Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East

1851

The unflattering views on Chinese music expressed by Berlioz have been much cited. He may have been an iconoclast within his own culture, but it would be asking too much to expect his horizons to transcend the limited aesthetics of his day.

In The Cambridge companion to Ravel, Robert Orledge cites Berlioz’s comments on hearing Chinese musicians at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851—only a few years after the Opium Wars:

The melody, which was altogether grotesque and atrocious, finished on the tonic, like our most undistinguished sentimental songs [!]; it never moved out of the original tonality or mode. […] Nevertheless, the ludicrous melody was quite discernible, and one could have written it down in case of real need [!].

And as Orledge comments, his conclusion, after listening to a wider range of exotic musicians, was that

Chinese and Indian music would be similar to ours if it existed [WTF]; but that, musically speaking, these nations are still plunged in a state of benighted barbarianism and childish ignorance where only a few vague and feeble instincts are dimly discernible; that, moreover, the Orientals call music what we should style cacophony, and that for them, as for Macbeth’s witches, foul is fair.

Another passage has been translated thus:

As for the Chinaman’s voice, I have never heard anything so strange in my life—hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make, when they wake up, stretch their paws and yawn with an effort.

musos

More sympathetic is this report from the Illustrated London News:

A PLEASING addition has been made to the Chinese Collection, consisting of a Chinese Lady, named Pwan-ye-Koo, with small lotus-feet only 2½ inches in length, a Chinese professor of music, his two children (a boy and a girl), the femme de chambre of the lady, and an interpreter. The children are gay, lively, and intelligent, the lady herself agreeable and interesting, and the gentleman civil and obliging. A Chinese concert forms part of the entertainment: the lady Pwan-ye-Koo singing a Chinese air or two, accompanied by the professor, who likewise treats the public with an exhibition of his vocal powers. The group is one that has much to commend it: it is picturesque and peculiar, and presents an image in high relief of the native manners of a Chinese family. The conduct of the domestic blended the humble and the familiar in a significant manner; and there was an air of freedom, and a sense of mutual obligation manifested in the whole party, calculated to make a favourable impression on the spectator.

They even had an audience with Queen Victoria at her summer retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Still, if we read the full passage, Berlioz did at least make an effort. Further to A French letter, here’s some more language practice [sections between asterisks translated above]:

A propos de cantatrice, j’ai enfin satisfait le désir que j’avais d’entendre la fameuse Chinoise, the small-footed lady (la dame au petit pied), comme l’appelaient les affiches et les réclames anglaises. L’intérêt de cette audition était pour moi dans la question relative aux divisions de la gamme et à la tonalité des Chinois. Je voulais savoir si, comme tant de gens l’on dit et écrit, elles sont différentes des nôtres. Or, d’après l’expérience assez concluante que je viens de faire, selon moi, il n’en est rien. Voici ce que j’ai entendu. La famille chinoise, composée de deux femmes, deux hommes et deux enfans, était assise immobile sur un petit théâtre dans le salon de la Chinese house, à Albert gate. La séance s’est ouverte par une chanson en dix ou douze couplets, chantée par le maître de musique, avec accompagnement d’un petit instrument à quatre cordes de métal, du genre de nos guitares, et dont il jouait avec un bout de cuir ou de bois, remplaçant le bec de plumes dont on se sert en Europe pour attaquer les cordes de la mandoline. Le manche de l’instrument est divisé en compartimens, marqués par des sillets de plus en plus rapprochés au fur et à mesure qu’ils se rapprochent de la caisse sonore, absolument comme le manche de nos guitares. L’un des derniers sillets, par l’inhabileté du facteur, a été mal posé, et donne un son un peu trop haut, toujours comme sur nos guitares quand elles sont mal faites. Mais cette division n’en produit pas moins des résultats entièrement conformes à ceux de notre gamme. Quant à l’union du chant et de l’accompagnement, elle est de telle nature, qu’on en doit conclure que ce Chinois-là du moins n’a pas la plus légère idée de l’harmonie. *L’air (grotesque et abominable de tout point) finit sur la tonique, ainsi que la plus vulgaire de nos romances, et ne module pas, c’est-à-dire (car ce mot est généralement mal compris des personnes qui ne savent pas la musique) ne sort pas de la tonalité ni du mode indiqués dès le commencement.* L’accompagnement consiste en un dessin rhythmique assez vif et toujours le même, exécuté par la mandoline, et qui s’accorde fort peu ou pas du tout avec les notes de la voix. Le plus atroce de la chose, c’est que la jeune femme (la [small-]footed lady), pour accroître le charme de cet étrange concert, et sans tenir compte le moins du monde de ce que fait entendre son savant maître, s’obstine à gratter avec ses ongles les cordes d’un autre instrument de la même nature, mais au manche plus long, sans jouer quoi que ce soit de mélodieux ou d’harmonieux. Elle imite ainsi un enfant qui, placé dans un salon où l’on exécute un morceau de musique, s’amuserait à frapper à tort et à travers sur le clavier d’un piano sans en savoir jouer. C’est, en un mot, une chanson accompagnée d’un petit charivari instrumental. Pour la voix du chanteur, rien d’aussi étrange n’avait encore frappé mon oreille: *figurez-vous des notes nasales, gutturales, gémissantes, hideuses, que je comparerai, sans trop d’exagération, aux sons que laissent échapper les chiens quand, après un long sommeil, ils bâillent avec effort en étendant leurs membres.* Néanmoins, la burlesque mélodie était fort perceptible, et je porterai un jour du papier réglé chez les Chinois pour la noter et en enrichir votre album. Telle était la première partie du concert.

A la seconde, les rôles ont été intervertis ; la jeune femme a chanté, et son maître l’a accompagnée sur la flûte. Cette fois l’accompagnement ne produisait aucune discordance; la flûte suivait la voix à l’unisson tout simplement. Cette flûte, à peu près semblable à la nôtre, n’en diffère que par sa plus grande longueur, par son bout supérieur qui reste ouvert, et par l’embouchure qui se trouve percée à peu près vers le milieu du tube, au lieu d’être située, comme chez nous, vers le haut de l’instrument. Du reste, le son en est assez doux, passablement juste, c’est-à-dire passablement faux, et l’exécutant n’a rien fait entendre qui n’appartînt entièrement au système tonal et à la gamme que nous employons. La jeune femme est douée d’une voix céleste, si on la compare à celle de son maître. C’est un mezzo soprano, assez semblable par le timbre au contralto d’un jeune garçon dont l’âge approche de l’adolescence et dont la voix va muer. Elle chante assez bien, toujours comparativement. On croit entendre une de nos cuisinières de province chantant: «Pierre! mon ami Pierre», en lavant sa vaisselle. Sa mélodie, dont la tonalité est bien déterminée, je le répète, et ne contient ni quarts ni demi-quarts de ton, mais les plus simples de nos successions diatoniques, est un peu moins extravagante que la romance du chanteur. C’est tellement tricornu néanmoins, d’un rhythme si insaisissable par son étrangeté, qu’elle me donnera sans doute beaucoup de peine à la fixer exactement sur le papier pour vous en faire hommage. Mais j’y mettrai le temps, et, en profitant bien des leçons que me donnera le chien d’un boulanger voisin de ma demeure, je veux, à mon retour à Paris, vous régaler d’un concert chinois de premier ordre. Bien entendu que je ne prends point cette exhibition pour un exemple de l’état réel du chant dans l’Empire Céleste, malgré la qualité de la jeune femme, qualité des plus excellentes, à en croire l’orateur directeur de la troupe, parlant passablement l’anglais. Les dames de qualité de Canton ou de Pékin, qui se contentent de chanter chez elles et ne viennent point chez nous se montrer en public pour un shilling, doivent, je le suppose, être supérieures à celle-ci presque autant que Mme la comtesse Rossi est supérieure à nos Esmeralda de carrefours.

D’autant plus que la jeune lady n’est peut-être point si small-footed qu’elle veut bien le faire croire, et que son pied, marque distinctive des femmes des hautes classes, pourrait bien être un pied naturel, très plébéien, à en juger par le soin qu’elle mettait à n’en laisser voir que la pointe.

Mais je penche fort à regarder cette épreuve comme décisive en ce qui concerne la division de la gamme et le sentiment de la tonalité chez les Orientaux. Je croirai, seulement quand je l’aurai entendu, que des êtres humains puissent, sur une gamme divisée par quarts de ton, produire autre chose que des gémissemens dignes des concerts nocturnes des chats amoureux. Les Arabes y sont parvenus, au dire de quelques savans; ils ont pour cet art inqualifiable une théorie complète. Je parie que les savans qui ont écrit ces belles choses ne savent rien de notre musique, ou du moins n’en ont qu’un sentiment confus et peu développé. Que la théorie des Arabes existe, cela est fort possible, mais elle n’ôte rien à l’horreur de ce qu’ils font en la mettant en pratique.

La musique des Indiens de l’Orient doit fort peu différer de celle des Chinois, si l’on en juge par les instrumens envoyés par l’Inde à l’Exposition universelle de Londres. Cette collection se compose, 10 d’un grand nombre de mandolines à quatre et à trois cordes, quelques unes même n’en ont qu’une; leur manche est divisé par des sillets comme chez les Chinois; les unes sont de petite dimension, d’autres ont une longueur démesurée; 2d’une multitude de gros et de petits tambours en forme de tonnelets, et dont le son ressemble à celui qu’on produit en frappant avec les doigts sur la calotte d’un chapeau; 30 d’un instrument à vent à anche double, de l’espèce de nos hautbois; 40 de flûtes traversières exactement semblables à celles du musicien chinois; 50 d’une trompette énorme et grossièrement exécutée sur un patron qui n’offre avec celui des trompettes européennes que d’insignifiantes différences; 60 de plusieurs petits instrumens à archet, dont le son aigre et faible doit rappeler les petits violons de sapin qu’on fait chez nous pour les enfans; 70 d’une espèce de tympanon dont les cordes tendues sur une longue caisse paraissent devoir être frappées par des baguettes; 80 d’une petite harpe à dix ou douze cordes, assez semblables aux harpes thébaines dont les bas-reliefs égyptiens nous ont fait connaître la forme, et enfin d’une grande roue chargée de gongs ou tamtams de petites dimensions, dont le bruit, quand elle est mise en mouvement, a le même charme que celui des gros grelots attachés sur le cou et la tête des chevaux de routiers. Je conclus, pour finir, que *les Chinois et les Indiens auraient une musique semblable à la nôtre, s’ils en avaient une; mais qu’ils sont encore à cet égard plongés dans les ténèbres les plus profondes de la barbarie ou dans une ignorance enfantine où se décèlent à peine quelques vagues et impuissans instincts.*

Hee Sing

Detail: Hee Sing.

Also part of the Great Exhibition was a Chinese junk moored on the Thames—occasion for the curious case of the “fake Chinese mandarin” Hee Sing, who appears in a painting depicting the retinue of the royal family. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening, including a variant of the above) he was even more underwhelmed by the soirées musicales et dansantes given onboard by the sailors:

Maintenant écoutez, messieurs, la description des soirées musicales et dansantes que donnent les matelots chinois sur la jonque qu’ils ont amenée dans la Tamise; et croyez-moi si vous le pouvez.

Ici, après le premier mouvement d’horreur dont on ne peut se défendre, l’hilarité vous gagne, et il faut rire, mais rire à se tordre, à en perdre le sens. J’ai vu les dames anglaises finir par tomber pâmées sur le pont du navire céleste ; telle est la force irrésistible de cet art oriental. L’orchestre se compose d’un grand tam-tam, d’un petit tam-tam, d’une paire de cymbales, d’une espèce de calotte de bois ou de grande sébile placée sur un trépied et que l’on frappe avec deux baguettes, d’un instrument à vent assez semblable à une noix de coco, dans lequel on souffle tout simplement, et qui fait : Hou ! hou ! en hurlant ; et enfin d’un violon chinois. Mais quel violon ! C’est un tube de gros bambou long de six pouces, dans lequel est planté une tige de bois très-mince et long d’un pied et demi à peu près, de manière à figurer assez bien un marteau creux dont le manche serait fiché près de la tête du maillet au lieu de l’être au milieu de sa masse. Deux fines cordes de soie sont tendues, n’importe comment, du bout supérieur du manche à la tête du maillet. Entre ces deux cordes, légèrement tordues l’une sur l’autre, passent les crins d’un fabuleux archet qui est ainsi forcé, quand on le pousse ou le tire, de faire vibrer les deux cordes à la fois [sic]. Ces deux cordes sont discordantes entre elles, et le son qui en résulte est affreux. Néanmoins, le Paganini chinois, avec un sérieux digne du succès qu’il obtient, tenant son instrument appuyé sur le genou, emploie les doigts de la main gauche sur le haut de la double corde à en varier les intonations, ainsi que cela se pratique pour jouer du violoncelle, mais sans observer toutefois aucune division relative aux tons, demi-tons, ou à quelque intervalle que ce soit. Il produit ainsi une série continue de grincements, de miaulements faibles, qui donnent l’idée des vagissements de l’enfant nouveau-né d’une goule et d’un vampire.

Dans les tutti, le charivari des tam-tams, des cymbales, du violon et de la noix de coco est plus ou moins furieux, selon que l’homme à la sébile (qui du reste ferait un excellent timbalier), accélère ou ralentit le roulement de ses baguettes sur la calotte de bois. Quelquefois même, à un signe de ce virtuose remplissant à la fois les fonctions de chef d’orchestre, de timbalier et de chanteur, l’orchestre s’arrête un instant, et, après un court silence, frappe bien d’aplomb un seul coup. Le violon seul vagit toujours. Le chant passe successivement du chef d’orchestre à l’un de ses musiciens, en forme de dialogue; ces deux hommes employant la voix de tête, entremêlée de quelques notes de la voix de poitrine ou plutôt de la voix d’estomac, semblent réciter quelque légende célèbre de leur pays. Peut-être chantent-ils un hymne à leur dieu Bouddah, d’ont la statue aux quatorze bras orne l’intérieur de la grand’chambre du navire.

Je n’essaierai pas de vous dépeindre ces cris de chacal, ces râles d’agonisant, ces gloussements de dindon, au milieu lesquels malgré mon extrême attention, il ne m’a été possible de découvrir que quatre notes appréciables (ré, mi, si, sol). Je dirai seulement qu’il faut reconnaître la supériorité de la small-footed Lady et de son maître de musique. Evidemment les chanteurs de la maison chinoise sont des artistes, et ceux de la jonque ne sont que des mauvais amateurs. Quant à la danse de ces hommes étranges, elle est digne de leur musique. Jamais d’aussi hideuses contorsions n’avaient frappé mes regards. On croit voir une troupe de diables se tordant, grimaçant, bondissant, au sifflement de tous les reptiles, au mugissement de tous les monstres, au fracas métallique de tous les tridents et de toutes les chaudières de l’enfer… On me persuadera difficilement que le peuple chinois ne soit pas fou…
[For a fine English version, see Berlioz, translated Barzun, Evenings with the orchestra (Chicago, 1956/1999 edition), pp.246–250.]

Here the Illustrated London News acquits itself no better:

At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing] hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.

The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.

Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.

For a recent French recreation, see here. Indeed, both the family and the junk had already appeared for P.T. Barnum’s Chinese museum: see Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s–1920s (2005), pp.62–6. For another portrait of the family, see here.

Berlioz 1851

Hector’s Napoleon impression always brought the house down.

Among composers, a broader view of musicking worldwide would have to wait for figures such as Bartók. Still, even today views like those of Berlioz remain far from obsolete. So much for music as a universal language.

* * *

Ironically, in reviews by Berlioz’s contemporaries of his own new works he was hoist on his own petard—using rather similar vocabulary, as if taking revenge on behalf of the Chinese. Here are just a few among an embarras de richesse, cited in Slominsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective, pp.57–61:

 

His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizare assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit the name. I believe that what M. Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I cusomarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.

Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks. His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.

M. Berlioz is utterly incapable of producing a complete phrase of any kind. When, on rare occasions, some glimpse of a tiune makes its appearance, it is cut off at the edges and twisted about in so unusual and unnatural a fashion as to give one the idea of a mangled and mutilated body, rather than a thing of fair proportions. Moreover, the little tune that seems to exist in M. Berlioz is of so decidely vulgar a character as to exclude the possibility of our supposing him possessed of a shadow of feeling.

I can compare Le Carneval romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.

Dragging the icon to the trash, eh. For some Messiaen reviews that escaped Slonimsky, see here; and for astounding Saint-Saëns on the violon chinois, here.

For Berlioz’s prophetic word-painting of a 1960s’ curry-house menu, cliquez ici; and for his evocation of furniture removal, ici.

Bunnios

mandolin

With the character of Bunny Warren in Captain Corelli’s mandolin (1994), Louis de Bernières brilliantly echoes the experiences of the bewildered young sinologist arriving in China, who having spent many years reading classical texts with their arcane zhihuzheye 之乎者也 particles, has entirely overlooked the modern language, like van Gulik—or indeed (from the sublime to the ridiculous) me.

De Bernières hits upon an ingenious transliteration device. In the mountains of Nazi-occupied Kefalonia, Alekos the shepherd rescues a British paratrooper who has floated down from the skies beneath a silken mushroom. Taking “it” for a very red-faced angel,

The trouble was that he could not make head or tail of what it was saying. He did recognize some of the words, but the rhythm of angel-speech was quite foreign to him, the words did not seem to fit together, and it spoke as if it had a pebble in its throat and a bee up its nose. The angel was obviously very annoyed and frustrated at not being understood, and it made Alekos feel fearful and guilty even though it was not his fault. They had to resort to communicating by means of signs and facial expressions.

Alekos realizes that the only person capable of understanding angel-speech will be Dr Iannis. After a long and stealthy trek they arrive at his house at dead of night:

The angel smiled and held out its hand, “Bunnios,” he said, “I cleped am.”

The doctor shook the proffered hand through the window, and said, “Dr Iannis.”

“Sire, of youre gentilesse, by the leve of yow wol I speke in pryvetee of certeyn thyng.”

The doctor knitted his brows in bewilderment, “What?”

His daughter Pelagia comes in to find

a man dressed in the tasselled cap, the white kilt and hose, the embroidered waistcoat, and the slippers with pompoms that was the festival dress of some people on the mainland. It was very grubby, but unmistakably new. She looked up at him in amazement, and put her hand over her mouth.

Wide-eyed, she demanded of her father, “Who’s this?”

“Who’s this?” repeated the doctor. “How am I supposed to know? Alekos said it was an angel and then ran off. He says he’s called Bunnios, and he speaks Greek like a Spanish cow.”

The outlandish man bowed politely and shook Pelagia’s hand. She let it go limp in his, and could not conceal her astonishment. He smiled charmingly and said, “I preise wel thy fresshe beautee and age tendre, I trow.”

“I am Pelagia,” she said, and then she asked her father, “What is he speaking? It’s not Katharevousa.”

“Of course it isn’t. And it certainly isn’t Romaic.”

“Do you think it’s Bulgarian or Turkish or something?”

“Greek of th’olde dayes,” said the man, adding, “Pericles. Demosthenes. Homer.”

“Ancient Greek?” exclaimed Pelagia disbelievingly. She stepped back for fear of being in the company of a ghost.
[…]
The doctor tapped his forefinger to his forehead, and looked up triumphantly.

“English?” he asked.

“Engelonde,” agreed the man. “Natheless, I prithee, by thy trouthe…”

“Of course we won’t tell anyone. Please may we speak English? Your pronunciation is truly terrible. It hurts my head, Pelagia, bring a glass of water and some spoon sweets.”

The Englishman smiled with what was obviously an enormous relief; it had been an awful burden to be speaking the finest public school Greek, and not be understood. He had been told that he was the nearest thing to a real Graecophone that could be found under the circumstances, and he knew perfectly well that modern Greek was not quite the same as the Greek of Eton, but he had had no idea that he would be found quite so incomprehensible. It was also very clear that someone in Intelligence had contrived a completely aberrant notion of what was worn in Cephallonia.

As the novel progresses, Bunny’s communication skills improve. As to mine in China (e.g. here and here), there’s always room for further progress… For a handy avowal of classical erudition, see here. And for the influence of the novel on life in Kefalonia, see

  • M. Crang and P. Travlou (2009) “The island that was not there: producing Corelli’s island, staging Kefalonia”, in Cultures of mass tourism: doing the Mediterranean in the age of banal mobilities (Ashgate, 2009).

 

Areas of expertise

 

 

Note: not quite to scale…

A true story to illustrate the parochial limitations of academic views of musical cultures of the world:

Way back in the days when ethnomusicology was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, a bright young expert on Korean music went to interview for a job at the Music Department of an English university. Besides his Korean speciality, he realized he should probably offer a wider course on East Asian music, to include China and Japan—a mere 3,000 years’ continuously-documented history of local folk, popular, and elite traditions.

The board politely commented that this was rather too limited, so he proposed he could do a yet broader course, on Asian music—further including south, southeast, and central Asia. Glancing at the map, these countries look quite small, don’t they—how hard can it be?

When they still felt this was too narrow, my friend asked, bemused:
“So what kind of courses have you been offering, then?”

The chair of the board eagerly replied:
“Well, last year we ran a very successful course on 19th-century English Art Song…”

 

For a similar debate at the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, see here. I often observe the diverse soundscapes within China alone, as here. For further drôle interview stories, see herehere, and now I come to think of it, here.

New musics in Beijing

BJ club

The recent BBC Radio 3 Late Junction programme on the Beijing indie scene (still available here for 20 more days) prompted me to educate myself a bit by exploring further—with my customary disclaimer. Whatever our tastes, our modern ears are imbued with modern sounds (for a somewhat less contemporary take, see here).

As in any society, the Chinese soundscape is diverse. What individuals mean by “music” may often seem comically circumscribed (see also here). Just as “European music” means more than either Beethoven or British pop, so “Chinese music” should encompass all kinds of genres. For some, it may mean the qin zither (which, as I am wont to observe, is like focusing on the clavichord); for others, the schmaltzy solos of the conservatoires or the kitsch song-and-dance ensembles; for folkies like me, the gritty rural shawm bands (cf. here) and the songs of spirit mediums. Of course, the Chinese soundscape is all of the above, and more. Zooming out still further, there’s the whole issue of elite and folk cultures worldwide.

* * *

While Cui Jian still remains iconic, it’s a relief to be reminded that the scene moves on. Like I’d know—it’s largely invisible (inaudible) to me. My first arrival in Beijing in 1986 more or less coincided with the rise of Chinese rock (though I don’t believe I can claim credit). It makes me feel my age—I can tell you much more about temple ritual groups there, now and before 1949.

But the indie scene too is a worthy topic of ethnography, all part of the diverse soundscape. And of course it’s always fluid. The current scene in Beijing, with its diverse techno and clubbing subcultures, has been compared to New York or Berlin—no wonder that artists like Miranda Vukasovic are drawn here.

Kloet

There’s a wealth of journalistic coverage, which is as it should be. But it’s long been a popular academic subject too; for a definitive study, what we need is

  • Jeroen de Kloet, China with a cut: globalisation, urban youth and popular music (2010).

Besides hanging out with performers, he learns from producers and other industry people, fans, and pundits. The book is an exemplary ethnography, and makes a fine prism to view change in modern China altogether.

As is common worldwide, most of these bands disavow simple political agendas—and not merely out of prudence. And by contrast with the early period after the 1980s’ reforms, people no longer seem so hung up on issues like “But is it Chinese?”. De Kloet delves deeper into such issues; particularly in his Conclusion, he unpacks deeper political meanings.

Anyway, the scene is an important corrective to the Western media image of a brainwashed population cowed by Xi Jinping Thought. It’s worth listening to these bands as you read the latest propaganda from the People’s Daily (as you don’t…). De Kloet also offers a nuanced view on the commercial pop scene:

If we dig deeper, both sonic as well as political realities are more complex and contradictory than we may at first realize, and hence refuse to be essentialized into monolithic meaning like “rebellious” and “totalitarian”, or to be contained in fixed dichotomies like official versus unofficial or resistance versus compliance. Neither state nor artists can be pigeonholed that easily.

Bands
Sure, in this field my grasp of taxonomy is impressionistic (rock, underground, punk, noise, metal, hooligan, dakou, depression, grunge, and so on; for hip-hop, see e.g. here). But popular musos are simultaneously capable of wonderfully fine distinctions and not at all hung up on them, as we can see in the Rito y geografia del cante flamenco series. Anyway, I may be doing a bit of genre-bending with this selection.

Punk, including girl bands, makes the most lively sub-tribe (cf. here, including Riot grrrl’s take on China)—as ever, De Kloet’s Chapter 3 “Subaltern sounds” is well worth reading. Many online sites give updates, with bands like Criminal Thought, Gum Bleed, and Torturing Nurse—try this, and listing sites like thebeijinger.com and timeoutbeijing.com (e.g. this 2014 survey); see also this interview with entrepreneur Michael Pettis.

Just a few tracks to whet your appetite:

Hang on the box

Hang on the box.

Hang on the box sound great:

Hedgehog

Here are Hedgehog live in Beijing at D22 in 2008:

Carsick Cars—whereas the fieldworker’s choice of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, named after the luxury compound of the Party leadership, has lost its ironic bite, this is more incisive:

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I can’t live without Zhongnanhai.
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?

Zuoxiao Zuzhou:

De Kloet is also good on “hyphenated scenes”, like pop-rock, pop-punk, folk-rock, and so on. His book also led me to this hard-hitting 2007 song from blind musician Zhou Yunpeng (cf. Mo Yan’s Garlic ballads, cited here under “Old and new stories”):

And here’s a 2010 documentary from Shaun Jefford (and as ever, note the BTL comments):

* * *

And of course there are thriving scenes in other Chinese cities too (also thoughtfully covered by de Kloet), not least Chengdu—including Tibetan bands.

For what it’s worth, while I remain deeply committed to the ethnography of rural society, I find all this an invigorating contrast with the fusty, rosy official praise of “traditional culture” and the absurd heritage flapdoodle. It’s gratifying to think that playlists like these must be on the phones of students who attended my recent film screenings in Beijing.

Meanwhile in the poor countryside, perhaps terminally demoralized, much of this is alien to funeral singers in Yanggao; but there too the scene has been changing. And students returning from city colleges to attend the rural funerals of their grandparents may be listening to the grittier urban sounds.

Meanwhile on our own sceptered isle, I’m reliably informed that (as I’m sorry I haven’t a clue would have it) Popular Beat Combos have achieved a certain currency—with singers like Vera Lynn, Lonnie Donegan, and Frank Ifield. Yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse all right.

 

 

 

Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe, and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

William Noll has a most thoughtful article unpacking ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho.

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Another salient, and distressingly topical, instance is Chinese studying Uyghur culture.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels* accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:

kobzars

As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking, the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).

Holodomor

Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Most of the kobzari

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Apart from its effect on social life, this also contributed to the erasing of historical memory. Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the Chinese bards under Maoism—which, I should say, is not to excuse the sufferings inflicted by the latter. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

But Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes. For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards…

Moving forward in time, I like the look of

  • Adriana N. Helbig, Hip hop Ukraine: music, race, and African migration (2014).

* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

The Li family Daoists: a roundup

 

After the latest screening of my film, perhaps it’s worth giving links to some of the major posts (so far!) on the Li family Daoists—even with the subheads in my category for them (film, on tour, rituals, updates, vignettes) it’s easy to get lost…

The basic material is

and

On ritual, see e.g.

Among the vignettes: for Yanggao, try

and a whole series of updates from March–April 2018 (see archives in the sidebar), led by

and including

On tour, you can start with

part of a whole series from May 2017, hotly followed by

Also useful are articles on other characters in Yanggao, such as

And there’s much, much more to explore if you use those subheads, and keep clicking away on the links within the posts…

 

 

 

 

Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *

EW

Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the former, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.

map

I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy has unpacked his “othering” nostalgia. But Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.

 

*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. Another good one is to substitute words like “borders” and “laws” with “bowels”, as in fatuous Brexit phrases like “It’s high time for us to take back control of our own borders”.