The Conte fantastiqueafter Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.
Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:
The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.
Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source here.
Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):
It’s dedicated to Micheline Kahn; meanwhile in Paris between the wars, Noor Inayat Khan was studying the harp with Henriette Renié, another teacher at the École Normale de Musique.
Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer:
Blind shawm players Liuru (left) and Yinsan, Yanggao town 2003.
The use of Verlan backslang in Engrenages/Spiralreminded me of a fascinating secret oral language in north Shanxi. I’ve mentioned it en passant in my writings, but since I can’t seriously expect readers to follow up such links, it deserves a post to itself.
Known as “black talk” (heihua), it belongs to the wider family of insiders’ languages used by marginal social groups and tradespeople.  In north Shanxi it was spoken mainly by the members of outcast shawm bands (here called gujiang 鼓匠 rather than the common chuigushou), illiterate and often blind—mainly, but not entirely, for secrecy. Here I cite the section in
Wu Fan 吴凡, Yinyang, gujiang阴阳鼓匠 (2007), “Yuebande heihua” 乐班的黑话, pp.119–25.
During her fieldwork in Yanggao county Wu Fan—a native of Wuhan in Hubei—latched onto this arcane vocabulary with amazing alacrity (for her own skills in punning with Daoists, see here). Meanwhile, local scholar Chen Kexiu (to whom we may credit the “discovery” of the Yanggao Daoists and shawm bands), brought up in Yanggao, published an article incorporating the wider region of north Shanxi:
The terms for numbers (used mainly to discuss money and fees: Table 2–5 below) were still common until recently. They describe verbally the components of a character, just as Chinese people do routinely when explaining in conversation which character to use, like koutian wu 口天吴 for the surname Wu 吴, or wenwu bin 文武斌 for the given name Bin 斌.
Above: numbers; below: instruments.
To explain a few instances:
1: yi 一 becomes dinggai 丁盖, “the cover of the character ding 丁”
2: er 二 becomes konggong 空工, “the character gong 工 emptied”
3: san 三 becomes chuan 川, rotating the character 90 degrees
7: qi 七 becomes zaodi 皂底, “the base of the character zao 皂”
8: ba 八 becomes fengai 分盖 “the cover of the character fen 分”
10: shi 十 becomes tianxin 田心, “the heart of the character tian 田”.
What is remarkable here is that this style is used by illiterate, often blind, shawm players. The theory is that blind men, unable to see who might be listening to their conversation, needed a language where they needn’t fear saying something indiscreet, such as offending their patrons. Yet it’s a highly visual language; I wondered how it came into being. After all, even illiterate blindmen could be told how some characters were written; but you don’t have to know the etymology of words in order to use them!
One might suppose that these terms would be more widespread, but I haven’t found other instances yet. At the same time, another vocabulary for numbers (in various written forms) was in common use here—as around Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei:
Throughout China, folk musicians commonly use local terms for their instruments (Table 2–6 above); such names are still used in Yanggao and elsewhere (cf. other areas such as Shaanbei). The derivation of the insiders’ terms for repertoire (Table 2–7 below) is obscure; again, the stimulus was perhaps secrecy—to avoid their choices being understood by their patrons. But these terms seem to have become largely obsolete, along with the repertoire itself (for the searing complexity of which, see here).
Above: titles of shawm suites; below: terms in daily life.
Expressions for daily life (Table 2–8 above) include huoyin 火因 for yan 烟 “smoke” (again splitting up left and right elements of the character); tiaoma 条码 “hottie”; dianyou 点油 (“lighting oil”) for hejiu 喝酒 “drinking liquor”; and kou 口 (prounounced kio) for chi 吃 “eat”. Some of these are dialectal, heard in more general parlance. Chen Kexiu gives an extensive list—and his examples of conversations are daunting:
As you can see there, even the local term gujiang for the members of shawm bands becomes pijia 皮家 (“skins”) in their own parlance.
Thickening the plot, Chen Kexiu goes on to introduce a separate style of black talk used by shawm bands, one that incorporates the ancient fanqie 反切 phonetic system into speech (qiekou 切口) (cf. the blind bards of Zuoquan county). For instance, while the term xunmenshi (or xingmenshi 行门事, yingmenshi 应门事, with shi pronounced si!) is standard local parlance for performing a ritual, one shawm player might ask another (cf. the simpler but no more intelligible 去哪儿贬皮呀? above):
呆劳乃拉许论没人是哩? (到哪儿寻门事?)—“Where are you going to do the ritual?”
Unlike the specialized secret vocabulary that we noted above, once you grasp the principle you can apply it to any words—and it doesn’t require literacy. But the shawm bands among whom Chen Kexiu collected this qiekou style of speech don’t seem to use the specialized vocabulary like the numerical terms; he attributes the qiekou style in particular to the lowly hereditary families of ritual specialists known as “music households” (yuehu), who were descended from banished imperial officials. While there is plenty of evidence for the yuehu further south in Shanxi  and elsewhere, I’ve never been very convinced by the piecemeal clues to their presence in north Shanxi. All this is tenuous, but perhaps the supposed yuehu connection for this particular style might just go towards explaining the literate, visual basis of the numerical terms, which otherwise seems so mysterious.
* * *
Much of this vocabulary of the shawm bands was adopted by folk opera groups, also lowly in status; and through constant interaction at rituals household Daoists like the Li family, while somewhat more esteemed, used it to some extent. Of course, all these expressions are pronounced in Yanggao dialect, itself none too easy for the outsider to understand; heihua (“black talk”) itself is pronounced hehua!
The language was still commonly used in the 1990s, but senior blind shawm players were giving way to younger players who no longer suffered such social stigma, and their traditional repertoire was largely replaced by pop. Still, it reminds us what a daunting task it can be for fieldworkers to enter into the aesthetic world of folk performers.
My love’s flames, I have become a beggar, indeed Allah Before the whole world I stand alone, indeed Allah I have suffered for an age, Allah, my patience is ended, Allah I have become a moth drawn to the beauty of your face, indeed Allah Oh lovers, your desire, Allah, my heart is addicted, Allah I revel in your pleasure, Allah, I have become a drunkard, Allah In the city, Allah, I have become a wine shop boy, indeed Allah Before the whole world, Allah, I have been ruined, indeed Allah
—from Chahargah muqam, fifth mäshräp,
translated by Rachel Harris.
I began writing this post with the simple idea of sharing an exquisite free-tempo prelude from the great muqam suites; but, as often, it has grown into more wide-ranging reflections.
In particular, since I noted the perceived crisis of “serious music” in the West, the current plight of Uyghur culture makes an extreme instance of crisis—to which the muqam’s lyrics of religious anguish make a sadly fitting commentary.
The muqam I’ve been revisiting
Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Chinese Central Asia (2008),
a book that seems even more important now that virtually all of the culture she describes, which having been tolerated (and in its official manifestations even supported) by the Chinese state for more than half a century, is now being ruthlessly extinguished. 
Over an economical 157 pages, Harris pinpoints a range of major issues.
Throughout the course of the 20th century, as newly formed nations have sought to assert and formalise their national identity, they have typically acquired a range of identifiable national aspects. Thus we find in this new period new musical canons springing up across the world. These canons, however, cannot be dismissed as arbitrary collections of works imposed on the public by the authorities. They acquire deep resonance and meaning, both as national symbols and as musical repertories imbued with aesthetic value.
The Chinese state has invested large sums of money in a succession of projects to preserve and develop [sic!] the Twelve Muqam, and it uses these projects to showcase the positive aspects of its minority policies on the national and international stage.
Describing the wider project on minority cultures, she comments:
Subject to processes of “reform and ordering”, dance styles were transformed into group choreographies, songs were transcribed and fixed, scales and musical instruments standardized, and a nation-wide system of professional performers was put in place, trained in arts academies, and organized into state-sponsored performing troupes.
These versions are disseminated through live performance, TV and radio, publications and recordings. Still, while documenting the official urban troupes, Harris never loses sight of local folk traditions. She also places the Uyghur muqam within the wider context of Central Asian muqam families (notably in Chapter 5).
Perhaps I should now use the past tense in this section:
The muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes, and instrumental sections. Lyrics by both the major Central Asian poets and folk poetry. Religious mendicants also perform versions of the songs, and drum-and-shawm bands play the instrumental melodies. All this music is traditionally handed down without notation.
The titles of the muqam denote modal attributes, while the names of the pieces within them denote rhythmic patterns. Its tripartite outline subsumes numerous subsections:
chong näghmä, a lengthy suite of sung pieces with märghul instrumental interludes
dastan: a sequence of folk narrative songs, again with märghul
mäshräp: faster dance pieces, sung to folk lyrics.
One fascinating theme of Chapter 2 is how canonisation predates the PRC initiatives, with Uyghur troupes in the Soviet Central Asian states formalising the repertoire as early as the 1920s under the influence of Soviet ideology.
From Wong, “The value of missing tunes”.
In China under the PRC, the 1951 and 1954 recordings of the Kashgar master Turdi Akhun (1881–1956) formed the basis of transcriptions by the Beijing-based scholar Wan Tongshu, published in 1960, and went on to become the core of the whole glossy edifice of the official Twelve Muqam. 
Wan Tongshu also headed a new state-supported Muqam Research Working Group, which in 1957 organised a three-month fieldtrip to the southern region. Another leading Han Chinese scholar working on the muqam in the 1950s was Jian Qihua, whose transcriptions of the “Ili variant” were belatedly published in 1998. The official song-and-dance troupe in Urumchi began performing sections of these arrangements until the Cultural Revolution disrupted traditional activity. Meanwhile similar initiatives, producing composite versions of the muqam, were under way beyond the borders of China.
In Xinjiang the liberalisations following the collapse of the commune system from 1979 allowed the resumption of both folk activity and official research. Furthering the work that had begun in the 1950s, a Muqam Research Committee was formed in 1979, soon incorporated into the Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble. They went on to produce major series of recordings and transcriptions. Meanwhile the compilation of the Anthologyprovided a major new stimulus to fieldwork.
The 16th-century princess Amannisa Khan, subject of a popular 1993 film, was now claimed as an early fieldworker and compiler of the muqam, providing a fanciful historical cachet. Chinese state support for the muqam continued despite the increasing tensions that followed 9/11.
Reminding us that the musicians and researchers involved in such projects are real people with real lives, Chapter 3 is a vivid portrait of the eccentric musician Abdulla Mäjnun (b.1946). Indeed, the word mäjnun denotes an ashiq religious mendicant and a fool, a sarang: intoxicated and infatuated. Though he identified strongly with the ashiq, and was an outsider in the official Xinjiang Muqam Ensemble troupe where he was employed, he had learned to consider himself not a muqamchi, a term to describe an accomplished folk performer (cf. the Chinese minjian yiren), but a “muqam expert”, a more prestigious term with connotations of science, modern scholarship, and the urban world. In the professional musical circles of Urumchi, where drinking culture loomed large, he was in a league of his own.
Harris gives lively vignettes of a trip with him back to his native Khotan, observing his prestige and capacity for liquor. She concludes:
On one level Mäjnun’s conversations are revealing because he is so clearly engaged in strategically deploying the range of different metaphors at his disposal. On another level Mäjnun is interesting precisely because he embodies that collision of metaphors which I delineated in my discussion of Uyghur music histories: the disreputable, uncontrolled aspects of music and creativity in Uyghur tradition which sit uncomfortably with the notion of “national traditions” and the canon.
Abdulla Mäjnun is heard, solo, on the CD with the book, notably in some intimate muqaddime preludes. For these he favours the diltar, a combination of dutar and satar that he himself invented, “a cross between a double-necked electric guitar and a cathedral, or perhaps, rather, a mosque.” He also features on the CD Majnun: classical traditions of the Uyghurs.
Harris mentions Sabine Trebinjac’s brief biographies of female beggar musicians such as Shāyrnisa Khan,
living in Kashgar in the 1980s, who had had four husbands. Her husbands had disapproved of her begging, but she suffered from a sickness, and had to sing and play daily, in front of the mosque or at festivals, or on pilgrimage. She was a member of Naqshbandi Sufi group, and also took part in regular zikr rituals.
Such accounts, like my own for Han Chinese folk musicians, contrast with the compulsory image presented in Chinese biographies, in which folk musicians “selflessly present their art”, the vicissitudes of their lives under modern regimes largely ignored.
Contrary to the current tendency to regard the Twelve Muqam as something isolated and essentially different from the song repertoire (“classical” versus “folk”), in practice the two have often been mixed together, and it is common practice to follow the muqaddime with a suite of folk songs.
Chapter 4 gives details of the musical structure of the competing, evolving versions, showing that in the diversity of traditional performance, both the musical and lyrical repository of the so-called Twelve Muqam have long been combined in different ways.
A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Twelve Muqam have existed less as an actual body of music and more as a kind of idealised framework surrounding a much more fluid oral tradition, from which individual musicians would learn and perform different parts, and into which musicians might slot their own local repertoires and compositions.
After an astute historical introduction, Harris shows the links between the mäshräp sections of the muqam with hikmät prayers of Sufi religious mendicants. She notes the Muqam Research Committee’s ongoing quest for another Turdi Akhun among the folk:
They were not above pulling in ashiq they found begging in the bazaar to see if they might possess the holy grail of previously undiscovered parts of the repertoire. Mäjnun told me one morning as I arrived for my lesson:
We found an ashiq on the street this morning, playing sapaya [wood or horn percussion sticks set with metal rings]. We brought him to the Muqam Ensemble to see what he could do, but he was all mixed up, he played a bit of Chābayyat then followed into Ushshaq.
She goes on to give a diachronic analysis of renditions of the muqaddime preludes:
If there is any vestige of an improvised tradition in the Twelve Muqam, then it would be these muqäddimä sections, which are structured like an exploration of the mode.
As she notes,
Traditionally the lead vocalist would accompany himself, but specialisation in professional training has meant that these roles are separated in the troupes.
Sensibly, she gives reductive outline transcriptions, rather than the etic versions of other publications; indeed, I favour this method for traditional Han Chinese melody. Despite the importance of notation for the canonisation project, among Uyghur performers its influence is limited.
In orchestration too, Harris notes the contrast between folk and professional ideals, citing Ted Levin on the Bukharan Shash Maqām—the “limpid filigree” of the traditional small ensemble versus the “bloated heterophony” of the large-scale professional versions.
The muqaddime In my post Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham I gave a little introduction to free-tempo preludes around the world; note e.g. the taksim and amanedhes of Asia Minor. The Uyghur muqaddime are most wonderful accompanied by the resonant satar long-necked bowed lute. I am particularly entranced by the intensemuqaddime of Özhal muqam—perhaps because of its tonal variety, with new scales, featuring a flat 7th and sharp 4th, introduced gradually. Here’s a 1997 recording:
My afflicted soul heads towards the Valley of Insanity I hope this already wretched life of mine will break The gravedigger who ignores the candle of my tomb Will surely have his house and rags burnt by its sparks Do not ask where I go—I have no choice I have surrendered choice to the hands of Destiny The rose-coloured tears have dried up, leaving but a withered face The tyranny of Fate has exchanged my spring with autumn My people, together with my beloved, gave me much trouble What will become of me if I resolve to leave them behind? Anyone’s chest will ache for my condition, when they see My face smeared with blood from the broken piecesof my bosom Peaceis impossible until one abandons the world Nawai, burn my existence, and deliver me Way, derdim ah!
Abdulla Mäjnun was especially devoted to Chahargah muqam, said to be for the ashiq (CD #7, which he played with tears running down his cheeks). But all the muqaddime are exquisite—here’s a transcription of Nawa, from the climax (äwäj): 
Chapter 6 explores the impact of canonisation, not least the inclusion of the “Xinjiang Uyghur Muqam” in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) since 2005. She discusses the impact at grass-roots level of efforts to “rescue” local traditions:
To what extent had these efforts established hegemony over local practices? Had rural musicians adopted the officially promoted repertoire or were they maintaining local traditions, and how did these traditions relate to the official repertoire? What plans had been drawn up as part of the UNESCO plan, and how were they being put into action?
Among the local traditions, the “raw, macho sounds” of the Dolan muqam were now elevated to become a folk counterpart to the official professional version. But other local folk styles were fragile and perishable; and as in other parts of the world, any official promotion played little part in their evolution. Harris describes the impact of the independent recording industry, finding the cassettes of performers like Abliz Shakir more significant an influence than those of the official troupes:
The failure of the Muqam Ensemble to capture the popular imagination lies in a combination of aesthetic and political considerations. Firstly the state-run ensemble is arguably too closely associated with the Chinese regime for their performances to be popularly adopted as Uyghur nationalist icons. Secondly, amateur musicians were deterred by the complexity of the chong näghmä section, and by the heavy orchestral-choral arrangements. In fact these aesthetic and political considerations are inseparable, as the ensemble aesthetic—one which is modelled on transnational models of canonic, national traditions—is itself representative of the state. Abliz Shakir’s recordings, released through the independent recording industry and sold on stalls in the bazaars, signalling another kind of authenticity in their performance style, and perhaps aided by the performer’s own ambivalent relationship with the authorities, achieved a far greater popularity.
concerns about the possibility of negative impact following the UNESCO bid, with local muqam traditions becoming increasingly commercialised and exploited in Xinjiang’s exploding tourism market.
She illustrates the complexities of local activity with a vivid description of a village mäshräp festivity. Indeed, the mäshräp always made an implausible candidate for the ICH: having been commodified by the state it has recently been coopted into the sinister form of the “mäshräp to tackle religious extremism“. 
In conclusion Harris comments:
If the few surviving local traditions of Twelve Muqam, which are all too lacking the glamour and musical sophistication of the recorded versions recorded by star performers, are to be locally revived and maintained then they must somehow achieve greater relevance to local musicians and audiences.
But as she stresses, the canonised Twelve Muqam are only one aspect of the whole muqam tradition, elements of which may be found in a wide range of Uyghur musicking. Or rather could be found, until 2016.
Among the scholars whom Harris cites is the Han-Chinese Zhou Ji(1943–2008), who by the 1980s was the leading figure in Uyghur music research. A native of Jiangsu province, in the critical times of 1959, aged 16, he set off to Xinjiang in response to the state’s call to “support the frontier regions”. He remained based there for the rest of his life; from 1985 he was employed at the Xinjiang Arts Research Unit in Urumchi, which he went on to lead. Thoroughly immersed in Uyghur culture (not least its drinking culture), Zhou Ji was highly regarded in the Uyghur musical world.  Chief editor of the Xinjiang volumes of the Anthology, he took the folk ritual life of the Uyghurs seriously—note his major 1999 book on Islamic ritual music of the Uyghurs— and even studied female ritual specialists and their repertoires. While he was inevitably involved with official promotions such as the ICH, Harris notes that he dared to publicly voice a number of criticisms concerning the canonisation project.
Zhou Ji with Uyghur musicians.
But it was Uyghurs who formed the core of researchers before and since the Cultural Revolution. More recently, scholars such as the anthropologist Rahilä Dawut—also supported within the academic apparatus of the Chinese state—furthered scholarly work.
The current devastation Harris’s book was published in 2009, at a time when Uyghur cultural life was still much in evidence despite growing restrictions since 9/11; Uyghur, Chinese, and foreign scholars were still able to do fieldwork. Apart from local traditions such as shrine festivals and pilgrimages, the state (for all its ideological motives) was still actively promoting Uyghur culture.
And then, from 2016, came the repression—in which musicians like Sanubar Tursun and academics like Rahilä Dawut are among innumerable casualties. The ruthless current assault is being diligently documented in the media, such as
As centuries of magnificent lyrics are erased, sporadic official performances set to secular Chinese texts now reduces the muqam to flagrant propaganda, mere political rituals of loyalty to a Han nationalist vision of the Chinese state.
A post shared by ئۇيغۇر (@uyghur.comedy.videos) on
I used to think that such demonstrations of state power were tangential to folk life, but in the current plight of the Uyghurs, with the whole culture—architecture, religious life, clothing, hair styles, food, language—being purged, little else may remain. Note also Rachel’s recent book Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam.
Despite all the difficulties of maintaining Uyghur culture since 1949, and the political tensions that state performers, and Uyghur and Chinese scholars, had to negotiate, the scene before 2016 now seems almost unimaginable. Both urban and rural, folk and academic life, even the state-sanctioned versions of Uyghur culture, have been decimated.
The current campaign to obliterate Uyghur culture is an affront to humanity.
 See also Chuen-Fung Wong, “The value of missing tunes: scholarship on Uyghur minority music in northwest China”, Fontes Artis Musicae 56.3 (2009).
 For a complete version of the Özhal suite, click here (for the jarring exoticised visuals, “an imagined idyll of the past”, see Harris, pp.91–2). Since I never got to master its muqaddime with the London-based singer Rahime Mahmut—my attempts to learn the satar being even more inept than my limited abilities on ghijak—I was happy to hear her performing it (with ud!) at the 2019 Muslim news awards for excellence (from 10.38). Abdulla Mäjnun plays the Nawa muqaddime on the CD, #6; for another version, click here; and for the complete suite, here.
 See Rachel Harris, ” ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang”, in Roberts and Bovingdon (eds), “Develop the West”: Chinese state development and Uyghur cultural resilience, adaptation, and cooptation in Xinjiang (2018).
 Tributes, mainly from Chinese musicologists, are assembled in a commemorative volume edited by Tian Qing 田青, Mukamu weini songxing: Zhou Ji jinian wenji木卡姆为你送行：周吉纪念文集 (2009).
Zhongguo Xinjiang Weiwuerzu Yisilanjiaode liyi yinyue 中国新疆维吾尔族伊斯兰教礼仪音乐—a title that could not be published today; it’s still visible online in the PRC, though no longer for order.
While Private passions is generally more satisfying (see e.g. the contributions of Philippe Sands, Tanita Tikaram, and Vesna Goldsworthy), episodes from Desert island discs led me to two remarkable vocalists. [Note: author’s source for popular culture appears to derive almost entirely from the demure echelons of the BBC—Ed.]
With his songs—in effect, miniature theatrical dramatizations (usually with a protagonist and full of dialogues), Vysotsky instantly achieved such level of credibility that real life former prisoners, war veterans, boxers, footballers refused to believe that the author himself had never served his time in prisons and labor camps, or fought in the War, or been a boxing/football professional.
It’s remarkable that the Soviet system could encompass such alternative performance culture, when nothing remotely so challenging emerged in China until after the demise of Maoism (see also Parajanov). This playlist contains many searing songs from Vysotsky—just as Nina Hagen makes me want to work on my German, his songs make me want to learn Russian.
Meanwhile I’m grateful to the brilliant Elif Shafak for introducing me to the Canadian singer Alissa White-Gluz with the Swedish “melodic death metal” band (another instance of the subtle taxonomy of popular music!) Arch enemy:
Alan Bennett is always alert to the tenuity of his celebrity. In Vera and Doris I cited his wonderful story about nearly meeting Stravinsky, and in this post he endures a series of galling interviews. Here’s a vignette from Keeping on keeping on (Diaries, 2011):
21 May, Yorkshire. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.
“Aren’t you famous?”
“Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.”
“It’s Alan something.”
“So which Alan are you?” “I’m another Alan.” “Are you just a lookalike?”
“Well, you could say so.”
He pats my arm consolingly. “Be happy with that.”
He himself considers that true celebrity came only with his appearance on Family guy.
Soon after arriving at Cambridge, I realized I was becoming rather short-sighted. Sallying forth to Trinity Street, I absent-mindedly entered the Natural Sciences bookshop, and declared to the assistant,
“Good afternoon—I think I need an eye test!”
“You do indeed, sir,” she replied patiently, “the optician’s is next door.”
For a fine Czech–Chinese spectacles story from my mentor Paul at Cambridge, click here.
Update, 25th May 2020, in light of the Barnard Castle imbroglio
Strangely enough, that day the optician didn’t suggest I go for a drive—even though, this being Cambridge, there was a fleet of Trabis available for this very purpose.
A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.
The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?
As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôleresumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.
Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And
Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).
What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.
Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of pute, merde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is lefist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.
But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is riensacré?
Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).
Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.
And now we can relish Series 8 on BBC4!!!
Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. And don’t miss this post on how not to learn Japanese!
*For main page, click here!*
(in main menu, under WAM)
I’ve just added a lengthy article on the demotion of WAM, and the flawed concept of “serious music”. It’s based on the stimulating work of Richard Taruskin on the “classical music crisis” prompted by the defection of critics to pop music since the 1960s, as he challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” such as the myth of musical autonomy. This is typical of his bracing style:
The question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.
On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.
I go on to query his recourse to the term “serious music”, broadening the topic to musicking in other societies.
If there are so many “serious” genres all around the world, what seems exceptional about WAM is its apologists’ sense of mission, and their concomitant sense of embattlement. Without wishing to discourage ongoing research, perhaps we should just leave the WAMmies to get on with their arid defences of a waning prerogative. So we might simply ignore labels like “serious” as a nervous attempt by an impotent elite to claim that “our culture is superior to yours”.
That’s just a taster for the article—now click here!
Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextetRiconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.
The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:
A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:
But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):
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The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!
An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but
some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.
And the role of Dr Blind in DieFledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.
26 February. […] I think, why not Swaledale or medieval churches or even, with all its shortcomings, the National Trust. But what I think we are best at in England… I do not say Britain… what I think we are best at, better than all the rest, is hypocrisy.
Take London. We extol its beauty and its dignity while at the same time we are happy to sell it off to the highest bidder… or the highest builder.
We glory in Shakespeare yet we close our public libraries.
A substantial minority of our children receive a better education than the rest because of the social situation of their parents. Then we wonder why things at the top do not change or society improve. But we know why. It’s because we are hypocrites.
Our policemen are wonderful provided you’re white and middle-class and don’t take to the streets. And dying in custody is what happens in South America. It doesn’t happen here.
And it gets into the language. We think irony very English and are very proud of it but in literary terms it’s how we have it both ways, a refined hypocrisy. And in language these days words which start off as good and meaningful… terms like environment and energy-saving… rapidly lose any credence because converted into political or PR slogans, ending up the clichéd stuff of an estate agent’s brochure… a manual for hypocrisy. […]
And before you scamper for the Basildon Bond or rather skitter for the Twitter I would say that I don’t exempt myself from these strictures. How should I? I am English. I am a hypocrite.
So that’s one trait we can proudly boast over what the current Tory toffs cynically call “our European friends”—Jacob Tree-Frog‘s only European friends seem to be the AfD…
I don’t really go in for the analysis of dreams, though I did report the pitiless satirizing of my naïve aspirations to insider status in Lisbon. Now I’m most grateful to a dream that I had the other night for reminding me of one of Mozart’s most magical vocal trios (cf. Mozart for winds, and genius).
Like many musos, I regularly have dreams where I find myself in a prestigious venue struggling to perform a challenging piece for which I’m totally unprepared, perhaps further unable to find how to get onto the stage, and equipped with the wrong instrument (as in this Larson cartoon).
In this case I can’t recall the context—I was involved somehow in the performance, but I don’t think I was singing; and I didn’t catch any lyrics. On waking up, it took me a while to realize that what I had heard in my sleep was Protegga il guisto cielo from the Act 1 finale of Don Giovanni—a piece that I hadn’t heard for many years. Though in my dream I distinctly heard it in E (!), it’s actually in B♭:
Protegga il giusto cielo il zeto del mio cor May a just Heavenprotect my heart’s zeal Vendichi il giusto cielo il mio tradito amor May a just Heavenavenge my outraged love
In the context of the Act 1 finale the trio is even more moving, with the frantic dramatic activity suddenly interrupted by those two descending phrases on strings to lead into an oasis of moral probity.
Thankyou, dream. It takes me back to the annual cycle of Mozart operas that we did around Europe in the 1990s, punctuating my visits to China to study the ritual association of Gaoluo village. Our 1994 Don Giovanni tour started in Parma—where a beautiful Italian relationship also began for me.
While I’m here, I just have to add another exquisite little trio (terzettino): Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte, which we performed in 1992. Here’s another version:
Little gems like this don’t necessarily spread into the wider world, but it’s gratifying how greatly loved this one has become, partly through featuring in films like Sunday bloody Sunday. And this trio really is in E—I wonder if that’s why my dream transposed the other one for me…
In my post on Visual culture I cited Alan Bennett’s remarks comparing Renaissance audiences’ “insider knowledge” of the religious themes shown in paintings of the time—knowledge to which very few of us now have access—with that of film viewers in his own childhood. This entry from his 2011 diaries (in Keeping on keeping on) suggests a similar case:
17 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that, at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had even seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being “as big as a pigeon’s egg”, something else which like the banana I had never seen.
While I’m here, in the very next entry he asks a sensible question:
18 April. Why does the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s No.1 Piano Concerto never return? What is that about? Everybody listening to it (at least for the first time) must always have expected it. But no.
Indeed, when the concerto is said to be popular, I suspect people mean that opening theme—which may make the rest of the piece quite tough going.
Taraf de Haidouks (for whose priceless comment on the fruits of success, see here).
Further to Society and soundscape, I’ve long been resistant to the glossy World Music bandwagon, but just as I thought I was being broad-minded by creating a sidebar category for it (subheaded, to boot), I find it’s been abolished. Typical!
Both Anglo-American pop and WAM (for which, despite my best efforts, the term “classical music” remains entrenched) pretend to a blinkered hegemony, barely acknowledging each other. This is more realistic for the former, but the latter still lays impotent claim to a fictive prestige.
Defining “music” itself turns out to be a tricky business. For a global view, I admire the stirring opening of Christopher Small’s book Musicking. Among the endless taxonomies for music (both emic and etic), terms like “folk” and “traditional” are flawed.
The term “world music” was used in the Music faculty of Wesleyan University by Robert E. Brown from 1960; but as a marketing label in wider currency it dates only from a 1987 meeting in a London pub—and its African basis has proved enduring.
But now I’m amused to read a recent Guardian article noting that promoters are already finding the term outdated. Indeed, in 1999 David Byrne wrote a piece entitled “I hate world music”; concerned about ghettoising, he commented:
It’s a way of relegating this ”thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.
He also noted that the messy fusion of such genres belies the “myth of the authentic”:
White folks needed to see Leadbelly in prison garb to feel they were getting the real thing. They need to be assured that rappers are ”keeping it real,” they need their Cuban musicians old and sweet, their Eastern and Asian artists ”spiritual.” The myths and cliches of national and cultural traits flourish in the marketing of music. There is the myth of the untutored, innocent savant whose rhymes contain funky Zen-like pearls of wisdom—the myth that exotic ”traditional” music is more honest, more soulful and more in touch with a people’s real and true feelings than the kid wearing jeans and the latest sports gear on Mexican television.
This is a fair point, even if the world music market is dominated by “ethno-lite” fusion pop, largely Afro-Cuban; and even if its commercial basis tends to marginalize less marketable traditions studied by ethnomusicologists. Meanwhile the Guardian‘s worthy switch from “world album of the month” to “global album of the month” doesn’t seem to butter many parsnips.
Along with world music, in the parallel academic world the definition of ethnomusicology has long been the subject of laborious debate. As ever Bruno Nettl gives a fine overview. In the opening chapter of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, he notes changing emphases from comparative musicology to ethnomusicology, with “primitive” and “traditional” biting the dust, and occasional subtleties like “ethno-musicology” and even “(ethno)musicology” creeping in.
Nettl continues to ponder definitions in Chapter 2, as well as in his Chapter 1 of Philip Bohlmann, The Cambridge history of world music (2013). Bohlmann, in chapter 7 of his World music: a very short introduction (2002), astutely discusses the Rough Guides phenomenon and world music festivals, noting how ethnomusicologists can’t remain aloof from the world music scene. And he observes:
If indeed we share world music globally through our encounter with it, we nonetheless experience it in very different worlds, which in turn are shaped in distinctly different ways because of economic, ethnic and racial, political and historical disparities. There are today more different technologies that enable us to encounter more world music than ever before, but the question arises as to whether these faciliate or complicate encounter. More to the point, pronouncements by media experts about the ubiquity of CDs, Internet, and the transnational recording industry notwithstanding, not everyone in the world has equal access to the technologies of world music, and most people in the world have no access.
If you’re so inclined, there’s a wealth of theoretical discussion to digest; but here I just wanted to make the drôle point that I yet again find myself living in the past. Of course, society is slow to take on board the pronouncements of pundits, so the label seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. Perhaps we could coin the rubric “Folk/world/traditional”, just for the pleasure of using the acronymn FWT, or FuckWiT (for some mischievous airline acronyms, see here).
One looks forward to the day when world music means all the musickings of all the peoples of the world (including pop and WAM), so we can simply call it “music”—“all music, everywhere, and everything about it”, as Nettl says. No-one ever said classifications were going to be watertight; but for the time being I guess we still need some kind of catch-all rubric for the didjeridus, mariachi bands, and Balkan–Malian fusion gigs, along with more hardcore traditions…
Since both Family Guy and Alan Bennett take star turns on this blog, how wonderful to learn that they actually came together! I’ve already noted their mutual taste for Jesus jokes, but now I learn (Keeping on keeping on, Diaries, 2012):
25 April. At five a car comes to take me down to Silk Sound studios on Berwick Street to record a voiceover (in my own voice) for an episode of Family Guy, the story being that Brian, the dog, has written a play, premiering at Quahog, which “all the playwrights” (i.e. Yasmina Reza, David Mamet, and me) duly go and see—and rubbish. They had first of all asked if they could use me as a cartoon character [,] to which I graciously agreed (not saying that I felt it was the highlight of my career). It was then they asked if I would voice myself. Yasmina and David had apparently not been tempted but I went for this too. […]
The “Brian’s play” episode (10th in season 11) comes and goes on YouTube; for the moment, the playwright scene is here, from 18.42:
The episode has been considered one of the most profound in the whole epic; the nuanced plot is far more cogent and condensed that of a Handel opera. Brian and Stewie are magnificent as ever—echoes here of Amadeus…
Alan Bennett’s voice has long been a boon for impresssionists. Like the apocryphal story of Einstein winning second prize in an Einstein Lookalike Competition, I’m not sure AB [as he’s known in Love, Nina] makes the most convincing impersonator—but hey. (For an audition, see Frances Wood’s comment here.)