Gender and class: Awdry and Blyton

Train

Re-assessing the canons of the past is a constant and natural task, from which children’s fiction should not be immune.

In another fine rebuke to the fatuous “PC gone mad” brigade, Guardian writers welcome challenges to the cast of Thomas the tank enginehitherto a sacred bastion of white male privilege, but now to feature female and multi-cultural trains, Shock Horror. Stuart Heritage characterizes the series as

the story of several straight white men who solemnly obey the every passing whim of a white, straight, male dictator in a crude reinforcement of the belief that the working class should know its place.

Following up, Jack Bernhardt observes,

the enemy of comedy isn’t political correctness—it’s nostalgia and lazy characterisation.

And in a related article Tracy Van Slyke furthers the cause:

These trains perform tasks dictated by their imperious, little white boss, Sir Topham Hatt (also known as The Fat Controller), whose attire of a top hat, tuxedo and big round belly is just a little too obvious. Basically, he’s the Monopoly dictator of their funky little island. Hatt orders the trains to do everything from hauling freight to carrying passengers to running whatever random errand he wants done, whenever he wants it done—regardless of their pre-existing schedules.

She cites shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh’s plea for the series to include more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers—which doubtless prompts much harrumphing from Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and his (sic) Brexit chums.

Already in 1982 the Comic Strip produced the splendid Five go mad in Dorset:

See also Alan Bennett on appeasement in The House at Pooh Corner (for more on Winnie the Pooh, see here); and the pique-nique, here.

I too was brought up on such children’s classics—a legacy from which I recovered quite slowly. Perhaps a worthier credential for my discussing all this would be my status as great-nephew of Edith Miles, author of many fine children’s novels of a similar vintage, in which girls play a major role, YAY!

The gender category contains plenty more rebukes of sexism—don’t miss Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.

 

The wonders of juggling

me juggling

Before a concert at Michelham Priory, c1983.

Part of my baptism in early music took place touring around England with the Medieval players in the 1980s.

MP posterWhile I played rebec, I also learned the basics of juggling from Mark Heap and Mark Saban—though I was happy to leave the stilt-walking and fire-eating to them. Hard to imagine now, but later on European tours with baroque orchestras some of us used to fill the longueurs of hanging around at airports with impromptu juggling sessions.

Juggling inevitably becomes a flashy, often comical stage act (with a variety of props like clubs, and not least the old torch, egg, and frying-pan trick), but Mark Heap could transform it into a pure, transcendental activity (later offering some vignettes in Green wing).

Technical virtuosos rise to the challenge of five, seven, and even eleven balls, but that largely excludes fantasy. The variety of patterns with a mere three is a thing of wonder—all the more so with passing between two jugglers.

I note that ancient China features in the long history of juggling worldwide:

During a battle in about 603 BC between the states of Chu and Song, Xiong Yiliao stepped out between the armies and juggled nine balls, which so amazed the Song troops that all five hundred of them turned and fled, allowing the Chu army to win a complete victory.

So much for the military hardware of the modern PLA…

The way that the “given” building blocks are creatively combined into a routine reminds me of the process of musical creation in performance, with its balance of perspiration and inspiration. And it evolves constantly. For some taxonomy, see here; the vocabulary is cute (though, like musicians, many jugglers won’t necessarily be aware of it)—all kinds of cascade, mess, column, shower, cascade, shuffle, box, grab, claw, bump, yoyo, and so on, easily found in online videos. I haven’t quite found the fake throwaway that Mark Heap used to do so beautifully.

Anita Bartling
Anita Bartling (1887–1966).

To make up for the usual male-dominated perspective, there are fine introductions, with video links, to female jugglers in history here and here.

Left: wedding party, Mantua 1999.
Right: on tour with EBS, Lyon 1982.

Like clapping, juggling is an art that should be cultivated from young. Start, and indeed continue, with bean bags (cf. the Larson Stradivarius cartoon: “Violins galore! Start the kids on one today!”)!

beanbags

Contemporary Noh drama

AM poster

Noh drama is both austere and enthralling.

Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444). [1] While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.

The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).

Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are other-wordly and entrancing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, and the masks and costumes, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance (cf. Bertolucci).

Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.

Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:

Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:

The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.

In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.

In Takasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.

At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.

* * *

While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:

A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.

No less remarkable is his 2015 drama Oppenheimer:

In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”

Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Putting to one side experiments like traditional Noh versions of Shakespeare (such as Macbeth), and the influence on Western dramatists and composers (Yeats, Brecht, Britten, and so on), much of the impetus for innovation within Noh has come with international collaboration. Richard Emmert has long been a protagonist in developing Noh in English. Here’s his introduction to its history—citing several other productions, including Pagoda and Between the stones by Jannette Cheong, as well as Deborah Brevoort’s Blue moon over Memphis,

a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.

Further productions are listed on the Theatre Nohgaku site.

Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.] For a masterly rebuttal of these meretricious ideas, see here.

Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.

 

Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett,
I much appreciate his guidance on this post.

 

[1] For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. For a meretricious footnote to this post, see here.

Mary Lou Williams

 

MLW

Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of BingenÉlisabeth Jacquet de La GuerreLili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.

From the Composer of the week website:

A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”

MLW
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:

See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here:

 

Nostalgia: Beijing yogurt

In the Good Old Days before the customs of Beijing were neatly swept up into commodified, sanitized heritage flapdoodle, it was always a pleasure to stop off at a street stall for a fix of Beijing yogurt.

The ritual involved paying a deposit on the beautiful ceramic bottle, piercing the paper covering with a straw and sipping as one watched the passers-by, before placing it back in its crate and redeeming one’s dog-eared mao and flimsy fen.

Like most hallowed traditions, it may not be so old: the bottles seem to go back only to around 1981. OK, it’s not exactly Ming-dynasty blue-and-white, but those bottles that bore characters in blue afforded a further aesthetic frisson. I’m sure I’m not the only laowai unable to resist plundering the Chinese heritage to adorn my London home.

Indeed, the ceramic bottles aren’t quite yet museum pieces—you can still find emporiums that stock them. But These Days it’s all “Old Beijing” this, “Authentic” that; following glass bottles and cardboard cartons, most customers now go for disposable plastic containers in supermarkets, paying with their phones, and the whole rhythm of street life has changed.

File under “Call Me Old-Fashioned…”. Please feel free to read this in the style of Rowley Birkin QC:

Cf. the celebrated Four Yorkshiremen sketch from At last the 1948 show  (“You try telling that to the young people of today—will they believe you?!”), and Faux nostalgia.

Unpacking “improvisation”

Improvisation in music is a concept that can easily mislead. The popular cliché is to contrast jazz and Indian raga with the detailed, fixed prescriptions of WAM; rather, it’s profitable to subsume improvisation under the whole process of musical creation, considering more and less flexible frameworks for performance.

Bruno Nettl has paid much attention to the subject, co-editing two splendid books:

  • Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russell (eds.), In the course of performance: studies in the world of musical improvisation (1998)
  • Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl (eds.), Musical improvisation: art, education, and society (2009).

In Chapter 4 of his masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, “Inspiration and perspiration: creative processes”, Nettl unpacks the issues in typically illuminating fashion. Pondering “What is the nature of musical creation?”, he explores the continuums mediating between composition and performance. Here’s a typical passage showing how he treats all human musickings on a equal footing:

Schubert is said to have composed a song while waiting to be served at a restaurant (presumably by a slow waiter), quickly writing it on the back of a menu; Mozart turned out some of his serenades and sonatas almost overnight; and Theodore Last Star, a Blackfoot singer and medicine man, had visions in each of which, in the space of a brief moment, he learned, from a guardian spirit, a new song. But Brahms labored for years on his first symphony, Beethoven planned and sketched ideas for his Ninth for over two decades, and William Shakespear, an Arapaho elder, said that when he took a motif from one song, something else from another, and a phrase from a third, thus making up a Peyote song, it might take him a good part of an afternoon. The xylophonist of a Chopi orchestra made up music as he went along, but he was constrained by rules articulated by his leader. The North Indian sitarist sits down before his audience and creates a performance of new music on the spot, but he can do this only because for hours every day he practices exercises that he has memorised, as he maintains in his mind a musical vocabulary on which he can draw and a group of rules that tell him, once he has selected a raga, what he must, may, or cannot do. A Kentucky mountaineer about 1910 sang “The Two Sisters” in a tavern, his friends admiring a new twist he put into the refrain. And the overjoyed Bach lover after the cello recital exclaims, “She’s never played it like this before. She makes the suite live like no one else.” In some sense, each of these musicians has created music, but music scholars actually know very little about the way in which such music comes about, especially in its innovative aspect, which is what they most admire. They believe, as Blum (2009) explains in detail, that when music is produced (in any sense of the word), something new is being created.

There is innovation—of different sorts—in the composition of a symphony, in the jazz improvisation on a well-known show tune, in the unique rendition of a Japanese chamber work that has been handed down with little change for generations, or in a rendition of a standard string quartet. Ethnomusicologists in particular must deal with what is new, new in a sense generally understood by them but new also within the specific cognitive framework and understanding of its culture.

But what is “newness”? Speaking cross-culturally, what may be heard as new composition in one culture might be regarded as simple variation in another. Judging the degree of innovation is a tricky business. The Persian improviser who by the standards of European composition gives his audience something different each time he performs may not be, in his own manner of musical thought, doing something really new, but simply “playing a particular mode”. By contrast, the Blackfoot singer who learned a song in a vision may have thought of it as a new song, even if objectively it sounded virtually identical to a song that had been received by one of his friends in another vision. The South Indian musician with a penchant for giving her audience unexpectedly strange vocalizations runs the risk of rendering something outside the realms of propriety and being criticized for not knowing her basic material. The American composer who writes a piece inspired by Hindemith or Stravinsky might be criticized for presenting something belonging to the past and thus not properly innovative.

Nettl goes on to suggest three intersecting continuums:

it is also the result of the manipulation and rearrangement of the units of a given vocabulary, of hard work and concentration. The concepts of inspiration, of genius, and of acquiring music directly from supernatural sources are very widespread among human societies, simple and complex. Haydn worked regular hours and depended on some kind of inspiration; when it did not come, he prayed for it, rather like the Native American seeking a vision who is also, in effect, praying for songs. At the other end of the line is the concept of composition as an essentially intellectual activity, in which the musician consciously manipulates the materials, or building blocks, of music […]. […] The listener may be unaware of all the care that went into the preparation of this complex structure. But such an approach is not limited to societies with written notation and music theory texts. Native American composers of Peyote songs may be equally careful, using and abiding by general structural principles that govern the song, musically making clear a number of intricate relationships, deriving new phrases from earlier ones, all within a rather rigidnly defined formal framework. Yet it seems unlikely that the typical Native American listener understands the details of the structure.

The two ends of the continuum merge: Mozart’s music sounds to many divinely inspired, and we know it was often composed quickly, yet has incredible consistency and great complexity. The songs of the Yahi of California, sung by Ishi, the last “wild” Indian, each ten seconds long and using only some three or four tones, exhibit considerable sophistication in their internal interrelationships, with a logic not totally unlike that of Mozart. An Iranian musician says that his improvised performance comes “from the heart”, but analysis shows us highly structured and sophisticated patterns unique to the performer. A performer of improvised Indian alapana learns a vast repertory of melodic and rhythmic units that can and must be interrelated in many ways, exhibiting her skill in showing the multitude of combinations she can control, yet many in her culture regard this music as essentially spiritual. Each case confronts us with aspects of both ends of the continuum, obviously in different proportions.

  • From improvisation to composition—two versions of the same process. Again, Nettl compares Schubert’s rapid composition of a sonata with the assembly of an Indian improvisation: “the fact that Schubert used paper and pen might actually be considered incidental”. He suggests that even the gigantic labour of composing a symphony is cognate with the technique of a Yahi Indian composer, and that Horowitz’s multiple renditions of Beethoven may be compared with an Arabic musician performing the maqam.
  • From precomposition to composition to revision: another process common worldwide, played out over years or minutes.

Nettl then stresses the false dichotomy between the composing of “art” and “folk” musics:

There seems no reason to regard composition in cultures with oral and written traditions as different species. […] In each culture, the musician is “given” something and then has the job of adding something else, but there are many different kinds of “given” and “added”.

Discussing the balance between the two, he concedes that there are many societies in which innovation is restricted, adducing Anglo-American folk song and South Indian kriti.

What is “given” to the creator of music are the building blocks and the rules of what may be done with them; innovation consists of how the options are exercised.

Finally Nettl homes in on “improvisation”—whose definition as “the creation of music in the course of performance” already looks dubious. As always, he gives useful leads to the whole history of research on such topics. He praises Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, the classic analysis of the diverse elements on which jazz performers draw.

As improvisation received more attention, ethnomusicologists also began to see it as complex syndrome of behaviors, and the distinction from traditionally conceived composition began to blur.

He notes the role of improvisation in WAM, from early performances where “the quality of musicianship is judged by the degree to which the improvised piece sounds as if it were not improvised” to the 19th-century rhapsodies and impromptus, which were “composed and written out but seem to be intended to make the listener think they are improvised, or at least somehow connected with an immediacy and spontaneity of creation”.

Left: Clara Schumann with Robert; right: Dariush Talai.

It’s good to find WAM taking its place where it belongs, within ethnomusicology, or “all the musics of the world”. In the later history of WAM, as increasingly prescriptive notation (a red herring: see also here), and the recording industry, came to limit improvisation, I can’t help feeling that WAM musicians have sacrificed a lot.

Themes in the collection Musical improvisation include Ukrainian funeral laments, jazz, and Persian music—and several authors write on WAM, including Robert Levin, whose renditions of Mozart, notably his improvised cadenzas, are so brilliant. We might now hear much of the romantic piano repertoire as improvisations to which performers gave a fixed form, as Messiaen did later with his Messe de la Pentecôte.

Indeed, it makes sense to suggest that the kinds of things we call improvisation exhibit such variety—everything from simply adding ornaments to a composition to totally (well, almost totally) “free” improvisation, from oral composition to following precise rules in re-creation—and are practised in so many cultures that improvisation ought to be considered the central form of music creation, with traditional Western-style composition, with pen and ink, as a highly developed subtype.

In his introduction to In the course of performance Nettl also mentions Albert Lord’s 1965 The singer of tales and the study of Gregorian chant. Among topics covered in the volume are Javanese gamelan, African–American girls’ singing games, Italian folk song, and the Preludes of Clara Schumann (for an idea of how she might have improvised, do listen to Hélène Grimaud‘s playing in the Brahms concertos—in particular the slow movements!). See also the Dream songs of Australian aborigines.

All this also suggests ways of understanding the whole range of musicking in China: shawm bands (whose music, misleadingly, often sounds “improvised”), silk-and-bamboo (perhaps akin to Irish music—the heterophony of instrumental ensembles is often akin to the ornamentations and divisions of early WAM); as well as folk song, the qin zither (e.g. here), the parameters of performing Daoist ritual, and so on. And it makes yet another caveat against reification: performance as process.

Reading Nettl is endlessly stimulating.

Doubletalk

To complement Flann O’Brien’s multi-lingual All-Purpose Opening Speech, a passage from Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! led me to the even purer form of doubletalk:

Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.

The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.

Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.

Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).

Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:

Meanwhile Dario Fo was exploring Grammelot:

By extension, here’s a classic scene from Bananas:

 

 

Blind shawm players of Yanggao

Liuru

Liuru, 2003.

To follow my post on the secret language of blind shawm players in north Shanxi, here I’d like to expand my article on shawm bands in China to introduce further some of those from whom I learned in Yanggao county—based on my book

  • Music and ritual of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi (2007)
    (which, need I add, is available in paperback, with its fine DVD complementing my film on Li Manshan! See also here).

As you read this, do also listen to the amazingly complex, visceral suites that the Yanggao shawm bands (here known as gujiang 鼓匠) performed for folk ceremonial through turbulent times right until the 21st century (Dissolving boundaries, and ##5 and 11 of the Playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here).

* * *

As throughout the world, blind musicians in China have been much praised, from the ancient Master Kuang to the Daoist beggar Abing; but their real lives are far from such hagiography. By contrast with Shaanbei, or indeed further south in Shanxi, (see n.2 here), where blind boys might find a livelihood either through solo narrative-singing or by taking part in shawm bands (again, for Shaanbei, see here, under “Expressive culture”), in north Shanxi the latter made a more common career path.

The gujiang bands of Yanggao county commonly included blind players. By 1958 Yanggao town had three bands, one led by blindman Song Chengxin (c1921–76), a disciple of Chen Gang in Anjiaxiang lane. But town players were reluctant to accept disciples from outside their own family, and two of the blind players we met sought their apprenticeship in nearby Xiejiatun village.

1991 funeral

Blind shawm players, Greater Antan village funeral 1991.

I found blind shawm players among a group at a village funeral in 1991, and there were still three distinguished blind gujiang in Yanggao town in 2003. But by then, along with slight but significant improvements in healthcare, there were now fewer younger blind men and thus fewer blind gujiang. Although the senior Erhur and Yin San still managed to lead bands by dint of their seniority and support network, other blind gujiang were less able to keep up with the times, and it was becoming a less likely profession for blind boys.

Liuru
By 2003, the most senior gujiang in the county-town, Li Liuru (c1931–2007, known simply by his given name Liuru; photo above), was pitiable. His eyes went bad when he was 4 sui. His poor family was always on the move, renting rooms. He “did nothing” at home till “learning gujiang” around 18 sui (c1948), but he really liked listening to gujiang before he took it up. He learned with the band in Xiejiatun village just north of the town, a distinguished group whose most famous player in modern times was Yu Fucai (c1925–68). Liuru studied as an apprentice in the Xiejiatun band for three years, and then did another three years for free (“studying three years, repaying three years”), as tradition prescribed; when there wasn’t much business, he played for other bands too, but Yu Fucai’s band was most in demand.

Liuru stopped playing in the Great Leap Forward “because the officials wouldn’t let us play”, and he apparently then played little until after the Cultural Revolution. He only played the lower part, and was not regarded as an outstanding gujiang. Liuru had four brothers and sisters, but they were “all useless”, and the family had no contact. He did manage to find a wife, though, when he was almost 30—also blind, she was a water-seller. The fate of blind girls was even more pitiable: their only hope was begging, and their life expectancy was even shorter than that of blind men.

Erhur
Another young blindman who apprenticed himself to Yu Fucai was Erhur (real name Wang Hui, b.1946). A wonderful man, he has a deep knowledge of the “old rules” and an exceptional love for music: his face becomes a pool of adoration when he recites the gongche solfeggio outlines of the old suites.

Erhur 2003

Erhur, 2003.

Like Liuru, Erhur’s family lived in Yanggao town. He went blind at the age of 3 sui. When he was 12 sui his mother took him to a hospital in Datong; realizing his sight couldn’t be cured, he resolved to seek a way of making a living. They then bought a dizi flute for 36 fen at a Datong stationery shop (there were no instrument shops then). “It took me ages to get a note out of it, but once I did, I didn’t dare take it from my lips,” he recalled. “I played anything I heard, popular folk-song melodies like Anbanshang kaihua.”

Neighbours knew Erhur played well, so one New Year the neighbourhood committee asked him to represent them for a secular county festival. He was a bit apprehensive, but played. There were also an erhu player and a banhu player who played a version of the popular folk-song Wuge fang yang 五哥放羊. He tried to play along with them but found he couldn’t. The erhu player explained it was all to do with tuning! Still, he won a prize of 20 jin of frozen radishes, then worth the princely sum of 2.5 kuai.

This strengthened Erhur‘s resolve to take up music, so he bought a rudimentary erhu in Yanggao town, made from a tin and a stick, costing 4 mao. He soon picked it up, and began getting the hang of scales. He still wanted to learn more instruments. Around 1959, when he was 14 sui, he bought a decrepit sheng mouth-organ for 10 kuai. After taking it home and piecing it together, he began practising “small pieces” like Shifan. All this, remember, at the height of the Great Leap Forward and famine, which were not part of Erhur’s account.

Erhur first spent some time learning with a gujiang called Siban (surname Zhang) in Jinjiazhuang village—for whose band the renowned yinyang household Daoist Liu Zhong also played occasionally when ritual business was sparse during the Cultural Revolution. But after hearing Yu Fucai’s band doing a funeral in town, Erhur asked his parents if he could switch over to Yu as “disciple transferring to another household” (guomen tudi). By this time Yu Fucai was the “main beam” (zhengliang 正梁) of the Yu family band in Xiejiatun village. His fee to take a disciple was 100 kuai a year. Erhur lived at Yu’s house around twenty days a month—the learning process naturally involves taking on the whole gujiang lifestyle. Masters had no way of teaching, pupils just picked it up as they went along; Erhur could only hear his master playing when they performed for ceremonials. He learned along with his master’s oldest son; they got along well at first, but then when Erhur learned faster, the son was always getting criticized, so their relationship deteriorated. Every morning the son was reluctant to get out of bed and go with Erhur into the fields to practise; while Erhur practised, the son would go and look for firewood to make a fire to keep warm.

Yu Fucai’s gujiang father was a hard case, always conning, robbing, and beating people up. He spent some time in prison and eventually, in the 1940s, got his head smashed in with a hammer. Before Liberation gujiang were commonly given opium to smoke by the host family to help them play better. But Erhur knew that addiction was a danger—he had heard of gujiang who had to sell their roof-beams or demolish their outhouse in order to get a fix. Yu Fucai himself had been locked up in an opium-prevention cell for a year soon after Liberation, still only in his teens, and by the time Erhur was studying with him, opium was hard to come by.

As collectivization began to be implemented from 1954, many Yanggao people took refuge further north. Two of Yu Fucai’s uncles fled to Shangdu in Inner Mongolia, and there are still many craftsmen from Yanggao around Hohhot and Baotou.

Yu Fucai had eight children, a heavy responsibility. Erhur had to ask him to recite the gongche solfeggio in the evenings after he got back from the fields. In the mornings after he had practised, he would do chores for his master like milling, fetching water, and ploughing. There were so many mouths to feed that all the flour you milled in a morning was only enough for one meal. In 2003 three of Yu Fucai’s sons, as well as a nephew, were still active as gujiang in Xiejiatun.

Erhur 2003.2

Session at Xiejiatun, 2003.

If all was not all sweetness and light in the Hua family band, gujiang relations in Xiejiatun sound still more fraught. Several gujiang from Xiejiatun apprenticed themselves to the Hua family: one Erxianr (surname Xie) from Xiejiatun got into a feud with the Yu family, so he made a point of antagonizing them by going over to Hua Fa as “disciple crossing the gate”. Another blindman, Duan Guanming (b. c1927, known as Liuzhi “Six fingers” as he had an extra finger on one hand), also came from Xiejiatun, but got on better with Hua Yinshan than with the Yu family—we found him playing in Hua Yinshan’s band in 1991.

DGM1

Duan Guanming on woodblock, 1991.

Erhur came back to the county-town when he was 18 sui (c1963) to set up his own band, taking disciples. Hua Yinshan didn’t mention this, but in his teens he sometimes played for Erhur’s band these next couple of years; he only played sheng at first, but was beginning to get the hang of the shawm too. There was also a great player in Erhur’s band called Little Jinxi (surnamed Wang), from nearby Qingshunbu. For the operatic pieces played in the afternoon of funerals, he used to play two kouqin whistles at once, making a big sound that drew the crowds. He died on the eve of the Cultural Revolution aged only 41 sui, coughing up blood in the middle of playing—an alarmingly common and prestigious way for shawm players to die.

Yin San
Meanwhile, another blindman was “learning gujiang” in the town. Like Erhur, Yin San (b. c1947) played dizi flute when young. He began learning shawm from 16 sui (c1962) with the blind town gujiang Song Chengxin. Yin San also studied at some stage with a gujiang in Wangguantun township, learning the gongche solfeggio of the shawm pieces from him—which he later forgot.

6 LR,YS

Yin San (right) with Liuru, 2003.

Yin San and Erhur both had town registration, and were blind, so they did not have to apply for leave of absence from any production-team or hand over any money to them, unlike village-registered gujiang. Moreover, their ceremonial activities were tolerated more readily by cadres; blindmen could put all their energies into being gujiang, so they could do well. Yin San recalled that in the early 1960s a band got around 5 kuai for an afternoon, 8 kuai for playing all day, 10 kuai including the burial procession next morning. Erhur claimed that while most bands could earn about 12 kuai a day, his own band was so admired that he could charge 22 kuai. In fact payments were only calculated in terms of cash, they were still paid in food: peanuts or gao paste, 1 jin or half a jin each per day—Yu Fucai’s hemp sack was tough from the oil.

But even sighted village bands could still get permission from their production-team to go out on business. The Xiejiatun band earned a dozen kuai a day then, of which they had to give the commune 1.5 kuai each day they were away, in return for one whole work-point each. The band boss Yu Fucai took 15 shares of the fee plus 10 shares for providing the instruments, while everyone else got 10 shares. Yu only used one or two musicians from outside his own family, so it was worth it. Doing funerals they got to eat out for free too, and didn’t have to till the communal fields all the time, so it was a better life than being a peasant.

Still, I can’t quite build a consistent picture from such accounts of gujiang business before the Cultural Revolution. They articulated no clear distinction between the various periods from 1949 to 1966, though I surmise that business must have been easier before collectivization around 1954, and again briefly during the lull in campaigns from around 1961 to 1964. Yin San claimed rosily, “Before the Cultural Revolution business was even better than today, around twenty days a month—there weren’t so many gujiang then, so there was more work to go round.” But he only took part in the life from the early 1960s.

Conversely, Liuru, who was trying to make a living through the 1950s, said times were tough. Erhur pointed out that there was less business under Maoism than either before Liberation or since the 1980s reforms, because people had less money; one death provided no more than three days’ work in all, whereas earlier and later, taking into account all the subsidiary observances before and after the funeral proper, it might provide up to ten days’ work. He reckoned that in the 1950s, bands might go out on business seven or eight times a month, or “every three days or so”.

They agreed that despite all the famine deaths around 1960, there wasn’t so much business then—if people had any money at all, they’d buy something to eat, not invite gujiang. Liuru recalled that for funerals during the famine years, people could only put out a couple of mantou bread rolls on the altar table before the coffin; whenever there was a death, work-teams turned up to prevent gujiang playing and stop the family burning paper spirit-money, on pain of a fine. Indeed, in Yanggao the famine continued until at least 1965, and people were hungry right into the late 1970s. Still, I think we have to assume a slight and temporary improvement in people’s lives in the early 1960s when Erhur and Yin San set up in business.

The Hua band
In Yangjiabu village just north of the county-town, Hua Fa (1917–87), father of Yinshan and Jinshan, was much admired as a gujiang. His nickname was “Heavenly dragon” (Tianlong); soon he was simply known as “Great gujiang” (Da gujiang). He was also known as “Sighted Fifth brother” (Zhengyan wugar) or “False Fifth brother” (Jia wugar), by contrast with another famous blind gujiang in Zhenmenbu village just further east called “Blind Fifth brother” (Xia wugar, surnamed Xue) or “True Fifth brother” (Zhen wugar)—“true” and “false” alluding to the fictional character Monkey. There was no love lost between rival bands: “True Fifth brother” was murdered by a rival gujiang while they were performing for a funeral in the 1940s.

Hua Yinshan’s second uncle Hua Yi, known as “Second gujiang” (Er gujiang), also smoked opium. Their drummer was a blind man—Hua Fa was also a fine drummer. The celebrated gujiang Little Jinxi, from nearby Qingshunbu, sometimes played for Hua Fa band as well as for Erhur. The Hua band had a long-standing feud with the Xiejiatun band, though some Xiejiatun men preferred to come over to Hua Fa’s band, like blindman Duan Guanming, long a regular recruit. Another disciple of Hua Fa was known as “Second Dragon” (Erlong), from Yaozhuang village just east.

Duan Guanming accompanying Hua Yinshan in trick repertoire, 1991:
note Yinshan’s cloistered daughter.

Hua Yinshan claimed he became the “main beam” of the family band on large shawm from the age of 17 sui (c1964). He had heard the classic suites in the family band for many years, but had apparently only just begun playing them on large shawm.

Hua Yinshan was also working with several other bands in this period, with his father’s blessing, as the family needed all the work they could find. He spent some time in the bands of blindmen Erhur and Yin San, both based in the county-town, playing the lower part on shawm, as well as the sheng mouth-organ and the drum. As we saw, Erhur was a disciple of Yu Fucai’s band in Xiejiatun; the Yu band had a long-standing feud with the Hua band, but there was always some interplay.

Apart from the county-town and the villages of Yangjiabu and Xiejiatun, nearby Guanjiabu was the base of another fine gujiang band. The senior gujiang Shi Youtang (d. c1998) had a blind disciple called Shi Zhenfu, a distant relative of his (though their surnames were different Shi characters); he was known as Errenr “Two people”! Both led bands into the 1980s. Another blindman from Guanjiabu, called Yinhur (surname Li), became a disciple of Hua Fa.

Hua Yinshan told me the story of his father’s no.1 large shawms. In the 1940s a blindman called Chanxi in Guanjiabu wanted to buy a pair of shawms. An itinerant shawm maker called Wang Lianguo had moved from Yuxian in Hebei to Chenjiabu, near Yangjiabu. He went to Chanxi’s house to sell him a pair of shawms—this would have been around 1945, when Hua Fa was in his early 30s, between the births of Jinshan and Yinshan. But Chanxi didn’t know how to choose them, so he asked Hua Fa to help him. After Chanxi died, he left the wooden bodies of his shawms to his daughter, who later sold them to Yinshan.

Over twenty-six days in 1989, as part of their work for the Anthology, the Yanggao Bureau of Culture used their limited equipment to make a whole series of precious cassette recordings of the most distinguished shawm bands, including those of the Hua family, Shi Ming in Wangguantun, and Yang Deshan (father of Yang Ying) in Gucheng, as well as the bands of Xiejiatun, Guanjiabu, Luowenzao township, Qingshunbu, and Greater Antan (see my Ritual and music of north China: shawm bands in Shanxi, p.49).

Li Zhonghe
South of the county-town in Shizitun township, yet another celebrated blind gujiang was based in Yaozhuang village. Li Zhonghe (1908–88), known as Second Kid (Erwa 二娃), went blind at the age of 5 or 6 after an itinerant doctor tried to cure his ailing eyes by putting eggshell over them. Li Zhonghe learnt sheng and shawm from 15 sui, sometimes making up a band with an outstanding gujiang called Wantai (surnamed Cui) from Zhouguantun village nearby. Li had two younger colleagues (shidi) in his village, the brothers Fan Liang and Fan Gao.

Around 1952, after the death of Li Zhonghe’s first wife, he married a widow who already had a son and daughter. The son Li Bin (b.1945, not the same as his namesake, Li Manshan’s son!) played percussion in his stepfather’s band from around 1955, and began learning sheng and shawm, as well as gongche solfeggio, with him about four years later. Li Bin claimed his stepfather’s band didn’t stop playing through the Great Leap Forward or the ensuing famine.

Since the reforms
The collapse of the commune system from the late 1970s allowed an impressive revival of tradition (for the Daoists, see e.g. here). But by 2003 the scene was changing further. Erhur was still leading a band, having readily taken pop on board. He and his wife made a handsome couple, and had a lovely clean household in town—though their son, who managed to enter the police force despite (or by dint of?) a dubious reputation, was a worry. Erhur claimed to be able to perform the three suites that we couldn’t track down; but he was later reluctant to recite or perform them for us, perhaps worrying about my relationship with his rival Hua Yinshan.

Yin San, also married, was getting 90 kuai a month from the government disability benefit, and still led a band, usually playing cymbals. Of his two pupils, the younger had been with him for eight years. They could play the few traditional pieces still required for rituals, and Yin San felt no need to transmit the ones that weren’t. After his fine drummer Ling Dawenr (b. c1924) retired, Hua Jinshan had no competition.

Liuru hadn’t played since around 1988. Now he reckoned that only sighted people could do business (chixiang 吃香, a common term for popularity)—no-one wanted blind people any more. Erhur and Yin San were still doing well by adapting; they were a bit younger, more enterprising, and had more of a reputation as musicians. But he was right that in a cut-throat pop market, blindmen were no longer able to hold their own as gujiang without a solid support network.

The decrepit little shack where we found Liuru living in 2003 had been his “base area” for over thirty years; he bought it with the little money that remained when his parents died. His registration was at Xibei village commune, from whom he got 60 kuai a month benefit; as an urban resident his wife (also blind) got 90 kuai. Since giving up the shawm in 1990 Liuru had survived by begging the left-overs from restaurants, but led a pitiful life. He had no contact with his brothers and sisters, and just before we met him his wife had “gone crazy” and he had seen fit to lock her in an outhouse.

Such is the disturbing fate of a lovely senior musician who could still recite the gongche solfeggio of the eight suites more fluently than any other gujiang in the area. Listening to him as he sat cross-legged on the kang brick-bed which takes up most of the space in his pathetic little room, his eyes vacant yet placid as he spoke with dignity and insight of his days as gujiang, would be an upsetting experience for the most hardened fieldworker.

Li Zhonghe’s stepson Li Bin is an exceptional case. Unusually for a gujiang family, Li Bin did quite well in school. Though intermittently active as gujiang through the early years of the Cultural Revolution, around 1970 he went off to work in the coal mines of Datong city, becoming a cadre there, only resuming gujiang business again when he retired in 1996.

Li Zhonghe had taken up as a gujiang again after the reforms, and was still playing right until his death in 1988. He had a blind disciple (younger brother of talented young yinyang Wu Mei) who showed great promise as a gujiang, but he had only been learning for a few months when Li Zhonghe died. Li Bin now wanted to complete his stepfather’s mission in helping him learn, but the disciple soon decided against becoming a gujiang. However, Li Bin soon found another promising disciple.

By 2003 Li Bin had handed over the leadership of the band to Yu He (Quanmin, b. c1960) who played drum and yangqin; he only took up the business after being demobbed from the army in 1984. So the band was now based at Yu He’s home of Fanjiatun village nearby in Tianzhen county. Yu He’s son Chunbo (known as Bobo, like Hua Yinshan’s grandson; b. c1987) became Li Bin’s only pupil, learning since 2001. Li Bin could afford to be choosy; his criterion for accepting a pupil was that they have to be “of good character” (renpin)—an unlikely demand for a gujiang. After leaving primary school, Bobo “wasn’t interested in anything”, so his dad took him along with the band to show him how tough it was making a living; but Bobo fell in love with the life and became a brilliant musician. Though he mainly played pop, Li Bin also taught him pieces from the traditional repertory.

Da Li Bin 2003

Li Bin (left) with Wu Fan, 2003.

Li Bin is at a certain remove from the tradition, far more educated than most gujiang, and quite articulate. Living in Yanggao county-town, his house is comfortable, and the family is quite well-off. His wife became a Protestant around 1993; Li Bin was still at the mines, and she had a tough time having to look after their three children all alone, with no-one to talk to. Li Bin (not himself a believer) sometimes set Protestant lyrics to pop songs for her to use in church. Sincere and curious to study local traditions, he made a rather ideal co-fieldworker.

We saw how gujiang, outcasts in the “old society”, have gradually become rather more assimilated into society, first by being forced into a sedentary agricultural life under the communes, and then by the equality brought by earning power since the reforms. Along with their outcast status before Maoism came a lack of education or upward mobility. Among gujiang families, Li Bin was exceptional in doing relatively well at school, and even more so in finding a job as a cadre. Still more surprising is that having apparently escaped from the lowly life, he then chose to return to it after retirement. In his case, apart from supplementing his pension and giving him something to do, he feels a genuine enthusiasm for the music he learnt from his stepfather in his youth, only tempered now by its rapid loss under the assault of pop music.

Meanwhile Li Bin has been painstakingly making emic transcriptions of his father’s repertoire (both the suites and the many “little pieces” also formerly required for particular ritual segments), writing a 126-page score with parallel gongche solfeggio and cipher notation. While scholars (myself included) have transcribed the Yanggao shawm suites, this is a unique labour of love from a performer.

Very few gujiang could graduate to the world of urban troupes (for Shi Ming’s brief sojourn in Datong, see here), and while most sons of gujiang were now inclined to seek a more respectable profession, other poor village boys might still see it as a better option than tilling the fields—all the more now that learning pop music is less demanding than the traditional training. Today gujiang bands are often in the age-range of 15 to 45. Their main repertory is pop, besides Jinju and Errentai opera pieces and a dwindling repertory of traditional shawm pieces still required to maintain a façade of ceremonial propriety.

Li Sheng

Li Sheng, 2018.

The two Li families (those of Li Zhonghe and the Li family Daoists) have long been on good terms. The great Li Qing sometimes played in Li Zhonghe’s shawm band in the 1970s, when Daoist ritual was on hold. Li Bin’s younger stepbrother Li Sheng (b.1954) learnt suona and sheng from his early 20s upon the revival, spending some years as disciple of Hua Yinshan. He did some petty trade in Datong, as well as doing, returning around 2000. Gradually he gravitated to playing sheng with the Li family Daoists; he has long been a regular member of Li Manshan’s band.

I introduced Zhang Quan, a rather younger semi-blind gujiang in Pansi village whom I’m always happy to see, in these vignettes of the diverse personalities from whom we learned in Yanggao.

* * *

In some other parts of north China (like the Northeast, or Shandong) shawm bands have long and prestigious hereditary traditions, but here, as in Shaanbei, few bands can trace their history back more than three generations—though their classic suite repertoire is more ancient. Note that rather few gujiang live to old age; until the 1950s many were blind, smoked opium, and died young, and it is still quite unusual to find gujiang still playing in their 60s; anyway, opium-smoking blindmen from a despised caste found it hard to set up a family. By the early 21st century senior gujiang were still happy to take disciples, but as it is a low-status occupation they didn’t necessarily encourage their own sons to learn, hoping they would get an education and a proper job instead. If this is true today, there was less choice in the past, with education even rarer and job opportunities fewer.

While sighted players also deserve recognition as gujiang, and suffered from similar discrimination, blindmen formed the core of many Yanggao bands right until the 1990s. Since then they have become less common, along with the whole rich culture of shawm bands in north Shanxi.

But I still cherish the memory of these blind shawm players—outcasts who embodied the wealth of traditional folk culture that somehow survived down to the eve of the 21st century, dovetailing with the rituals of the household Daoists. With their deep experience of the “old rules” of ceremonial, far from the abstruse erudition of the literati who dominate sinology, they were among the main transmitters of imperial Chinese culture, who should be esteemed.

 

 

 

 

Not a living fossil

dino

Pace the earnest search for “living fossils” in China, dating folk music is highly speculative. How one envies the wonders of modern science:

Visiting a museum, a woman admires the skeleton of a dinosaur. Curious, she asks the attendant:

“Excuse me, how old is this dinosaur?”

“It’s 65 million years, four months and thirteen days old, madam.”

“Wow! Carbon dating is amazing—how can you be so precise?”

“Well, when I first started working here, they told me it was 65 million years old—and that was four months and thirteen days ago.”

Yin and yang: the divine Hélène Grimaud

 

More images here.

On this blog I’ve already featured the radiant magic of Hélène Grimaud, in

—all of which you simply must listen to. Here’s a further hommage.

See also her 2003 memoir Variations sauvages, English translation Wild harmonies: a life of music and wolves, 2007); and for a most insightful article, do read this New Yorker piece from 2011.

Since her London appearances are far too infrequent (her planned visit in June 2020 had to be postponed—has she really not come here since her numinous “Water” recital at the Barbican in 2015?), I resort to relishing her performances of the two colossal Brahms piano concertos online. Here’s a trailer:

And the two concertos complete:

For a sequel on tempo and timbre in Brahms, with a HIP version of the 1st concerto, see here.

I trust you too will be unable to resist going on to admire her live performances of both works online (here and here)—indeed whole days can, and should, go by as you bask in all of her ouevre there.

OK, one can’t help noticing that she is one of the most entrancingly beautiful people ever to grace the planet—neither here nor there, one might say, but her own unassuming radiance goes hand in hand with her music. She embodies a perfect combination of yin and yang, with both innige spiritual intimacy and intensely muscular emotional intelligence.

Here she gives an interview in French on the Rachmaninoff concerto and Abbado:

Here she plays Schumann with Ann Sofie von Otter:

And returning to the Ravel concerto, here’s the exquisite slow movement again:

 

 

 

Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup

Bloodlands

There’s been some fine media coverage to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. So apart from my numerous posts under the Maoism tag, here’s a roundup of some of my posts on life, and death, behind the Iron Curtain—always bearing Chinese connections in mind.

On the GDR (for which note the useful Twitter # @DDROnline):

On the USSR:

Elsewhere:

And for bitter jokes from behind the Iron Curtain:

https://stephenjones.blog/2019/02/15/czechs-in-tianqiao/

See also various posts under the Czech tag, notably

All this complements posts on Nazism, such as

Yang Yinliu: a conference

 

YYL poster

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of the birth of the incomparable Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏 (1899–1984), from 10th to 15th November a conference on his life and work is taking place at the Chinese Academy of Arts in Beijing (more details on WeChat, I trust).

Yang was one of the great musicologists of the world; his research is central our understanding not only of music history but of traditional Chinese culture more generally.

YYLHe excelled not only as a historian but as fieldworker and performer, steering the Music Research Institute through the choppy waters of Maoism. I’ve devoted a lengthy tribute to him; and do consult his tag in the sidebar—adducing his work on early history, folk and elite traditions (the latter embodied by the remarkable team of qin scholars at the MRI), Daoist and Buddhist ritual, and a range of regional instrumental and vocal genres, including

While I don’t much go on for conferences, I’m sorry I can’t attend this one, which also serves as a retrospective on the whole history of Chinese musicology, with contributions from leading scholars. There have also been celebrations in Yang’s home city of Wuxi.

 

Criticizing Confucius

Given that this is no time for blind kowtowing before authority—anywhere:

Just as Tang poetry isn’t immune from doggerel, maybe we might unfurl a new, more decorous campaign to debunk the uncritical veneration of Confucius (cf. Alan Bennett).

Noting that “Confucius He Say” 子曰 might be rendered as “So the kid goes…” (“I’m like, whatever”; see also OMG), one could regard the Analects an early pilot for Kids say the cutest things 子曰乖事, or an anthology of pithy bumper-stickers (cf. Gary Larson’s cartoon Confucius at the office—”Looks like we’re in for some rain”).

Here’s one gnomic maxim that does rather appeal to me:

君子不器
The gentleman is not a vessel.

Typically, it’s been subjected to a vast apparatus of scholarly exegesis; I like to take it as a critique of reification, one of the banes of studying music (see musicking), religion (see “doing religion“), and indeed Life… Indeed, maybe the qi 器 there is even verbal: “The gentleman doesn’t reify”? * I would like the quote even more if he had said that women weren’t vessels either—but despite recent defences of Confucian sexism, he didn’t (surprise surprise).

As Confucius said when his disciple Yan Hui ** told him he was taking up stamp collecting,

Philately will get you nowhere

(an old joke that goes back at least to Jennings).

As ever, The life of Brian has salient critiques. Here’s one of the Boring Prophets:

There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi- with the sort of … raffia-work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers, that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock.

And indeed the rebuke to exegesis in the Sermon on the Mount scene that opens the film:

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ahh, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

See also Alan Bennett’s classic sermon on “My brother Esau is an hairy man…”

 

* Cf. “Gentlemen lift the seat”—as Jonathan Miller observed in Beyond the fringe, “What exactly does this mean? Is it a sociological description—a definition of a gentleman which I can either take or leave? Or perhaps it’s a Loyal Toast? It could be a blunt military order, or an invitation to upper-class larceny.”

** My penchant for Yan Hui derives from the ritual shengguan suite Qi Yan Hui 泣颜回,  a title that alludes to Confucius bewailing his early death (for a gongche score, see here, under West An’gezhuang).

Meredith Monk

MM

Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991), inspired by the intrepid traveller Alexandra David-Néel:

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!

LB

Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce (1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.

With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book

  • Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
    (Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)

The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:

Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]

The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]

The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.

LB club

As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in

the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.

He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe

insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!

The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.

Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):

Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!

Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:

He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.

A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!

In another passage, Goldman comments:

The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.

Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.

The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.

LB arrest

But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:

What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!

Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):

London
Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural ExchangeYAY!

Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.

(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)

Here’s an intriguing prequel to the misguided vinegar advertisement, and indeed Always look on the bright side of life:

The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”

Goldman goes on:

Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.

Not all of this was so wide of the mark.

As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,

If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.

As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in The Spectator:

Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.

He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.

I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.

Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.

The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.

* * *

All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).

* The title’s punctuation reminds me of Mahler’s fondness for exclamation marks!!!