Italy: folk musicking

 

Italy map

With our common image of Italy dominated by elite culture, it may seem to make a less obvious fieldsite for folk traditions than east Europe. But as I observed in my jottings from Lisbon (and in my posts on flamenco in Spain, starting here), there’s far more to musicking than opera houses and symphony orchestras. Even the court musical cultures of Italy were regional—there was no “Italy” until 1860, and regional consciousness still persists. As in China, where the “conservatoire style” dominates the media, the image of the iceberg is useful.

Local folk traditions are a major part of people’s social experience today, as throughout earlier history—alongside more elite productions such as the painting and sculpture, art music and opera that dominate our image of Italian culture (for early modern Europe, see here). Some regions show little or no influence from art music, others more. But we should adjust from our image of Barbara Strozzi and Artemisia Gentileschi [PC gone mad—Ed.] [What you gonna do about it? SJ], Verdi and Monteverdi, La Scala, and so on.

In Italy—whose population of around 60 million is comparable with a single province of China!—we find the usual interplay between general surveys “gazing at flowers from horseback” and detailed studies of one particular community. As ever, we may start with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Alessio Surian’s article for The Rough Guide to world music pays attention to the more recent roots scene, and Italy features regularly in Songlines.

I’ve already outlined some issues in the taxonomy of expressive culture in China (e.g. here). In her Grove article on Italian folk music, Tullia Magrini essayed a broad classification by style and structure rather than by region or context:

  • Narrative-singing (ballad, broadside ballad, storia, Sicilian orbi, and so on)
  • Lyrical singing
  • Others: including children’s songs and lullabies, work songs, polyphonic songs for entertainment (cf. Voices of the world).

After reverting to context in her penultimate category:

  • Ritual music—always among the most interesting rubrics, including life-cycle and calendrical rituals (the latter including carnival and Passion).

she concluded by outlining

  • dances and instruments—the latter including not only piffero and ciaramella shawms (for shawms in China, see here) with bagpipe (zampogna, müsapiva) and the distinctive Sardinian launeddas, but also northern violin traditions.

* * *

The fascist era discouraged meaningful study of folk traditions, so serious research began in the 1950s, as society continued to change. Gramsci’s contrast between subaltern and hegemonic cultures inspired the ground-breaking collaborations of Diego Carpitella with Ernesto De Martino and Alan Lomax.

Carpitella’s work with De Martino features in my post on taranta, which includes both their footage of taranta in Salento (1959) and funeral laments in Basilicata (1952).

Lucania

Meanwhile—just as Chinese fieldworkers were busy documenting their own regional traditions—Carpitella was also working with Alan Lomax (who said the 1950s were boring?!). Their 1954–56 audio recordings were published in 1958 as Folk music and song of Italy, and reissued (basic notes here). Many tracks on the playlist are remarkable—such as Alla campagnola, a polyphonic love song sung by women of Ferroletto in Calabria while working in the fields, with both harmonies and unison cadential pitches taking one by surprise:

And here’s a bagpipe saltarello from Citta Realle in Lazio:

The album covers the north too, such as this dance song from Val di Resia in Friuli:

For a review of more albums in the Lomax collection, see here. Italy was among the fields where he developed his ambitious Cantometrics project, exploring the links between styles of singing and social structures (see also Voices of the world). And for his remarkable archive, click here.

The pioneering work of Lomax and Carpitella inspired many impressive series of audio recordings on labels like Folkways, Dischi del sole, Albatros, I suoni (Fonit Cetra), and Ethnica. Meanwhile Carpitella edited the important journal Culture musicali (and I’m keen to read his analysis of The Rite of Spring!).

Following in their footsteps, among luminaries in Italian ethnomusicology were Roberto Leydi and Tullia Magrini, under whom such studies took root in Bologna. And as a welcome change from all those gondolas, Venice has become a lively centre for the promotion of folk cultures of Italy and further afield, with the Fondazione Cini, and ethnomusicologists Giovanni Giuriati and Giovanni de Zorzi (for an instance of the latter’s explorations, see here).

Despite all the “cultural homogenization” epitomized by the vacuous inanities of Burlesque-only TV, RAI has played a role in promoting regional cultures.

The south
The Mediterranean south has remained poor—Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as well as Campania, all have deep local traditions (see also herehere, and here).

Again, Lomax and Carpitella made some fine recordings in Campania:

And apart from Sardinia (which I introduced here), Sicily is a rich field, introduced in early work by Giulio Fara and much studied since (see also Songs of Sicily).

Central Italy and the north
The poor south, attractive by virtue of its “otherness”, attracts a wealth of documentation; but the more affluent north also has significant pockets of folk activity. Roberto Leydi and others erased the old bias that considered the northern regions “corrupted” by economic and social development.

Fieldworkers have found distinctive traditions around Lazio, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Emilia. Tullia Magrini made a special study of the Maggio drammatico (cf. Morris dancing in England!). Note also her edited volume Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).

All along the northern border of Italy, local traditions have been documented around Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. Again, we can consult the recordings of Lomax and Carpitella, with this 1972 LP from Piedmont, Emilia, and Lombardy:

In Ponte Caffaro, Brescia, fiddle bands accompany carnival:

The films of Renato Morelli are also impressive—see this trailer for Voci alte, on the festival of Premana in Lombardy.

In the 1990s, as another perk of my touring life, during interludes from playing Mozart opera in Parma and Ferrara I visited cultural offices for a taste of their work documenting local folk traditions—somewhat evoking my exploratory visits to their counterparts in China. While doing gigs in Genova I also found trallalero choirs:

In the northeast, traditions are related to Slavic culture, with dances accompanied by violins or the piva bagpipe. Here’s a 1983 clip from Val di Resia in Friuli:

Collectors have also worked with emigrant communities (cf. Accordion crimes). Alan Lomax and Carla Bianco issued a fascinating album of their 1963–64 recordings in New York and Chicago (playlist here, notes here), with a sequel recorded by his daughter Anna in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (playlist here)—from the latter, here’s a duet with piffero and ciaramella:

This may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of the soundscape of 60s’ New York.

And having long been a land of emigration, and internal migration (from rural south to industrial north), Italy is now also a vexed site for immigration, which will further enrich the picture.

While I’m not venturing into the roots scene here, it seems obligatory to cite Fabrizio De André’s wildly popular Crêuza de mä (1984), sung in Genovese dialect (here with Italian subtitles):

* * *

All the energy in making audio recordings was admirable, helping us focus on the remarkable variety of regional soundscapes: both vocal and instrumental tracks are stunning. But it tended to entrench an image of disembodied, reified sound documents; the later shift towards visual anthropology places a greater stress on musicking in society. At LEAV in Milan Nicola Scaldaferri leads splendid collaborative projects, such as Musica Lucana and the Maggio in Accettura. And here’s a trailer for Rossella Scillacci’s fine 2007 ethnographic film Pratica e maestria on the zampogna in Basilicata:

* * *

Here, as often, I can only “gaze at flowers from horseback”, but all this is a reminder that as in China, England, and everywhere, popular regional traditions persist alongside more elite cultures, changing along with society and encouraging us to revise a narrow concept of “culture”.

Yet more Chinese clichés: music

minyue

To follow Chinese art clichés, for this list of Chinese music clichés I revert to the Catechism format immortalized by the great Flann O’Brien (for my previous essays in the genre, see here and here).

Seriously Though Folks: since we need to study expressive culture in the context of changing society, it’s important to unpack the language of propaganda, in this as in other fields!

What kind of history does Chinese music have?
An ancient 悠久 one.

And how many years of history does any genre you care to mention have?
Two thousand.

And what kind of fossils are these genres?
Living ones, of course.

To what do they belong?
The glorious heritage of the Chinese peoples.

What is the folk culture of, well, anywhere you care to mention?
Unique and vibrant.

What kind of colourings did such music often have before Liberation?
Feudal superstitious ones.

How did the government treat folk music after Liberation?
They esteemed it while systematically dismantling its entire social basis.

And what novel kind of foliage did folk artists turn over then?
A new leaf.

What does folk-song express?
The sentiments of the labouring masses.

In praise of whom did folk-singers create new songs?
Um, Chairman Mao.

How did they present their art 献艺 to the Party?
Selflessly.

So they weren’t malnourished and desperate, then?
Oh no.

What are they keen to do with what?
To preserve and develop their precious heritage.

Now (here’s an easy one) what are the ethnic minorities jolly good at?
Um, singing and dancing 能歌善舞。

And how are their relations with the Han Chinese?
Brotherly, of course.

What kind of scale does Chinese music use?
A heptatonic scale based on anhemitonic pentatonic melodies, with occasional temporary modulation up or down a fifth creating a new anhemitonic pentatonic set.

[consulting script anxiously] WHA-A-T???
Oh all right then—pentatonic.

How might we characterize southern music?
Mellifluous.

And northern music?
Rugged and angular.

For what irresistible yet cumbersome title does one scurry to get nominated, nay inscribed, these days?
The umpteenth batch of China’s National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage zzzzz

Whereupon what means of perambulation will the genre in question adopt in what ubiquitous direction?
Marching towards the world 走向世界。*

Such is the flapdoodle we have to plough through, reading between the lines… Plenty more where that came from under the heritage tag. And for illustrations of different mindsets, see here. For a veritable masterpiece of international cliché, see Away from it all.

And with what should we treat such platitudes?
The contempt they deserve.

Yangjiagou band, 1999

Yangjiagou shawm band, funeral 1999.

As to the “Golden Age” of the Tang, how about this.

 

* Ironically, “Marching towards the world” is the title of ch.18 of my Daoist priests of the Li family, on the foreign tours of the band—but all is explained:

You may be thinking, “Aha, so now we’re going to see how local ritual goes global and gets adapted for the concert stage!” Well, forget it—the basic context for their performance remains the local funerary business that I describe throughout the book.

For Bach marching towards the world, see here.

 

Global audience

map

An entertaining feature of the WordPress stats for authors shows me the figures for viewers of this arcane blog by location—rather like a map of empire.

countries The list of countries also evokes the Olympic medals table—with USA, China, and even the UK ranking high, pursued by France, Germany, Australia, Japan, and so on. Further down, Romania, Thailand, and Brazil put in plucky performances. I like some of the fortuitous juxtapositions that it produces daily (left).

More intriguing are countries near the foot of the table, such as Estonia, Morocco, PNG. and Bolivia (as well as some I’ve barely heard of…). I like to think that my arcane ruminations have a certain niche following among the indigenous* populations in such places, but I also entertain the charming notion that it’s just one single deranged British viewer (Mrs Ivy Trellis, perhaps) with a taste for exotic holidays and an unlikely obsession…

You might think all this would encourage me to tone down some of my more obscure allusions and usage of language, but no.

 

* You can read that in the New Age sense if you like.

Playing with history: HIP

*For main page, click here!*
(under WAM at the right of main menu)

Butt

On the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, further to my article on Richard Taruskin, I’ve added a page on

  • John Butt, Playing with history (2002).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.

In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.

 

More Chinese clichés: art

*Guest post!*

Ni Zan

Further to my Chinese clichés (inspired by Flann O’Brien), a young scholar—whose own enterprising fieldwork suggests a radical reassessment of Chinese temple murals—has sent me this telling critique (“On visiting the Asian Art Museum but finding the Indo-Tibetan section closed for renovation“):

New AAM Exhibition Reveals How “Chinese People Used to Like Porcelain Pots that were Glazed mostly White but sometimes Other Colors, and Paintings of Water and Mountains, And Stuff”

April 12, 2019 / Khanat Beg

SAN FRANCISCO
“A lot of people think they know Chinese art,” says curator Adreanne Chao. Slim and straight-backed in a black turtleneck by Japanese designer Yu Amatsu, Chao is sitting on a bench in the second-floor gallery, unrecognized by the stream of museum-goers around us. Together, we watch two women speaking Mandarin pose with a selfie-stick in front of a painting by the 14th-century Chinese artist Ni Zan.

Chao says, “People come in here, and they think they’re going to see monochrome ink-paintings of mountains, water, clouds. Sometimes there’ll be a lonely fisherman out poling across the lake, or a scholar-recluse composing poetry in an old pavilion.”

But Chao’s new exhibition, which opened April 1st at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, has sent ripples of surprise through the art world. Chao leads me over to inspect a scroll painting, twelve feet long and one wide, by the 15th-century Chinese literatus-painter Wu Liao. “But these artists are really toying with convention. Here you can see the painter has used monochrome ink and brushwork to create the impression of clouds, water, and mountains.” Chao laughs puckishly, “And yes, I’ll admit it—there’s also a fisherman poling a skiff past an old pavilion!”

We haven’t even got to the room with all the little porcelain pots and pans, glazed mostly white but sometimes beige or off-green. […]

 

I may add that the solitary boatman is not to be confused with this tribute to Uncle Xi:

See here for spoof Tang poems that I composed in my own Yoof (“precocious signs of the pointless inanity that was to distinguish my later writings”). Among posts under the art tag, try this, and this.

And for Chinese music clichés, see here.

A post-concert gaffe

Many years ago, Maureen Smith was leading an orchestral concert in the north of England, at which the great clarinettist Tony Pay was playing.

After the gig Maureen was having a drink in the pub with some friends from the audience when Tony walked in, now in plain clothes, so she introduced them:

“Hey guys, this is Tony Pay—he plays the clarinet.”

One of them looked at him and went,

“Jeez, they could have done with you tonight!”

Tony likes to tell this story himself.

For other less-than-favourable reviews, see here and here. For many more stories from orchestral life, see here, and under the humour subhead of the WAM category.

 

Fujian, 1961 and onwards

LQM shiban

Shiban ensemble, west Fujian 1962.

I’ve already introduced important early fieldwork projects after “Liberation” under the auspices of the Music Research Institute in Beijing, led by the great Yang Yinliu. Such work continued even after the chaos caused by the Great Leap Backward.

In late 1961, soon after the publication of Yang’s major survey for Hunan (and as the Morris dancing revival continued in England!) Li Quanmin 李佺民 (1924–83), who had already taken part in the 1953 survey of folk-song in northwest Shanxi, was dispatched to the far south on a trip to Fujian province, whose vibrant folk cultures were still quite unknown to Beijing scholars. [1]

  • Fujian minjian yinyue: caifang baogao 福建民间音乐采: 访报告 [Folk music of Fujian: field report] (Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1963, mimeograph, 155 pp.)

LQM cover

Yang Yinliu’s 1956 work in Hunan had utilised both his own team from Beijing and regional cadres, considering a broad range of genres, pervaded by ritual. But Li Quanmin arrived alone in Fujian, and travelled only in the company of the young regional music scholars Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华 (who went on to become leading authorities on the musics of Fujian), so this project was less ambitious. In their survey from 12th November 1961 to 28th January 1962 they conducted both overviews for particular counties and interviews on specific genres. Their fieldnotes are reproduced more or less as they were taken at the time.

Even today, outsiders’ impressions of the musical cultures of Fujian may largely be based on the glorious nanyin chamber ensembles of Hokkien communities around Quanzhou and Xiamen, but the report was the first to provide a window on the huge variety of expressive cultures throughout the province. Indeed, while the history, music, language, and ethnography of nanyin alone are a topic for several lifetimes, the 1986 survey Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun can only spare 22 of its 611 pages for the topic!

The cultures of Fujian may profitably be studied alongside those of the diaspora (notably Taiwan); while these have preserved many traditional features that were under attack on the mainland, the resilience of tradition in the PRC is remarkable.

They began by meeting representatives of official state troupes in cultural offices, noting studies by local scholars, and going on to assemble performers to make recordings. They focused on vocal and instrumental chamber ensembles; while, as everywhere, such groups mainly served life-cycle and calendrical rituals, the social contexts receive limited attention. The team got glimpses of the riches of local opera, but merely noted the researches of regional scholars—who, indeed, had been busy collecting material ever since the 1949 Liberation.

Though ritual connections are constantly apparent, the report gives only brief mentions of temple and household ritual specialists. The activities of household Daoists are only mentioned in passing; only since the 1980s have detailed monographs shown what a major feature of life they are throughout the region—indeed, this was the first region that scholars began to study once they were able to expand their studies from Taiwan to the mainland across the strait.

I’ve already noted the need to oscillate between wider generic surveys for a whole province or region (“gazing at flowers from horseback” 走马观花) and more detailed reports on one county, village, or family (see also under Local ritual).

As yet more political campaigns unfolded after the brief lull following the disasters of the Leap, this was to be among one of the last fieldwork projects until work resumed in earnest from the late 1970s.

Part One of Li Quanmin’s report contains reports from the southeast coastal region of the province. In Xiamen they visited the great nanyin expert Ji Jingmou 纪经畝 (1899–1986, or 1901–87), [2] recording him leading the Jinfeng group 金風南樂團.

Just west in Zhangzhou, after gaining brief introductions to jin’ge 錦歌 and shiba yin 十八音 (cf. the shiyin bayue 十音八樂 of Putian), they give a rather more detailed account of nanci 南詞 and the related instrumental shiquan qiang 十全腔. The occupational groups performing nanci were known as tangban 堂班, performing items like The Heavenly Officer Bestows Blessings (Tianguan cifu 天官賜福) before a painting of Heavenly Master Zhang; the genre seems to have spread from Jiangxi.

For the wider Longxi region around Zhangzhou, Liu Chunshu gave them an overview of various genres, including Songs to Wash the Gods (xifo ge 洗佛歌), presented as a superstitious genre from “the past”, sung during the first five moons by itinerant duos, one with a god image on his back; [3] dragon-boat songs in praise of Qu Yuan, noting ritual connections; and musics deriving from Chaozhou just south.

In Quanzhou they gained a further outline of nanyin (on which there was already a substantial amount of local research), as well as briefer impressions of shiyin (for a photo from my 1990 trip see here); they mention the Assault on the Citadel ritual drama (dacheng xi 打城戲) [4] and itinerant sijin ban 四錦班 bands of blind female singers. They also studied the venerable “casket winds” (longchui) shawm bands (on which more below)—I’ve now added one of Li Quanmin’s 1961 recordings to the playlist in the sidebar (#15), with commentary here.

casket

The longchui casket, Tianhou gong temple, Quanzhou 1990. My photo.

In Quanzhou they also talked with the Buddhist monk Miaolian 妙蓮 (see below), making notes on his master the renowned Hongyi 弘一 (Li Shutong李叔同, 1880–1942), an authority on ritual music, and visiting the Kaiyuan si temple.

In Putian and Xianyou—another highly distinctive cultural sub-region—they learned of shiyin bayue 十音八樂, related to the local opera—itself a rich ancient tradition most worthy of study. Folk-song genres included shan’ge 山歌, itinerant lige 俚歌, and “singing the nine lotuses” (jiulian chang 九蓮唱). Li Quanmin reproduces a local draft for the new Putian county gazetteer, which includes a section on “ritual music” (fashi yinyue), outlining Buddhist and Daoist groups.

A clue now led them to make a detour to the poor Badu region of Ningde, north of Fuzhou, to record the two-part folk-songs of the She 畲 minority there—just one of the regions where they dwell through Fujian and adjoining provinces. Li Quanmin lent his recordings of the songs to the provincial Broadcasting Station in Fuzhou for copying—who promptly lost them.

The whole of Part Two is dedicated to the largely Hakka cultures of southwest Fujian further inland. Even their studies around this region involved lengthy journeys. Incidentally, this is yet another region where household Daoists still have impressive traditions.

Here the team focused on the shiban 十班 (in some areas known as shifan 十番) and jingban 靜班 groups. They soon discovered the complexities of local terminology. Mostly amateur groups, with a core of stringed instruments, they are often based on local drama; but usually there is also a strong link with occupational shawm bands and percussion groups.

In the Longyan region the jingban were related to Raoping chui 饒平吹 shawm bands, named after the region further south in Guangdong. Moving west from the regional seat, in Shanghang they noted the effects of historical migrations. In Liancheng they learned from Luo Xuehong, head of the county song-and-dance opera troupe, an erstwhile accompanist of Buddhist and Daoist ritual specialists and marionette bands—reminding us that state troupes were then full of such experienced “old artists”.

They continued their studies of the jingban in Changting—where they also gain a tantalizing clue to the furen jiao 夫人教 (or “singing Haiqing” 唱海青) exorcistic ritual performed by household Daoists to protect children (cf. guoguan). In north China Haiqing 海青 is a common subject of ritual shengguan wind ensemble pieces, but it has been assumed to be a bird of prey; however, material from Fujian shows that he is a deity there: Thunder Haiqing (Lei Haiqing) is a manifestation of Tiandu yuanshuai 天都元帥.

Still in Changting, they gained further material on shiban groups, visiting Dapu 大浦commune to learn of the temple fair to the Great God of the Five Valleys (Wugu dashen 五谷大神). Returning to Longyan they continued to explore the relation between the jingban and shiban groups. Hearing of the lively scene in Kanshi town in Yongding, based on its temple fairs, they moved on there. Back in Longyan again, they ended their trip with a visit to a jingban group in Dongxiao commune.

Throughout the trip, in addition to occupational performers, they met amateurs— factory and manual workers, traders, and peasants—whose livelihoods had been in flux for several decades. But alas, what we can’t expect from such sources is discussion of the changing society (though see here, and for more revealing official sources, here). Fujian was far from immune from the famine, [5] with migrants fleeing in all directions—though the report discreetly refrains some such topics. A desultory sentence on the itinerant singers of lige claims:

Before Liberation most people weren’t keen on singing it [?!], but after the Great Leap Forward in 1958 the government esteemed it and [sic] used it for propaganda.

But in contrast to propaganda, this is just the kind of folk activity that was reviving among migrants in the desperation following the disasters of the Leap.

Since the 1980s
While Li Quanmin’s survey is less impressive than Yang Yinliu’s earlier report on Hunan, it laid a groundwork for later studies of Fujian. After the interruption through the Cultural Revolution, the liberalizations of the late 1970s allowed fieldwork to resume on a large scale, largely under the auspices of the national Anthology project.

Even before the publication of the latter, a single-volume survey appeared by two provincial scholars who had accompanied Li Quanmin in 1961–62:

  • Liu Chunshu 刘春曙 and Wang Yaohua 王耀华, Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun 福建民间音乐简论 (1986).

FJ book

Its 611 pages not only give more informed accounts of the genres introduced in the 1963 survey, but provide more extensive coverage of a wider range of regional genres, including the lesser-known north of the province. The volume adopts the overall classification that had been developed from the 1950s, now enshrined in the Anthology—and as ever, most of them are strongly interconnected:

  • folk-song (with a wider coverage of the She minority, pp.199–­229)
  • narrative-singing (nanyin appears here, alongside genres such as jin’ge, nanci, and beiguan)
  • opera, including Minju, Gezai xi, Pu–Xian xi, Liyuan xi, Gaojia xi, marionettes, and shadow puppets
  • instrumental music: various shifan and shiban genres, longchui, and so on.
Liu and Wang shiban route

A helpful map of the transmission of shiban.

There is no separate section for “religious music” [sic], but some “religious songs” are briefly introduced (pp.144–63), and ritual genres pervade all the categories.

On a very different note, Wang and Liu end with an introduction to the Fujian tradition of the qin zither, which had also formed part of Zha Fuxi’s national survey in 1956.

Fieldtrips, 1986 and 1990
On my first stay in China in 1986, after exploratory trips to Wutaishan, Xi’an, and Shanghai, I visited Fujian, gaining a preliminary glimpse of nanguan and learning much from Ken Dean, then based in Xiamen. Ken was among the first scholars to cross the strait from Taiwan to the mainland to study local Daoist ritual traditions, and his detailed early field reports are most inspiring:

  • “Two Taoist jiao observed in Zhangzhou”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 2 (1986), pp.191–209
  • “Funerals in Fujian”, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988), pp.19–78
  • “Taoism in southern Fujian: field notes, fall, 1985”, in Tsao Ben-yeh and Daniel Law (eds.), Taoist rituals and music of today (1989), pp.74–87.

Ken’s fieldwork led to major monographs:

  • Taoist ritual and popular cults of southeast China (1993)
  • Ritual alliances of the Putian plain (2 volumes, 2009)

and most illuminating of all, his vivid 2010 film

  • Bored in heaven, on ritual activity in Putian (for differences between his approach and more text-based Daoist scholarship, see here).

With Ken I attended a nocturnal ritual in a Quanzhou temple, with marionettes (on which, note Robin Ruizendaal’s wonderful 2006 book Marionette theatre in Quanzhou—with rare coverage of the fortunes of such groups under Maoism):

Marionettes for nocturnal ritual, Quanzhou 1986. Photos in this section are all by me.

And I visited the beautiful county of Hui’an on the coast:

Hui’an 1986: left, nuns; right, the distinctively-clothed women of Hui’an.

After my first serious survey of ritual associations on the Hebei plain in 1989 with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, he accompanied me on my return to Fujian in early 1990, moving north from fieldwork around Guangdong on a reccy for what became chapters 14 and 15 of Folk music of China. Xue Yibing’s careful notes were as precious as ever. Like Li Quanmin, we often began by visiting local experts; but we also sought out local ritual practice, such as temple fairs—and by contrast with most regions of north China, such activity was ubiquitous despite all the traumas of the intervening twenty-eight years.

In Quanzhou city we spent wonderful time with nanyin groups, and learned more about longchui, still magnificent, with the versatile ritual accompanist Wang Wenqin 王文钦 (then 66 sui) and shawm master Huang Tiancong 黃天從 (67 sui, son of Huang Qingquan who led the 1961 recording) as our guides. In Puxi village nearby we found shiyin (see photo here), and in Hui’an we visited one of many groups performing beiguan—a major genre in Taiwan.

As always, folk ritual is the engine for expressive culture, and a variety of such groups assemble for a wealth of temple fairs. In many communities around Fujian the extraordinary ritual revival was stimulated by funding from the overseas diaspora.

At the Tianhou gong 天后宮 temple in Quanzhou city we attended a vibrant Dotting the Eyes (dianyan 點眼) inauguration ritual for the goddess Mazu—with pilgrim groups from all around the surrounding area as well as Taiwan (including palanquins holding god statuettes, shiyin bands and a Gezai xi drama group), a Daoist presiding, ritual marionettes inside and outside the temple, along with magnificent nanyin and longchui.

Above: (left) ritual marionettes; (right) a Daoist officiates.
Below: longchui led by Wang Wenqin on foot-drum and Zhuang Yongchang on shawm.

Later the longchui performers invited us to a gongde funeral at which they alternated with three household Daoists performing a Bloody Bowl (xuepen 血盆) ritual, as well as a lively Western brass band. And the distinguished marionette troupe performed moving excerpts from Mulian 目連 ritual drama for us: [6]

puppet at grave

puppets group

Having recently found the sheng-tuner Qi Youzhi in a town south of Beijing thanks to Yang Yinliu’s precious 1953 clue, we now visited the Buddhist monk Miaolian, whom Li Quanmin had visited in 1961. Now 78 sui, he was still at the Kaiyuan si temple; indeed, he had even remained there throughout the Cultural Revolution, when he was among a staff of over twenty resident monks.

Miaolian and XYB

Miaolian with Xue Yibing, 1990.

We ended our visit in Fuzhou, gaining further clues to the chanhe 禪和 (doutang 斗堂) style of folk ritual (see Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan, pp.2086–2243).

As for Li Quanmin previously, the trip merely allowed us to gasp at the enormity of the expressive cultures of Fujian. As I began focusing on north China, I was increasingly aware that local ritual activity must be a major topic there too.

Meanwhile the anthropologist Wang Mingming was doing detailed work on the history and ethnography of the culture of the Quanzhou region.

The Anthology
And meanwhile the monumental Anthology was being compiled, with volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, instrumental music, and dance each weighing in at between one and two thousand pages—and as usual, the published material is only a small part of that collected. To be sure, much of this consists of transcriptions (which anyway are of limited use if we can’t hear the recordings), but even the textual introductions (as well as the vocal texts, often orally transmitted) offer valuable leads.

Coverage of nanyin, the subject of a vast wealth of separate research, is distributed through the volumes on narrative-singing, instrumental music, and indeed opera. The Fujian folk-song volumes are among the most impressive in that category; the songs of the She minority are covered at some length (pp.1240–1412).

JC shawms

Shawm bands of Changtai county, and (lower left) of Putian county.

In the instrumental music volumes, besides the string ensembles much of the coverage yet again describes shawm and percussion bands. As ever, we find leads to genres that are still largely unknown outside their vicinity. And of course any single county has several hundred villages, all with their ritual and entertainment performance traditions. In 1986, for instance, at least 139 village nanguan societies were active in the single county of Nan’an.

beiguan JC

Beiguan, Hui’an county.

While the coverage of “sacrificial” and “religious” musics (pp.1757–2683) has now been eclipsed by the detailed projects on household Daoists led by scholars based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, the Anthology offers some leads. After a very brief introduction, we find transcriptions of items from the rituals of household Daoists in Putian, Xianyou, and Nan’an counties (pp.1757–1836, 2448–2683). Also introduced are xianghua 香花  household Buddhists of Fuzhou and Putian (pp.2086–2423); and the She minority feature again (pp.1836–93).

For all its flaws, the Anthology is a remarkable and unprecedented achievement.

* * *

Although field research since the 1980s has taken the study of the diverse sub-cultures of Fujian to a new level, it’s important to note the energy of the years before the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, apart from the riches of its performance traditions, Fujian has long had a deep tradition of local scholarship.

Of course, in the context of the pre-Cultural Revolution period, brief visits inevitably focused on reified “genres” rather than on documenting social activity. And “hit-and-run” trips by fieldworkers from Beijing or London can never compare to the long-term immersion of local scholars, like Wu Shizhong for nanyin, or Ye Mingsheng for Daoist ritual. Ye’s account of one single ritual performed by one group of Lüshan Daoists (even while hardly addressing their lives or ritual vicissitudes since the 1940s) occupies a hefty 1,418 pages!

As always, expressive culture—based on ritual—makes an important prism on the changing social lives of local communities.

See also Religious life in 1930s’ Fujian.

 

[1] See my Folk music of China, ch.14, with extensive refs. up to the mid-1990s; to attempt an update would be a major task. I have fallen back on pinyin, rather than attempting to render terms in local languages.

[2] See Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Fujian juan 中国民族民间器乐曲集成,福建卷, pp.2703–4.

[3] Cf. Fujian minjian yinyue jianlun, pp.130–­36.

[4] For some refs., see my Folk music of China, p.293 n.17.

[5] For the Quanzhou region, see e.g. Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan (2011), ch.4.

[6] Among a wealth of research on Mulian drama, see David Johnson (ed.), Ritual opera, operatic ritual: “Mulian rescues his mother” in Chinese popular culture (1989).

 

 

 

Great works missing the crucial element

Munch

The current Munch exhibition at the British Museum includes his 1892 sketch for what soon became The scream(my title: People taking pleasant stroll). This suggests further drôle potential—such as

  • Leonardo’s charming landscape Just got a text from Mona Lisa saying she’s held up in traffic
  • Vermeer’s early sketch Girl not wearing any earrings (“Oops, forget me turban too—What Am I Like?!”)

and of course The last-but-one supper, without the kangaroo:

And then there’s the ouevre of Alphonse Allais (see The world of Alphonse Allais, “translated” by Miles Kington), including a totally white canvas called Anaemic young girls going to their first Communion through a blizzard, and a red composition entitled Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes by the Red Sea (the latter an early version of the popular Explosion in a tomato factory at sunset). Such experiments were yet more radical than that of Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog (see also “F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted“).

Further suggestions welcome.

For Chinese poetry, I think of the popular Tang genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“. And on the musical front, there’s a popular series called Music Minus One, providing recordings of the accompaniments to famous pieces of chamber music, jazz, and so on without the solo part, to help soloists practise. Some Wag once gave me a blank CD entitled Music Minus One: the Bach partitas for solo violin.

I still await a response to my requests for versions of Das Lied von der Erde without the mandolin, L’enfant et les sortilèges without the cheese grater, and the finale of Éclairs sur l’au-delà … without the triangle.

On a rather different tack, note the mini-museum for gerbils under quarantine.

 

* For some musical screams, see my posts on Sibelius 7 and notably the horrifying sequence in Mahler 10.

Grave charts

fenpu

For the Li family Daoists in Yanggao, north Shanxi, in addition to my film and book you can find subheads under the Li family category in the sidebar for updates and vignettes. I’ve filed some under both—here’s another one.

Over the days following a death in Yanggao, among the many solo tasks of household Daoists like Li Manshan and his son Li Bin (along with determining the date for the funeral, writing the yangzhuang placard, supervising the encoffinment, decorating the coffin, and so on) is to determining a suitable site and alignment for the grave in the fields outside the village (see my film, from 16.21).

To help the Daoist in this task, some lineages still preserve grave charts (fenpu 墳譜). Only lineages that were relatively well-to-do before Liberation had them made, and rather few have survived the ravages of Maoism.

My main energies are devoted to the ritual performance of the Daoist band for the funeral proper—including my attempt to understand the texts that the Daoists perform then, with the help of their ritual manuals. From my notes:

As my frame of reference gradually expands—from the instrumental music to the ritual to local history to the wider activities of the Daoists—I am often out of my depth, but Li Manshan has developed a fine sense of where the borders of my research might lie. One day, as I query some abstruse comment of his on the correct timing for the burial in accord with the calendrical indications, he says with a twinkle in his eye, “Hey Steve, you don’t have to understand everything!”

So, like Li Manshan’s many almanacs to help him determine the date, the grave charts are way beyond my competence; but in a society where so much has been lost, they offer a glimpse of former geomantic knowledge in the area.

This vignette accompanies the scene in the film (Daoist priests of the Li family, p.190):

We have just had supper at Li Manshan’s house after an unusually rainy day. Around 7pm he gets a call. A rich entrepreneur in town is to collect him to go to a grave siting (kanfen) outside Lower Liangyuan for his mother. Li Bin has already determined the date. The entrepreneur, in mourning weeds, arrives in one of the poshest cars I have ever seen, and we keenly set about getting it all muddy. Collecting two grave-digger types in the village, we reach the sodden fields as it gets dark. It’s like Glastonbury, only without the irritating music. While I film with night-shot, Li Manshan takes out his luopan compass from its bag, and conscientiously checks the alignment with the compass and some string, consulting the family’s old grave chart.

By the time they finally finish it’s pitch dark. Oblivious of my presence, they blithely stride off with their torches, leaving me stumbling over grave mounds into puddles. At least I finally seem to have achieved that chimera of the fieldworker, becoming a fly on the wall. They come back to rescue me with their torches, and we all clamber back into the posh car and set to work making it all muddy again.

In some cases, such as when the old ancestors are buried elsewhere, Li Manshan really has to look for an appropriate site in the fields before using his compass for the specifics. On one such morning we spend considerable time seeking a suitable spot, driving round, getting out, studying the lie of the land. Me, I’m just looking for an Italian coffee bar.

Some of the grave charts look to have been written from memory since the 1980s, but on Li Bin’s travels through the countryside to assist funeral families he is sometimes shown some older ones. Here are a couple of photos he took from a chart made by a lineage in Xujiayuan north of the county-town, dated 1937:

And Li Bin recently came across one in nearby Yangyuan county, also apparently from before Liberation—here are three of its seven pages:

YY fenpu 3

You can find further images of grave charts online, and articles like this.

At issue

Pooh

New Chinese facial recognition software not all it’s cracked up to be. For other challenges for the equipment, see here.

After sneezing alone in a room, does anyone else quietly say “A-tissue“, by way of pedantic clarification for a non-existent audience? Hmm, OK then—probably just me…

It now also serves as a homage to Winnie the Pooh, hapless bête-brune of the current CCP (bless). From “Eeyore loses a tail”:

“The thing to do is as follows. First, Issue a Reward. Then—”
“Just a moment,” said Pooh, holding up his paw. “What do we do to this—what were you saying? You sneezed just as you were going to tell me.”
“I didn’t sneeze.”
“Yes, you did, Owl.”
[…]
“What I said was. ‘First Issue a Reward’.”
“You’re doing it again!” said Pooh, sadly.

With all due respect to A.A. Milne (“the true voice of England in the 1930s”, as Alan Bennett notes), the exchange would work better if Owl had said “The question at issue…” But hey.

In Polish Winnie the Pooh is Kubus Puchatek, in Norwegian Ole Brumm—names to conjure with. In Italian he is Uini Puh, though I like the 1936 version Ninni Puf; Piglet is Pimpi, and Eeyore Ih-Oh (for more, see here).

Winnie the Pooh was one of the first to be subjected to the “Tao of…” franchise (and one thinks—doesn’t one—of the 4th-century Baopuzi 抱朴子 Master Who Embraces Simplicity). And for incurable classicists, there’s Winnie Ille Pu:

“Res exsequenda id est: praemium promittimus.”
“Paulisper subsiste,” dixit Pu ungulam sublevans. “Quid faciamus? Quid dixisti? Loquendo enim sternuisti.”
“Minime sternui.”
“Bubo, sternuisti!”
“Habe me, Pu, excusatum, minime sternui. Nequimus inscüs nobis sternuere.”
“Optime audivi: prr–prr!”
“Dixi: praemium promittimus.”
“Iterum sternuisti!”

On a musical note, for a classic recording, click here.

I have a Chinese friend whose online handle is Aqu—although for sneezing in various languages, see here.

Some other pleasantly fatuous comments that I can still never resist:

  • when someone trips up, I just have to say “Enjoy your trip?”
  • on putting down my suitcase, “I rest my case”
  • and for my obligatory comment every time I pass the roadworks sign, see here.

 

Ethnography at home: Morris dancing

female dancers

Esperance dancers. Source: EFDSS, via https://frootsmag.com/hoyden-morris.

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world, I hear you ask, when our very own Sceptered Isle offers such potential for pursuing the local ethnography of seasonal ritual?

Our folk culture may be a rich and ever-evolving topic, but Morris dancing has long been a national joke. Here I’ve churlishly suggested it as a suitably disturbing English riposte to the magnificent All-Black haka. I suddenly understand why some Chinese people may initially be reluctant to engage with their folk culture (see e.g. here and here).

Morris dancing comes round every so often as a drôle topic for media coverage—this article by A.A. Gill may not impress academics, but it’s brilliant, evocative, and strangely respectful writing.

I’m reminded of the topic again by a recent BBC4 programme, engagingly titled For folk’s sake.

One could almost mistake the May procession, with its bowery palanquin,
for a rain ritual in Shaanbei.

Now, I take a keen interest in calendrical rituals—indeed, as Easter week approaches, Bach is in store, and it’s a busy season for ritual in China too. But I’m not alone in tending to consign Morris dancing, with its incongruous juxtaposition of hankies, bells, and silly hats with beards and beer, to a long list of embarrassing genteel eccentricities of the English, along with The Archers. But like any social activity performed by Real People it deserves serious study, in the context of social change in England since the Industrial Revolution, and even a preliminary exploration is fascinating. [1]

The wiki entry makes a useful starting point. Whatever the etymological connection between Morris and Moorish, it does seem, Like Life (cf. Stewart Lee), to have come from abroad. It’s part of a group of genres that includes mummers’ plays, sword and stick dances, and so on.

Gender and class
Though there is evidence of female Morris dancers as early as the 16th century, male groups predominated. I’d like to learn more about the 19th-century decline; anyway, by the early 20th century the women who soon became the driving force of Morris learned from surviving male performers. From wiki:

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Lancashire tradition was taken up by sides associated with mills and nonconformist chapels, usually composed of young girls. These lasted until the First World War, after which many mutated into “jazz dancers” [note the cryptic quotes].

Mary NealAfter severe losses in World War One (when some entire village sides were killed) the female dominance increased, with women now teaching men.

In 1895 Mary Neal (1860–1944; website here; see also Lucy Neal’s project and this nice article) founded the Espérance Club, a dressmaking co-operative and club to enrich the lives of young working-class girls in London:

No words can express the passionate longing which I have to bring some of the beautiful things of life within easy reach of the girls who earn their living by the sweat of their brow… If these Clubs are up to the ideal which we have in view, they will be living schools for working women, who will be instrumental in the near future, in altering the conditions of the class they represent.

Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) first experienced Morris at Headington Quarry in 1899. Mary Neal began working with him in 1905, but their outlooks conflicted, and she soon joined the WSPU (for the Espérance’s modern reincarnation, see here). Vic Gammon encapsulates the conflict in his review of Georgina Boyes’s The imagined village culture:

Mary Neal, middle-class reformer, socialist, and suffragette who sees the possibility of reviving folk dance among working-class girls in north London, is defeated by Cecil Sharp, professional musician, Fabian, and misogynist who spread the activity of folk dancing among the young genteel, making vernacular arts fit bourgeois aesthetics.

These clips from 1912 feature the sisters Maud and Helen Karpeles, co-founders of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as Cecil Sharp, and George Butterworth, who died in the Battle of the Somme:

But as in the world of work, male groups soon came to dominate again. The all-male Morris Ring was founded by six revival sides in 1934. And between the wars, for John Eliot Gardiner’s father Rolf “mysticism, misogyny, and Morris dancing formed a coherent whole in which nostalgia was a spur to action”. Whether he would have approved of The Haunted Pencil, with his AfD comrades, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Meanwhile Stella Gibbons and Elisabeth Lutyens took a more cynical view of genteel “folky-wolky” representations of English folk culture (note also Em creeps in with a pie).

Following World War Two, and particularly in the 1960s, there was an explosion of new dance teams, with some women’s or mixed sides. A heated debate emerged over the propriety and even legitimacy of women dancing the Morris; and mainly on the left, critics disputed the method of Sharp’s work as they pondered the perilous concept of “tradition” (as they do). But as in most walks of life, despite bastions of male conservatism, the creative participation of women is again becoming a major driving force, as you can see in this fine article by Elizabeth Kinder.

Boss Morris

Click here for a short clip from Berkhamstead in 1950, with pipe and tabor sadly mute. And this was filmed in Thaxted (“hub of the universe”), c1958—just as collectivization was leading to calamitous famine in China:

All this may seem quaint at any period, but all the more so in the Swinging Sixties. For folk’s sake shows glimpses of a 1966 festival at Thaxted—just as revolution (not least the Cultural Revolution) was in the air, alongside jazz, soul, the Beatles… The Saddleworth rushcart festival features in For folk’s sake—here’s a clip from 2014:

And as with folk traditions in China and worldwide, Morris survives alongside newer genres like punk (for punk in Beijing, see here).

holm

Source: David Holm, Art and ideology in revolutionary China (1991).

Indeed, a survey of the many English villages with teams somewhat resembles our documentation of ritual groups in particular counties of China—or the rich local dance traditions like yangge (among several genres using handkerchiefs and sticks!), Boat on Dry Land, Bamboo Horses, and so on, with their common ritual connections—covered at length in the provincial volumes of the Anthology for dance:

  • Zhongguo minjian wudao jicheng 中国民间舞蹈集成,

with over 30,000 pages there alone, besides all the related material in the volumes for folk-song, narrative-singing, opera, and instrumental music.

Among the main regional Morris traditions are Cotswold, Northwest, Border, and Plough Monday groups in Yorkshire and the east Midlands (all the sides have instructive websites)—and as in China, their styles are often distinctive to individual villages. Four teams claim a continuous tradition predating the revival: Abingdon, Bampton, Headington Quarry, and Chipping Campden. In the 1930s at the important centre of Thaxted, the sinologist Joseph Needham championed Molly dancing.

Only now do I recall that my granddad took me to watch mummers in Wiltshire (at Colerne? Marshfield?). Indeed, his home village of Potterne still has a group. It’s a very blurred childhood memory, by which I seem to have been underwhelmed; but did it sow a seed?

Nutters

The Britannia Coco-nut [2] Dancers of Bacup (“Nutters”; see e.g. this article) have a venerable history that inevitably attracts controversy (no less inevitably, one of the transmitters is called Dick Shufflebottom, who celebrated fifty years of service in 2006). A.A. Gill’s description of the Nutters is classic:

They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white, and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

Do watch the Nutters on YouTube.

Again as in China, the Morris vocabulary is suggestive, with teams, sides, squires, bagmen, fools, beasts. At least England hasn’t yet fallen for the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle (we have our pride). Still, even without it, contentious arguments about “authenticity” continue to fester. And even now there’s still considerable opposition to admitting women. FFS.

I might be tempted to make the music share the blame. Of course, it is what it is, irrespective of the impertinent tastes of outsiders; but it often seems to endow the proceedings with a twee comfy feel that conflicts with the edgy (“pagan”?!) atmosphere of the dance itself. Once mainly accompanied by pipe and tabor, fiddles and melodeons became more common. The gritty new sounds of great musos like Jon Boden don’t seem so relevant to most Morris sides—though again, see Elizabeth Kinder’s article. I’d love to hear a Bulgarian version—accompanied with suitably complex metres by zurna and davul, relatives of early English pipe and tabor.

For the BBC2 documentary Tribes, predators and me, it was a cute idea to show footage of Morris dancing to tribespeople (click here).

* * *

Of course I’m merely dabbling here. But is this the kind of thing that urban educated Chinese people think I’m doing in their country?

In a way, it is: cultures change, in China as in England. The brief of the ethnographer is the same: to document the whole history, down to today, of local traditions amidst ongoing challenges to community cohesion through social and political change. We both have blind spots about our own cultures, further muddied by patriotic posturing and our reactions against it. It’s not that I can’t see the “value” of Morris, just that I’ve inherited negative associations. While plenty of English writers have debunked the myth of an unspoilt Victorian Merrie England, in China the “living fossils” nostalgia, referring to a Golden Age of much greater antiquity that bears even less relation to rural life there, is still touted by heritage pundits. For the awful cliché of “international cultural exchange”, see here.

And whereas in China I’m keenly aware of major dates in the rural calendar when temple fairs may be held, I’m not alone in being completely estranged from the seasonal rhythms of English life; only Bach cantatas manage to educate me.

This may be a particular issue for the English. In Hungary the táncház revival has become popular; and it would seem natural enough for an American studying old-time music in Appalachia to find continuity when working on China.

The world of Morris and English folk-song culture, like that of Newcastle punks, is no more “home” to me than are the rituals of the Fujian countryside for an educated Chinese from Beijing. But whereas local ritual in China still seems to me an intrinsic component of local life, Morris dancing has long seemed a quaint byway in my whole experience of England. Of course, when pressed, I can quite see this is wrong. OK Guys, I’ll take my culture seriously if you take yours…

Anyway, just think, as you board a rickety bus to a poor Hunan village in search of household Daoist rituals, you could be sitting in a sunny Oxfordshire pub courtyard nursing your pint as you take notes on the magnificent ritual spectacle unfolding before you—complete with its “feudal superstitious colourings” 封建迷信色彩.

 

See also my haiku on Morris dancing. For a roundup of posts on the English at home and abroad, see here; and for more on Heritage movements, here.

 

[1] Useful background includes the research of Vic Gammon; Georgina Boyes, The imagined village culture: culture, ideology and the English folk revival (1993/2010); Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps, Performing Englishness: identity and politics in a contemporary folk resurgence (2013); numerous publications from the English Folk Dance and Song Society, e.g. here; Theresa Buckland, ” ‘Th’owd pagan dance’: ritual, enchantment, and an enduring intellectual paradigm” (2002). On class, gender, and national identity, see also this (cf. Stewart Lee!). For innovative performance-based studies of clog dancing, see the work of Caroline Radcliffe. For an accessible introduction to the English folk scene, see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and Pacific, “England: folk, roots”, and regular features in Songlines and fRoots.

For further refs. on the wider context, see Helen Myers, “Great Britain”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.129–48. Among many fine compilations of British folk music, note the extensive Topic Records series The voice of the people (here on Spotify).

[2] Pedants’ corner (or is it Pedant’s corner?): the form “coconut” seems more common (as on their own website)—I can’t find a ruling on the hyphen, but it seems suitably eccentric (but was it eccentric then? That’s the perennial question!).

New tag: famine

LSQ 1

Liu Shaoqi visits Hunan, 1961.

Since the food shortages caused by the 1958 Great Leap Backward were such a major trauma for the people we meet during fieldwork, I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for famine. See also the Maoism tag.

Indeed, this was no mere “three years of difficulty”: food shortages began even before the Leap, and continued throughout the Cultural Revolution right until the collapse of the commune system in the late 1970s.

Among the main articles are:

The famine also features in many of the pages under Local ritual; it’s a theme of my work on Gaoluo (see e.g. A tribute to two local ritual leaders) and the Li family Daoists. Indeed, while there are many fine studies dedicated to the subject, it should be a recurring theme in coverage of local society, expressive culture, and people’s lives.

North Xinzhuang 1959

North Xinzhuang, Beijing suburbs 1959.

A Tang mélange

On China, let’s face it, what people really really want to read about is the Tang dynasty. Which may be why many of my posts go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Regarding Chinese history, my focus is the local cultures and politics of the modern era, including both my own fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms and Maoism. Of course, all the living ritual traditions I study are deeply rooted in the late imperial period, into whose culture I occasionally make more historically-minded excursions (such as this series).

Going further back, just in case you haven’t explored the Tang tag in the sidebar, it contains a growing number of posts. After all, that’s where I came in. So never mind the rest of Chinese history, allow me to offer a resumé of posts bearing on Tang culture—starting with my Cambridge mentor:

In the ludic tone of some of my other posts on the Tang, I was egged on by the great historian Denis Twitchett:

For Tang poetry, see

Last and decidedly least,

On Li Bai and Mahler:

See also

53e35-a1

Still, there’s much to be said for my own eventual conversion from abstruse ancient history to living genres of Chinese culture—always relating them to imperial traditions, of course. Among many genres active today that are not a “living fossil” of Tang music:

Going back still further, try

Denis Twitchett: more Tang drôlerie

 

Denis

Prompted by Tang poetry, I’ve been having fun revisiting my old correspondence with the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett (1925–2006; for bibliography, see here).

At Cambridge Denis gave me a thorough training in Tang history, most of which I later forgot. After I moved to London in 1976 to eke a living as an orchestral fiddler, while I was still busy helping Laurence Picken with his magnum opus on Tang music, I was also helping Denis with editing the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China. After he took up a post at Princeton in 1980 he continued to guide my studies from afar, and indeed it was largely thanks to him that I gleaned clues to the potential for Tang music studies in the PRC before I finally began my explorations there in 1986. Like Laurence, Denis may just have been relieved when I jumped ship from Tang culture in old books to the grimy realities of contemporary fieldwork (for my Beijing epiphany, see here), but anyway they both looked most kindly on my apostasy.

As I reported back from my trips Denis continued to send me entertaining letters. I’ve already given some brilliant instances of his takes on Tang sources (here, and here). So here are some further gems.

After I returned from China for the second time in 1987 he wrote:

Dear Steve,
It was good to hear from you. I had thought of giving you a call while I was home during the summer, but I thought you were still in China, doing your juggling and fire-eating routine on the Bund in Shanghai, or touring Kweichow with a Jamaican steel band or something of the sort…

ALS

In 1988, having finished with the Liao dynasty (“good for many a chuckle”, although my favourite Liao statue is keeping a straight face), Denis sent me one of his more wacky fantasies, on the subject of the disastrous An Lushan rebellion in the mid-Tang (see here, n.2). Its tone suggests a medieval Private eye or The fast show; it may be a tad niche, but it’s based on his deep knowledge of the period (note the date; and I’ve converted his Wade-Giles to pinyin. “HM” is of course the emperor Xuanzong):

Report to Chang’an Control / attn. M. From Agent 0069/6/ACDC
SECRET
Agent Wang, deep cover as mess waiter, NECINC Fanyang

Report of conversation in Mess, recorded 1st April 745. Speaker: Field Marshal An Lushan, Duke of Fanyang [or “Fanyang Fats”, as Denis described him elsewhere], CINC HM Forces Northeast, KCMG, VC, Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Hero of the Peoples of Bohai, etc.

Just got back from Chang’an. Shocking place nowadays, everything gone to the dogs, can’t even get a decent pink gin in the Generals’ Mess of the Palace Guard, no bloody soldiers to be seen, no backbone, no discipline, no-one salutes any more, sloppy sentries, gang of washerwomen could storm the palace, not like my day, not a decent curry to had in the whole blasted city—whole place crawling with nancy-boys and bloody priests, not a fighting man in sight—makes a fellah puke.

HM in a damn good mood when I arrived, banquet, gifts of silks and silver for the sideboard, told me a good one after the eleventh toast, about some hu 胡 and his trained rhinoceros that shat on the palace carpet—never have happened in my day, no respect, no discipline, no backbone—poor bloody animal probably frightened by all those queers around the palace. Anyway, er, what was I sayin’?  (Keep that bloody port moving, colonel, and no mentioning ladies’ names in the Mess.) Ah yes, just before I left, called me in for an extra audience—most inconvenent time, clashed with m’ tiffin, and an appointment with m’ tailors, not to speak of a special soiree for season-ticket holders at Madame Minsky’s—still, duty is duty, what.

HM in a none-too-happy frame of mind, I can tell you. One of those moods of his, strong sniff of Indian incense in the air, dilated pupils—had a horse once that looked like that, had him put down pretty smartly. “Well, An”, he says, “SMITE those bloody Turks. Thrash the sordid little buggers and their Evil Empire into submisssion. Goddam swine have been blocking the import of OUR whisky—no bloody laughing matter, An—insult to the flag—nothing like it since the Picts and Scots—make an example of them—only good Turk’s a dead Turk. Need more men? Goddam nonsense, An, who’s to pay for them? My household budget? Lend you a few drooling eunuchs if you like, bit of fresh air would do them the power of good. MORE HORSES? Doncha know how the bloody animals breed? Well, steal some from the Khitan.” I tell you, I was glad to get back to HQ.

Well, what are we to do? Turks all buggered off to Turkey years ago. Of course we in the service go on reporting about the Turkish Threat, just so He will keep the army up to strength. If he got to know that the Turks are all glasnost and stale piles of horseshit headed west, we’d all be in a fine bloody mess, civvy street, no servants, no duty-free booze, no horses, no huntin’, no rape and pillage for the other ranks, have to live with the memsahib, among all those poofters and bloody politicians and perverts at court. Far worse than fightin’ real Turks. Have to join the board of some hu company selling surplus bows-and-arrows and substandard pikes to any old wogs just to make ends meet.

So we’ve just GOT to have our Turkish war—get some medals, write off a few of our dead soldiers, get some new horses and a bit of extra cash. First of all we’ve got to hire some Turks, or hire some fuzzy-wuzzies we can pass off as Turks—all those damn foreigners look alike. Not too far away, all those baggage carts are a write-off, and we don’t want a mutiny on our hands, and not too tough, must have a few heads to send to HM and a spot of rape and looting for the other ranks. Any ideas to the Adjutant by 0700 Friday—and for God’s sake pass that bloody port.

By the way, send a runner to Geshu Han asking him to stop stealing all HM’s whisky—come to think of it, old Han’s a bloody Turk himself, but we’d better not fight him. Then HM will think Objective Achieved, and we can all settle down to a Quiet Life again.

[Recording interrupted by loud noises, breaking crockery, various grunts, groans, and imprecations]

… ‘nother thing. War House talkin’ of sendin’ us new subalterns with bloody degrees—from the Guozi jian, den of bloody iniquity, all perverts, pederasts, Russian spies—the Big Man and the Cardinal won’t give them jobs in the civil service, say those Red bloody professors have encouraged them to THINK, in between bloody rogering ’em. HM won’t have them around the palace, can’t stand their smart-arsed talk, Humanity and Righteousness and Filial Piety, God what a load of Cock, sort of poems HM likes are that Irish drunk Li Bai’s* limericks—wrote one about me, the slippery little sod, started

There was an old man from Fanyang
Who was screwing a Turk on the kang

Forget the rest, but it ended “He ruptured himself with a twang”, too bloody painful to think about. So what was I saying? Oh yes, about those damn subalterns. They’re sending ’em to us, to knock some sense into ’em—HM’s idea of a bloody good joke. Could’ve bin worse though, threatened to send us a regiment of damn eunuchs—God, it’ll be Women in the army next! Tell the RSM to make it hot for them, unlimited square-bashing, pike drill, fencing, riding, archery, cold baths, polish everything twice a day, no drink, no women, left-right left-right, lights out at 1900 hours, wake ’em up at 0100 for a medical inspection, then at 0400 for the old Assault Course on the Taihang mountains, you know the sort of thing. Make men of them, or better still, kill the little sods.

Don’t know who began this examination lark, uselss load of crap they fill their heads with, better to apprentice them with Madame Minsky if you ask me, Teach ’em What’s What, see how the world works, collect the luncheon vouchers and take the credit cards. Way it is, they write orders it takes me all day to understand. HM says “Smite the buggers”, they write “Take Pains to Extend the Benevolence of His Sacred bloody Majesty over All Lands and Peoples”. What’s a simple chap like us to make of it, eh? Only Benevolence I’m interested in is HM’s Benevolent Fund for Decayed General Officers. Not like in the Old Days…

Steward! There’s a bug in this decanter! [Recording breaks off.]

Denis was always on the case of Tang music and the Central Asian connection. Apparently unpublished (apart from a brief article in Asia Major 1990) is his lengthy, meticulous analysis of the relation between the music monographs of the “old” and “new” versions of the Tang dynastic history, tracing their origins in the Taiyueling biji 太樂令壁記 of Liu Kuang 劉贶.

He further pursued the An Lushan theme in a 1988 letter, with another agent providing background on Xuanzong’s consort the celebrated femme fatale Yang Guifei. After getting himself elected Vice-President, Cardinal Chen Xilie

got Him Indoors going on a real religious kick, gongs and incense, prostrations day and night… Then he agreed to lock up his EX-daughter-in-law in the palace as a nun. So it seems that his holy nun had ambitions to get back into showbiz; rattling the tambourine for the Cardinal in the palace chamber is as bad as being a housewife in Westchester with no company but the Avon lady and the dentist. She’s been hitting the gin bottle and she’s sick of revival meetings, so she needs some Action. So what does she need but an Agent? Solly my friend, you take her on, nice little earner, and I book her at the palace for you.

[They haggle over their percentage: “You might as well be a Sogdian!”, and the informant warns against the “casting kang“]

What’s her shtick? Well, she does a nice little number on the pipa, does that new dance the Arabs are so good at, the Syrian Twirl—and there’s this new music from Tashkent (Shiyue 石樂)… [which Denis notes is not twinned with Little Rock, Arkansas; “there is some evidence that it is still performed. The etymology also suggests why rock musicians are constantly stoned.”]

If only scholarship were always such fun… As Denis wrote, “Shame Asia major doesn’t take this sort of stuff”…

 

See also Tang tag. For further vignettes from Cambridge mentors, see the priceless stories of Paul Kratochvil (e.g. here, and here; more under Czech tag), and tea with Sir Harold Bailey.

 

* One of Denis’s recurring themes was his proposition that Li Bai was actually an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary. For Irish and Chinese music, see here; and for the limericks of Alan Watts, here.

Alternative Bach

Bach

In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.

In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of  Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.

Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).

Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.

Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:

* * *

Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.

Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if the former has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights. Christ lag in Todesbanden has remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated. Here’s their Easter recording from Eisenach during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage:

For an introduction to the cantata, click here.

So questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate early interpretations with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.

The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):

The person who crystallized all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognized as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]

As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:

How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?

And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”

Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced,  lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:

The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.

As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.

People were quick to realize that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
[…]
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the  original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”

In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.

Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.

* * *

I’ve touched on related issues in several posts, linked in Reception history. On a lighter note, see here; and for vignettes on my days in the English Baroque Soloists, here and here.