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.

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:


Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this seasonMahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5, The Rite of Spring (post updated!)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.



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.

A thrilling new sub-category!


By popular demand [not—Ed.] I’ve now added a new sub-heading of early music to the WAM category in the sidebar. True, early music is constantly getting later (Mahler, Ravel, and beyond), but here I’m defining it as “before opening time”.

Apart from earnest articles on Bach and Taruskin (Bach has his own tag; and I haven’t included posts on Rameau, Purcell, Buxtehude, Handel, and so on, whom you can type into the searchbox), it also includes more jocular items like Early music put in its place, The Mary Celeste, and A music critic.

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.