In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. The band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.
The guanzi oboe, leader of the shengguan melodic ensemble that accompanies temple and folk liturgy throughout north China, also has a foothold in the conservatoires—though it is far less popular a solo instrument there than the erhu or pipa. Just as I noted for the suona shawm, there is quite a gulf between folk and conservatoire versions of the guanzi.
Back in 1987, my official “unit” for my second half-year stint in China was the Central Conservatoire in Beijing. My main supervisor there was the great Yuan Jingfang, who (resigning herself to my frequent excursions to the countryside) managed to teach me a lot about the instrumental ensemble music on which she is the leading expert. My first book Folk Music of China was in large part a result of my studies with her.
While I already realized that folk ritual and instruments were to be learned through constant ritual experience rather than in the arid setting of the classroom, I thought I’d better show willing by taking the odd lesson from the guanzi master Hu Zhihou, himself a pupil of the great Hebei Daoist master Yang Yuanheng in the 1950s.
Turning up for lessons every Monday morning at 8am, the warm-up breathing exercise Teacher Hu set me was to smoke a couple of cigarettes with him. This was a real challenge for me, since at the ripe old age of 33 I had still only succeeded in training myself in the consumption of alcohol—absorbing that aspect of my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s education but not his cavalier smoking habit.
Even my exploratory first fieldtrips to the countryside in 1986 were conducted without the social lubricant of sharing cigarettes. I was now becoming a fully-fledged yanjiusheng (研究生 “research student”, or 烟酒生 “scholar of fags and booze”)
So, egged on Teacher Hu, I obediently puffed away in the classroom before spluttering into the guanzi, failing to make much progress in coaxing more than a weedy squawk out of the poor instrument. Fiddling around with reeds and working out fingerings certainly stood me in good stead for my later (passive) immersion in the world of folk guanzi playing, but I can hardly claim to have made the most of his wisdom.
When in 2013 I brought the Li family Daoist band to Beijing to give a recital at my alma mater, I was delighted to find Hu Zhihou in the audience.
He had always been a keen student of folk guanzi playing. While I was “studying” with him, he was leading the suave conservatoire version of the Zhihua temple repertoire—albeit rather distant from the haunting original style. And like Yuan Jingfang, he had made an early fieldtrip to Yanggao, where he admired the playing of Liu Zhong in Li Qing’s Daoist band—we were all spellbound by Liu Zhong then, in the days before it transpired that there were other Daoist guanzi players there who were even more respected.
So now I was delighted that Hu Zhihou could relish the brilliant playing of Wu Mei. As I introduced them after the concert, I observed boldly:
“Teacher Hu, I must admit that you never managed to teach me the guanzi! But one thing you did teach me really well, for which I am eternally grateful, is smoking!”
Sure, it’s possible to do fieldwork in rural China without it (I refrain from drinking “white spirit” there, for instance, so I don’t completely go native), but the conviviality of the exchange of cigarettes may seem a necessary temporary expedient—a sacrifice for our art.
This succinct critique by no means invalidates musicology (if it does, then Uh-oh), but I’m fond of the expression
With All Due Respect to Ms Anderson, and indeed Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, and Clara Schumann (now that’d be some jam session: cf. my fantasy dinner party), its many variations have been widely attributed. It’s another snowclone going back in sentiment to the Mists of Time (well, 1918), as in this fine piece of detective work.
More WAM ethnography:
Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.
Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes did.
The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):
“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.
(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and
“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:
Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.
After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”
Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.
Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos.* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.
And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. I don’t really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing, but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior.
*Another fatuous Bible quote:
The race is not to the swift.
Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?
Further to Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie (NB n.3 there) and indeed my helpful exegeses of the alarming Teach yourself Japanese, here’s a parallel text, hopefully of use to travellers in either direction:
US: Hey man—can I get a Diavola to go?
British: A very good day to you, my dear chap. Now would you be so obliging as to provide me with with one of your fine pizzas, engagingly (and with a certain mischief, perhaps?) known as Diavola—enclosed, moreover, in some kind of disposable container, if you would be so kind; for such are the exigencies of modern life that I regrettably find myself unable to relish said comestible at your own fine place of purveyance, but, rather, will be reluctantly compelled to consume it in less salubrious and elegant surroundings while otherwise occupied.
I acknowledge my debt to the cheeseshop sketch. And, come to think of it, to the great Gerard Hoffnung’s 1958 Advice for tourists, still irresistible after all these years:
As with the Alan Bennett Sermon (and indeed as with live performance generally), the pleasure is augmented by the audience response, and the vignette it now affords us into that particular milieu of late-1950s’ English society.
In Hoffnung’s wiki entry I like the succinct description of his brief sojourn at the Hornsey College of Art:
He was expelled for his lack of gravity in the life class.