Useful putdowns

As Clive Anderson remarked to Jeffrey Archer,

Is there no beginning to your talents?

And there must be an earlier source for this one, but I heard it from Jack Dee on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue:

Once heard, forgotten.

A review of one of my gigs, surely. For the niche genre of conductors’ inadvertent self-putdowns, see here—and then my elegant trio of variations punctuating my Visual culture post.

Tambourin chinois

In my teens, as a fiddler and budding aficionado of Chinese culture, I couldn’t help practising Fritz Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. You can explore various brilliant later versions, but here’s Kreisler himself playing it in 1936: 

I relished getting my fingers round all the funky pentatonic runs and double-stops in fifths and fourths—and the whimsical middle section is great too.

At the time, deprived of “real” Chinese musical culture (as indeed were the Chinese, then—With All Due Respect to The Red Detachment of Women), chinoiserie was still attractive. It was to be a long time before I came across The Real Thing in rural China. OK, Tambourin chinois isn’t entirely similar to Li Manshan’s funky drumming in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body (coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual—my film, from 1.11.07), or the amazing tracks on the playlist in the sidebar. But I still like it…

LMS drummingMuch as I admire Kreisler and Co., don’t miss Sun Huang‘s exquisite playing—and do click on the link to Saint-Saens and the toothbrush

The joys of indexing

I’ve just added a handy tag for Chinese jokes, that transpires to comprise a majority of my posts—hours of harmless fun for all the family.

I’m not going to try and work out how to introduce sub-headings into such tags, but here’s a simple list of how they might look for this one:

  • puns
  • Daoist
  • grammar
  • pinyin
  • poetry
  • Maoist
  • heritage
  • names
  • visual
  • Tang
  • urban–rural

Call me a nerd [You’re a nerd—Ed.], but I’ve always loved indexing. After graduating—just as orchestras were mysteriously beginning to consider paying me to play the violin—I indexed books for Cambridge UP (notably for the Tang volumes of The Cambridge history of China), relishing the task of compiling hand-written index-cards (imagine that). Since I began writing my own books, I’ve always enjoyed indexing them too—it’s so good if authors can compile their own indexes, as detailed knowledge of your text can produce a much more instructive result, highlighting themes that may not always reveal themselves through a simple search for particular words. And they can give a real flavour of the subject. Again we return to taxonomy.

Pedantry and frivolity can go hand in hand. With sub-editors either indulgent or distracted, I’ve generally managed to sneak in a few entertaining entries. Alphabetical order can further create random and stimulating associations. I made an early foray in my index for Folk music of China:

  • temples (Fujian, Hebei, Shanxi; see also temple music)
  • Temple, Shirley

A couple of nice sequences in Plucking the winds:

  • Beatles
  • Beethoven: author despairingly sings gongche mnemonics to
  • bicycles
  • birth-control policy
  • blind musicians

[…]

  • vagrancy
  • Valerio, Father
  • Verona, missionary base
  • video-CDs
  • viola jokes
  • Vivaldi, disparaged

Ritual and music of north China:

  • clothing
  • coal mining
  • commune system
  • concert performances
  • conch
  • contests, official
  • cremation
  • crime
  • Cui Jian
  • cultural authorities
  • Cultural Revolution
  • cymbals

In Daoist priests of the Li family I like the sequences

[…]

and

  • Venice
  • violence
  • vocal liturgy
  • walking

Slonimsky’s brilliant A Lexicon of musical invective (a genuinely instructive caveat to our contingent aesthetic judgments) has a hilarious index (“Invecticon”)—here’s a sample:

invecticonWhile we’re on the subject of research (um) tools, the glossaries of the Barry Mackenzie cartoon books are masterpieces of indiscreet linguistic erudition:
Bazza
I keep trying to encourage Chinese publishers to include indexes—they would make a really valuable resource.

While I’m here, it’s great to be able to cross-reference and give links online (as you can see in this very post)—which in a work published on paper would have to be a tedious footnote or a laborious URL. Not to mention publishing colour photos and maps. AND what’s more, unlike traditional publishing, we can continue editing them. Hooray for modern life!

Anyway, enjoy all the Chinese jokes.

More French opera

Since I mentioned Messiaen’s extraordinary Saint François, another deeply serious French opera about religious devotion that I’ve only just registered (and am keen to see live) is Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), with its chilling final scene (from 2.20.02) where the nuns climb in turn to the guillotine while chanting the Salve regina.

Just in case we forget, China didn’t invent religious persecution… Unlike Messiaen, whose work seems oblivious of the secular world, Poulenc’s work inevitably evokes the more recent agonies of France, and Europe.

Bach and the oboe

My love of the oboe is related partly to immersing myself in Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations on the guanzi, dovetailing with the vocal liturgy of Daoist ritual (my film, and playlist)—as well as in the ear-scouring shawm bands of north China and other double-reed traditions around the world. But it’s also to do with playing Bach Passions and cantatas.

In Bach’s Leipzig, as in 1940s’ Yanggao, the standard of wind playing must have been high. But as usual, accustomed as we are to wallowing in soupy French film music, we may hear such music with ears different from those of Leipzig congregations. For them, the wider soundscape was the civic stadtpfeifer bands. As in China, such wind bands were first used in the army, and later also by courts, playing for ceremonies, processions, weddings and funerals, and so on.

Again like north Chinese ritual specialists, Bach’s oboists had to play several types, each suitable for different keys; and they doubled on other instruments such as violin. Bach’s long-serving oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch must have been a fine player.

Not forgetting the oboe and violin concerto, here’s a little playlist (full list here):

Wo zwei und drei versammlet from Cantata 42 Am abend aber desselbigen Sabbats:

And the end of the Christmas oratorio, second video from 59.06 (do listen to the following quartet too, and right to the end!).

Quia respexit from the Magnificat:

But alongside such melodic genius, I also love the sustained unison notes of the two oboes in the Suscepit Israel of the Magnificat:

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.

Lost for words

Besides the potentially cruel There was a young man from Calcuttaanother song that might make a suitable anthem for the Stammering Association is Rossini’s Mi manca la voce, or “My voice fails me”, from his 1818 opera Mosè in Egitto:

Apart from the sheer beauty of the music, it reminds me of group therapy sessions I’ve taken part in. Despite their protestations, all four (unusually, both male and female) stammerers seem to have overcome their imp-p-pediment; but again, singing does often offer a temporary reprieve.

The specious connection with stammering didn’t occur to me when I first relished the quartet from the pit at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in the early 1980s. Of course, joking aside, this is an excuse to play an exquisite composition, a departure from our usual diet of Bach, Daoist ritual, and Billie Holiday.

That’s the best version I can find online. I’m sure scholars of Italian opera can discuss at length the authenticity of such a style—one might assemble a less, um, operatic vocal ensemble, but that’s just me and my knit-your-own yogurt purism for you.

Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But seriously though folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always has it in front of him, and it’s electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.

What better illustration of the wonders of memorization than Simon Rattle with the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does: