Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers


Hot on the vertiginous goose-stepping heels of Gepopo

In my series on stammering I’ve already covered Michael Palin’s authentic depiction in A fish called Wanda.

But he was already on the case of various types of imp-p-pediment with Monty P-Python, as in the iconic Pontius Pilate scene (taking the pith) in The life of Brian:

That’s all good harmless fun; but here I’d like to focus on another more disturbing portrayal. The cameos from the mad jailers (this time played by Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) are hideously well-observed, right down to the stamp of the foot to force the word out. In the first scene here, they taunt Palin as he channels the benign schoolmaster; and the second (from 2.07) is the coup de grace, with the jailers nonchalantly reverting to fluency once alone together—reminiscent of Larson’s cows:

Some stammerers may find that tough going, but I’d suggest it’s all part of chipping away at the iceberg of fear.

One of the benefits of group speech therapy sessions, however excruciating, is to watch one’s disfluent speech played back on video, so as to observe all the ways in which we sabotage the whole vocal apparatus—extreme tension of the lips and throat, holding the breath, futile movements of eyes, hands, and body, and so on. Disfluency takes many forms. Sufferers are often so trapped in desperate attempts to avoid stammering, and their audiences so trapped in embarrassment, that neither may have a clear idea of what exactly it is that is preventing them from uttering the word. The crucial first stage is monitoring.

And a further technique is for the sufferer to imitate such features deliberately—choosing a consonant on which to tense the mouth and lips, repeating it quickly or slowly with varying degrees of tension, even reproducing the way we backtrack and then start over, deciding how many repetititititions to do. Varying the severity of the block like this can create the precious experience of having control over one’s speech for a change. And then (maybe) one can insert “easy stammers”, and if not actually refrain from stammering, at least be aware of some options.

It’s easy for you to say that, SSSteve…

Anyway, far beyond its niche exploration of speech impediments, The life of Brian is brilliant!

Gepopo: pa-pa-pa-panic

Gepopo 2

Speaking (sic) as a stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for coverage of speech imp-p-pediments (see e.g. We have ways of making you talkStammering gamesPontius Pilate, and the mad jailers).

So in György Ligeti‘s wacky, grotesque, absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre (see e.g. this article by Tom Service) I note the character of Gepopo, whose extreme vocal irregularities occupy a special place in the spectrum of communication issues.

The astounding Barbara Hannigan introduces the role she has made her own:

The character Gepopo, the chief of the secret police of Brueghelland, approaches Prince Go-Go to warn him and the people of Brueghelland that intelligence has learned of a huge comet heading through space towards them which will destroy their planet. Unfortunately, Gepopo is paralyzed with fear and paranoid hysteria, so his almost unintelligible, coded warning is not easily understood by Prince Go-Go, who, mainly interested in a hearty meal, drives Gepopo to further convulsions of highflying vocal panic as the piece draws to a anxiety-ridden finale.


Shades of the Pearl and Dean theme tune? So far this passage has not found favour as an in-flight announcement (cf. Putana da seatbeltz; for airline acronyms, see here). But I digress…

Psychotic, deranged, Gepopo is hardly an advertisement for easy stammering—no more to be recommended as speech therapy than Rossini’s “stupefaction ensembles”. BTW, reasons for the far higher ratio of male to female stammerers are still not well understood.

Here’s Barbara Hannigan in an, um, “orthodox” stage version:

Gepopo’s three arias (“Pssst! … Shsht! … Cocococo!“, “Aah! … Secret cipher!“, and “Kukuriku! … He’s coming!“) are also performed as a cycle arranged by Elgar Howarth for the concert stage as Mysteries of the macabre—here conducted (suitably) by S-S-S-Simon:

Dazzling as it is, I’m not sure it’s exactly PC to distract the audience from Gepopo’s demented sadism with a fantasy schoolgirl uniform—perhaps the transgressive, meretricious device suits Ligeti’s concept (discuss…). We might also compare this version:

Feminist scholars have unpacked gender roles in music (including Berg‘s Lulu, another of Hannigan’s star roles, which she explores perceptively—and fluently!— here), with cross-genre discussions of the femme fatale/diva/prima donna, and such an approach could be instructive here too.

With thanks to Rowan—
whose own vocals, while not so ambitious,
are “less irritating than Glenn Gould”

(The Feuchtwang Variations, n.3).



The art of the miniature

Tom and Jerry

By way of supplementing my playlist of great songs with a little series on great theme-tunes (below):

Tom Service’s BBC Radio 3 series The listening service is always stimulating—like Susan McClary, he breaks down boundaries, as here.

This episode [sic] on Brevity, with a playlist of miniature gems encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Satie, Webern, Boulez, Zorn, Napalm Death, Bartók, Kurtag, and Ligeti, is full of fine observation—under the headings of absurdity, immediacy, density, violence, and eternity.

Irrespective of genre, such pieces are microcosms, crafted with a range of expression and intensity—akin to haiku or netsuke.

Also among the fleeting exhibits is the great Carl Stalling, composer of classic soundtracks for Warner Brothers cartoons (these playlists should work if you click on YouTube at the bottom right of the window):

Not forgetting Scott Bradley, of Tom and Jerry fame:

Not least, this is about taking seriously all kinds of musicking throughout human societies, including WAM and popular music.

So here are some thoughts on great theme-tunes:


A playlist of songs


Apart from the mainly-Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), below are some links to an eclectic selection of All-time Great Songs* on this blog. Besides the songs, the posts are worth reading too—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.

*Of course, varied as this selection is (à la McClary; see also here, and here), it isn’t so eclectic as to include Transylvanian funeral laments, Sardinian tenores, flamenco deep song, Umm Kulthum, Indian singing, or Aboriginal dream songs…

For a similarly diverse playlist of trumpeters, see here (indeed, trumpet has its own tag); and for some feminist lists, here (with bonus tracks including Sheridan’s Smith’s amazing cover of Anyone who had a heart) and here.

Musical self-defence


Another orchestral story from 1970s’ London, not so much viola jokes and maestro-baiting as self-defence.

A senior conductor is rehearsing his own chamber orchestra—both have seen better days. There’s a tricky passage for the violas, so he gets the section to play it together without the rest of the band, but it’s still not sounding right.

Opting for the bold step of getting them to play it individually—a demand very much frowned upon—he eyeballs a trusty old player who’s been sitting innocuously at the back of the violas minding his own business since the dawn of time, and asks him imperiously,

“You, Norman—can you play this passage for me?”

Norman looks back at him and remarks dryly,

“Harry, if I could play this passage, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this orchestra…”


I can now divulge that this was the very same conductor who had the celebrated exchange with the timpani player. For a wealth of related stories, see here.


Reaching a crescendo, or not

Mahler 2 crescendo

Mahler 2: crescendo leading to the shattering climax of the first movement!

I get blank looks whenever I explode at the phrase

reaching a crescendo.

It’s long been a bête-noire of mine—a recurring peeve that I now find I share with many others. But we dissenters are powerless to influence usage; and it’s a far more thorny issue than it may seem.

There’s much online discussion—notably this, from 2013, on the fine languagelog site (filed inter alia under the fine tag “Prescriptivist poppycock”). [1] If you’ve got better things to do than read all the way through the thread there, then I guess you won’t be reading this either—but here are some points that strike me.

The debate revolves around linguistic change. In the Real World, etymology is neither here nor there. I’m both amused and disgruntled by the similar trajectories of the words climax and gamut—and indeed latte (“I ordered a ‘latte’ in Italy at a coffee bar, and got milk”).

For what it’s worth (not a lot, here),

gamut originally referred to the lowest note of Guido d’Arezzo’s hexachord system, a contraction of “gamma ut’” It gradually came to signify the whole system, similar to “alphabet” [Ha, there’s another one!]. I have never heard it used in reference to a note on a keyboard instrument, and I am unaware of any such instrument that has gamma ut (low G) as the lowest note.

Early culprits include F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925):

The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo

and P.G. Wodehouse (1939):

The babble at the bar had risen to a sudden crescendo.

For more citations, see Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Robert Coren cites an early instances of the fightback as a book by Leonard Bernstein c1959, presumably The joy of music—I’d love to have a source for this.

Daniel Trambaiolo asks,

By what criteria, corpus-based or otherwise, do contemporary linguists distinguish between awkward metaphorical usages based on a misunderstanding of the relevant literal meaning, and usages that have lost their metaphorical character so far that the original literal meaning is no longer relevant. It seems clear that “climax” has successfully made the transition, and that many people here believe “crescendo” has done the same. At what point does it become unreasonable to deny that we are no longer in a grey zone?

Later he comments:

We all constantly use words whose meanings have changed over the years […] Maybe we’re aware of those earlier meanings—it certainly widens the world for me to know how the language has changed over time. Or maybe we’re as ignorant as those poor musical illiterates you’re shaking your head over. (But we’re all ignorant to some degree, aren’t we? I don’t know the original meaning of every word I use. Do you? Maybe some linguists do.) But for most purposes, most of the time, it’s simply not important what a word used to mean, or what it still means for the small group that used to have sole possession of it. And it’s not important whether the people who use “crescendo” to mean “climax” don’t know the musical meaning. As it happens, I’m quite aware what a musical crescendo is. But that’s not going to stop me from using it to mean “climax” if I damn well feel like it.


Just because “languages change” and peeving won’t stop that happening doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically bad to be annoyed by things you consider to be wrong.


Really, are there any rules that should be defended? Any usages? Any spellings? If languages change, and purists shouldn’t peeve, why do we have English grammar classes?

Rose offers a further angle:

Not only is “reached a crescendo” an unfortunate misuse of a word (a word with a clear meaning, easy enough to discover), it’s a cliché, and a tired one at that. (And because it’s become a cliché its use should be accepted? )

The comments also feature some excursions into the declining popularity of “classical music”.

Finally, Yakusa Cobb:

I have followed this thread for some time. As it now appears to be reaching a diminuendo, I shall quit.

It’s a veritable smorgasbord of opinions.

OK, I get it: “reaching a crescendo” isn’t “wrong”. I’m all for descriptive rather than prescriptive usage, but I can’t help myself.

Anyway, the Transferring Offerings ritual in Yanggao does not reach a crescendo with Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (my film, from 1.07.53). OK?


[1] Some articles cited there: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/11/magazine/on-language-reach-crescendo.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/29/opinion/a-crescendo-of-errors.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/01/opinion/a-dissonant-crescendo.html. See also https://jeremybutterfield.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/can-you-say-reach-a-crescendo-yes-you-can-its-not-a-specialist-term/