The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

You can go for ages without paying attention to some of the most iconic works of music, while they lie dormant in the soul. Or, as a counterpart to my more obscure posts, we may just consider this the latest in my extensive series “Pieces that everyone knows are totally brilliant—that I now find are totally brilliant”. So it may be an instance of “selling the Three-character scripture at the door of Confucius” (cf. here), but hey.

I can’t quite work out when I became devoted to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road. Through my teens, though quite immune to a lot of pop music, I avidly bought the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

Meanwhile Gaoluo villagers were starving. I began to learn the violin in a polite suburb south of London, under very different conditions from those in which Cai An had learned music. By 1963 I was doing quite well, and won a local contest, though I was less keen on Handel sonatas than on the new songs from the Beatles, whose photo I kept in my violin case. My awareness of issues in defining classical and popular musics was still very basic.

At some stage I acquired the LPs of Rubber soulThe white album and Revolver—all of them brilliant. But I don’t recall becoming hooked on Sgt Pepper and Abbey road until after 1972 at Cambridge, when they were party regulars: I trust I didn’t attempt to dance.

Abbey road (1969) was the Beatles’ final masterpiece, created (like Sgt Pepper) in the recording studio as they took refuge from the frenetic touring life. Given my constant stress on musicking as a social activity, I’m aware of the irony of paying tribute to such disembodied creations (see also n.1).

The album resembles an unstaged opera, or an orchestral song-cycle (for wonderful examples of which, see here). Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions (and silences) between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on site such as this.

In my post on Sgt Pepper I observed how Wilfrid Mellers was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously, with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect (1973, published quite soon after they had disbanded). At the same time, for old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon, the Beatles seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Actually, neither popular nor folk and art musics are dependent on such complex skills for their efficacity: many songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In the Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

Music quotation, even in reference to literate “art” music, can never be adequate; in reference to Beatle music (and to most pop, jazz, folk, and non-Western music) it may be not only inadequate but also misleading; for written notation can represent neither the improvised elements nor the immediate distortions of pitch and flexibilities of rhythm which are the essence (not a decoration) of a music orally and aurally conceived. […]

To those who still found it “inherently risible” that pop music should be discussed in technical terms at all, his reply suggests an ethnomusicological grounding:

There is no valid way of talking about the experiential “effects” of music except by starting from an account of what actually happens in musical technique, the terminology of which has been evolved by professional musicians over some centuries. The fact that a Beatle—or a jazzman or a peasant singer or a perhaps highly sophisticated oriental musician [sic!]—has never heard of a dominant seventh or a mediant relationship or whatever, is neither here nor there; people who live and work in “oral” traditions have no need critically to rationalise about what they are doing. Of course it is possible to argue that all discussion and writing about music is a waste of time; I’ve occasionally come near to saying this myself. However, if this is true, it applies to all discussion of all music equally; analysis of Beethoven is no less irrelevant than analysis of Beatles.

This chimes in with Allan Marett’s point, inspired by Susan McClary, on Aboriginal dream songs—which indeed are among the exhibits in Mellers’ “Prologue and initiation”, whose opening section explores general themes in the Beatle world. Pursuing the mission to treat all musickings around the world on an equal footing, he ponders music as a way of life:

It is not an embellishment of living which one can take or leave; it does something, being music of necessity in somewhat the same sense as this phrase is applied to the musics of primitive peoples [sic].

After considering childhood games and ritual, he moves on to the evolution of musicking in European cultures; the “mythological” significance of popular lyrics; the origins of pop melody, and vocal and instrumental style, in blues and folk; the role of harmony and metre; and the narcotic loss of identity in the communal act. He goes on to explore the Beatles’ development of their cosmopolitan Liverpool background, quoting John:

I heard Country and Western music in Liverpool before I heard rock and roll. The people there—the Irish in Ireland are the same—take their Country and Western music very seriously.

Far more all-embracing than other pop music of the time, the Beatles (and we should also bear in mind George Martin’s input as producer) would refine elements from blues, Country, folk, rock, music-hall, children’s games, and psychedelia into their unique “Edenic dream”.

Some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road. Indeed, several other scholars, such as Allan Pollack, have since provided detailed analyses.

Like Sgt Pepper, Abbey road is full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. Side 2 is described as a song cycle, but the whole album makes a cogent sequence.

  • In the opening song Come together, “a portrait of a kind of hobo-outcast messiah”,

the screwed up vocal line […] attains a near-miraculous release in the refrain, when the reiterated minor third suddenly swings up a fifth, then down to the major third—harmonised, however, with the submediant triad.

  • The exquisite, soaring Something (George’s composition—Alan Pollack’s analysis worth reading as always, suggesting parallels with Beethoven), punctuated by the intoxicating key shift of the hook, and a gorgeous guitar break;
  • Maxwell’s silver hammer, an unsettling black comedy;
  • Oh! darling, with Paul’s amazing gutsy vocals, the song’s “passionate intensity undimmed by its parodistic elements”. (On another autobiographical note, such was my classical snobbery in the 60s that the concurrent explosion of blues and soul was lost on me; so they could only tinge my consciousness through the benign filter of the Beatles, rather than through the hardcore medium of the Stones);
  • Octopus’s garden (Ringo!), “a child’s dream-song”, though I don’t pick up on Mellers’ “hiding something blackly nasty in the woodshed“—far more applicable to the dark comic songs of Side 2;
  • In I want you (she’s so heavy), Mellers notes how the the zany vocal melisma modifies our response to the hammered dominant ninths that create the frenzy; and the refrain, “apparently in D minor but with dominant ninths of A (changing to German sixths on B flat), so that the A major triads are uncertain of their identity, wobbling between dominants of D and tonics of A”, becomes a long (over 3 minutes!) relentless 10-beat ostinato for the coda, “on the threshold of a scream”—ending the track, and Side 1, with an abrupt cut-off.

If these six songs of Side 1 themselves constitute a cohesive thread, the fragments assembled for Side 2 are still more of a continuous suite (see e.g. this thorough discussion)—starting again on an innocent note after the preceding menace:

  • Here comes the sun (George again), its phrases linked by additive rhythms (3+3+3+3+2+2), leading into
  • Because, inspired by the Moonlight sonata, is entrancing, “runic” (again reminding me that I didn’t do nearly enough drugs—just couldn’t seem to find the time…). Beneath the spacy, soaring choral harmonies, suspended in the void, the keyboard arpeggios (the intro—George Martin on harpsichord!—seemingly continuing the 3+3+2 rhythm), are “like a lulling of the cradle or even a swaying of the amniotic waters”. To cite Mellers at length:

The eight-bar first strain rocks slowly in dotted rhythm through its minor triad (“Because the world is round it turns me on”), dropping rather than drooping on to the subdominant triad, and dreamily fading in a melisma. The effect of this sudominant is unexpectedly emotive, perhaps because the triadic harmony has been so static. The answering strain extends and deepens the feeling, since the melody is protracted into dotted minims, and instead of the subdominant we have a submediant chord of the ninth, the melismas wafting longer and more hazily. The resolution of this ninth chord on to the supertonic is delayed because we shift abruptly back to C sharp minor for the second stanza, which tells us that “because the wind is high it blows my mind“. When, after the second stanza, the dominant ninth does resolve on to a D major triad, it’s hardly a real modulation establishing a new, and remote, key. Its harmonic function is “Neapolitan” but the triad, on the exclamation “Ah“, immediately pivots back from D not to the dominant but to F sharp, C sharp’s subdominant. This initiates the middle section which, changing the subdominant minor to major, creates with inspired simplicity the newness and all-embracingness of love. This middle contains four bars only; after which the envloping arpeggios return and the haunting melody sings da capo,  finally floating away in extended melismata, but without harmonic resolution. Indeed, although that flattened supertonic opens heavenly vistas, the song is virtually without harmonic progression, the only significant dominant–tonic cadence in the piece being the one that returns us to our source, and to the da capo of the melody. […] In the coda the upward leaping sixth—traditionally an interval of aspiration—is pentatonically suspended on the word “Because“; indeed the arpeggiated swaying is replaced intermittently by silence—in the use of which the Beatles betray something like genius.


Slightly skewed screenshot—not the result of the intake of medicinal substances, honest guv.

  • You never give me your money opens wistfully, but successively ramps up the mood, segueing into Out of college (its introductory boogie-woogie only fleeting), an exhilarating guitar modulation into One sweet dream (“tonally rootless, rhythmically exuberant”), before merging into the hazy nursery-rhyme paradise of One two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven—HOWEVER DID THEY DO ALL THIS?!;
  • Sun king, whose trippy feel develops out of Here comes the sun and Because;
  • Mean Mr Mustard, abruptly changing the mood—its brief refrain oscillating between E and C major, leading into a plagal cadence approached by way of the flattened seventh (more additive rhythms at the end!);
  • Polythene Pam (“a mythical Liverpool scrubber”, apud John) and
  • She came in through the bathroom windowboth songs “comically scary portraits, at once within the dream and part of the crazy-kinky scene that passes for today’s reality”, before the brilliant final sequence:
  • Golden slumbers, “an ironic title to an ironic song”, with “Sleep, pretty darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby“, with soothing strings, contrasting with the raucous refrain, leading into
  • Boy you’re gonna carry that weight—savage, grim, with a memory of You never give me your money, segeuing into
  • The End “abandons words for a furious hammering of percussion, which leads into a long instrumental section, all dominant sevenths in rumba rhythm, but rocking a tone lower than the starting point, getting nowhere. Suddenly the hubbub stops; there’s a tinkling of A major triads on a tinny piano; and Paul’s voice returns to sing ‘in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make’. The phrase descends scalewise, harmonised in parallel triads that fall from F major, to E minor, to D minor, to A minor, and so to C major.” And then, just when you think it’s all over,
  • Her Majesty (an unlisted “hidden track”), sung by Paul—a perfect little throwaway fragment, a nonchalant farewell to Beatledom.

Mellers observes that

The seraphic vision of Because was momentary, and the rest of the disc trips away from vision and from Pepper‘s awareness of human relationships into a magical mystery tour that, if it’s a dream, is a bad one, and no escape.

Still, the cumulative effect, with its multiple layers, is supremely life-enhancing.


As with all musics, you can zone out or zoom in—or both; anyway, focusing on compositional artistry can enhance our appreciation just as much for the Beatles as for Mahler, the Uyghur muqam, or Chinese shawm suites.

Though my later path has intersected but rarely with these albums, I take impertinent pride in belonging to a generation capable of producing such genius. Personal reception histories are a significant aspect of our cultural appreciation, but at whatever point in Life you engage with the Beatles, their work is astounding.


[1] I trust you won’t be thrown off the scent by the many cover versions masquerading online (to me they sound awful, almost sacrilegious). That’s not to belittle cover versions generally—they’re part of music’s whole creative social afterlife—but they can make us appreciate the craft of the original all the more. By contrast, I want every single guitar break, every tiny vocal inflection, to be faithfully reproduced and worshipped come sta for eternity, preserved in aspic—gleefully aware that this contradicts just about everything I’ve ever written (e.g. under Unpacking “improvisation”). Indeed, the release of the original sessions (with alternative tracks and running orders), and the remixes, remind us that even a studio recording is a living organism, subject to variation: what I regard here as so sacrosanct is just one possible realisation. The songs were recorded individually, and only later arranged into the sequence that we now found so cohesive and definitive.


Transmission and change: Noh drama



Further to my post on contemporary Noh drama, I’m grateful to Allan Marett for drawing my attention to

the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.

I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.

Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.

Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:

A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.

Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.

The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.

As Fujita explains:

According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]

Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).

Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]

This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.

Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).

Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.

A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter [2] from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.

Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:

For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.

On singing, Fujita observes:

Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:

In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.

This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.

He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:

The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.

While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.

Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.

In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:

When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.

So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.

With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.

Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:

At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.

He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:

Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.

§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:

In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.

Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”)  and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.

Observing that

in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,

Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.

Such thoughtful, detailed analysis is a valuable contribution to studies of change in musickings around the world.


[1] For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.

[2] For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.


A 2019 retrospective

For my sake as much as yours, I’m rounding up some themes from the last year (cf. my post for 2018)—do click on the links, both below and in the posts themselves! There’s plenty more to explore under the monthly archives as you scroll down in the sidebar.

I continue to add vignettes on the Li family Daoists (always bearing in mind my film and book!):

and I augment my post Walking Shrill with

On my other main fieldsite of Gaoluo (summary here),

Bearing on both the Li family and Gaoluo is

And under the main menu, it’s always worth exploring the many fieldnotes under Local ritual, and the various pages under the Themes sub-menu.

Among many posts on the great Yang Yinliu are

For links to ritual life around south Jiangsu, see

and for the rich cultures of Fujian,

Note also

For more on China, see

The plight of the Uyghurs is a pressing concern (see also Uyghur tag):

Note also

Further afield, see

The category of “world music“, or rather musicking in societies around the world, continues to grow. For salient perspectives on musical cultures worldwide (notably the brilliant, accessible work of Bruno Nettl), see

For diverse regional genres, see e.g.

For the musics of Iran, see

Pursuing my shawm theme. see

Among several posts on Italian folk culture are

See also

Note also new posts on flamenco.

On English culture (roundup here):

and having given Alan Bennett time off for good behaviour, he stars in several recent posts, notably

Under the WAM category, posts include

and recent additions to the Mozart tag, like

Under the Messiaen tag, major new posts are

On a lighter note are two classics on rubber chicken:

In my Must-Listen Playlist of songs (complementing the sidebar playlist for local Chinese traditions, with commentary here), most spellbinding is

And I continue the theme of stammering:

Also well worth a read is

And don’t forget the *MUST READ* category—among which my personal choice remains

Backing vocals

In his ever-stimulating BBC Radio 3 series The listening service, Tom Service explores Why backing vocals matter.

His illuminating examples open with Aretha’s irresistible I say a little prayer (a gem in my own Playlist of songs), going on to admire the artistry in the interplay of solo and chorus through Gilbert and Sullivan, Verdi,  The Beach Boys, Monteverdi, Purcell, and Stravinsky.

While his juxtaposition of WAM and popular music is always instructive, as usual I’d love to expand the topic to embrace musicking around the world, equipped with the canons of ethnomusicology: Noh drama, Daoist ritual such as the Invitation), Moroccan ahouach, and so on.

The Pardon, 1991



Mahler 5 as you’ve never heard it

Mahler 5

Given that I adore Mahler 5, this is a strange way to introduce it. But having already delighted in Pachelbel’s capon, another gem from Two Set Violin‘s rubber chicken playlist is this unlikely rendition of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo—and it’s even funnier if you share my veneration for the work:

Just as well John Wilbraham didn’t know about this—he might have found the temptation too hard to resist.

On that trumpet solo, here’s an interesting post, that supplements Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective (no turn unstoned) with early reviews of the symphony like

Ugly symphony is well played . . . Mahler of Vienna writes bad music.

A long and tedious work.

I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live … It is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago.

Of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve.

Hmm. Given that I entirely share the modern veneration for Mahler (this is the latest addition to my Mahler tag), and for the 5th symphony in particular, I don’t seem to be making much of a case for it. Just as relishing Always look on the bright side of life needn’t spoil our appreciation of the Bach Passions, please don’t let all this put you off the Real Thing— here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil yet again:

And the great Klaus Tennstedt in a recording from 1980:

For S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement, click here; and for a creative use of the Adagietto, here.

The wonders of juggling

me juggling

Before a concert at Michelham Priory, c1983.

Part of my baptism in early music took place touring around England with the Medieval players in the 1980s.

MP posterWhile I played rebec, I also learned the basics of juggling from Mark Heap and Mark Saban—though I was happy to leave the stilt-walking and fire-eating to them. Hard to imagine now, but later on European tours with baroque orchestras some of us used to fill the longueurs of hanging around at airports with impromptu juggling sessions.

Juggling inevitably becomes a flashy, often comical stage act (with a variety of props like clubs, and not least the old torch, egg, and frying-pan trick), but Mark Heap could transform it into a pure, transcendental activity (later offering some vignettes in Green wing).

Technical virtuosos rise to the challenge of five, seven, and even eleven balls, but that largely excludes fantasy. The variety of patterns with a mere three is a thing of wonder—all the more so with passing between two jugglers.

I note that ancient China features in the long history of juggling worldwide:

During a battle in about 603 BC between the states of Chu and Song, Xiong Yiliao stepped out between the armies and juggled nine balls, which so amazed the Song troops that all five hundred of them turned and fled, allowing the Chu army to win a complete victory.

So much for the military hardware of the modern PLA…

The way that the “given” building blocks are creatively combined into a routine reminds me of the process of musical creation in performance, with its balance of perspiration and inspiration. And it evolves constantly. For some taxonomy, see here; the vocabulary is cute (though, like musicians, many jugglers won’t necessarily be aware of it)—all kinds of cascade, mess, column, shower, cascade, shuffle, box, grab, claw, bump, yoyo, and so on, easily found in online videos. I haven’t quite found the fake throwaway that Mark Heap used to do so beautifully.

Anita Bartling
Anita Bartling (1887–1966).

To make up for the usual male-dominated perspective, there are fine introductions, with video links, to female jugglers in history here and here.

Left: wedding party, Mantua 1999.
Right: on tour with EBS, Lyon 1982.

Like clapping, juggling is an art that should be cultivated from young. Start, and indeed continue, with bean bags (cf. the Larson Stradivarius cartoon: “Violins galore! Start the kids on one today!”)!


Unpacking “improvisation”

Improvisation in music is a concept that can easily mislead. The popular cliché is to contrast jazz and Indian raga with the detailed, fixed prescriptions of WAM; rather, it’s profitable to subsume improvisation under the whole process of musical creation, considering more and less flexible frameworks for performance.

Bruno Nettl has paid much attention to the subject, co-editing two splendid books:

  • Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russell (eds.), In the course of performance: studies in the world of musical improvisation (1998)
  • Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl (eds.), Musical improvisation: art, education, and society (2009).

In Chapter 4 of his masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, “Inspiration and perspiration: creative processes”, Nettl unpacks the issues in typically illuminating fashion. Pondering “What is the nature of musical creation?”, he explores the continuums mediating between composition and performance. Here’s a typical passage showing how he treats all human musickings on a equal footing:

Schubert is said to have composed a song while waiting to be served at a restaurant (presumably by a slow waiter), quickly writing it on the back of a menu; Mozart turned out some of his serenades and sonatas almost overnight; and Theodore Last Star, a Blackfoot singer and medicine man, had visions in each of which, in the space of a brief moment, he learned, from a guardian spirit, a new song. But Brahms labored for years on his first symphony, Beethoven planned and sketched ideas for his Ninth for over two decades, and William Shakespear, an Arapaho elder, said that when he took a motif from one song, something else from another, and a phrase from a third, thus making up a Peyote song, it might take him a good part of an afternoon. The xylophonist of a Chopi orchestra made up music as he went along, but he was constrained by rules articulated by his leader. The North Indian sitarist sits down before his audience and creates a performance of new music on the spot, but he can do this only because for hours every day he practices exercises that he has memorized, as he maintains in his mind a musical vocabulary on which he can draw and a group of rules that tell him, once he has selected a raga, what he must, may, or cannot do. A Kentucky mountaineer about 1910 sang “The Two Sisters” in a tavern, his friends admiring a new twist he put into the refrain. And the overjoyed Bach lover after the cello recital exclaims, “She’s never played it like this before. She makes the suite live like no one else.” In some sense, each of these musicians has created music, but music scholars actually know very little about the way in which such music comes about, especially in its innovative aspect, which is what they most admire. They believe, as Blum (2009) explains in detail, that when music is produced (in any sense of the word), something new is being created.

There is innovation—of different sorts—in the composition of a symphony, in the jazz improvisation on a well-known show tune, in the unique rendition of a Japanese chamber work that has been handed down with little change for generations, or in a rendition of a standard string quartet. Ethnomusicologists in particular must deal with what is new, new in a sense generally understood by them but new also within the specific cognitive framework and understanding of its culture.

But what is “newness”? Speaking cross-culturally, what may be heard as new composition in one culture might be regarded as simple variation in another. Judging the degree of innovation is a tricky business. The Persian improviser who by the standards of European composition gives his audience something different each time he performs may not be, in his own manner of musical thought, doing something really new, but simply “playing a particular mode”. By contrast, the Blackfoot singer who learned a song in a vision may have thought of it as a new song, even if objectively it sounded virtually identical to a song that had been received by one of his friends in another vision. The South Indian musician with a penchant for giving her audience unexpectedly strange vocalizations runs the risk of rendering something outside the realms of propriety and being criticized for not knowing her basic material. The American composer who writes a piece inspired by Hindemith or Stravinsky might be criticized for presenting something belonging to the past and thus not properly innovative.

Nettl goes on to suggest three intersecting continuums:

it is also the result of the manipulation and rearrangement of the units of a given vocabulary, of hard work and concentration. The concepts of inspiration, of genius, and of acquiring music directly from supernatural sources are very widespread among human societies, simple and complex. Haydn worked regular hours and depended on some kind of inspiration; when it did not come, he prayed for it, rather like the Native American seeking a vision who is also, in effect, praying for songs. At the other end of the line is the concept of composition as an essentially intellectual activity, in which the musician consciously manipulates the materials, or building blocks, of music […]. […] The listener may be unaware of all the care that went into the preparation of this complex structure. But such an approach is not limited to societies with written notation and music theory texts. Native American composers of Peyote songs may be equally careful, using and abiding by general structural principles that govern the song, musically making clear a number of intricate relationships, deriving new phrases from earlier ones, all within a rather rigidnly defined formal framework. Yet it seems unlikely that the typical Native American listener understands the details of the structure.

The two ends of the continuum merge: Mozart’s music sounds to many divinely inspired, and we know it was often composed quickly, yet has incredible consistency and great complexity. The songs of the Yahi of California, sung by Ishi, the last “wild” Indian, each ten seconds long and using only some three or four tones, exhibit considerable sophistication in their internal interrelationships, with a logic not totally unlike that of Mozart. An Iranian musician says that his improvised performance comes “from the heart”, but analysis shows us highly structured and sophisticated patterns unique to the performer. A performer of improvised Indian alapana learns a vast repertory of melodic and rhythmic units that can and must be interrelated in many ways, exhibiting her skill in showing the multitude of combinations she can control, yet many in her culture regard this music as essentially spiritual. Each case confronts us with aspects of both ends of the continuum, obviously in different proportions.

  • From improvisation to composition—two versions of the same process. Again, Nettl compares Schubert’s rapid composition of a sonata with the assembly of an Indian improvisation: “the fact that Schubert used paper and pen might actually be considered incidental”. He suggests that even the gigantic labour of composing a symphony is cognate with the technique of a Yahi Indian composer, and that Horowitz’s multiple renditions of Beethoven may be compared with an Arabic musician performing the maqam.
  • From precomposition to composition to revision: another process common worldwide, played out over years or minutes.

Nettl then stresses the false dichotomy between the composing of “art” and “folk” musics:

There seems no reason to regard composition in cultures with oral and written traditions as different species. […] In each culture, the musician is “given” something and then has the job of adding something else, but there are many different kinds of “given” and “added”.

Discussing the balance between the two, he concedes that there are many societies in which innovation is restricted, adducing Anglo-American folk song and South Indian kriti.

What is “given” to the creator of music are the building blocks and the rules of what may be done with them; innovation consists of how the options are exercised.

Finally Nettl homes in on “improvisation”—whose definition as “the creation of music in the course of performance” already looks dubious. As always, he gives useful leads to the whole history of research on such topics. He praises Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, the classic analysis of the diverse elements on which jazz performers draw.

As improvisation received more attention, ethnomusicologists also began to see it as complex syndrome of behaviors, and the distinction from traditionally conceived composition began to blur.

He notes the role of improvisation in WAM, from early performances where “the quality of musicianship is judged by the degree to which the improvised piece sounds as if it were not improvised” to the 19th-century rhapsodies and impromptus, which were “composed and written out but seem to be intended to make the listener think they are improvised, or at least somehow connected with an immediacy and spontaneity of creation”.

Left: Clara Schumann with Robert; right: Dariush Talai.

It’s good to find WAM taking its place where it belongs, within ethnomusicology, or “all the musics of the world”. In the later history of WAM, as increasingly prescriptive notation (a red herring: see also here), and the recording industry, came to limit improvisation, I can’t help feeling that WAM musicians have sacrificed a lot.

Themes in the collection Musical improvisation include Ukrainian funeral laments, jazz, and Persian music—and several authors write on WAM, including Robert Levin, whose renditions of Mozart, notably his improvised cadenzas, are so brilliant. We might now hear much of the romantic piano repertoire as improvisations to which performers gave a fixed form, as Messiaen did later with his Messe de la Pentecôte.

Indeed, it makes sense to suggest that the kinds of things we call improvisation exhibit such variety—everything from simply adding ornaments to a composition to totally (well, almost totally) “free” improvisation, from oral composition to following precise rules in re-creation—and are practised in so many cultures that improvisation ought to be considered the central form of music creation, with traditional Western-style composition, with pen and ink, as a highly developed subtype.

In his introduction to In the course of performance Nettl also mentions Albert Lord’s 1965 The singer of tales and the study of Gregorian chant. Among topics covered in the volume are Javanese gamelan, African–American girls’ singing games, Italian folk song, and the Preludes of Clara Schumann (for an idea of how she might have improvised, do listen to Hélène Grimaud‘s playing in the Brahms concertos—in particular the slow movements!). See also the Dream songs of Australian aborigines.

All this also suggests ways of understanding the whole range of musicking in China: shawm bands (whose music, misleadingly, often sounds “improvised”), silk-and-bamboo (perhaps akin to Irish music—the heterophony of instrumental ensembles is often akin to the ornamentations and divisions of early WAM); as well as folk song, the qin zither (e.g. here), the parameters of performing Daoist ritual, and so on. And it makes yet another caveat against reification: performance as process.

Reading Nettl is endlessly stimulating.