Anagram tales: a roundup, with wacky index

Here are links to our initial selection from the magnificent anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson. They group neatly in three trilogies—first, Mozart operas:

followed by

and

The visions emerging here make up a kind of Esperanto fiction—it’s most rewarding to follow the gnomic texts with the aid of the explanatory stories. Here’s a general introduction by Nick himself:

The anagram stories Stephen Jones has been resolutely issuing arose from a specific combination of circumstances. First, amongst professional classical music singers, the 80s and 90s were a high point for tours, residencies, and CD recordings, all of which furnished extended periods of having to sit patiently around—time used in various ways, crosswords, knitting, books and magazines; there were not yet smartphones or iPads, had they already existed it’s unlikely that these texts would ever have developed.

But in 1984 I had been introduced to the work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, which added to my early enthusiasm for Mots d’heures: gousses, rames and an appreciation of word games of various sorts (though I never enjoyed or was much good at Scrabble, oddly: I think it was the element of competition which spoiled it). Such games had a much more serious aspect for me (as indeed, to a hugely greater extent, they did for Perec), through their function of creating “potential literature”—Oulipo is “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle”, freeing up through constraints. Having always been keen on writing, I nevertheless had found myself unable, every time I tried, to write imaginative fictional narrative; what began as a collaborative pastime (many anagrams, and certainly the best ones, were deduced by colleagues, once I’d proposed a source text or name) gradually morphed into a generator of unlikely yet rigorously underpinned stories.

As to the process, during recording sessions etc. I collected from volunteers and compiled my own anagrams, which I then joined up in whatever form of narrative appeared possible, permitting myself any old punctuation but always (the few exceptions are noted in the text) sticking rigorously to the sequence of repeated anagram matrices, with the same letters repeated each time, never overlapping nor transposing—no cheating for effect (however tempting). At first that was as far as I thought of going, but it soon appeared that there was another level of interpretation waiting to be exploited, the “potential literature”, and I spent some months, or even years (in the case of Lili Boulanger and Johann Sebastian Bach) extrapolating the story I felt the anagrams were perhaps telling.

In addition to the nine Steve has published, there are six more which survive—several were wholly or partly lost during the course of time and specifically in a fire in our house in Portugal which destroyed most of my papers (and books) in 2009: the survivals are in great part due to Steve himself, and Charles Pott, a notable contributor, who had kept copies, backed up by a handful I’d managed to consign to the internet (most of the stories also predate the days of web-based email).

These other pieces are:

  • Israel in Egypt (anagrams only, stitched together but without parallel text, 1989)

  • Die Entfuhrung (sic—no umlaut, nor the missing ‘e’ it would represent) / Aus dem Serail (introduction + anagrams only, 1991)
  • Salzburg (introduction + anagrams of Beethoven’s Leonore/Beethoven’s Fidelio + story, 1996—probably the most substantial piece of the whole run)

  • Alceste (raw anagram list + anagrams + story, 1999)

  • Merano (intro + raw anagram list + anagrams + story + epilogue, 2000)

  • Oslo (raw anagram list + anagrams + sort of story + epilogue/more story, 2000).

These last two were envisaged as being integral parts of my reactions to the celebrations at the time of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and the many concerts in which I took part during that year. The last anagram piece I wrote of this sort (there’s since been an acrostic anagram sonnet for Fernando Pessoa) was indeed Johann Sebastian Bach, compiled between 2000 and 2021. There’s a hope that the complete set may eventually interest a publisher…

I still can’t write (and don’t believe I have written) fiction. I was just following where the letters led me.

Nicolas Robertson, August 2021.

* * *

[SJ:] With my penchant for zany indexing (see here, and here), I can’t resist compiling a selective general index of some of the more striking people, places, and themes that adorn the plots so far (just the anagrams, not the extrapolations!), and allowing characters to mingle freely after being trapped within the bonds of the individual stories that generated them. In the absence of page references, you can have fun working out which tales the entries belong to.

196.

index 1

 

197.
index 2 

198.

index 3

199.

index 4

Rāg Chandrakauns

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Dagars

Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar.

To follow rāg Shri, another raga I’m just getting to know is Chandrakauns.

Sargam

Indeed, The raga guide describes it as “a ragini of Malkauns”, sharing flat ga and dha, and stressing ma along with Sa—the 5th degree Pa absent from both melody and drone, and also lacking the 2nd degree Re (though listen to Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar below). But in the common variety of modern times, natural Ni (replacing the flat ni of Malkauns) is also pivotal. The third paragraph here lists some variant forms:

Chandrakauns 1

Chandrakauns 2

As ever, I begin with dhrupad and the Dagar lineage. The longue durée of Rahim Fahimuddin Dagar, live in concert, is wondrous (ending with a dhamar praise song from 1.05.00):

And here’s Uday Bhawalkar in duet with Bahauddin Dagar on rudra vina (missing opening and closing sections):

Here the intense depth of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina blends magically with the voice of his brother Zia Fariduddin Dagar (live in Amsterdam, 1985):

In most interpretations of Chandrakauns that I’ve heard, ma sounds like a tonic throughout. But I find the Dagars’ whole long opening section rather different: stressing the semitone from ni to Sa, with excursions up to ga and down to dha, ma is heard only in passing. It is only later that ma begins to compete as a pitch centre, often seeming to serve as a “tonic” from 16.48, and for sustained cadences—so it’s only now that we may have to remind ourselves that we are hearing not Sa but ma, just as in rāg Malkauns. Even after the introduction of a faster, firmer rhythmic pulse revolving around ni–Sa from 46.22, ma remains a subsidiary part of the tonal palette to the end, featuring more strongly in passages from around 50.45 and 53.45.

Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar creates a quite distinct effect/affekt—not only is ma important throughout, but he frequently uses natural Re in passing (even descending ma-gha-Re-Sa from 16.06, and again from 42.42 and 53.57). Again he ends with dhamar from 59.22:

Lastly, I always delight in the sitar playing of Nikhil Banerjee:

China: memory, music, society

GLF

The Great Leap. Source: China Daily!

This year’s CHIME conference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.

Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).

Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.

grave

Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.

Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.

Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Unfolding along with the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap was the great famine; under the famine tag, I’ve grouped the main posts here, noting Wu Wenguang’s remarkable Memory Project, as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan (see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:

… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!

Gaoluo 1989

New Year’s rituals, Gaoluo 1989.

Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.

Cui JianEven for the period since the 1980s’ reforms there is plenty of folk memory for the Party-State to repress (see e.g. Tiananmen: bullets and opium). Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic retort to Cui Jian was inadvertently drôle: “What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?” The nuances of the indie scene are explored by Jeroen de Kloet. And in my series on Coronavirus in China, a song by a blind bard made a medium to express support for whistleblower Li Wenliang (cf. the satirical songs of Zhang Gasong).

Left: Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959.
Right: Rahilä Dawut.

Tibet makes another flagrant case of coercive amnesia; in this roundup of posts, note e.g. Forbidden memory, Conflicting memories, Eat the Buddha, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet. Song often helps articulate the sense of loss and grievance. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods:

And documenting the past and present of Xinjiang is ever more severely out of bounds (from the Uyghur tag, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.

All this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond sanitised representations of “Chinese music”, or indeed of Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. However distressing, the stories of suffering—though ever more out of bounds within the PRC—need to be told.

Anyway, FWIW, these are the kinds of thorny issues that come to my mind as I consult the CHIME conference website—do consider taking part!

The handmaid’s tale

I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.

HT cover

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:

In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. 

So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.

Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.

The TV series
Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.

The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.

Bible

How to Bible.

The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash, [1] intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.

Handmaid protest

While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):

At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.

As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

Race
Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.

Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.

The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.

And Catherine Morse observes:

Gilead isn’t a society built on the oppression of women—it’s one built on white supremacy.

Or rather, might one say, the oppression of women is one of the major corollaries of white supremacy.

This review finds that the first series is

more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.

As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:

The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.

The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.

Episodes
The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.

The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.

As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.

HT trio

Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.

The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.

In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.

From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?

With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.

The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).

In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.

By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.

* * *

In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.

Testaments

Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.

The whole story reminds me of Neil McGregor’s question about Nazi Germany: “What would we have done?”

The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.


[1] On wiki, see e.g.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Domesticity
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_Going_Their_Own_Way
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_conservatism_in_the_United_States

New British jazz

Nubya

Much as I love the Albert Hall, one might wish for a more intimate, or interactive, ambience for jazz. But it worked for Nubya Garcia’s recent Prom—wonderfully cohesive ensemble musicking, showcasing the thriving British jazz scene (shown on BBC4, now on i-Player).

Around world cultures we find a spectrum of tradition and innovation (see e.g. Unpacking “improvisation”, and Bruno Nettl’s parameters for change). Jazz can move forward, or anchor itself in nostalgia. Even retro musicking can be joyful, such as the Sant Andreu jazz band (here and here). Amy Winehouse created original songs within a retro style; nor does Billie Holiday quite fit anywhere. Once Chet had scored with his signature style, he largely rested on his laurels; but jazzers like Coltrane and Miles were constantly moving on…

Nurtured by the Tomorrow’s Warriors project (wiki), the current British jazz scene, “parping away from mainstream view”, is a stimulating case of innovation. Building on the work of seniors like Courtney Pine and Soweto Kinch, young musicians from diverse backgrounds are feeding off each other in the, um, global bazaar.

Garcia Prom

Nubya Garcia, on sax (Youtube channel), is part of a dynamic group. Here’s the full album Nubya’s 5ive, with Sheila Maurice-Grey on trumpet, Theon Cross on tuba, Joe Armon-Jones on keys, Moses Boyd and Femi Koloeso on drums, and Daniel Casimir on bass:

This 2018 gig has a similar line-up, after a bold introductory solo alap:

So while they work harmoniously together, here are some tracks from their individual playlists.

Drummer Moses Boyd (see also YouTube channel):

On trumpet, Sheila Maurice-Grey:

And there are several other young trumpet stars, such as Yazz Ahmed (also playlists, e.g. here):

Another trumpeter, with a meditative vibe, is Matthew Halsall (also YouTube channel), based in Manchester:

Theon Cross on tuba:

Wind player Shabaka Hutchings (and playlists, e.g. here):

And here’s the YouTube channel of singer-songwriter Yazmin Lacey.

It’s not so much that all this makes me feel old—I would have envied such creativity at any stage of my life.

Shawms around the world

ordam 1

From Rahile Dawut and Aynur Kadir, Music of the Ordam shrine festival.

Shawm bands, accompanied by percussion, are an essential—and seriously loud—feature in the soundscapes of life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies in many parts of the world, appearing often on this blog. So in lieu of an unwieldy tag, here’s a roundup of some of the main posts.

Shawms (with a wooden body and a flared bell, small unlipped double reed enclosed in the mouth, and a pirouette, overblowing at the octave) are more common than oboes (like Chinese guanzi and Armenian duduk), although the distinction is complex, also involving cylindrical or conical bores (zzzzz)—see here.

Names for shawms are often variants of zurna, but there’s a wealth of local terms. The musicians are low in social status.

For China, large shawms are particularly imposing in the north, as shown in my two books Ritual and music of north China. The starter post is

I analyse the complex melodies of the Hua family band in

See also

and, observing a certain scholarly reluctance to countenance such orally-transmitted cultures,

The Shaanbei bands feature in my post on the great

and, adding nearby Gansu, cf.

See also

and for trouble in Shandong,

Shawm bands are common in south China too, such as in Fujian and Hunan.

Some of these styles also appear on the Playlist in the sidebar (##5, 6, 11, and 15, with commentary here).

For Xinjiang, see

and for Tibet, as well as the monastic shawms and long trumpets (still only featured at the end of this post), the courtly gar features in

Elsewhere, most traditions have spread with Islam from the Middle East. See

Among a wealth of audio-video tracks on the playlist of

is a fine taksim on the Turkish zurna.

Additive shawm metres from Turkey and east Europe feature in

For Azerbaijan, see under

and for Morocco, under

In Europe, Spain features in

And for Italian shawms (not least the 1963–64 recordings from the USA!):

See also

And cf. the extensive trumpet tag.

Mahler—what problem?

Mahler 1907

I was stimulated by the fine harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s Alternative Bach series on BBC Radio 3, even if I disputed several of his points. In his new series, My problem with…, he again seems to be assuming the role of provocateur, “dragging the icon to the trash”.

To many, the programme on Mahler may sound like heresy. I can live with Esfahani challenging the idolising of Handel and Mendelssohn—indeed, I keep meaning to pen a similar tirade against Vivaldi’s vacuous four-square footling around with arpeggios. Beethoven too, ably demolished by Susan McClary, seems to me like fair game. The reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky in A lexicon of musical invective make an engaging, comical catalogue of early critics’ incomprehension of the great works of WAM from Beethoven to Stravinsky (including Mahler—see e.g. under Mahler 4); I’m even keen to question the hegemony of WAM generally.

But when Esfahani questions the symphonies of Mahler, I can only assume he’s totally deranged. One might imagine him as some heartless cerebral professor tinkling away on baroque fugues, but far from it.

His five fatuous headings should prompt any music-lover to switch off at once:

  • I can’t remember a single one of his tunes
  • When he decides to write a tune it just degrades into kitsch or schmaltz
  • His orchestrations are consistently bizarre, to no discernible end
  • What’s with all this hypothesising and posing of musical questions…?
  • Mahler’s symphonies are endless…

To each of these questions in turn we may respond “WTF???” (for a similar appraisal of medieval estampies by a church janitor, see here).

Sure, it sounds like fun to ruffle the feathers of generations of godlike maestros (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, Rattle, Salonen, and so on and on: see under Conducting: a roundup), scholars like Henry-Louis de La Grange, and pundits like Norman Lebrecht, whose book Why Mahler? makes an engaging introduction (see e.g. here).

While “Esfahani acting dumb” seems like a flimsy peg to hang a programme on, it’s not as fatuous as it sounds. Gradually we gather that he may be playing devil’s advocate, as he shows himself amenable to conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s arguments for the defence. We hear generous excerpts from the symphonies that, pace Esfahani, may even win new adherents to the Mahler fan club; and they have some interesting comments on changing performance practice. Weilerstein uses the 9th symphony to try and dispel Esfahani’s strange incomprehension of Mahler’s visionary orchestration; and one wonders how a sensitive musician can possibly be immune to the profundity of Mahler’s juxtaposition of spiritual and profane. But in the end Esfahani shows himself open to enlightenment.

FFS, just listen to the 2nd!!! The 9th! The 5th! The 6th! The 3rd! The 4th! The 10th!!! Even the 1st! And indeed everything under my Mahler tag!

Perhaps Radio 3 concocted a contrarian tone because they thought yet another eulogy seemed too predictable. Go on then, give us programmes on “What’s the big deal about Bach anyway?”, “Mozart—was he just fooling around?” and “The harpsichord—it goes plunk, it goes plink”… *

The concept is highly reminiscent of Philomena Cunk‘s interview technique (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”).


* The latter borrowed from Clive James’s equally profound survey of Japanese culture

The ethereal theremin

Theremin 1927

Theremin demonstrating his instrument, 1927.

By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.

Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:

Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.

Theremin and Clara

With Clara Rockmore.

Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.

With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.

In 1962 Clara took her husband for a holiday visit to her homeland, and on their visit to Moscow they managed to arrange a clandestine meeting with Theremin at his flat in Moscow. But outside Russia no-one knew if he was still alive until 1967, when Harold Schonberg published an article in the NYT about visiting him at the Conservatoire. This exposure brought his work to the attention of the Director, who declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution“; his instruments were thrown out, and he was dismissed.

When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.

* * *

For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…

For the American episode, Michaels musters an all-star cast, including Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Joseph Schillinger, the Marx brothers, Glenn Miller, Nicolas Slonimsky, and George Gershwin. He captures the magic of Clara’s presence:

You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.

You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.

With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.

* * *

Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.

Clara

Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:

Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:

And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:

A current star of the theremin is Carolina Eyck. Her YouTube channel includes Moon river:

For Bach, see also under The Feuchtwang Variations (Grégoire Blancwebsite and YouTube channel), and Strings and voices (Gladys Hulot (aka hYrtis), website and YouTube channel; here she also plays Only you). Suitably, both players double on the musical saw—here Blanc plays them together:

Messiaen was much taken by the ondes martenot, but some of his works adapt well to the theremin too:

And the cello movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps works wonderfully with the winning combo of theremin and accordion:

Now I’m imagining the theremin in dhrupad or Tibetan opera

Rāg Shri

*For a roundup of posts on raga, with a general introduction, see here!*

Shri ragamala

Shri, ragamala:
“Splendidly enthroned, of peerless beauty, he sits hearing stories from Narada and Tumburu.
By the great sages he is called Shri-raga king.”

So far in this series I’ve mainly surveyed ragas that I’ve long known, but now I’m beginning to explore some that haven’t previously come to my attention.

Sargam

The sargam solfeggio system.

Here’s the introduction to Rāg Shri in The raga guide:

Shri 1

Shri 2

A “mysterious, gentle, and austere” raga for the early winter harvest, its melodic progression is distinctive, with the pivotal wide intervals of flat re and sharp Ma (D♭ and F♯, if you will); the natural third Ga and flat sixth dha are heard mainly as fleeting ornaments; in ascent the flat re leaps to sharp Ma or directly to Pa. The natural Ni gives the option of three adjacent semitones NiSare; while the flat sixth dha is less prominent, the equivalent sequence Ma–Pa–dha may be heard.

As ever, dhrupad makes a fine way of immersing ourselves in the raga. Here are the “Junior Dagar brothers” Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar:

More recently, Uday Bhawalkar is just as wondrous (cf. his Yaman, and Bhairav):

Udayji’s opening exposition revolves around long sustained re, and then Sa and Ni, introducing the sharp Ma, and Pa, in the lower register at 1.50, ascending to re, now decorated with Ga. At 6.17 he ascends to Pa before returning to the semitone cluster around Sa. From 8.16 he clearly expounds the ascending sequence Ma Pa Ni Sa re. After revolving around the augmented interval of reMa, he reaches sustained cadences on Pa from 9.29. From 16.31 he explores the upper range around top Sa (17.06: Ma Pa Ni, Sa Ni, re Sa).

For the jor section of the alap from 21.29, Udayji injects a firmer pulse, with a mixture of nomtom and ākar (“aah”) syllables around low Sa; having explored around low Pa from 21.24 he returns to Sa after 26.15, the wide interval reMa always featuring prominently. From 31.02 he is oscillating around high Pa, eventually reaching up higher, with sustained cadences on top Sa from 34.19 as the melodic phrases become more florid.

From 38.13 Udayji returns again to the lower register, Sa eventually giving way to Pa as pivotal pitch from 46.14, incorporating the higher register from 49.33 before the pakhavaj drum enters.

From 56.18 he concludes (as in his wonderful Yaman) with a praise song at a more sedate tempo in 14-beat dhamar tāl (5+2+3+4), followed by a faster section from 1.13.02 in sūltāl with five duple units (as he does for Malkauns and other ragas). The very ending is missing.

An audio recording by Udayji appears over two tracks, with alap and a lively jod:

followed by another song in dhamar tal:

On sitar, here’s the sublime Nikhil Banerjee in 1975—note how he features Ga quite prominently, and relishes the interval Ma–dha:

And a longer performance:

This up-tempo version by Ali Akbar Khan on sarod from 1969 brings out the angular wide intervals even more:

And here’s a short but exquisite rendition by Ram Narayan on sarangi:

With thanks yet again to Morgan Davies!

Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha cover

  • Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: life, death, and resistance in a Tibetan town (2020).

While academic studies of modern Tibetan history and culture have blossomed since the 1980s (see roundup here), the dense language of scholarly publications is often compounded by their prohibitive prices. So there is ample room for an accessible, affordable volume like this to reach a wider audience beyond academia. *

Demick researched her book Nothing to envy: real lives in North Korea (2010) while she was serving as Bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times in Seoul. Based on seven years of conversations, mostly with defectors to the south, as well as nine trips to North Korea from 2001 to 2008 and secretly-filmed video footage, the book is a rare window onto a closed society whose traumas and secrets remain hard to reveal.

By 2007 Demick was covering the PRC, where journalists also face ever greater challenges. From her base in Beijing, she began investigating the lives of Tibetans in the Ngaba region of north Sichuan, which was to become “the undisputed world capital of self-immolation”.

Besides the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” (TAR), the majority of Tibetan people within the PRC live in the extensive regions of Amdo and Kham to the north and east (comprising large areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces), on which much recent scholarship has focused (see Recent posts on Tibet).

Ngawa map

Source: Conflicting memories.

Ngaba is a prefecture in northwestern Sichuan, adjoining Golog prefecture, quite remote from Lhasa to the west. Demick puts in context the whole history leading up to the Chinese invasion and since, with vivid personal stories illustrating the successive cataclysms.

Part One begins with locals’ first traumatic encounter with Communist troops in the 1930s—the book’s title, referring to votive offerings eaten by famished Red Army troops on the early stages of the Long March, is borrowed from Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester. Demick goes on to outline the early years of the Chinese invasion after 1950, when the king of the Mei kingdom pragmatically accommodated with the new Communist overlords.

Demick 3

This is the back-story to the devastating assaults from 1958, told through the eyes of Gonpo (b.1950), the last Mei princess. After being evicted from their palace, she was relocated to the provincial capital Chengdu along with her mother and sister; her father, the former king, joined them after a year, traumatised after being held in solitary confinement. But the young Gonpo took readily to being sinicised, and was sent on to a prestigious high school in Beijing.

Demick 54

In the summer of 1966 she returned to Chengdu for a holiday with her family, but as the Cultural Revolution broke out she was soon summoned back to Beijing. Having shown willing in previous campaigns (indeed, she supported Chairman Mao avidly), Gonpo was now vulnerable. In 1967 she learned that her parents had died in suspicious circumstances. As she became a target of struggle sessions, a contingent of Red Guards from Ngaba demanded that she should be taken home for further punishment, but instead she was exiled to remote Xinjiang, labouring on a military-run complex in Qinggil (Qinghe) county near the Soviet border. Most of the population sent there were Han Chinese—including her kindly future husband Xiao Tu. They took part in the farm’s propaganda troupe, singing songs in praise of the Party’s “liberation” of Tibet. As higher education began to function again, Gonpo tried in vain to gain admission to colleges in Beijing and Shanghai.

When the couple got permission to take a holiday in 1975, Gonpo took Xiao Tu back to her old home in Ngaba, now unrecognisable; but despite her anxieties, the locals fêted her as a former princess. When they returned to Qinggil they held a simple wedding ceremony. On the death of Chairman Mao later in 1976, their main concern was that Xiao Tu would be able to avoid trouble by maintaining the dodgy loudspeakers broadcasting the funeral. As Demick notes, by the time she was writing Qinggil was the site of a “re-education camp”, inaccessible to outsiders.

We read the story of Delek (b.1949), who came from Meruma village just east of the prefectural capital, where people remained loyal to their former royal patrons. Since his family had suffered grievously as the Chinese enforced their power, he might seem an unlikely recruit to the Red Guards. Yet to many Tibetans the Cultural Revolution presented a welcome opportunity to challenge authority, and by 1968 Delek joined a branch of the Red Guards in Ngaba loyal to the Red City faction in Chengdu, supposing that they could now right the wrongs of the hated commune system and restore religious freedom. But as rebellion spread, the PLA were sent in.

Although this uprising was ultimately a failure, for six months the Tibetans had raised their own livestock, worshipped freely in the monasteries, chanted prayers, and conducted rituals. The monks had worn their robes. It had given Tibetans a taste of freedom, the memory of which could not so easily be extinguished.

In Part Two Demick describes the “interregnum” from the end of the Cultural Revolution to 1989.

By the time of Mao’s death in 1976, Ngaba was a ghost town, sullen and silent. A quarter century of Communist rule had destroyed far more than it had created. What remained consisted mainly of squat mud hovels in dun tones barely distinguishable from the ground underfoot. […] Dust and mud choked the streets. Gutters on either side served as open sewers and toilets.

With the monasteries demolished, there was little to alleviate the drabness or delight the eye. The market nurtured by the king that had made Ngaba worth a detour for traders was long gone.

Demick evokes the resurgence of market enterprise through the story of Norbu (b.1952), who was to become a leading entrepreneur in Ngaba. As a child he had been reduced to begging for the family by the Chinese “democratic reforms”, and later turned to the black market. By 1974 he was making regular trips by bus to Chengdu to buy goods that he could sell back in Ngaba. As the commune system crumbled, the range of merchandise increased. In partnership with his Chinese wife he opened a tea shop and a supermarket.

With the monasteries still closed, some monks also turned to business, with their higher level of literacy. The monasteries re-opened gradually from 1980. Of the roughly 1,700 monks at Ngaba’s main monastery Kirti, only around 300 were still alive; some were traumatised after years in prison. As in Chinese regions, many of those helping to rebuild the temples were former activists who had taken part in destroying them.

New buildings began appearing in the county town—dominated by the institutions of the Chinese state. Tibetans were keen to buy motorbikes, and the trade in caterpillar fungus made a lucrative boost to their income. Ngaba traders travelled not only to the booming southeastern Chinese cities but to Lhasa and the border with Nepal.

The Han Chinese population of Ngaba was growing too; as the Tibetan plateau became a promising place to make money, the state encouraged migration with Develop the West campaigns. Tibetans were soon outnumbered by Chinese in Amdo, and were disadvantaged in many spheres.

Still, Tibetan education was reviving (cf. the lama Mugé Samtan, whose initiative began in Ngaba as early as 1980—see Nicole Willock’s chapter in Conflicting memories, pp.501–502). Tsegyam (b.1964) was a young teacher at the Ngaba Middle School, which opened in 1983. He had been given a Tibetan education by (former) Kirti monks, and became fluent in Chinese, spending a period studying in Chengdu. During the wider cultural revival in the PRC he wrote poetry and essays for literary magazines. At the Middle School he cautiously added Tibetan culture into the curriculum.

Tsegyam’s eyes were opened by reading a copy of the Dalai Lama’s memoir My land and my people, brought back by a friend from a trip to India. As awareness of the Tibetan government in exile grew, major protests took place in Lhasa in 1987. Though there was a strong military presence in Ngaba, Tsegyam echoed the mood by pasting up posters in support of Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama. By 1989, as protests throughout the PRC gathered and were crushed, he was under interrogation; sentenced to another year in prison in 1990, on his release he was unemployed and unemployable.

We catch up with Gonpo. In 1981 she and her husband were permitted to leave Xinjiang with their two children, settling in Xiao Tu’s old home Nanjing. One of countless people whose past backgrounds were now forgotten, Gonpo did well as a primary school teacher. While she kept a small portrait of the Dalai Lama at home, she could pass for a Chinese—by now she could barely recall Tibetan.

Still, she received a visit from a high-ranking Tibetan official on a tour of Nanjing, who had her promoted to posts in the Party; though mainly ceremonial, her new status conferred benefits such as a comfortable apartment.

In 1984 Gonpo managed to arrange belated funeral rites for her parents at Kirti monastery. In Beijing she gained an audience with the Panchen Lama, also recently rehabilitated (see e.g. under Labrang 1); he encouraged her to study Tibetan culture in India, and with his help she set off there with her daughter in 1988 during a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. She intended to return to Nanjing in due course, but the crisis of 1989 ensured that she would now find herself living in exile in Dharamsala.

Part Three takes the story on to 2013, as tensions grew again. As urban China basked in McDonalds and Walmart, rural Tibetans still lacked basic amenities.

In Meruma, Dongtuk was born to a disabled single mother who overcame poverty. In her house was a shrine to her uncle, a tulku reincarnate lama.

What little that children knew about recent history was gleaned from their families.

To the extent that they were taught anything about Tibet in the 20th century, it was about how the Communist Party had liberated Tibet from serfdom. Their parents tended not to talk about it. Maybe they didn’t know about it themselves. Or they feared these stories of collective trauma might arouse anti-Chinese sentiments that could get the children in trouble later down the road. The surviving elders who knew firsthand—and who often carried the scars on their bodies—disgorged their memories only sparingly. If they hadn’t been half-starved and beaten, if they hadn’t languished in prison doing gruelling work, then they had done things of which they were now ashamed. You were either tormented or a tormentor. Nobody had escaped unscathed.

Dongtuk gladly accepted when his mother suggested that he become a monk at Kirti monastery, which was now expanding grandly. In the company of village friends there, he flourished at the monastery school. But a new policy was stamping down on monastic activism; a new “patriotic education” campaign was launched at Kirti in 1998, radicalising many monks. The school was closed in 2002.

Pema (b. c1965) was a supporter of the monastery. After the death of her husband she ran a market stall to support her children, two of whom were monks. She regularly took part in circumambulations at Kirti (cf. Charlene Makley for Labrang, ch.3). She took in a young girl called Dechen, who took to a Chinese education, as well as her niece Lhundup Tso, who was of a more enquiring mind. Pema herself was inclined to be grateful for the limited freedoms they now enjoyed. But she was concerned about a vast new construction project; while she felt more pity than hostility towards the Chinese, she didn’t want any more of them in her town. Infrastructure projects escalated in the buildup to the Olympics—along with surveillance.

Demick 159

Brought up in a nomadic community, Tsepay (b.1977) was not inclined towards dissent. His good looks gained him admission to an official song-and-dance troupe at the glossy resort of Jiuzhaigou, and at first he enjoyed the work. But he came to resent the condescending clichés intrinsic to such displays, and his comments got him into trouble. Leaving the troupe, he began travelling the plateau with cellphone and camera to document the transformation of the landscape.

Despite Chinese censorship, families and monasteries still commonly kept portraits of the Dalai Lama, although people were ready to conceal them if there was a raid. Tsepay listened to recordings of teachings by the Dalai Lama, and became aware of the conflict over the identification of the new Panchen Lama. In 2006, as the Chinese rhetoric against the Dalai Lama became more strident, Tsepay spent a year in prison for distributing Dalai Lama recordings, radicalising him further.

These stories come together in Demick’s account of the 2008 uprising. Serious protests broke out in Lhasa on 10th March on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising that led to the flight of the Dalai Lama. In Ngaba the military police were on full alert, but protests erupted there too on the 16th. Dechen normally found the troops rather dashing, but now the tension was clear. In the middle of a prayer festival at Kirti the young monk Dongtuk saw an older colleague holding up a photo of the Dalai Lama and yelling “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama!”. As other monks joined in, they swept out into the streets, confronting the riot police, who responded with tear gas and live ammunition. On their mobiles people began to learn of protests elsewhere in the region, in Labrang, Dzorge, and Rebgong.

Tsepay, on probation, couldn’t resist going into town. There he found the blood-stained body of a young Tibetan woman—probably Pema’s young niece Lhundup Tso. Pema, a curious onlooker, was horrified to learn that she was among those shot dead. Enraged, Tsepay entered the battle. Wounded, he escaped via Chengdu to Shenzhen, where he was pursued by police from Ngaba, but managed to escape again.

Demick 183

With Kirti monastery now under virtual siege, checkpoints, bunkers, and CCTV were installed. Nearly 600 monks were arrested, over a fifth of the monastery’s population. But the campaign to remove all traces of the Dalai Lama only increased the Tibetans’ reverence for him. At last Dongtuk could interpret the sufferings of his elders in terms of the current oppression. He began listening to illegal Amdo songs such as Tashi Dhondup’s 1958–2008 (see also here).

With Pema distraught over the death of her niece, and normal social life suspended, Dechen became the family’s go-between. Her education at Tibetan middle school had become more conventional; in response to campaigns against expressions of Tibetan nationalism, the students waged subtle protests.

Self-immolation
Life began returning to “normal” by the end of 2008, but the 2009 Monlam New Year festival prompted yet another crisis as a young Kirti monk set himself on fire on the main street. Though he survived, 156 Tibetans have since immolated themselves, of whom nearly a third came from Ngaba and nearby.

Dongtuk’s life at Kirti monastery had become tedious. He was a keen basketball fan, and loved watching movies. His mother eventually submitted to his repeated requests for her to muster the funds to allow him to study in India, but his efforts to leave were unsuccessful.

On 16th March 2011 another Kirti monk, a friend of Dongtuk, set himself on fire—this time fatally. Looking for scapegoats, police arrested monks, and locals rallied to protest. The monastery was barricaded again. But over the next months further self-immolations followed.

Ngaba was now sealed off and equipped with all the technology of riot control—with fire extinguishers now added to the police arsenal. When Demick visited the town in 2013 it reminded her of trips to war zones like Baghdad, Sarajevo, and the Gaza Strip.

As the self-immolations brought renewed international publicity to the Tibetan cause, the Dalai Lama and Tibet advocacy groups were in an awkward position.

Dechen, no longer so amenable to the Chinese, was now alienated by her education at school; Pema now began the complex procedures to help her reach India, as it became ever harder for Tibetan to gain travel permits. With Pema travelling as her chaperone, after a four-month journey they eventually made their way to Dham and crossed into Nepal.

Dongtuk too renewed his efforts to leave. He evaded attention by staying on his father’s nomadic pastures, getting to know his half-brother Rinzen Dorjee. And then, via Lhasa, Dham and Kathmandu, Dongtuk too managed to reach Dharamsala. As he resumed his studies at the branch of Kirti monastery there (founded in 1990), he learned of another self-immolation in Meruma—that of Rinjen Dorjee.

In Part Four Demick visits Ngaba refugees in Dharamsala, learning details hard to divulge in the intimidated atmosphere of Ngaba, and updating the story since 2014. (It is indeed possible for scholars to glean insights through extended stays among Tibetans within the PRC, as did Charlene Makley around Labrang, but in presenting their work they tend to be beset by academic concerns. For fine reflections on the differences between conducting research in Lhasa and Dharamsala, see Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, “Easier in exile?“, cited in n.1 here).

The journey to India was always fraught with dangers. Following the initial exodus after 1959, another wave took place in the 1980s. We catch up with Gonpo, who had been in inadvertent exile in Dharamsala with her daughter since 1989. The Dalai Lama, whom she had met in 1956, received her warmly, giving her a post in the exile parliament. But as relations between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama deteriorated, Gonpo was unable to see her husband and her other daughter until 2005. As Demick observed after meeting her in 2014,

Not only does the rift between China and the Tibetans run straight through her family, it runs through her psyche. Gonpo loves China as well as Tibet. She still speaks better Chinese than Tibetan. More than most Han Chinese people I know, she absorbed the lessons of socialism. She eschewed conspicuous displays of wealth and was proud that she had shed her aristocratic roots and was, to use a Chinese Communist slogan, serving the people.

Goonpo was deeply disturbed by the self-immolations in her former home.

Demick x

Demick also met the former Red Guard Delek, who had also managed to reach Dharamsala in 1989, becoming a historian as he documented the tribulations of Ngaba, while serving as caretaker at a school for young refugees.

The young teacher Tsegyam had sneaked across the border into India in 1992, eventually becoming private secretary to the Dalai Lama. And after fleeing Ngaba in 2008, Tsepay was on the run for four years, spending over a year in hiding on Wutaishan before reaching Dharamsala.

Dechen was enthusiastic about her studies at the boarding school run by the exile government; educating herself further by reading Woeser keenly, she was hoping to become a journalist. She took Demick to meet Pema, who despite her relief at escaping the appalling repressions in Ngaba, didn’t feel quite at ease, missing the material comforts of her former home.

Indeed, for many exiles the homeland remains ambivalent; with conditions in India less than ideal, they may be tempted to return to their homeland, despite the inevitable scrutiny to which they will be subjected. From a peak of 118,000 in the mid-1990s, the Tibetan population in India declined to 94,000 in 2009. The Chinese had plugged leaks to the borders, and Tibetans often move on to Western countries.

Demick considers the role of the Dalai Lama and current worries over the succession (for recent news, see e.g. here). The bar has lowered from independence to survival; but if the preservation of Tibetan culture sounds like a modest goal, even this can clearly not be taken for granted.

In her final chapter Demick ponders the limits of freedom. Some Tibetans even thought the Chinese had heeded the lessons of the self-immolations; they had cancelled an unpopular water diversion project, and shelved plans to house Chinese workers; aid projects were coming into effect. Photos of the Dalai Lama reappeared at Kirti. But Chinese migration continues, and Tibetans are still disadvantaged.

It should go without saying: The Tibetans are not some exotic isolated tribe trying to preserve an ancient civilisation against the advance of modernity. They want infrastructure, they want technology, they want higher education. But they also want to keep their language and their freedom of religion. […]

Time and again I heard the same story. Almost everybody was better off financially than they’d been a decade ago, like everybody in China. But Tibetans were still poor—even by the standards of rural China. And they could see that the Chinese newcomers in town had a higher standard of living.

Younger Tibetans might not be deeply religious; they might readily take to a Chinese education as a career path, and be seduced by the trappings of modern material goods. And yet they too have come to resent deeply their chronic submission to the Chinese, connecting it to the scars inherited from their elders, and they continue to fight to maintain their identity.

* * *

Eat the Buddha is based on three trips to Ngaba, as well as interviews with Ngaba people elsewhere, most fruitfully in Dharamsala.

With a few exceptions […], the people in this book left Tibet not for political reasons but to further their education or personal growth.

For the most part, they were regular people who hoped to live normal, happy lives in China’s Tibet without having to make impossible choices between their faith, family, and their country.

As she did for Nothing to envy, Demick provides a useful research guide in a section of endnotes, themed by chapter. Besides her own visits to Ngaba, Chengdu, Lhasa, and Dharamsala, she cites sources such as the War on Tibet site of Li Jianglin and Matthew Akester, the work of scholars such as Tsering Shakya, Robert Barnett, and Melvyn Goldstein (we can now add Conflicting memories, including Bianca Horlemann’s chapter 11 on Golog), as well as human rights groups (cf. my roundup of posts on Tibet). Tsering Woeser has written on self-immolation in Tibet on fire (2016), and in this article. Many of these issues are covered on the excellent High Peaks Pure Earth website.

While the Chinese Party-State’s repression of the Tibetans is taking a rather different form to its barbarity in Xinjiang (see Uyghur tag), it’s important to keep the Tibetan case in the public eye. Over seventy years of Chinese indoctrination and brute force have been ineffective; a way out of the impasse remains elusive. Engagingly told through personal stories, Eat the Buddha makes a microcosm of the travails of Tibetans in their sorry encounter with the modern Chinese state, serving for the non-specialist (that’s me) as a digestible introduction to complex issues.


* For some effective popular works on other areas, see Charles King (here and here), Undreamed shores, Watching the English, and The souls of China.

Medieval helpline

test card

Normal service may or may not be resumed shortly.

After a whole day of fruitless wrangling with the well-meaning wizz-kids of Mac, I find myself at the mercy of forces against which I am ever more helpless.

Will my updated version of Safari work if I upgrade to OS 14.1.1?
Sure, if you upgrade to OS 14.1 first.
Great! Can I do that?
No.
So I’m completely fucked?
Indeed you are, sir. Have a nice day.

Medieval helpline (excuse my abject failure to reproduce the language faithfully, but you get the gyste):

Estymed Syre! Thyne present Qyll ys incompatyble with ye Vellum thou art usyng. Thyne veyn attempt to use “fowntayne penne” founder on ye fact that it will not invented be for many centuriys. Nor wyll any fantasticalle Appe rescue ye from languyshing in Purgatory. Fare thee well.

Cc Dante, Chaucer

Sure enough, this has already become something of a meme:

All this may heighten our appreciation of oral transmission. Cf. Flora, Amos and the tweet, The wonders of technology, and Bunnios.

Lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees

Pharisee

Fresco of Pharisee and tax collector, Basilika Ottobeuren
(source: wiki).

Continuing to explore the riches of Bach cantatas (most recently in Cycles and seasons), I note that it was on 8th August 1723, the 11th Sunday after Trinity, that Bach first directed Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (“See to it that your fear of God be not hypocrisy”—a fine motto) for his new congregation at Leipzig (see here, and wiki).

The text (author unknown) is laden with sonorous rebukes:

Christianity today
is in a bad way:
most Christians in the world
are lukewarm Laodiceans
and puffed-up Pharisees
who make an outward show of being pious
and like a reed bow their heads to earth
[…]

The appearance of false hypocrites
can be called Sodom’s apples
that are filled with filth
and from outside glisten splendidly.
Hypocrites, who are outwardly fine,
cannot stand before God […]

Wretched man that I am, wretched sinner,
I stand here before God’s face.
Ah God, ah God, be gentle
and do not enter into judgment with me!
Have mercy, have mercy,
God, my Forgiver, over me!

Just imagine the sermon (see here and here) (but don’t imagine Dudley Moore’s Psalm). The cantata might appeal to Alan Bennett, with his observations on hypocrisy as a defining trait of the English.

Here are John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir in a live performance during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, with the stellar Mark Padmore and Magdalena Kožená (singing another exquisite Erbarme dich, with two oboes da caccia; cf. Bach and the oboe), with Stephan Loges:

For more from Magdalena Kožená, see here, and here.

For a variety of posts, including more cantatas, see A Bach retrospective.

Mata Hari

Mata Hari 1905

Mata Hari performing, 1905.

Further to Barbara Pravi and Eurovision, Azerbaijan’s 2021 entry Mata Hari by Efendi is striking:

The refrain Ma-ma-ma-Mata Hari makes another entry for my list of stammering songs. Were there an Azeri Stammering Association, they could have p-p-picketed p-p-performances.

The song may not be entirely illuminating as historical documentation, but hey—portrayals of her story have never been limited by facts. This clip from Greta Garbo’s 1931 movie is enriched with Amy Winehouse‘s You know I’m no good:

“Exotic, glamorous spy… notorious temptress…”—among several posts exploring the trope of the femme fatale, see here (cf. Words and women).

And while I don’t expect Efendi’s song to reflect the wonders of Azeri folk magham (for which see here), we world music fans are always on the lookout for popular songs that mine (and cheapen…) the folk heritage—a more promising theme the further east one ventures (e.g. Ivo Papazov). But in Mata Hari the shawm plays a sadly minor role, so here’s an Azeri zurna solo:

Improvising on Bach

Bach at organ

Portrait of Bach seated at the organ, 1725. Source.

Bach was renowned for his improvisations on the organ, and organists today still continue the tradition that has become attenuated in other branches of WAM (see Unpacking “improvisation”). So in an invigorating Sunday-morning Prom (on BBC i-Player until the end of August), Martin Baker alternated his own improvisations on organ works by Bach with the original pieces—which presumably had a life as improvisations before he committed them to paper.

Proms organ

Of course, whereas Bach himself improvised in the tradition of his time (in the style of… Bach!), today’s organists improvising on his music have the whole diverse soundscape since then as their palette, though Baker opted for a relatively traditional language (indeed, some modern players like Robert Levin on fortepiano even improvise in the style of Mozart). Baker ended with a stimulating improvisation on English melodies familiar to the Prommers.

Here he is with an earlier, um, medley on Bach themes:

He was standing in for Oliver Latry, for whose remarkable performances *do* refer to my post on French organ improvisation—which also includes his elaboration on the B-A-C-H motif, as well as a film of Messiaen himself at the age of 76 playing three resplendent improvisations!!!

It all goes to show that

Bach’s Organ Works

(cf. “Ivor Bolton organ“).

For a roundup of posts under the Bach tag, full of wonders, see here. And note Nicolas Robertson’s remarkable verbal fantasy on Johann Sebastian Bach!

Hosanna—J.S. Bach!

Anagram tales 9: Johann Sebastian Bach

guest post by Nicolas Robertson

For a general introduction to the series, see here.

Prelude—SJ
The grand finale of this third trio of anagram tales, this wonderful fantasy is much informed by Nick’s own research on Bach, with plentiful allusions to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage among his typically diverse cast.

* * *

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Series of concerts and recordings December 1999 –January 2001, 250th anniversary celebration of Bach through his church cantatas, performed each on the liturgical calendar day for which they were written, in places as closely as feasible linked with the original performances; or with the composer himself; or with places dear to or chosen by the director of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner. English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, multiple vocal and instrumental soloists.

Bach denkmal

J.S. Bach Denkmal, Arnstadt.

Impossible to encapsulate JSB in an anagram, and I didn’t think of doing so, I reckon, until some time into 2000. The letters were not inviting, as well as too many to control; but on one long bus journey Stephen Varcoe came up with the gem included below, and I understood I had to have a reciprocal try.

Compiling the anagrams took the whole of that year, on and off; the parallel story has taken a bit longer. A substantial part was in place by 2003, John Eliot Gardiner’s 60th birthday, when I submitted an early version of the finale. But the ‘story’ hadn’t been committed to any imperishable medium, and was lost in our 2009 fire. (The anagrams, such as they were, haphazardly survived in a disc I made when leaving the computer on which I’d typed them in London, in 2007, and miraculously had the nous to send to myself by e-mail before the fatal day).

The commentary, though substantially already imagined, has necessarily had to be re-derived, sometimes from scratch, over the subsequent two decades. It follows what I can remember of the original apprehensions, from the anagram matrix, and carrying on…

146 anagrams, in strict rotation. Here goes my 19-letter Passacaglia, followed by a Fantasia on the same ground:

HOSANNA—J.S. BACH!

  “Béni !”
   “Ta. Hosanna basic, jah.”

Bent: “Bach Jain hosanna best.”
   “Jain Shoah ebbs. Can’t an Osanna —”
   “H !” (aitch)
JSB bane. Banish abject hosanna.

JSB: “Ché ? No shit, Anna !”
   “Baa”—Anna hatch babies on J.S.
JSB: “Ach, isn’t Anna boa!” (he is absent.)
Johann, a Bach: “An Eis’nach Abba!”
St John = SANCTI JOHANNES

ABBAH

Bach: “St John as Bean, in a thin assonance.”
   “ABBAH?”
J: “Ach, ja, hab Noten in Baß.” [1] Josh Abba, ancient ash’n Eis’nach nabob.
Jan: “Hast BA?”
   “Has insane chant job”—Anna Bach. “Has-be’n? JS? Toi??”
Bach (in jeans—bathos): “An anabasis, JC ohne NT. Bah, bah, an incessant job.”
   “Ah, JSB canonist? Bane…”
   “Ha ha,” J.S. Bach hones Anna bait, “chess, Anna B.?”
   “Jah, bon, ta, I…”
J.S. Bach, Anna—Tao.

H. IBSEN
   “Hans O. Jahn St., cabbie!”
   “Na. Hans? – ja, a bench bastion, cannabis hash-bean, jot NASA cash. Joint, B. Behan?” Behan: “Ban scat jois? Nah! ‘Cats’ jois ebb, Hahn ‘Nana’ hath a nonsensic jabba, an incessant Noh jabba. The job’s ‘Banish Canaan Banana’! – Shona jest…” (hic) “B-banana jibes,” chants. “ ‘Oh, I eat bananas’ – John B’ch’s banjo shanties.”
   “Na – Bach? J. Bach an’ sons bathe in a Bosnian casbah.”
Janet: “A-Anne?”
   “I shan’t casbah job, shabbiest Canaan john.”
Can job astonish Behan? “Joint, Abbess Hannah?”
Can Hannah? Abbot: “Jessica? O henna nacht, Jass babi!”
Abbess Hanna chant “Joi!” Abbess’ hijo chant “Na-na!”
Abbot: “Jinn Cessna, ha ha! Jess, Hannah, botanic BA – ”
Johann: “Athens BA basic.”

* * *

BAs? Joanna Hitchens, BA.

* * *

John B.: “The CIA’s bananas!”
Bananas—a Hitchens job (John as a cabinet has-b’n).
Jessica O’Bannan hath Bishan B., Shane, Jan Cabot—bah, Jan Cabot, ‘sanshine’…
   “Jinnah nab seacoast, H.B.”
   “Jinnah?”
   “Eton, BA –”
   “– cash BAs. NB neo-Janata bacshish.”
   “Non-Janata shish-cebab Jahan’s sahib NT beacon – ‘bacon bhaji, nan’ – the ass!”
   “Netaji Bose, ANC ban, hah!”
   “Sai Baba, natch, Jens, hon (hasten bhaji, son – an’ cab) – he Johnian (Cantab) bass!”
A.Besant: “Bach’s Johnian?”

A BATH ABC
Nash, In. Jones (Ian ‘Sabbath’ Jones, nach.) Jones? a Bath cabin. Nash? Bath ascension, jah. Nab cabin Jonathan bashes. A casino? nah, Jebb hasn’t.
J. (sob): “The china bananas!” Icon: Saab; Shah; Taj. Benn, Hanoi bachante, S.J., bans Jinnah, Botha (“an abcess”—abcess, Johanna? in Bath??).
Basic ash’n be Jonathan: “I scan ‘H’ sonnet – ABBA, jah? ‘Ban’e’snatch, Jab’ !”
   “No Shia!”
   “Beat B.S. Johns’n! Aa… chain Satan, can banish Hob.”
J.E.: “Ancient bash: Jason. Bah! Johanna’s B’nai B’ith case, Canaan Josh’a, ten shibb–”
   “Jah. Sheba, BC—an onanist!”
   “Ba’ath ’n Hossein ABC, Jan?”
   “Jes. Ch. ahanatos ibn ban Jocanan Bathsheba sin. Bashan benison, jah. Act chasten Jonah.”
   “NASA bib?”
   “Ten-inca hash, baas…”
   “Bon, J. –
        Habas [beans], join, catch,
        Jain ass, a bohnen batch
   “Baba-ja?”
   “Ten-shi chanson?”
   “Chthonian Jaen’s Abbas enchants Habana (obs.). Anna (ij.), bin Jacob’s sheath. Bacon a Jansenist? Ahab?”

* * *

Joanna: “Stein ABC: A B Shh…”

* * *

Johnnie bans a cat-bash: “Nab Jonti, ha!” Bash a scena: Jonti, Hanse scab-ban.
   “Ah, Hansi C’onje bats—nab! Ha!!”
Bet on Hansi C.: Sha’ja’ ban. Abbas – Sha’jah – innocent. Hans—a jab, both canines.” [2]

J.S. Bach has inane baton, J.S. Bach nabs henna iota!

ABACABA 
– “John—thinness?”

NB JSB’s ‘Ninth’ echo: [3]

AAAA

* * *

J.S. Bach, Anna, anise both: ‘Ache, Sob, Jab, Sin.’
Nathan: “JS,” (Bach) “no absinthe?” Ann? Abba cash, honest injan…”
   “Hinab!” Chaos et…
JSB: “Anna! Anna—snobbish Taj ache.” (Ban insane J.S. Bach oath.)

* * *

   “Abbot – Jenni – a Hans Sachs, an Aachen hobbit’s…”
Jan: “Noh ! Banshei! a JSB cantata beano!”
Nin has J.S. Bach in sash, Ecbatana john. B-Beth, John: “Anabasis? Can John B., a Sachsen Ta’iban, ban Nash Hanseatic job?”
   “Bach Iona’s best, Jan.”
   “Nah” – Jan. “Bach? Iona? SHAN’T!”
EBS nab Bach, astonish Jane, bin John’s Sabata ache.
N.J.: “I, the Hon. N., ban ACAS, as ban a snobbish Janet, ach.”
Ban cane? John abstains: can’t bash a shinbone, ja. “Josh has a BBC antenna—I ban he in sonata.”

* * *

J.S. Bach: “Bassinet, banjo, ha ha, c’n-can sahib…”
   “The banjo’s an – a ! – Johann Schein sabbat…”
Johann Sebastian: “Ah!…”

 C B

– “Johann? Hansi? aa…”

 C B B

(E.T.S.) [4]

* * *

HOSANNA—J. S. BACH

Praise be for JSB!

   “Bless you!” – Johann has sneezed, perhaps.
   “Thanks. Makes me think that ‘praise’ is the root of it, yes.”

A musicologist writes: “I like Bach’s praise music best when it lines up with a non-violent pre-Christian ethical world-view.”
   “Practitioners of which used to be harried, a bit less now, I hope. But couldn’t we extend ‘Osanna’ –”
   “Excuse me, there’s an H in Hebrew: it’s Hosanna.”
There’s no agreement, curse it; discussion of praise music founders.

* * *

   “What? is that really so, Anna?” Sebastian exclaims.
Anna, a bit sheepishly, has told Johann she’s pregnant.

   “Wow, what a girl!” Sebastian cries – and exits to take evensong.
His cousin, another Johann, who’s with them today (the Bachs come and go between each other familiarly), reassures Anna, “He’s like the boss in the old Eisenach days!”
Sebastian nips back in, looking for a rebus he’s made for the St John. “I like this small shift in harmony, could provide a laugh.”
   “But where do you get that B natural from?” Johann pleads.
   “Oh, it’s ok, just listen to the bass line”—Sebastian likes to tease the older Eisenach generation.
Jan, whose connection is unclear but who’s obviously entitled to be there and equally obviously allies with the conservative faction, asks “Do you really have the qualifications to risk this?”
Anna cuts this off with a cheery “A mad Cantor job, that’s what he has. But Sebastian’s not finished yet, ARE YOU?”
Bach, who’s taken off his top to put on his cassock—looking touchingly informal, in his jute trousers—responds seriously, “Look, I’ve been making my way up, as if I were Christ without yet the New Testament. But, oh god, there does seem to be no end to the work that has to be done…”
   “Right, but you spend your time making fugues! Sod that…”
Sebastian laughs, he’s above this, and turns to Anna, with an offer he knows she finds it hard to resist, “How about a game of chess before the service?”
Anna’s all confused, thinking she’d been left out of the conversation, “Well, if you think there’s time – yes – thanks – ok –”
Johann’s happy to know the two are on the same wavelength.

* * *

“I knew Herr Jahn,” the taxi driver confided, “he was a stalwart of the judiciary, but wasn’t averse to a joint or two, or a subsidy from the space programme. Speaking of which, can I tempt you, Herr Behan?”
“As long as you don’t go on about free jazz. I’ve had enough of Lloyd Webber, fin-de-siècle musicals don’t make sense to me, any more than japonaiserie. Scare off African potentates, that’s what I’m here for.” Noting a coolish reception from the driver, Behan temporises, “that’s a joke I heard in South Africa…” but he couldn’t resist breaking into song, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’…
He’s delivered safely to the British Council, where the staff ask if he’ll be referring to Bach, whose year it is.
“You what? As far as I’m concerned, let the whole Bach family go and enjoy themselves in a Yugoslav thermal brothel.”
Janet, an intern, asks “Oh, do you think Mrs Bach would go along with that? I wouldn’t accept it, sounds like dodgy Middle Eastern sanitation.” But Behan is imperturbable, and he spots a nun he recognises:
“Join me in a joint, Hannah? Abbess and all?”
An abbot across the room has heard this, and calls over with words echoing Lorenzo’s in The Merchant of Venice, “Go for it, lass!” (no one had ever heard the Abbess’s real first name before, Jessica) – “How sweetly sleeps…”
Hannah/Jessica, liberated, cries “Bliss!”, and her ‘son’ (presumably an acolyte monk) echoes.
The abbot, after veering inexplicably into Indian subcontinental politics (or can that be where he met Jessica, now Hannah, abbess?), launches “Do you remember that devilish monoplane, oh, how we laughed! Jess, ok Hannah, you’re the one who knew about plants, even got a degree for them!”

– across a few centuries, Johann in Leipzig wonders if Sebastian shouldn’t have got a qualification from the Greek academy, for a start

– but for the value of a university degree, I ask you to consider Joanna Hitchens (and I ask her indulgence).

* * *

Meanwhile, in Chichester, the cathedral organist, coolly sceptical, opines over sherry after Sunday Matins, “The US secret services have gone pear-shaped.” That’s what we would expect from the Hitchens brothers, vying with each other for conspiracies.
   “Wouldn’t you have liked to be a politician?”, JB is asked. Well, yes, he’d had his chance. There are some quite outspoken guests, among them associates of the Dean who’d served in the army in SE Asia. I already overhead Jessica mentioning an Indian spin bowler, plus Alan Ladd, and the Boston founding fathers (oh the bright new dawn long promised, those slave traders who spoke only with god) –
   “I remember when I told Helena Blavatsky that Jinnah wasn’t going to be content without a sea port.”
   “But Jinnah was one of us!”
   “Yes, British education, qualifications…”
   “One could buy them. And look how that’s turned into nationalist Hindu free-loading.”
   “Thinking of the Hinduists, I just ordered a beef skewer takeaway, image of the Taj Mahal, that National Trust signpost, in mind. But do you know what the man said? ‘You want a pork fry-up, with onions and chapati?’—what a twit!”
   “This is like infighting between freedom fighters,” interposed Jens, an old Indochina hand. “Netaji Bose thought it more important to oppose British colonialism than worry about alliances with the Third Reich or Japan—hero to Indian nationalists, ‘a common traitor’ to your father. Not sure how South African Gandhi supporters saw him, though.”
“And what about another charismatic guru, Jens, my dear” – I hadn’t met this couple before, but they’re clearly keen to get out of the Vicars’ Close and enjoy their takeaway on the coast, they’ve booked a taxi—though they can’t bear to leave an argument, only had to because the taxi arrived.
But as they go, a tantalising throwaway: “You know JSB sang at St John’s Cambridge, as a bass?”
Annie Besant hears this, and to her credit can hardly believe it is so.

* * *

What you need to know about Bath
Talk of Bath, and you talk first of John Nash, and Inigo Jones. But did Jones build more than a garden shed? While Nash, he saw Bath going up in the world, oh yes. (Still, I wouldn’t mind that shed, Jonathan, since you seem not to think much of it.) Neither of them planned a gambling resort, nor did the Oxford philosopher.

How fragile the past is! I remember a reception in the British Council home on the Île St Louis in Paris, where I and a colleague, our gestures becoming expansive with hospitality, knocked a crystal ashtray off a mantelpiece, which shattered distressingly around our feet. Our hostess was impeccable, she had it cleared up in no time, and told us, “Please don’t worry, the person who gave it to us is dead now anyway.”

This makes me think of memorable images, and how they can fade. Saab – who remembers those stylish cars? The Shah of Iran? The Indian restaurant in York where I saw Victor Lewis- Smith once successfully pay with a library card? Tony Benn’s memoirs tell (or would if they hadn’t been redacted) of a Jesuit having a high old time in Saigon, ignoring both Indian and South African politicians, of whom one was a boil on the body politic—

I must have been muttering aloud to myself, for “A boil? did you hear that, Johanna? – and in Bath!”
Jonathan went pale, at least to the level of his foundation make-up: “Let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve digitalised one of the love poems, it’s got that Keatsian rhyme-scheme, nicht war? like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Snark’ – ”
   “That’s a pretty fundamentalist interpretation.”
   “But avant-garde at the same time! Or eerie, like Quatermass, dig up and pin down the old evil!”
John Eliot says this is an old set-to: “It’s all in the Golden Fleece.”
   “OK, but this is actual: Johanna’s tied up with the Israeli nationalists, a historic second-generation fighter, ten commandments set in st—”
   “—yes, but it didn’t start there. Long before, an exogamous queen, after her own pleasure…”
   “Jan, can you give us an up-to-date secular run-down on this?”
   “Ok, if you can keep up, it’s a bit convoluted. Jesus Christ, who is deathless, is the metaphorical son of John the Baptist and Solomon’s mother. This transgression is compensated for by the fecundity of the fat bulls each brought to the union, right? It’s fair to say though that the prophet Jonah felt personally humbled by this deal.”
   “Till he was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.”
   “Not to speak of limitless supplies of peyotl, big boss.”
   “Fine, Jen, but I’d like you to know there are other virtues in plants:

Fava, runner, haricot bean,
Makes a donkey an Indian Queen

   “Yevtushenko? A witch’s spell?”
   “A song for active meditation?”
   “Look at it this way. A Pakistani bowler once thrilled Cuban observers in the earthy olive groves of Andalusia (in those days when Cubans played cricket, not baseball). Anna, now living under another name, deliberately neglected to insist Jacob put on the condom. These are accidents, perhaps determinant, of history. Does that make Bacon, who predicated binary computing machines, a predeterminist? Did it have to be this way? Did you have to carry to the end your existential antagonism with the white whale? Was the story only ever you/it/he/she?”

Joanna, looking on aghast, sympathises with Gertrude Stein’s abdication, after much struggle and play, in the face of so many letters.

* * *

The final set of borrowed (burrowed?) images includes a small, rather sad, cricket vignette—as is apparently inevitable, my medium seems to have a predictable set of stand-bys. This one can be quite precisely situated: it’s the time of the infamous match-fixing scandals involving the South African cricket set-up and specifically the captain, Hanse Cronje, a fine upstanding batsman who went dismally wrong. I think there was a tournament in Arabia at about this time where for once the authorities showed their teeth—who knows if they bit all those responsible?

But JSB himself was not immune to unruly behaviour (though I don’t have reason to think corruption as such was ever attributed—hot temper and intolerance perhaps, and a tendency to collar the Thomas-Kirche’s calligraphy ink allowance). Perhaps he didn’t take it so well, when a colleague heard a theme he was working on—curiously redolent of the ‘Dies Irae’—and wondered whether there was enough substance in it. (Another sketch adumbrates a clearly Beethovenian motif, which just shows one can never know what may give fruit later, and furthermore that minimalism goes hand-in-hand with polyphony).

* * *

Sebastian and Anna are playing games with making up cantata titles—they’re both a bit fired up by absinthe. [We too used to do this: I recall, from Stephen Varcoe and/or Richard Savage, Mein Stimme ist mit Scheiss bedeckt, and Ach Gott, du stehts auf meinen Fuß.]

   “How about Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?”
   “Brilliant! A bit over the top, but go for it!”
There’s an apprentice with them, who can’t quite follow this, and wonders if they should keep off the anis.
   “Anna,” says Johann, “don’t you think that’ll put us on the best-seller lists, truly?” Nathan’s insulted by any suggestion of selling-out, and threatens who knows what sort of mayhem. Sebastian, calm, just says to Anna, “Don’t worry—he has this old idea of Indo-European hierarchy.” Though he then swore softly; but I won’t transcribe what he said, it sounded a bit crazy to me.

* * *

Somewhere, a little while before the Bach Pilgrimage, the office are discussing progress with the idea. They’ve got a highly placed cleric, a beloved singer, a small wizz-kid from Aix-la-Chapelle…
Jan, who’s everywhere, says “Think of Japanese theatre! We’ll go down singing in glory! It’ll be a great Bach-fest!”
Nin immediately imagines scenes with Sebastian dressed in exotic robes, in some sort of Persian latrine. Beth (I stammer as I address her, I’m so nervous, especially as John’s with her) questions the concept of ‘anabasis’, return to the source – “Do we think that Sebastian, who is by way of being a Thuringian fundamentalist, would accept a British makeover of a Baltic town?”
We’re called back to the matter in hand. “I’m sure we should concentrate on Iona as a high point, Jan.”
   “Sorry, I personally won’t be doing Iona.”
And so the English Baroque Soloists get the Iona gig, surprising Jane, and assuaging JEG’s problems with the recording.
The Honourable representative intervenes to outlaw temporising views, ‘no industrial negotiation, and no smart-alecs either, phew’.
Would she even rule out corporal punishment? JE keeps out of it, no knee-capping here. Most importantly, don’t let Radio 3 pirate this—I’ve spotted one of their mikes in the mix—watch out in the ‘Sancta Maria’!

* * *

   “Do you know,” Sebastian murmured to Anna, “I can hear low clarinets, I can hear a strumming continuo instrument, wow, I can see the old masters dancing to our tune….”
   “That—guitar, is it?—can launch you and all your predecessors into a jamboree…”
But JSB’s already hearing something else, is it birdsong, sounds from the future, from another country? “Ach, listen…”

CB

   “Johann? Sebastian? Hansi? Are you there? Oh…”

CBB

CTS

Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives of the Hunted (1902).

Nicolas Robertson, 2000 –2021.


[1] Anagram by Stephen Varcoe.
[2] Anagram by Charles Pott.
[3] The penultimate bar, violins: AAAA.
[4] Amongst the stranded letters in the final anagram, I’d already realised that ETS could mean Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian nature writer I’d loved when young; but I had no idea what the still unattributed letters (CB CBB) could do until I looked him up in the British Library.