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).



Is music a universal language?


What is music, anyway?
And who’s asking?

Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,

  • Bruno NettlThe study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.

In Ch.2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music”:

There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.

The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.

In Ch.3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.

It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.

He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.

In Ch.5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries.

* * *.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilizations (which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.

In the first programme, Searching for paradise, Service notes the basic importance of music to religious observances, with a collage of ritual music from around the world (shamans, qawwali, plainchant, Sardinian liturgy, Bach…). Unpacking the “spiritual” and reflecting on the historical ambivalence of religious leaders towards the embodiment of ritual texts through sound, he makes connections with the latter-day rituals of the concert hall.

Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).

But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.

Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.

Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.

Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.

In his last programme, Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.

As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…

* * *.

Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are among the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here and 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/


Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary


Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing her as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. But as she comments, what most reactions share is an automatic dismissal of her music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work).

Her pieces explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

in her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture.

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous youtube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:


In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!



A plea to publishers

Ansai 2

I’d like to discuss in-text citations—yeah, funky, I know. I guess this issue has been subject to debate over the years, but (like Brexit) nothing seems to be happening.

I’ve just been admiring an excellent, well-argued book on Chinese folk culture. Having resigned myself to leaping the constant hurdles of parenthetical references, I finally lost it when, right in the middle of a purple passage, I was confronted with an indigestible mouthful:


That’s not just an Olympic hurdle, it might defeat even a motorbike jumper.

Sure, such references may be useful—in the form of notes (and between footnotes and endnotes, the latter make for a more readable text). But please, I really don’t want to choke on Ansaixian Weiyuanhui Wenshi Ziliao Yanjiu Weiyuanhui 1989! When forced to adopt in-text citations I sometimes give abbreviations (in this case, perhaps ASX 1989; in my latest book I often cite the Yanggao xianzhi as YG, though a more pedantic publisher might expect me to pepper the text with a longer citation).

There’s endless guidance about in-text citations, and I’m not going to address house-style here. But even short in-text citations are irritating. I know we’re used to it; often we just get in the habit of skipping over the parenthesis. If you’re interested in following up, then look at the note, FFS. Often the reader won’t be, in which case a parenthesis is seriously tedious.

And while I’m about it, even if we really want to limit our audience to sinologists, Chinese characters in the text are another distraction. Again, it suggests, “Look at me! I’m a sinologist!” Characters are useful; but assuming one gives them on first appearance, then it’s too much to expect us to try and search back for the characters a couple of hundred pages later. The place for characters is in a combined Glossary–Index.

Most authors are happy enough to get their research in print with a reputable publisher. They are helpless victims. But it’s galling that all their hard work in making their text more reader-friendly than their PhDs should be cancelled out by this fusty academic convention. Meanwhile academic publishers don’t care, as long as they fulfil quotas.

Thing is, as technology improves constantly, there’s hardly an economic argument to be made. Such issues are solveable—as long as publishers care whether their authors’ texts can reach out to a wider audience. It suggests that they simply don’t care if all their authors’ hard work is readable (“Hey, no-one’s gonna read this book anyway”); or perhaps that the very hallmark of academic excellence is to be unreadable. Yet distinguished works of detailed research published outside the narrow ghetto of academia provide notes, not in-text citations; and—surprise surprise—such books sell very well.

Academics seem to be getting mixed messages: even amidst all the modern pressures to “outreach”, academic publishing remains a bastion of obscurity. Scholarly prose is quite impenetrable enough already without these further obstacles.

Meanwhile on a blog like this, apart from the luxury of including colour photos and maps, while I do include some notes (and even some in-text citations), it’s a great feeling to be able to provide online links—like the way that de Selby footnotes increasingly take over the text of The third policeman.