a tiny exchange (from 14.11) where the son of the deceased reads out Li Manshan’s prescription for the funeral arrangements.

I’ve never witnessed Slapping the Coffin (yicai 移材, my book, pp.186–7), but I now find a little description in Wu Fan’s notes from our 2003 fieldwork in Yanggao:

According to the “old rules”, Slapping the Coffin follows the nocturnal Escorting Away the Orphan Souls ritual segment and the lengthy Crossing the Soul [aka Sitting Through the Night] instrumental sequence from the shawm band or Daoists (my book, p.128). Around half an hour after the band has fallen silent, when all is quiet, the oldest son and oldest daughter slap the coffin with their palms, crying out “Go, then” (Zouba, zouba 走吧,走吧). Then the son leads the way, sweeping the path while the daughter takes the paper cart (now often a car) from the funeral artefacts, kowtowing all the way to a crossroads, where the cart is burned.

See also Allan Marett’s comment below on a Song-dynasty Zen collection.

By 2003 this procedure had commonly been simplified for some time, and even Sitting Through the Night was optional. But it’s an instance of all the minutiae formerly observed by the kin, beyond the more public rituals of the Daoist band—”customary” rather than “religious”.

The kin still observe elaborate, ancient distinctions in their funerary headgear—these are just the appendages for the female kin:

IMG_3250.JPG

Headgear appendages for female kin. Left to right: 1–2 daughters, wife; 3–7 sisters’ daughters, wives of sisters’ sons; 8–9 granddaughters, wives of grandsons; 10–11 maternal granddaughters, wives of maternal grandsons. Made by Li Manshan’s wife.

Left, sister; right, granddaughters.

But as ever, “customs differ every 10 li“. We should document both religious and customary rituals. Neither is timeless: we need to show how they change within local societies.

While we’re talking headgear, I’m very fond of this image from my film, of Daoist hats hanging out to dry after being washed—a reminder that ritual equipment has to be maintained:

yinyang hats

 

 

 

Reaching a crescendo, or not

Mahler 2 crescendo

Mahler 2: crescendo leading to the shattering climax of the first movement!

I get blank looks whenever I explode at the phrase

reaching a crescendo.

It’s long been a bête-noire of mine—a recurring peeve that I now find I share with many others. But we dissenters are powerless to influence usage; and it’s a far more thorny issue than it may seem.

There’s much online discussion—notably this, from 2013, on the fine languagelog site (filed inter alia under the fine tag “Prescriptivist poppycock”). [1] If you’ve got better things to do than read all the way through the thread there, then I guess you won’t be reading this either—but here are some points that strike me.

The debate revolves around linguistic change. In the Real World, etymology is neither here nor there. I’m both amused and disgruntled by the similar trajectories of the words climax and gamut—and indeed latte (“I ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy at a coffee bar, and got milk”).

For what it’s worth (not a lot, here),

gamut originally referred to the lowest note of Guido d’Arezzo’s hexachord system, a contraction of “gamma ut’” It gradually came to signify the whole system, similar to “alphabet” [Ha, there’s another one!]. I have never heard it used in reference to a note on a keyboard instrument, and I am unaware of any such instrument that has gamma ut (low G) as the lowest note.

Early culprits include F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925):

The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo

and P.G. Wodehouse (1939):

The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.

For more citations, see Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

As an early instances of the fightback Robert Coren cites a book by Leonard Bernstein c1959, presumably The joy of music—I’d love to have a source for this.

Daniel Trambaiolo asks

by what criteria, corpus-based or otherwise, do contemporary linguists distinguish between awkward metaphorical usages based on a misunderstanding of the relevant literal meaning, and usages that have lost their metaphorical character so far that the original literal meaning is no longer relevant. It seems clear that “climax” has successfully made the transition, and that many people here believe “crescendo” has done the same. At what point does it become unreasonable to deny that we are no longer in a grey zone?

Later he comments:

We all constantly use words whose meanings have changed over the years […] Maybe we’re aware of those earlier meanings—it certainly widens the world for me to know how the language has changed over time. Or maybe we’re as ignorant as those poor musical illiterates you’re shaking your head over. (But we’re all ignorant to some degree, aren’t we? I don’t know the original meaning of every word I use. Do you? Maybe some linguists do.) But for most purposes, most of the time, it’s simply not important what a word used to mean, or what it still means for the small group that used to have sole possession of it. And it’s not important whether the people who use “crescendo” to mean “climax” don’t know the musical meaning. As it happens, I’m quite aware what a musical crescendo is. But that’s not going to stop me from using it to mean “climax” if I damn well feel like it.

John:

Just because “languages change” and peeving won’t stop that happening doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically bad to be annoyed by things you consider to be wrong.

Vidor:

Really, are there any rules that should be defended? Any usages? Any spellings? If languages change, and purists shouldn’t peeve, why do we have English grammar classes?

Rose offers a further angle:

Not only is “reached a crescendo” an unfortunate misuse of a word (a word with a clear meaning, easy enough to discover), it’s a cliché, and a tired one at that. (And because it’s become a cliché its use should be accepted? )

The comments also feature some excursions into the declining popularity of “classical music”.

Finally, Yakusa Cobb:

I have followed this thread for some time. As it now appears to be reaching a diminuendo, I shall quit.

It’s a veritable smorgasbord of opinions.

OK, I get it: “reaching a crescendo” isn’t “wrong”. I’m all for descriptive rather than prescriptive usage, but I can’t help myself.

Anyway, the Transferring Offerings ritual in Yanggao does not reach a crescendo with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (my film, from 1.07.53). OK?

 

[1] Some articles cited there: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/11/magazine/on-language-reach-crescendo.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/opinion/a-crescendo-of-errors.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/opinion/a-dissonant-crescendo.html. See also https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/can-you-say-reach-a-crescendo-yes-you-can-its-not-a-specialist-term/

 

Update on Yanggao ritual

Gushan yinyang 2003

Following my links to images of Yanggao temple murals, I’ve also updated my post More Daoists of Yanggao with photos of the temple at Gushan—recent ones from Hannibal Taubes, and my own images of 2003 rituals there, including a fine sectarian group.

So do (re)visit the post—useful background for ritual groups there apart from the illustrious Li family. Not to mention many more articles on other counties of north Shanxi, Hebei, and so on, linked under Local ritual.

Gushan sect 2003.3

Folk and temple ritual in Ningxia

*For main page, click here!*

NX Daoist

Continuing my series on local ritual in north China, the province of Ningxia, between Shaanbei and Gansu, looks to have lively traditions of Daoist and Buddhist ritual, both temple-based and household.

Of course Ningxia is better known for its Hui Muslim population—and the recent clampdowns. But Han Chinese make up around two thirds of the inhabitants, and their Buddhist and Daoist ritual activity is widespread, with a long history. One scholar has estimated that there are over thirty thousand household Daoists active there!

With no personal experience of fieldwork there, my little introduction is based on limited secondary sources, merely suggesting the kind of spadework one should do before venturing into the field. I set forth from the instrumental volume of the Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples, itself resulting from fieldwork in the late 1980s to early 90s. As usual, while I dispute the very concept of “religious music”, I’m grateful for all the clues there.

Still using the Anthology, I also add a note on “Buddhist precious scrolls” and “Daoist morality tales” performed by devotional sectarian groups in Gansu.

 

More temple murals from Yanggao

Rear central hall rear wall west mural

As part of my work on the Li family Daoists (film, book, and unwieldy category), I’ve just added links to a wealth of images of temple murals (for Lower Liangyuan, Zhenmenbu, and Gushan) from the recent explorations of Hannibal Taubes around Yanggao, in my posts on

As to ritual paintings, see these posts on north Shanxi:

For the series of field reports from my recent trip to Yanggao, see links here.

And for Hebei, see

as well as many posts under

Spreading the net still wider, you might browse the art tag.

Meanwhile, do continue consulting Hannibal’s inexhaustible website!

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s. Concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.

tailgut

And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted as I was by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado, and the early music and humour subheads under the WAM category.

 

* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.