As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable menis the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Music Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
* * *
Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.
The Harvard Library has a new bilingual exhibition (until the end of August) on the life and work of Rulan Chao Pian 卞趙如蘭(1922–2013; here, and wiki), with rare books, original field recordings, and other material from her research and teaching.
Daughter of the linguist Yuen Ren Chao, Rulan Chao Pian was a leading scholar of the performing arts and music history of China, teaching at Harvard from 1947 until her retirement in 1992. She was one of the founders of CHINOPERL. In 1974 she became the first Chinese American woman professor at Harvard. Soon after mainland China opened up with the liberalisations of the late 1970s she was active in researching and lecturing there, while spreading word abroad of the revival in performance traditions and scholarship.
In her bibliography, note the wealth of articles on Peking opera and narrative singing. On early history, her 1969 book Sonq dynasty musical sources and their interpretation explored material that was already being interpreted by scholars like Yang Yinliu in China and Laurence Picken in England. See also the festschrift Themes and variations: essays in honor of Rulan Chao Pian, ed. Bell Yung and Joseph Lam (1994).
Aha—with that title I will perhaps manage to offend both flute and clarinet aficionados at once! I’ll try and redeem myself.
The Mozart clarinet quintet appears in my post on Hugh Maguire, and the clarinet concerto is just as sublime. To complement Andrew Marriner’s exquisite solo in the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony with Rozhdestvensky, here he is with the Adagio of the Mozart concerto:
The Rondo finale (below) is full of wonderful chiaroscuro contrasts—solemnity (3.17), and pathos (4.40) with slapstick interludes. But my inspiration for this post is a tiny passage in between (just seven bars, from 4.01, beginning breezily enough at 3.45) that has always entranced me: languid, sultry flutes sustaining hushed low chords, joined by bassoons; upper strings chugging, even chirping; while the clarinet does a little “bad cop–good cop” routine in low and high registers:
More to relish there: the violins leading into the passage with staccato quavers, taking over from the clarinet’s legato sign-off; and the way the bassoons fill out the flute chords by joining in a bar later:
(clarinet part “in A”, you gather, sounding a minor 3rd lower than written)
Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun is a constant delight—one of the great books about music (for more, see Carson tag).
The chapters are named after, and inspired by, the title of a particular Irish tune. In Boil the breakfast early Carson sings the praises of The Fry and depicts a fantasy of the perfect Belfast café.
If traditional musicians are engaged with constant repetition and renewal, infinite fine-tunings and shades of rhythms, variations on the basic, cooks are even more so.
He recalls the excitement of discovering the vocabulary for eggs in a New York diner:
A: How do you want your eggs? B: Well… fried, I suppose. A: What do you mean, fried? You want basted, over-easy, sunny-side up, over-hard, or what?
He soon graduates from the attractive-sounding but wobbly sunny-side up to over-easy. Indeed, “even the Irish fried egg has many schools of thought”. One thing always leads to another:
Then we engage the wider lexicon of “The Fry”, where the possibilities become Byzantine. Some exclude fried mushrooms or potatoes, say, from their definition of The Fry, as being side issues—distractions from the matter in hand. […] Sometimes I am attracted to the Puritan ideal of bacon and eggs, nothing more, nothing less. [For less, see here.]
By a meandering route involving two more tunes (The Kylebrack rambler and The Galway rambler, aka The Kylebrack), Carson recalls a story:
Then there was the café you always found by accident, above a haberdashery or alterations shop. The door that led upstairs was innocent of any label or description of the premises above. * You sat at the white-linen-covered table, and the table silver glinted with a sudden tang of memory; you knew you’d been here many times before. Waitresses in black stockings and little frilly caps appeared to serve you. There was a little scalloped butter-dish, silver slat and pepper cellars; toast came in a toast-rack. Besides the silver tea-pot was a jug of just-boiled water. The fry arrived on thick white wide-rimmed hot delph plates—“Mind the plates”, the waitress said, as she dished them out as if she were dealing cards. All the hands were flush: the famous Dublin Hafner sausages, the exotic Free State bacon, the coarse fat-spotted black pudding, the unctuous creamy texture of the white. The eggs wobbled and glistened their glazed orange yolks. […]
You sat at the window above the hum and buzz of the street below. At first you gulped and chewed and then decelerated as you realised that your hunger would be perfectly assuaged. Then you could eat contemplatively, picking bits and choosing bits you thought would make an interesting ensemble. You craned your neck occasionally like some astronomer, gazing downwards at the Milky Way of interweaving passing heads. The chinking noise of cutlery and crockery cut through the muted traffic noise. You pronged the last inch of Hafner’s sausage on to a tiny toast triangle that you’d custom-cut, and married it to the last remaining quarter of an egg yolk. You ate these morsels in one forkful. Then a gulp of tea. You settled back contentedly. An enormous cut-glass ashtray came from nowhere. Plates vanished, and you put your elbows on the table and lit up. The bill came in its own good time, unhurriedly. You looked with some amazement at the spiky old-fashioned Staedtler HB pencil-writing, quoting price current in the Fifties. You paid the carbon-slip. Then you descended to the mundane busy street. Absorbed into the crowd, you let yourself be taken by its flow, and became another corpuscle in its bloodstream.
We would spread the word about this last word of an eating-house. No-one ever found it, nor could we again when we determined that we would, because the universe is often stumbled upon by accident, or visualised in dreams. Only when the stars concur do we arrive. We stumble through the patterns of the Kylemore and the Kylebrack and we wander through the icons of the city, touching them in well-worn reliquary places. We are on a pilgrimage, and yet we do not know it…
We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather, it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of the empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do more than play the pattern out. And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have been moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then we were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations.
* * *
Boil the breakfast early is a reel, perhaps best known in versions by The Chieftains—here they play it live in 1981 at a BBC session:
And here’s John Whelan with friends in a medley opening with The Kylebrack:
Another title that reminded me of Li Manshan and Li Bin is Ask my father.
One of the most valuable resources on local Chinese ritual is Minsu quyi民俗曲藝 (“Journal of Chinese ritual, theatre, and folklore”), published since 1980 by the Shih Ho-cheng Foundation in Taiwan (see this introduction by Paul Katz).
At first the reports concerned local traditions around Taiwan itself, but as the liberalisations in the PRC gained pace, ritual practice revived spectacularly there, and local cultural workers (as well as overseas scholars such as Kristofer Schipper, John Lagerwey, and Ken Dean) were able to do detailed fieldwork on the mainland. So from 1991 this major expansion in geographical scope was reflected in the journal’s coverage—although the project’s origins led to a focus on south China (Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, and so on), with rather occasional excursions to the north. The leading light was C.K. Wang, who began early in recruiting local scholars to such research, becoming editor-in-chief of the journal in 1989. Many issues were devoted to particular themes, such as Nuo masked drama, Mulian operas, and Hakka musicking.
The publisher soon began supplementing the journal with over eighty extended monographs (Minsu quyi congshu 民俗曲藝叢書), again mainly on local traditions in Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. This in turn led to a major separate series on household Daoist altars, the Daojiao yishi congshu 道教儀式叢書.
Under new editors, since 2002 the journal has continued to publish major articles. The website has detailed tables of contents, and useful sidebar tags.
Felix Warnock’s fine memoir opens with a blow-by-blow story of Pierre Boulez subjecting his playing to a mercilessly forensic public examination in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This got me thinking about the conventions of orchestral rehearsal.
My remarks below refer to orchestral string players; I don’t know how much of it applies to wind players—who are more like soloists, each playing their own individual part. And all this changes over time, varying both in the UK and around the continent.
Indeed, rehearsal * has changed substantially since the 18th century; the original performers of Bach’s cantatas and Passions were confronted with challenging new music every week, yet rehearsal time was minimal; and after the service they might never play these pieces again. Modern performers are most unauthentic in knowing every corner of the Passions—as I wrote in my article on Bach and Daoist ritual,
Even Bach’s performers never got the chance to get to know them nearly as intimately as Mark Padmore when he sings the Evangelist. Even I have performed both the John and Matthew Passions more in a single week than Bach did in his whole lifetime. And of course we have recordings, which affects not just availability but our expectations of technical “perfection”. When we sight-read an unfamiliar cantata we are being more “authentic” than our own saturation in the Passions. However rigorous our training in baroque style, and however lengthy our experience, they are utterly different from those of Bach’s performers.
Aesthetics changed only gradually through the 19th century, further stimulated in the 20th century by the development of recording technology.
In the UK since at least the 1970s, for standard repertoire (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on) there may be just one single three-hour rehearsal on the day of the concert—although conductors with some clout may be in a position to demand lengthier preparation. Of necessity, British players are renowned for their sight-reading abilities—limited budgets meaning shortage of rehearsal time. There’s safety in numbers, and with any luck tricky string passages will be camouflaged beneath loud wind and brass chords; you can usually busk it (again, unless singled out in rehearsal, as in this story!). Indeed, it can be hard to tell which passages might be tricky until you hear the piece in context. Learning the dots is what rehearsals are for.
In all but the most exceptional cases, it’s considered uncool to take the parts home to practise between rehearsals. Having played a range of music in youth orchestras and then in college, students also prepare with collections of orchestral excerpts. Although most London musicians are freelance, and in many cases don’t have to audition, these collections are useful to help prepare for auditions for a regular job in a symphony orchestra—now they’re revolutionised by online collections, complete with recordings.
So by the time you get to sit in a professional orchestra, you will have played a lot of the repertoire; moreover, when you come across a piece you haven’t played before, you will be familiar enough with the style to be able to sight-read well.
A young violinist goes for an audition. The leader puts an orchestral excerpt on the stand for him, and he starts hacking away at it gamely. It seems to be going rather well, until reaching the foot of the page, he whips it over, looks up and exclaims breezily, “Good God, this is Brahms 3—I’d never have known!”.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly rehearsing (and often performing) in the Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a rather leisurely schedule. But for some other bands such as the RPO it was a matter of pride to cut it fine, ideally staggering in directly from the pub. Still, you could tell if people cared just a bit about a gig—and a conductor—when most of the band was already practising several minutes (!) before the conductor arrived to take the rehearsal.
Symphony musicians were most unlikely to take “the music” home to practise. Such “cheating” wouldn’t endear you to your peers—it made you a kind of teacher’s pet. Backstage before the gig itself, where you’re unlikely to have sheet music with you, practising snippets is just about OK; but wizz-kid violinists soon learn that it’s uncool to show off with their fancy concertos.
The line between the mild panic to which musicians are accustomed and the tedium of over-rehearsal with a pedantic uninspired conductor is illustrated by the diametrically opposite approaches of the great maestro Rozhdestvensky (“Noddy”) and Celibidache. For me, Noddy had an electrifying vision of spontaneous creation, whereas Celi’s espousal of Zen (he’s even cited in the wiki article on the Japanese aesthetic of transience) was surely refuted by his endless nit-picking in rehearsal. Even Carlos Kleiber achieved the magic of his concerts through lengthy rehearsal. The story of the rehearsal where the players asked Noddy if they could possibly just play the piece all the way through just once before the gig is all the more drôle precisely because musicians are always chafing about being subjected to too much rehearsal.
And anyway, the most stressful passages of all are slow, sustained pianissimo, which only become more difficult as the moment of truth approaches. Felix may have been sight-reading, but that wasn’t the problem; what was so excruciating was the exposure in front of everyone. For string players, there may be safety in numbers with the louder, more virtuosic passages, but not with hushed slow writing, where they are especially prone to attacks of the purlies. It’s often easier to play a solo than to play such slow passages in a section of fourteen violinists, when it can be agonising even to try getting the bow on the string, let alone keep it moving. That excerpt above from Mahler 5 may look fiendish, but fiddle players may be more anxious about the Adagietto.
Early music The world of early music bands since the 1970s is rather different. A keen leader, or conductor, would sometimes ask fixers to send out the parts in advance—which players who had experience of symphony orchestras might find amateurish.
We became accustomed to sectional rehearsals in the National Youth Orchestra, but I don’t recall any in professional symphony orchestras; I sometimes encountered them again in early music. Generally, early music bands get more rehearsal time than symphony orchestras—and for programmes that seem less challenging, at least technically.
In the 1980s’ heyday of the recording industry’s infatuation with early music, the opposite might happen too: at recording sessions for at least one band, you might turn up to play through some obscure Haydn symphony that no-one had ever played before, and the red light would be switched on at once; moreover, some of these takes even ended up on the CD. At least—like our counterparts in the symphonic world—we were immersed in the style, and prepared for eventualities.
World traditions The wiki article on rehearsal gives an inadvertently apposite list of some other types, such as “wedding guests and couples practising a wedding ceremony, paramedics practising responding to a simulated emergency, or troops practising for an attack using a mock-up of the building”.
The concept of “rehearsal” tends to be elusive in many musical traditions around the world. It adds another layer to the continuum from composition to performance, which the great Bruno Nettl pondered in his work on improvisation.
Rather than rehearsing, young students learn by imitating their masters, often within the family, soon going on to “perform” for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Household Daoists learn their trade from young, including the vocal liturgy and instrumental repertoire, but their skills are gradually consolidated on the job (see e.g. Li Manshan’s recollections in our film, from 9.50). They go through a process of “studying for three years, returning [the debt] for three years”, but from very early in their apprenticeship they are taking part in ritual performance. It’s not even easy to find musicians “practising” individually.
I absorb the fug of the “public house” in rehearsal, Gaoluo 1996.
I found a clearer case in Gaoluo village in the weeks leading up to the New Year rituals, when the large ensemble re-familiarised themselves with the shengguan instrumental repertoire by getting together to recite the gongche solfeggio of the score—partly because as an amateur group that was only in occasional demand for funerals, they might not have played for some time (see Plucking thewinds, pp.247–53).
There seems to be scope for research here; but in all, as Nettl too suggests, perhaps such traditions are not so far from the WAM scene: you learn from young, and then you start taking part in rituals/concerts. In WAM it’s complicated both by having to perform pieces that you might not know and by the chimera of perfection; but for the familiar standard repertoire, one might wonder where rehearsal might come into it. To adapt Laurel and Hardy, here’s another nice mess WAM has gotten itself into (for the Dance of the cuckoos, see here).
Still, WAM musos, for whom the artistic fulfilment of which they dreamed in their teens is often submerged under the pressure and routine of the profession (cf. Ecstasy and drudge), will find few things so satisfying as doing a series of performances on tour of a great work that they’ve been playing for a couple of decades, with an able and inspired conductor who esteems and trusts in the players’ experience—whether Mahler in a symphony orchestra or a HIP Bach Passion.
* As I noted here, in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. The German Probe is suggestively medical. In English, “re-hearse” may sound like putting back into a vehicle to transport the dead—and indeed, there is a connection. It comes from French hercier “to drag, trail along the ground; rake, harrow [land]; rip, tear, wound” [sic!]; 13th-century English borrowed hers from Old French: “a framework, like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin”, which by the 17th century became “hearse” in the modern sense.
The triangulation of music, politics, and geography is explored in
Alex G. Papadopoulos and Aslı Duru (eds), Landscapes of music in Istanbul: a cultural politics of place and exclusion (2017; online here).
Inevitably, the book can only offer a few illustrations of a diverse soundscape. As is common in ethnomusicology, the authors focus on the subaltern, marginal end of the spectrum, rather than highly audible soundscapes such as mainstream pop music, or the ezan call to prayer (cf. China, or Ukraine). Revolving around mahalle neighbourhoods, the chapters focus on the modern era, noting links with the Ottoman heritage.
Alex Papadopoulos wrote his introductory chapter “Music, urban contestation, and the politics of place in Istanbul” under the shadow of the Trump inauguration, suggesting pertinent analogies with “musics that build inclusion or express opposition to (even rage against) exclusion”. He cites Adam Gopnik on the “abyss between the man about to assume power and the best shared traditions of the country he represents”—traditions “that have implicated stories about race, class, war, and ethnicity”. Papadopoulos adduces the work of Martin Stokes work on arabesk, “an entire anti-culture” that “flaunts the failure of a process of reform whose icons and symbols dominate every aspect of Turkish life”.
All four of the genres considered express regional and trans-boundary mobilities, exposing exclusion and suggesting the potential for inclusion. Papadopoulos observes:
Landscapes can be modified or erased, as a palimpsest. Urban spaces and populations can be made to bend to the will of an adamant state and of hyper-animated capital. Musics can be deterritorialized from places of meaning and memory, and either silenced or channeled to electronic media that modulate their cultural (and political) character.
Rembetika music riffed on, lamented, mocked, attacked, and sung about the limitations and exclusions, injustices and cruel punishments (including incarceration), and anomie that mainstream society imposed upon the socially marginalised.
If rembetika survived the efforts of the state to remodel the physical contours of the city, as a way of life it declined sharply in Istanbul after the population expulsions of 1922–23, the riots of 1955, and the further expulsion of Greeks in 1964, whereafter it was “rehomed” to the Hellenic mainland.
Both state cultures defined themselves in opposition to the multi-ethnic, multi-vernacular, cosmopolitan, imperial, and regional cultural forms of the Ottoman world, and went to considerable length to contain, if not expunge, vestiges of Ottoman culture. A musical heritage that was a reflection of empire—not unlike the musical cultures of the âşıks and the zeybeks—clearly, rembetika heightened the anxieties of Greek and Turkish nationalisms, which aimed at purity of cultural idiom.
He observes that rembetika (like many genres, one would add) loses its transgressive edge once transplanted from its underground neighbourhood hangouts into the safe settings of commercial clubs, concert halls and CDs. Since the 1960s it has become a classical, popular musical genre rather than a subversive one. New forms of music such as hip-hop have emerged to serve as commentary on, and resistance to, exclusion, and as community connective tissue and a link between marginalized communities and the world. This leads to Kevin Yildirim, “ ‘Poorness is ghettoness’: urban renewal and hip-hop acculturation in Sulukule, Istanbul”.
Resistance to the condominial agency of the state and finance capital in the gentrification of the low-rent neighbourhood is internationalized through the dissemination of hip-hop performances on social media.
Before Sulukule was destroyed by an urban renewal project in 2009, it was an established Romani neighbourhood in the central Istanbul district of Fatih. Its entertainment houses (eğlence evleri) were the main source of income for the community, but they were closed down in the early 1990s on the grounds that they were hotbeds of drugs and prostitution.
Now officially called Karagümrük, the neighbourhood is still known as Sulukule. As one analysis comments, the neo-Ottoman style of the new project is “in the direction of reviving a mythical ‘Ottoman past’ and an Islamic ethos”, and that it was decided upon so that Sulukule would “acquire new, impeccable morals based on Islam and the tourism sector”.
But the destruction kickstarted young people’s interest in hip-hop. Here’s Wonderland by Tahribad-ı İsyan, deploring the destruction (lyrics here):
But Yildirim looks/listens beyond video to “the aesthetics of everyday life in Sulukule as displayed through speech, within personal style, and in spaces”.
He notes that rappers in Istanbul must confront the irony of expressing their localized and rebellious identity through a globalised music genre. Here’s Istanbul by Nefret (lyrics here):
The Sulukule hip-hop scene is not homogenous in ethnic, gender, or social terms. Over the course of my visits to the Atelier [a youth centre that operated from 2010 to 2015] I interacted with male and female attendees who self-identified as Romani, Kurdish, Turkish, and Armenian; Sulukule residents and outsiders; those whose homes were destroyed in the renewal process, and those whose weren’t.
In conclusion Yildirim observes:
Instead of indicating a wholehearted rejection of capital accumulation in Istanbul, the rebellious urban identity of young Sulukule rappers and dancers may well signal their cautious entrance into the formal circuits of urban production.
While I’m clearly very far from home with Istanbul hip-hop, I’m uneasy too with the theoretical vocabulary that, however well-meaning, seems to assert another kind of ownership over it. Like the rappers, scholars seek to carve a niche for themselves in their own market.
Thomas Korovinis, “The âşıks: poet-minstrels of empire, enduring voice of the margins” introduces the mostly illiterate bards who accompanied their sung poetry on plucked lute (cf. Uyghur ashiq, or Ukrainian kobzar). Gravitating from folk contexts to urban âşık cafés, some became court poets to the wealthy. Their heyday was in the late 18th century; by the 20th century they were diffused among urban folk contexts. Vestiges were still evident in the 1990s at the saz yeri (saz hangouts).
The tradition, “deterritorialized from its historic identity of itinerancy, is reterritorialized in globalization as a malleable cultural commodity”.
Aşik culture can still be found in such diverse locations as the neighbourhood sidewalk, Istanbul clubs, the tourist circuit, rural Anatolia, and in electronic media. […]
Shuttling between marginality and victimisation (on the one hand) and public adoration and attention from intellectuals (on the other), in late modernity, at least some âşıks were eventually drawn into and normalised by the commodification of their music.
This leads suitably into UlaşÖzdemir, “Rethinking the institutionalization of Alevism: itinerant zakirs in the cemevis of Istanbul”, based on his 2016 book. Both in Istanbul and the Anatolian countryside, the zakirs are a crucial ingredient of cem rituals among Alevi groups (which I introduced here). In Istanbul some “itinerant zakirs” make the rounds of various groups. As Papadopoulos notes,
Inclusion is manifest in patterns of zakir intra-urban mobility, which bolsters new associations, musical partnerships, and richly emotional ties with dedes and cemevis. Paradoxically, perhaps, these same mobilities (a novel kind of itinerancy) also signal a rupture with how things used to be done, deepening rifts (and exclusion) between different visions of local-practised and institutional Alevism.
As attempts were made to legitimise Alevism by standardising its institutions, popular young zakirs like Dertli Divani emerged:
The itinerant zakirs, resistant to fixed residency, tended to counter this trend. As one explained:
I asked dede: “My dede, I always come and go but I feel like a civil servant here. I come here to fulfil my duty every Thursday. I want to visit other cemevis. I want to be touched (inspired) by a dede’s breath, a zakir’s voice; I want to learn things.” They did not like the idea much. Both the cemevi administration and the dede said “That is not going to happen.” But my desire was firm and at that point I said “I am leaving.” I started wandering: to the Garip Dede Lodge, the Yenibosna Cemevi, and so on.
The young zakirs were loyal not to a particular cemevi but to the search for the divine aşk [love] of inspirational dedes. Another zakir commented:
An âşık never has a place. For the âşık, the mountain and the plain are both the same, just a place. That is how I have always thought. I go wherever I am invited, without making any distinction among people.
This and the preceding chapter suffer rather from leaden translation.
Papadopoulos provides an Afterword,“Gezi Park and Taksim Square as musical landscapes of exclusion and inclusion”, on the Gezi Park protests of 2013, in which music became “one of the public’s instruments of political expression and resistance”.
Whether it is termed urban planning, urban change, urban renewal, or gentrification, the transformation of urban land, especially when it is carried out without the participation and consent of the publics that occupy and have a sense of right to it, is vastly politically fraught. And when a given parcel of land is considered valuable, either because the land-use it incorporates is scarce (hence representing high instrumental value), or because it is infused with symbolism, then the stakes are high, as is the likelihood of its contestation.
Looking back at the history of the remoulding of Gezi Park since the 1940s, social media played a major role. One iconic song was Kardeş Türküler, Sound of pots and pans:
You are saying this and that We are fed up Your one-man decisions, your commands We are fed up We are so bored What kind of a wrath this is What is this anger? Take it easy When they couldn’t sell their shadows they sold the forests They closed down, demolished the cinemas and squares Everywhere it is shopping mall I don’t like to pass from your bridges What happened to our city? It is full of buildings with hormones.
The loss of access to Gezi Park that symbolises an open, liberal, cosmopolitan, and global Istanbul, is a harbinger of future political defeats for both liberal and radical communities. For the generation of marginalised Istanbul residents, such as those in Sulukule, displaced from their homes by gentrification, the liberal imaginings of a global city are unattainable, if not irrelevant, to their everyday existence. In their case, only radical means can offer lasting solutions, even if by radical action they reach out to hip-hop, or irreverent songs created on the fly once the tear gas dissipates.
In conclusion, Papadopoulos observes:
Music performed in public (on the street or on the sidewalk, at an unkempt urban lot or in a great square symbolic of the country’s political birth); music performed in the semi-public domain of a community hall, cultural foundation or place of worship; music played in the intimate surrounds of a coffee house or a tavern, or just outside it in the quiet alley in the “wings of the city”; music that is performed, live, or is sounded out of cassettes, CDs, or the Internet and social media; is co-constructive of the lived spaces and landscapes in which it is sounded.
The title alludes to Sir Claus Moser’s diplomatic backstage words to an ageing diva. Both wise and delightful, the book is generously laced with deviant orchestral stories, but it’s much more than that. The blurb hardly does justice to the serious wider issues that Felix covers:
Orchestral life in Britain is thriving and anarchic, in turns chaotic, hilarious, and brutal. ** Perfection Is NOT the word for it is a personal, and mostly affectionate, account of life amongst the extraordinary characters who lead their over-stressed lives in this unusual world, surrounded by music but driven by everyday anxieties, and always defying the best efforts of administrators, bureaucrats, and conductors to tame the unruly beast which is a professional orchestra.
Felix makes a most sympathetic narrator. An orchestral and chamber bassoonist of note (possibly top C, as in The Rite of Spring), he has the rare distinction of having graduated to the role of managing some of the leading early music bands that have shaken up the scene since the 1970s. So while orchestral musos tend to take a dim view of administrators, Felix has the advantage, or misfortune, to have straddled both sides of the fence; he adopts the “poacher turned gamekeeper” metaphor, and one thinks of the common transition from football player to manager.
Chapter 1 opens with a priceless, if harrowing, blow-by-blow account of his first encounter with Pierre Boulez in 1972 upon being summoned at short notice to dep for a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (his very first professional gig, to boot)—an ordeal which becomes ineluctably more excruciating. After this it may be hard to hear the divine slow movement of the Brahms 1st piano concerto with the same ears. Unlike the viola player singled out during a Mendelssohn rehearsal, Felix didn’t even manage a pithy riposte.
Although his ordeal at the hands of Boulez was exceptional, musicians are keen to get revenge on their overlords by maestro-baiting, of which we are treated to several examples. He also has some good instances of corpsing.
There are cameos from the renowned clarinettist Jack Brymer (an incident that precisely parallels one about the conductor Eric Leinsdorf) and the then rather less renowned Tony Pay (cf. this story). As on tour, and with my fieldwork in China (e.g. here), Felix delights in chains of stories. Alcohol, soon to be a pervasive theme of the book, enters the fray with the BBC’s principal horn Alan Civil—and one might add the wealth of stories about trumpeter John Wilbraham.
The pressures of touring were alleviated by excessive drinking. Felix pays tribute to the “sublimely gifted” violinist Alan Loveday, stories about whose travails with alcohol became legendary. On tour with the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields (in which Felix played for fifteen years), conductor Neville Marriner had to lock Alan into his hotel room every evening—ensuring that he never once made it onto the concert platform, thus achieving “a feat that many musicians would think ideal, a tour without concerts”.
Alan was a talented bridge player, a taste that Felix shared. ••• He eventually took the road to recovery. He was keen to take up period-instrument performance, but never got round to it—as Felix observes, “if sober, he could have brought great critical credibility to this new world”. Felix’s tribute to Alan’s eccentricity and deep love of music leads him to stories about the iconic Francis Baines.
After this heady introduction to the orchestral world, Chapter 2 “An Oxford overture” returns to Felix’s upbringing with a perceptive account of the “tremendous intellectual intensity” of the post-war years there. Second of five children, he was deeply grateful for his education at the Dragon School (“a culture of kindness, politeness, and humanity”, enriched by its bizarre collection of characters on the teaching staff). Less happy at Winchester, he managed to leave school at 16, with the support of his wise mother. In the holidays he attended National Youth Orchestra courses.
Reading between the lines, it must have been through the rational enquiry of his distinguished philosopher parents that he acquired a seriousness and vision that his initial career as bassoon player was unlikely to satisfy. Sitting in on their dinner parties, he also inherited their taste for wordplay.
In Chapter 3, suitably titled “Five in a bar” (which is quite drôle enough without venturing to Tchaikovsky, Brubeck, and Balkan folk music), Felix recalls his happy, if blurred, days in the Albion Ensemble, a wind quintet seemingly modelled on the Famous Five—making a welcome occasional relief from the fraught struggles of the orchestral world. Felix opens the chapter with the convoluted story of a live broadcast for US TV.
It was soon after this lamentable episode (perhaps even because of it) that the Albion Ensemble’s capacity for resilience and self-preservation came to the attention of the British Council.
The quintet was now despatched to “countries in which self-reliance and an ability to deal with the unexpected would be at least as important as giving concerts”. Their adventures began with a five-week tour of the Far East. In China they learn the perils of official banquets (inexplicably, the quintet’s minders didn’t think to introduce them to their counterparts among household Daoists in the north Chinese countryside). In South Korea their provincial travels are given an extra edge by having very little idea of where they were supposed to be when, or how to get there. The quest for alcohol becomes ever more compelling. In the Philippines they succumb in turn to a gory bout of food poisoning, as they pass a hospital bearing the name of “The Antenatal clinic of the Immaculate Conception”.
Chapter 4, “Trials and errors”, takes us to the early music movement (note the work of Richard Taruskin and John Butt), in which Felix played a major role both as player and manager. The 1980s were a golden age for London’s freelancers, stimulated by the new CD format, film sessions, and touring; still, Felix was feeling the fragility of freelancing, “a house of cards which could collapse at the slightest unfavourable gust”.
Inspired by the innovations of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and Brüggen, he now expanded into “period instrument” performance. We find erudite notes on reviving the French bassoon that had lost out to its German counterpart; and on pitch standards adopted by the movement (a=415 being a fair compromise for the wide range used in baroque times, whereas a=430 for the classical era was a concoction imposed by Decca at an Academy of Ancient Music meeting).
Felix spent a period on the Music Advisory Panel of the Arts Council, entrusted with the task of finding a niche for WAM in a diverse market, which gave him serious reservations about box-ticking PC and committees’ fear of elitism. I’m sure he could offer a detailed critique of my own argument in What is serious music?!; indeed, my global view is All Very Well, but promoters inevitably find themselves having to fight for their particular corner of the bazaar.
Meanwhile he took a correspondence law course. Felix and his wife Julie eventually mastered the invidious competition for adoption, learning to guess the expected answers to rigorous questionnaires.
In Chapter 5 Felix recounts the invention of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from 1985 (I was glad to learn that it was Chris Hogwood who coined its alternative name Age of Embezzlement). As Felix reflected,
London’s freelance musicians had achieved a remarkably dominant international position in period instrument performance but were now in danger of becoming stuck at their current level of (relative) mediocrity.
The various orchestras were closely identified with their founders (Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner, Norrington, and so on), but the pool of performers overlapped. “Our owners/proprietors were building international reputations based on the numerous recordings which we, the humble workers, had been making for them”. Meanwhile there was no platform in London for the great continental directors like Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen, and Kujken; moreover, the scene, dominated by “semi-conductors” (in Norman Lebrecht’s fine term), was closed to “real” maestros from the modern symphonic world who might offer new insights into the repertoire, like Charles Mackerras (for whose splendid anagram, click here), S-Simon Rattle, and Mark Elder.
This led to the forming of a new orchestra that would engage its conductors, not the other way around. The financial challenge was daunting. But the success of Rattle’s concert performance of Idomeneo in 1987 led to an annual summer residency at Glyndebourne, and record contracts were soon secured. By 1988 Felix found himself managing the orchestra, negotiating projects with institutions like the South Bank Centre and the Proms while attempting to entice the busy continental maestros who had originally inspired him.
Left, Frans Brüggen; right, Trevor Pinnock.
By 1993, amidst difficult decisions over the orchestra’s personnel, Felix had to resign. From 1995 he managed the English Concert, which he found himself having to re-invent, as described in Chapter 6. Under the benevolent Trevor Pinnock the orchestra had thrived, but their recording contract was soon to expire, and another identity crisis loomed. Whereas Felix’s challenge at the OAE had been to create a clear and sustainable identity after a frenetic set-up, here the issue was the mirror image: “how to create a new and exciting identity for an already-successful organisation in danger of being overtaken by younger competitors”. But, as he reflects, the two orchestras did have one thing in common: neither had any money.
The English Concert had a remarkable success in staging Haydn’s puppet opera Philemon und Baucis. Here Felix gives another nice aside on the history of marionette theatre in England and on the continent; and he notes the relatively recent tradition of orchestral string sections using the same bowings.
Felix wrestles with fiendish logistics for the US tour of the Brandenburg concertos. At post-concert receptions he finds himself in the role of grown-up, nervously observing the players’ antics, with which he is all too familiar. Organising a Matthew Passion tour around concerts in Spain presents further scheduling challenges. Much as we love the bars there (and I, at least, love the flamenco), travelling around is indeed gruelling, as a later “tour from hell” confirmed (for the steady erosion of touring, see note here).
With Trevor Pinnock retiring, and the inspired leader Rachel Podger also leaving, Felix was delighted to find the equally prodigious Andrew Manze to direct the band from the violin. Rachel and Andrew’s Bach double at the Proms is one of my most treasured moments; and on tour, apart from his inspired playing, while we were waiting at Chicago airport Andrew told me one of my very favourite stories, which you can find here.
But while Felix envisaged a return to baroque music, in which the English Concert had made its mark, Andrew was now keen to pursue the fashion for a later repertoire, as he began to set his sights on conducting. With the 2008 recession causing further problems for festivals and promoters, Felix moved on again. Meanwhile his swansong on the bassoon came when he too achieved the ideal of appearing in an orchestra without having to play in it, miming in costume for a TV re-enactment of Handel’s Water music in a barge on the Thames. ****
Chapter 7, “Double bar: when the music stops”. After leaving the English Concert, Felix worked to find funding for some other projects—including an unfulfilled plan to restore the Notting Hill Coronet cinema to its original function as a music theatre. The building turned out to be owned by the Elim Church, whose largest congregation was at the Kensington Temple nearby—prompting another fine graffiti story. But by this time Felix was seeking a path away from the world of music. Having long served on the Music Advisory Panel of the Radcliffe Trust, he now joined the board of trustees, soon becoming chairman, still devising new projects. Again he offers thoughts on the bureaucratic dangers of the “Age of Regulation”. *****
It’s such a pleasure to read Felix’s memoir, by turns revealing, wise, and hilarious—sometimes all at once. Rush out and buy this book!
** For punctuation nerds: as is my editorial wont, I supply the Oxford comma in such lists—all the more suitable given Felix’s background (albeit depriving us of the pleasures of formulations like “I would like to thank my parents, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Madonna”).
*** Bridge made another pleasurable pastime for musos on tour, playing on the back of a bus, and at airports—again suitably lubricated by alcohol. As Felix has learned to his cost when I partner him across the baize, my bidding skills are far inferior to his; month after month he patiently talks me through the fiendish opening bid of the multi 2 diamonds, knowing full well that I’m never going to get the hang of it (cf. A grand slam). You gather, of course, that my review of this book is informed by having played a minor role (again, allegedly, not always entirely sober) in many of the musical débacles that Felix evokes.
**** In my own early days depping for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, they would occasionally find they had booked too many extras, so they had to pay me not to play the violin—which, as my colleagues would agree, was most worthwhile (cf. “We are very lucky that your violin was broken”).
With Ukraine under grave threat, to complement my posts on modern history there and its popular and folk soundscapes, this seems a suitable time to reacquaint myself with my local Ukrainian church, just up the road in Acton.
The original Baptist church there, founded in 1895, was reconsecrated in 1978 as an Ukrainian Orthodox Church—properly called The Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalic Church, Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration of Our Saviour. * The services are regularly streamed on Facebook—here’s the one I attended:
The building, unassuming from the outside, is lovely. The little choir, upstairs in the west gallery, punctuates the chanting of the priest.
It’s a larger building, converted for use as the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral since 1967. Upstairs in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped gallery, the choir of seven women and six men played a substantial role.
For such congregations ritual can serve to enhance solidarity, and at times of crisis, with their relatives and friends under assault back home, to provide consolation.
Ukrainians began settling in the UK in small numbers before World War One, the community increasing after World War Two. Other Ukrainian churches are also active around the UK (for the Orthodox church, click here, and for Catholic parishes, here), and elsewhere in the diaspora—such as the USA and Australia, where many services are shown on YouTube.
Ritual marks division as well as unity. The long, complex history of both Orthodox and Catholic churches in Ukraine is inextricable from politics (see here, and wiki). The Orthodox church, having attempted for many centuries to assert its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, has sought autocephaly since 1992, ratified since 2018. From St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv, here are highlights of the first Liturgy of His Beatitude Epiphanius, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine:
And now services have had to be held in bomb shelters, as Greek Catholic priests do here:
The many monasteries of Mount Athos, from which women are excluded, are major sites for Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian Orthodox liturgies. Here’s part of the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy at the monastery of Xenophontos in 2019—the first celebration of the Epiphanius on Athos:
Since Athos has never added the more recent harmonic tradition of mixed-voice choirs, its monophonic male-voice choral groups sound all the more ancient.
A sporting variation on the musician’s recurring dream:
Out of the blue, I’m summoned to join the attacking lineup in England’s “bid” (As They Say) for the football World Cup. Everyone seems to consider this fair enough—even though in the dream I am my real age now, no longer a sprightly youth. After brief, jovial greetings from Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney, I suppose I’m expecting a bit of team training, some practice to slot me into the manager’s master-plan—but there’s no time for any of that. Anyway, how hard can it be?
So after making my way—entirely alone—to the stadium (possibly the Nou Camp in Barcelona), I find myself adrift in the labyrinthine changing rooms, which seem to be full of a motley crew of podgy kids from amateur teams. I wander around frantically trying to locate a room for the England team, and to find the team kit. With time getting on, I look up to see the clock fast approaching the 8pm kick-off, and over the tannoy I hear the sound of the national anthems prefacing the match. Still dressed in my everyday garb, I search desperately for the way onto the pitch.
As usual, I woke up before the dénouement.
Unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost—precisely the traits of my dreams as a musician. There’s not even any great anxiety involved: the path to failure unfolds with “all the inevitability of Greek tragedy”.
Focusing on the period from 1890 to 1970, Slominski returns women to the historical narrative by exploring the “disjuncture between the documented public activity of women traditional musicians in early 20th-century Ireland and their subsequent erasure from the narrative of Irish traditional music history” (I gave a succinct introduction to studies of gender and music under my second post on flamenco).
In Irish music a few such women “were visible nationally or internationally, and tend to be remembered as extraordinary rather than exemplary”; many others were once known but have since been mostly forgotten outside their families and immediate communities. A third category was “an unknown and possibly significant number of women musicians [who] occupied social positions that rendered them invisible to the musical public sphere”. And a fourth included the “second-degree visibility” of mothers remembered as tradition-bearers whose names now appear mainly in connection with their sons.
Encoded in these categories is an unspoken assumption that traditional music’s historical gaze still belongs to male musicians. With rare exceptions, Irish traditional music’s texts have all been written by men, and the brain trust of the tradition still rests with its “gentlemen scholars.” Thus, nearly all the accounts and recordings we have of pre-1970 women musicians come from male authors, interviewers, and collectors.
Idealised women commonly appear in the media of the day as metaphors for the Irish nation:
Personifications of careworn Mother Ireland and long-tressed Erin linked homeland and hearth, and invariably cast the nation’s men in the roles of hero, protector, and dutiful son.
More promising are the biographical profiles by Francis O’Neill in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913), even if he still largely conforms to the feminized personifications of the nation.
Slominski cites Habermas’s distinction between the “public sphere” (a forum for the shaping of state policy) and the “public” activities of the street; indeed, the public house was the domain of men.
The fiddler Bridget Kenny (“Mrs”) was daughter of piper John McDonough. In O’Neill’s account:
Devotion to art does not appear to have unfavourably affected the size of Mrs Kenny’s family, for we are informed she is the prolific mother of thirteen children. Neither did the artistic temperament on both sides mar the domestic peace of the Kenny home, and, though the goddess of plenty slighted them in the distribution of her favours, have they not wealth in health and the parentage of a house full of rosy-cheeked sons and daughters, several of whom bid fair to rival their mother, “The Queen of Irish Fiddlers,” in the world of music.
Alas, I can’t set much store by the 1898 recording here, billed as her playing The high road to Galway—surely the playback speed is far too fast, and the pitch correspondingly too high?!
From a poor family, Mrs Kenny became a street musician, an “urban busker”. But O’Neill also stresses her success in music competitions. Her talents were recruited by the nationalist movement.
The dominant narrative held that pipers—whether common men or gentlemen—had once been respected members of society, but that the occupation and its practitioners had fallen into disrepute.
O’Neill again, describing the period following the great famine:
Changed conditions, lack of patronage, and other well-understood causes, forced this class of minstrels, many of them blind, to take to the highways for support—a form of mendicancy which brought their once honoured calling into disrepute.
A 1912 story:
The poverty-stricken piper became an object of contempt, and the contempt was naturally extended to his instrument, the cause of his indigence. It is only a few years since a friend of mine, a good fiddler, who expressed an intention of learning the pipes, was told by his relatives that if he did so disgrace himself he need never show his face at home again! Small wonder that the pipes ceased to be generally played just as the language ceased to be spoken and so many of the old customs to be observed! The race of “gentlemen pipers” had died out and no respectable person would touch the instrument.
If social disapproval fell upon men who made a living from playing the uilleann pipes (cf. shawm bands around the world), it was much worse for the women who did so from “dire necessity”, often after being widowed early. Among instances cited by O’Neill are Mollie Morrissey, May McCarthy, and the blind Nance the Piper.
By the early 20th century, piping was becoming a somewhat more respectable occupation for women, mainly by virtue of nationalist rhetoric.
Cultural nationalist beliefs in the early 20th century helped create an environment in which some parents allowed their daughters to learn the uilleann pipes, teachers agreed to teach them, and some newly-formed pipers’ clubs allowed women members.
Morrissey and McCarthy are portrayed as “young, graceful, and mild-mannered”. This account comes from 1905:
I give you an interesting portrait of Miss Mollie Morrissey of Cork, fideogist [player of the tin whistle?], harpist, pianist, violinist, bagpiper and stepdancer, at the age of fourteen. I venture to say that not many Irish colleens can boast of such a long list of accomplishments, but such are the attainments of this little girl, whose charming and unassuming manner has endeared her to all who know her. She is the youngest and most proficient female piper in Ireland, playing the famous Irish melodies with great expression, and is also a correct exponent of dance music. [….] The clever little artiste is decorated with many medals, won at competitions in piping and step-dancing, and at last year’s Oireachtas she carried off first prize in female hornpipe dancing from all comers, her graceful carriage and movements combined with precision being much admired. [….] Miss Morrissey got a special invitation […] to attend a reception during Pan-Celtic week, which she could not accept on account of being indisposed at the time.
As Slominski observes, her role here is merely to decorate the public practice of Irish cultural nationalism.
Unlike his accounts of male musicians, in which he uses nouns like “piper”, “fiddler”, “musician”, and “composer”, O’Neill’s profiles of these two women pipers rely on words like “learner”, “artiste”, “performer”, and of course, “daughter”, “girl”, and “colleen”.
For such women, even as they depended on musicking as an occupation, music was portrayed as a mere “accomplishment”, an accessory. This at least made them seem less threatening. “By considering a women’s musicianship peripheral to her identity, any expectation that she would continue playing through her adulthood was removed”—although they often did.
Finally Slominski contrasts the lives of Galway flute-player Mary Kilcar (c.1890–?) and fiddler Lucy Farr (née Kirwan, 1911–2003). Mary’s playing was confined to the household, while Lucy took part in public musicking quite late, after reconnecting with her musical upbringing.
Mary was a spinster (as one said then) who lived with her sister. Their background seems to have been comfortable, and Mary may have had some formal education in music.
As a single and ageing woman in the socially conservative years of the Irish Free State, Mary would have been symbolically invisible: she was neither a mother nor a maiden in a society whose metaphors of nation defined the behaviour and aspirations of real women. However politically and rhetorically invisible, Mary’s position as spinster was legible within rural Irish society. The combination of her musicianship and her marital status, however, was not.
In a 1987 interview, Lucy recalled:
And there was a lady in the next village, and her name was Mary Kilcar, and she would be—when I was 20, she’d be about 40, and she played a flute, and—though she was never part of the scene in my young days— she never—women didn’t come down into the houses where the men were. You’d hear Mary Kilcar playing the flute inside in her own house, but you’d never see her in any house where there was music. And so one day, I was walking around, and I knocked at the door. “Oh!” she said, “Lucy Kirwan! Come in!” “Well,” I said, “I’ve come in because I’m playing the fiddle, and we’ve all heard you playing outside, but you never come to our neighborhood dos.” “Oh,” she says, “They wouldn’t have women—they wouldn’t at all them dos.” I said, “Well, we do, I do.” “Ah, but you’re living in the house where it is. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.”
As Slominski comments,
Lucy’s status as maidenly daughter of a musical father placed her, a future tradition bearer, on the receiving end of borne tradition. As a spinster, however, Mary was a transmissive dead end. […]she does not fit into the category through which most women musicians of her generation are remembered: as mothers who pass tunes down to their sons. […] For single women like Mary Kilcar, bodies out of reproductive circulation also meant tunes out of circulation.
Lucy moved to London in 1936, and after her marriage she only re-engaged with the music of her youth from the late 1950s (see this fine article). Although she enjoyed greater access to the musical public sphere than Mary, even in comparatively progressive London in the late 1960s she too described the discomfort of going out to sessions alone.
Here’s a short film:
* * *
Lucy Farr mentioned sessions with the fiddler Julia Clifford (1914–97: wiki, and here), who also moved to England:
Another musician who moved to England in the 1950s was the Irish traveller Margaret Barry (1917–89), a singer and banjo player. Here’s She moves through the fair:
and the first part of a documentary:
Now I’d like to learn more about early women harpers, singers, and dancers, and the challenges they faced.
Click here for Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and telling an almost related story.
Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk demonstrates the trombita.
The great strength of Maria Sonevytsky’s excellent Wild music is the way she binds urban popular genres closely with the constantly changing social and political life of Ukraine. While she shows how avtentyka and etnomuzyka performers remould “traditional” rural cultures, the latter are not her main topic; and indeed (typically?), such local musicking, submerged under glossy media representations, may seem to have become vestigial.
Still, as a rank outsider (as with my impertinent forays into many areas of world music, largely untrammelled by any knowledge of the subject) I’m prompted to explore online sites to seek some sonic soundmarks, and to suggest the kind of fieldwork practised by Sonevytsky’s mentors.
Given that most folk musicking is based in life-cycle and calendrical rituals, I’m sorry that few of the tracks below provide much social context—online clips often tend towards the fakeloric. But a home video like this, from a 2004 village wedding in Kolomyja county, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, has a good honest feeling (and talking of avtentyka, even the weather is authentic):
Here’s a solo kolomyjky song accompanied by fiddle at the summer solstice festival, also from Ivano-Frankivsk:
Some iconic instruments of the Hutsul people of the highlands in west Ukraine:
the long trembita horns (played over the wider Carpathian region) that gained fleeting celebrity with Ruslana’s winning Eurovision song in 2004 (see Wild music): here’s an introduction by the great Hutsul master Mykhailo Tafiychuk:
For early recordings of immigrant communities in New York and New Jersey (cf. the companion disc at the end of Folk traditions of Poland), here’s Ukrainian village music: historic recordings 1928-1933 (playlist):
And here’s a 1951 Folkways LP:
For the Crimean Tatars, here’s the first of three compilations on the emblematic qaytarma 7/8 dance (“traditional”, followed by “modern” and “retro” lists):
* * *
While folk musical activity changes constantly along with society (cf. Society and soundscape, and Musics lost and found), all this may remind us that it survives not merely in the commodified representations of urbanites; and that in Ukraine, to paraphrase its national anthem, rural culture is not dead yet.
Having struggled with the dense theoretical terminology of ritual studies so ably surveyed by Catherine Bell, it’s a great pleasure to read the classic 1985 ethnography
Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.
This study of “religion in the streets” describes the annual festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York, celebrated by poor immigrants from south Italy and their American-born or –raised children. 
By the time that Orsi was visiting the neighbourhood the heyday of the festa was long past. Besides his own interviews, he consults copious written sources, notably Leonard Covello’s interviews from the late 1920s, as well as parish bulletins—in which women’s requests for graces were prominent—and novels.
This introductory sentence may seem simple, but it’s crucial:
It is the central assumption of this history that the celebration cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the people who took part in it.
Orsi constantly notes social and religious change. On procession, men and women were segregated until at least the 1940s. “As soon as economic capacity matched social aspiration, which allowed Italians to send their children to school, the entire grammar school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel marched in the procession by grade.” Before the community was powerful enough to make arrangements, the procession had to stop for passing trolley cars. But as the neighbourhood shrank, so did the procession.
He shows the disparaging stance of the official church towards “popular religion” (cf. De Martino on taranta in south Italy; and elsewhere, such as in China!), and the attempt to transform it into a vision of respectable American Catholicism, like its Irish or Polish adherents.
The immigrants made no distinction between “sacred” and “profane” elements of the festa: all had an integrated meaning. However, they did constantly distinguish religion and church. The festa was
the occasion on which the Italians of Harlem revealed to themselves and to others who they were, introduced their children to their most fundamental perceptions of reality, and attempted to deal with the many tensions and crises that arose because they were immigrants in a strange land and because of the particular nature of their deepest values.
The landscape of urban popular religion is also important, “a world of parks, stoops, alleyways, hallways, fire escapes, storefronts, traffic, police, courtyards, street crime, and street play”…
Chapter 1 gives a vivid description that will remind fieldworkers of popular festivals in many parts of the world; for me it recalls in some detail the “red and fiery” (see e.g. Chau, Religion in China, chapter 3) atmosphere of Chinese temple fairs. The convivial atmosphere of the festa lasted throughout the week surrounding the main day on 16th July. Pilgrims were hosted from out of town, apartments and streets cleaned, food prepared. Amidst a wealth of decorations American flags and the Italian tricolour were displayed. Orsi evokes processions, vows, graces, healing, people offering bundles of clothing; booths selling religious items, including wax replicas of afflicted human organs, statuettes of infants (for doll effigies, cf. The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan since the 1980s”), and charms.
On procession the statue of the Madonna was carried on a float, with a guard of honour, fireworks, and incense, touring the parish (China again..). A powerful metaphor for submission was the carrying of heavy candles on procession. The boundaries of the community were defined both by the procession and by the smells and tastes of the festa, with feasting at home and on the streets.
At the rear of the procession, and into the church, came penitents—some barefoot, some crawling. The faithful sang south Italian religious chants; bands played Italian and American music; concerts were held in local parks; men gambled. At first the festa was led by merchants and businessmen; from the 1920s it was directed by the local elite of lawyers, politicians, and so on. Irish police kept the peace.
Orsi soon undermines the rosy image of this beguiling preliminary sketch. Chapter 2 describes the history of Italian immigration to Harlem. The small early communities in the 1870s kept expanding as arrivals fleeing hardship in Basilicata and Calabria added to the ethnic mix in East Harlem, experiencing a new kind of hardship. By the 1920s much of the neighbourhood was dominated by Italians. Conflict with the Irish population was particularly fierce.
Emigration was a family strategy for survival. With kinship networks strong, people’s main loyalty was to the family. They would send regular remittances back to south Italy. If early arrivals (mainly men) felt conflicted attitudes towards the homeland, the second and third generations continued to learn about the bonds with their culture, not least through Leonard Covello’s educational work from the 1920s. Household shrines were standard.
There was continuity, but within the context of disruption—“men separated from their wives and children, men and women separated from their parents and grandparents”. They felt the gulf between their aspirations and the harsh reality of life in Harlem. “Guilt that they were not doing enough, pressure to work harder and faster, and fear that they would be unsuccessful haunted the early arrivals”. They were anxious that family structures and norms would be eroded, and that they would become unrecognisable to their kin back home.
Their hunger for work made them vulnerable to exploitation. Apart from their household duties, women also worked in poorly paid jobs (giobba, job!). Boarding in substandard, densely-packed housing, the community suffered from poor health; infant mortality remained high until the 1930s. Crime and juvenile delinquency were common, with racketeers and gangs. The press seized on such problems. All this was far from the earthly paradise the migrants had imagined before setting out from Italy.
Here’s Helen Levitt’s silent film on street life in East Harlem in 1948:
Tensions within the community were partly based on regional origins, with particular rivalry between Neapolitans and Sicilians. Though Covello made a partial list of sixty-four regional societies in 1934, by then extreme regional loyalties were giving way to neighbourhood consciousness, led by the club, “part social club, part political organisation, and part athletic association”. At the same time, the residents were attached to their Harlem enclave, the sense of solidarity, its sounds, smells, and tastes—a feeling that, as often, was enhanced by nostalgia. Even during the Depression, when the community was hit hard, they cared for each other. Gradually many became Americans “by attrition”.
Chapter 3 describes the origins of the devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem. The Madonna shared the poverty of her worshippers, and her changing fortunes were closely linked to theirs. The faithful sought her aid for sickness, and during the Depression; for soldiers going off to fight in World War Two, and for children to do well in school.
In 1881 immigrants from Polla in Salerno formed a mutual aid society in the name of the Madonna, amongst whose major functions was to provide support for proper funeral ritual—partly a reflection of their sense of insecurity in the new environment. The first festa the society organised was held in 1882. At first these festas were intimate assemblies held in courtyards or small dwellings; they were lay-organised, with no priestly supervision. The immigrants knelt before a small printed picture of the Madonna, said the rosary, chanted the Magnificat, and enjoyed a communal meal. A priest appeared at the festa in 1883, leading Mass and joining in the procession; but he soon disappeared from the story.
Already by 1884 the festa was described as a great popular celebration. The community now had a statue of the Madonna, sent from her home at Polla. That year too, the Pallotine fathers arrived in the community, with a priest presiding over a little chapel in 111th Street; and the community built a church on 115th Street, which now became the official sponsor of the festa. As Orsi notes,
For the entire history of the devotion, this celebration of a woman, in which women were the central participants, was presided over by a public male authority.
In the early years the devotees of the Madonna had to worship in the basement of the church. But as the festa became more visible on the streets, more well-heeled visitors from other neighbourhoods came to gawp (cf. Mahler’s 1909 visit to the Lower East Side). Irish and other American Catholics took a dim view of the “pagan” popular devotion on display, which they found devoid of any understanding of “the great truths of religion”.
After a series of complex debates with the Vatican, the statue of the Madonna was crowned in 1904, her golden decoration provided by donations of gold from immigrant families—rings, brooches, family heirlooms. In 1922 the interior of the church was renovated, and the following year the Madonna statue was enthroned on the main altar. The bell tower, completed in 1927, was rich in meaning for the community, who again gave generously for its construction. By now the church and the devotion belonged to the entire community of Italian Harlem, not to any particular neighbourhood or region of Italy.
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of the Madonna on 16th July 1929 was celebrated in great style, with the statue carried out onto the streets. By now the church was a major emblem of the community. If the Masses conducted by its priests were still not the focus of worship, families were now commonly holding their rites of passage there.
During World War Two women turned to the Madonna to protect their menfolk on distant battlefields, making vows that were still being kept until the 1960s. The troops also went into battle wearing scapulars bearing the image of the Madonna around their necks (again under The Houshan Daoists, cf. stories of Houtu rescuing soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars).
After Italy’s surrender to the allies in 1944, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation towards former enemies of the USA, a service was held for five hundred Italian “ex-prisoners of war” who were held at an army base just outside New York. The church bell announced the end of the war; Madonna processions celebrated the peace.
By the 1950s the church took precedence over the popular cult. The community spirit of parish clubs and schools now fostered patriotism and anti-Communism. As former residents moved out to the boroughs, Italian Harlem was changing rapidly too, it was becoming Spanish Harlem. The power of the Madonna waned, and a new sense of loss emerged. By 1953,
the meaning of the festa was interior, controlled, a matter of the heart and not the street. The people have come out not to march and eat and cry in the hot streets, but to go to church.
Italian and English reports of the festa after 1947 seem to describe different events, the former stressing orderliness, the latter noting passion and fervour.
In Chapter 4 Orsi studies the domus-centred society of Italian Harlem, where the family was the “source of meaning and morals”. Even in recalling their homeland, they hardly knew an Italian nation (if they were aware of it at all, it was as an oppressor)—only the domus of their paese, with its discipline, loyalty, and mutual support. They contrasted this with American family values. Parents were anxious when their children married outside the community. The deep religiosity of the people was largely untrammelled by priests; as the priesthood seemed to compete with the domus, anticlericalism was a major theme. Individuals were seen in relation to the domus.
In the apartment building, doors were always open to neighbouring families. Christmas and baptisms were celebrations shared by the whole building. Rispetto was expected, both within and between families.
So far, this seems to play to the usual romantic clichés; but the chapter goes on to muddy the picture considerably. Rispetto was a “dark and complex” theme, implying “both love and fear, intimacy and distance”; the culture demanded obedience. The public nature of life and the policing of values could also be intimidating. When rispetto was violated, vergogna (shame) ensued.
Funerals came to acquire changing meanings. In the early period, they prompted painful reflections on whether emigration had been a wise decision; later, the community sought to reassure itself about the lasting strength of its values. As to the sacred shrines that adorned family apartments, “the home was not sacred because these figures were there, but, rather, these figures were there because the home was sacred”. But “loyalty to the domus could at times take on a real ferocity”. This was shown not only in hostility with Puerto Rican and black communities, but internally too: their rage was often turned inward.
Orsi warns against drawing a simple conclusion that the domus limited the ambitions of the Italian community: once they acquired skills in the labour market, they moved up the ladder. Later in the book he observes that dreams of “making America” were not incompatible with traditional modesty.
Chapter 5 continues to explore the way in which the family cracked under the very nature of Italian American life. Immigration was a traumatic experience; throughout its history, the domus was perceived as being in danger in American society.
Efforts to maintain the domus in all its authoritarian purity at the centre of the culture were driven by this dread of its imminent collapse. But the domus did not collapse, nor did it ever seem close to doing so in Italian Harlem; so we must consider whether the persistent sense of its fragility was not the expression of deep conflict within and ambivalence toward the domus itself. […]
The domus in Italian Harlem was the scene of bitter conflict and profound struggle.
Though not for public display, this was evident in the generational conflict between the Italian-born generations and their Italian American children, who mostly “seemed to exist in subtle and quiet alienation from each other”. Within the hierarchy of the domus, rivalries obtained, with father and oldest brother exercising particular power and competing. Other members of the family subtly undermined such authority. For younger men, taking part in sports was a significant outlet that also gave rise to conflict in the family.
The sexual life of young people was a minefield, with dating and courting closely policed by the “detective agency” of the extended family. Dates were a source of dread for both men and women; young women were expected to marry the first man they dated.
Orsi unpacks the Mafia myth. For many Italians, gangsters were romantic figures, helping to keep the community safe, protecting the virtue of its women: “willing to put their considerable cruelty at the service of the domus”, they enforced its values.
Everyone in the community knew that local mobsters spent most of their time in Italian Harlem extorting Italian merchants and running numbers games that took money away from the community. The mobsters were never presented as banditti who took from the rich and gave to Italian Harlem. […] Why did the domus need to be surrounded and the Madonna rescued by violent and cruel men? Why did the community make heroes out of these mobsters, if only in the tales they told, when they knew full well the reality of their crimes? Why did anger and violence assume such central places in the fantasies of Italian Harlem? And what was the threat to the domus that could be repelled only by such extreme measures? […] Symbols of aggression and repression, the mythical mafiosi embodied the complexity of feeling and anxiety which the people of Italian Harlem bore toward the domus.
He devotes several fine sections to the lives of women and the subtle ways in which they resisted the submission demanded of them. His unobtrusive feminism is one of the great strengths of the book.
Until the clergy at the church put a stop to it in the 1920s, it was a common occurrence at the annual festa for members of a family to drag one of the central women of their household down the aisle of the church. As they went along, the woman stuck her tongue out so that it touched the stones of the church floor, licking them as she was borne toward the Madonna. This disturbing ritual, which was deplored by visitors to the church in the early years of this century, clearly poses certain explicit questions about the role of women in the culture and in the family. Why was a woman dragged in this way by her family up to the figure of a divine and powerful woman? What was being expressed here of the inner life of the community? What were the community—and the women—learning as they observed this scene? To answer these questions, we must study the lives of women in the community, the nature of family life, relations between men and women, and attitudes toward the sacred woman on the altar on 115th Street.
Publicly the family was a theatrical display of patriarchy, but in private it was a matriarchy, albeit one exercised in subterranean ways. Married women were the guardians of traditional mores. Some older women were respected healers (cf. Chinese mediums), having brought from south Italy their skills in the rituals of protection from the evil eye. This also revealed the tension between the old world and the new. Where the mechanical techniques of American doctors could offer no hope of a cure, Italian female healers were summoned, whose stress was on the whole communal environment. Women also played a major role at funerals, bearing the public burden of mourning.
Modest behaviour was expected of young unmarried women. They were both “volcanoes ready to erupt and lambs wandering in a world of wolves”. Their upbringing was “fraught with anxiety and dread”.
Young women were summoned to a dangerous dance by their men. The latter made their advances—and then watched to see if they would be resisted as they wanted and expected to be. […] One false move would bring disaster down on them. […] Who had the real power here—the women who had to uphold the standards of the domus or the men who put them to the test?
Many men insisted that their wives should not learn English. In this stifling environment, rebellion was rare, and young women had to find more subtle ways of asserting their independence. Gradually, as women became better educated than men, one way in which they could loosen their bonds was through employment. They began finding clerical work—progress that was also resisted by the seniors of the family.
Women did appear in public, but street life was male-dominated. The religious experience of women was complex. Taking part in the devotion, besides confirming their roles in the community, they could also articulate their anxieties to the Madonna. Tensions between the women of the family was defused by the devotion.
In Chapter 6 Orsi gives sketches towards an inner history of immigration. Despite the importance of memory in shaping identity,
The distance of the immigrants from their lives in Italy, their complex feelings toward their homeland, and their hopes for a new beginning for themselves and especially for their children made them unwilling or unable to share their memories with their American-born or –raised children.
This was compounded by the generational tensions within the family.
Having sought to escape from the poverty of the homeland, immigrants found themselves ensnared in a different kind of poverty. Apart from their own sense of alienation, they also had to reckon with American xenophobia. As Covello recalled, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents”.
This sets the scene for a return to the festa in Chapter 7. In the early period, when immigrants were mostly single men, “participation in the cult assuaged their complicated guilt”, their devotion to the Madonna (“mamma’s house”) representing their fidelity to “a moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women”. As they were joined by women from the homeland, they sought peace, protection, and pardon in the cult. The presence of the Madonna in East Harlem gave divine and maternal sanction to the immigrants’ decision to leave south Italy.
The procession itself was a kind of enactment of their journey. The 1928 souvenir journal described “the long and fatiguing journeys [viaggi]” to the shrine, trips that involved “enormous expense” for the devout. People stressed that the faithful came from “all over” for the annual celebration, stressing long trips that involved crossing water. As Italian Harlem dispersed after World War Two, “a new emphasis was placed on the journeys back to the shrine undertaken by those who had moved out of the community”. The festa was a return not only to their paese but to their mother.
Slowly the community developed a kind of pan-Italian patriotism. Mussolini was popular in East Harlem, “not as a Fascist but as a symbol of the forceful presence they were still groping for”. While the festa remained mainly a demonstration of continuity with the community’s south Italian roots, regional distinctions were already breaking down by 1928.
Orsi stresses the centrality of eating at the festa, again recalling the domus. “Food was symbol and sanction and sacrament, integrating the home, the streets, and the sacred”. The cult celebrated the whole texture of Italian humanity, so very different from the closed world of Protestant America.
People also beseeched the Madonna to heal domestic conflicts, minor maladies, nervous breakdowns, and other crises. Some stories reflect “a concern for the manifold threats of an urban environment, and all implicitly depict mothers and fathers distracted by a multitude of worries and anxieties”. After World War Two, upwardly-mobile Italians who had recently moved out might pray for the husband’s business or a daughter’s success in school. Often such prayers were answered. Healing stories
were the sacred, cathartic theatre of Italian Harlem: the community could derive a deep redemptive satisfaction from the threatened demise of the domus while looking forward to to the satisfaction’s of the domus’ final triumph.
The street was “a theatre of extremes, […] a carnival alternately beckoning and frightening. The devotion to Mount Carmel responded to this tension: it was the annual blessing and reclamation of the streets”.
The devotion, the church, and the monthly parish bulletins also helped to define and legitimate the local power structure.
At a time when Italian doctors, lawyers, and merchants were not welcomed into the American elite, they claimed an authority for themselves by advertising in the bulletin—as did politicians. American laws were judged by the values of the domus. With popular political campaigns, Fiorello LaGuardia, and then his protégé Vito Marcantonio (a former student of Covello), enacted progressive social legislation for better housing, as well as for full employment and safer working conditions.
Orsi looks in more detail at the world of work, “hard wage labour at gruelling jobs under the supervision of other ethnic groups”. Men worked as rag-pickers, junk and bottle collectors, bootblacks, newsboys, beer sellers, candy makers, sign makers, barbers, pushcart vendors, dock workers, construction workers; women worked making artificial flowers at home and dressmakers in factories. They suffered worse than other groups from periods of unemployment. Their bosses sought to control any signs of socialist leanings. The festa, with its stress on reciprocal relations, energy and enthusiasm, offered a different vision from wage alienation. It was also a time when the faithful sought cures for workplace accidents and related traumas.
Religious sacrifice allows men and women to believe that they have some control over their destinies even when they fear that they are otherwise bound by severe economic and social constraints. […] In this way, religious experience becomes a realm of relative freedom in the midst of lives ruled by necessity.
The question arises, however, whether this religious behaviour is not, or does not become, masochistic, a desperate infliction of punishment on the self in a frustrated rage against the perception of powerlessness.
Again Orsi suggests that the devotion encouraged people to repress their rage against the domus by turning it inward. The two possibilities of sacrifice, entrapment and resolution, can hardly be separated.
And again Orsi interrogates the role of women. While men were in nominal control of the devotion, women were the central figures in its life. Yet at the same time that it offered them consolation, it reaffirmed those aspects of the culture which oppressed them: the source of their comfort was also the source of their entrapment. As one women commented succinctly,
I had a hard life. I got married and it got worse.
Among a wealth of case studies in the book is that of a young woman who in 1946 prayed fervently to the Madonna that her suitor would propose to her. She was grateful when he did so, but she soon found out that he behaved in ways that she could not approve of. Since there was no socially sanctioned way of breaking off the engagement, she again sought the help of the Madonna, strengthening her resolve to end the relationship and making a promise to attend weekly novenas. This ratified her decision, which would have found approval nowhere else in the community; and her attendance at the novenas demonstrated her constancy both to the community and to other suitors.
Orsi cites a 1930 obituary notice which exploited the chance to instruct women in their duties, its “suffocatingly lyrical prose” concealing an “aesthetic of entrapment”. He ends the chapter with further reflections on the immigrants’ fear of secular power (inherited, indeed, from their ancestral oppression in south Italy):
Distant and self-serving authority, in their eyes, took sons away and sent them to distant wars that would profit only the wealthy, denied or granted them assistance, built housing projects in the neighbourhood from which they were then excluded on the basis of apparently unreasonable regulations designed to defeat them.
In conclusion, Chapter 8 discusses “the theology of the streets”.
Southern Italian popular religion gave voice to the despair of men and women long oppressed—oppressed with peculiar, sadistic ingenuity—and reinforced attitudes of resignation and fear, as well as a sense of the perversity of reality.
This was present in the Harlem devotion, but it was not the whole story.
Orsi notes the problems of reading the theology of such a people within its full social context. It’s not that the immigrants were silent about these issues: they wondered about the meaning of their lives, and pondered their place in the scheme of things. Nor was their theology merely a corruption or a poor assimilation of Catholic doctrine. They resented the American Catholic church’s belittling of their “pagan” faith. In the New World the devotion represented their determination to triumph over adversity.
They had brought their Madonna with them and every year they took her out into the streets where they lived. They would not allow religious officials, in this country or in Italy, to alienate them from the sacred. […]
The Italians of East Harlem revealed a sense of the insufficiency of a male God. Women seemed to doubt that a male God could understand their needs and hopes and so they turned to another, complementary divine figure whose life was full of suffering for her child, a story that resonated deeply with the economy of Italian American family life.
Of course, Orsi’s accounts of generational strife are variations of morality tales around the world. If all this looks like an instance of the crumbling of the strict “family values” such as one can find to various degrees in many, if not all, cultures, it’s a particularly well-documented one. And it shows a painful, confused transitional period, from which communities can apparently emerge.
While the Madonna cult often reminds me of Chinese temple fairs, accounts of the latter tend to be more celebratory, steering clear of the negative aspects of the cultures they represent, or merely indicting the bête-noire of state socialist repression as an alien force repressing an apparently timeless, ideal communal cohesion. This applies to studies of religious life not only in the PRC, but also, I think, in Taiwan, where the strength of traditional observances and values is stressed in implied contrast with those on the mainland. Many such accounts are more centred on liturgical texts and ritual sequences than on the lives of ordinary people.
Another major blessing of Orsi’s deeply humane book is that it bypasses the arcane apparatus of scholarly vocabulary that was already de rigueur in anthropology and ritual studies (see Catherine Bell’s fine surveys—in Ritual: perspectives and dimensions she praises the book for its exposition of orthopraxy—useful as the term may be, Orsi doesn’t even feel a need for it. This economy of jargon makes the text all the more instructive, besides being immensely readable.
* * *
Orsi provides substantial introductions to all three editions. The first is straightforward yet instructive. The second (2002) he calls “Fieldwork between the present and the past” (a crucial issue for China and elsewhere). As he set off on his project in the late 1970s, he aspired to becoming a “real” historian:
I have heard historians proudly say that they study only dead people, and in those early days I, too, was looking for dead people.
(cf. WAM, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil!). With his discipline of religious studies still “wedded to textuality”, at first Orsi considered that it was the badge of the serious historian to trawl through dusty archives. His epiphany came with finding the papers of Leonard Covello, and by listening to women as he sat with them in their kitchens.
While by Orsi’s time the festa was a pale shadow of its former vibrancy, he found that there was no firm barrier between the present and the past. While one might say he had been unlucky to train as a historian rather than as an ethnographer, he soon broke the chains of that training.
I came to realise that I was learning as much from how people were talking to me as from what they were telling me, as much from what was going on around the stories as from the stories themselves.
Of course, his anxieties on undertaking the project were part of a wider critical re-assessment of the discipline of religious history under the stimulus of ethnography. He interrogates the “unnecessary and confusing boundaries” that sealed off “religion” from “popular religion”. Had his training then extended to anthropology (and indeed ritual studies), he would have found his natural domus—one that many scholars of religion in China still resist, immune to epiphany. Rather than regretting that Orsi didn’t discover the discipline of anthropology sooner, I rejoice in the way he discovered its lessons for himself in the field, rather as I did in China.
Even then Orsi was acutely conscious of gender issues. In the old “body–spirit” antinomy,
Associated with the corporal end of this dichotomy were women and the various concerns of everyday life, while spirit represented the public, the political, and the masculine. […] I found myself right in the vice of the antinomy that structured not only modern historiography but modern professionalism generally.
He also stresses power—not just the power of some over others, but “the power that circulates through cultural forms”, and the power of religion to “shape, orient, and limit the imagination”.
As he becomes aware, “fieldwork proceeds through relationships”. Such study is done not only among real people, but by real people too. “My interlocutors did not let me be invisible, drawing me out with questions about my life and experience”—just as I learned in Gaoluo.
This represents the refusal of otherness by the people we study; it is their determination not to be rendered alien.
He goes on:
On one level, it is useful to remember that the inert documents stored away in archives were once the living media of real people’s engagement with the unfolding events of their times. […] My method in telling the story of the Madonna and Italian Harlem was to bring the voices from the archives and the voices from the streets into relation, allowing them to challenge, amend, deepen, and correct each other.
On his later annual visits to the festa, a woman called Antoinette would always seek him out. “So you think the festa is dying out? Looks pretty good to me.” Orsi concedes that by observing that the festa was waning, he seemed to have fallen into the old trap of early anthropologists who believe they have arrived just in time to preserve a last glimpse of a primitive and disappearing world (see e.g. Musics lost and found). Such “romantic twilight elegies” came to be seen as serving colonial interests, legitimating the work of the ethnographer as a kind of preservationist.
I did have good reason in the early 1980s to think that the festa was not going to be around much longer. The crowds were dwindling. The old Italians in the neighbourhood were dying. Their children, who had moved away to the suburbs, seemed less and less interested in coming back, always more apprehensive about the safety of the neighbourhood…
So in a coda Orsi takes the opportunity of revising his story: “I had not foreseen the arrival of the Haitians. How could I?” By 2010 more Haitians were attending the festa than Italians, transforming it yet again. Orsi notes that whereas Italians held the Puerto Rican community responsible for the demise of Italian Harlem (even though it had been their own choice to move out), the Haitians came into “a special place of cherished memory to which Italian Americans of the second and third generations were themselves “returning”. The Haitians were not seen as taking anything away.
He illustrates the continuing story with letters that he regularly received from Italian Americans after the publication of the book, telling their own stories, blurring the line between the past and the present, and transforming themselves from the objects of history into its subjects and narrators.
While Orsi’s approach was in line with studies of working-class cultures at the time, he contrasts the growth of theoretical discourse:
History was being recast as a literary and ideological enterprise with only the most attenuated relationship to anything like a past that had really happened. […] The notion that scholars who studied other cultures or other times were representing in their writing the actual lived experience of the people in these other times and places had become risible and self-delusional, if not a corrupt alignment with power.
Still, he appreciates the increasing popularity of studies of “lived religion”.
The West has been reframed from the perspective of the rest of the world, where what goes on at the Madonna’s shrine is more common and familiar than the sanctioned practices of “modern” Western religion.
He came to explore the potential for accepting folk belief in “real presences”. Part of the modern “eradication of memory” is the forgetting
that not long ago, the gods, spirits, saints, ancestors, and demons were familiar and recognisable members of the social world, in miracles, apparitions, and devotions, amid the relationships of everyday life.
For a fine study of street gangs in modern Chicago, click here. For female deities in China and women’s participation in ritual there, see e.g. here and here. And among a wealth of discussions of fieldwork, note Bruce Jackson.
 Online sites like these have more recollections and images:
There must be early film footage of the procession, but I haven’t yet found any. Meanwhile in London, this silent clip shows the 1927 procession for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy:
I yield to no-one in my veneration for Mahler 5, some great renditions of which I’ve provided here—irreverently introduced by a version of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo on rubber chicken…
In distressingly similar vein, I’ve just had a vision of how Mahler might have revised the sublime Adagietto had he lived through to the 1930s (as he should have done) to arrange it as a catchy up-tempo number for a New York swing band, with blaring horn section (led, perhaps, by Buck Clayton) and zany syncopations, largely dispensing with the sentimental appoggiaturas.
So here’s my preliminary draft of the melody on horns, leaving you to fill in the boogie-woogie bass-line, drum-kit, and funky sax harmonies—it works even better with the hushed original opening bar and a half:
Actually, Mahler’s choice of key works well for jazz winds, making one suspect that the original was just a preliminary sketch—after all, if you’re writing a slow love song for strings, whoever would plump for F major rather than E major or F♯ major?!
As to tempo, one might regard the two versions of the Adagietto as the opposite of what happened to the music of the Tang court after it was exported to Japan, where it began a long process of retardation.
The big-band arrangement would also suit a turbo-charged Balkan brass band like Fanfare Ciocârlia. I can’t take responsibility for my wayward visions, but I realise WAM purists (bless) may be alarmed. Conversely, composers from Bach to Mahler did often creatively recycle their previous work. Bach has inspired a wealth of jazz and world arrangements; and folk and popular musics were intrinsic elements in Mahler’s sound world (see e.g. under the 4th symphony). I rest my case.
Not merely as an attempt to redeem myself, now we must go back to Mahler’s original version—within the context of the whole glorious symphony. I’m also constantly amazed at the second movement, its turbulent trauma punctuated by the hushed cello recitative.