The changing musical life of north India: social structure, and the sarangi

Neuman cover

The photo shows a gathering of music masters in Nepal, c1900.

While immersing ourselves in the melodic and rhythmic riches of Indian raga [1] we may forget that, like any other musical culture (including WAM), it is an evolving product of a social system, and that “music isn’t a thing, but an activity“. Bruno Nettl’s imaginative citing of the north Indian gharana system in his book on the schools of WAM reminded me to re-read the important early study

  • Daniel M. Neuman, The life of music in north India: the organization of an artistic tradition (1980, with updated preface, 1990).

Nettl ranks Neuman’s work alongside other ethnographic studies of a similar vintage, such as Steven Feld’s work on the Kaluli, Paul Berliner on the mbira, and Lorraine Sakata on Afghan musicians. It also makes a good instance of Nettl’s own taxonomy of responses to change in musical traditions around the world.

Bearing particularly on traditions of “art music”, Neuman’s points may vary significantly for regional folk genres, for India (see under Indian tag, e.g. Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia) and elsewhere around the world (such as flamenco, the festivities of Morocco, or—you guessed it—Chinese shawm bands), where intensity and communication are just as relevant but depend more on constant exposure than on rigorous formal training.

From afar I was absorbed in raga long before I began visiting China. It was a pioneer on the scene later dubbed “world music”, invigorated by the hippy vibe of the 1960s. Raga (at that stage mainly considered as a solo instrumental genre) seemed a pure, spiritual art—and that is indeed part of the story. Like WAM (see links under Society and soundscape) and Chinese music (e.g. Debunking “living fossils”), it may seem timeless, autonomous; and most early studies focused on disembodied musical analysis, notably on the art of improvisation. But change, both social and musical, is a constant theme—a process going on since at least the mid-19th century and still proceeding apace. Neuman’s analysis makes an important corrective to those who still prefer to leave their orientalist fantasies of the Mystic East untrammelled.

In a preface for the 1990 paperback edition, Neuman observes change even over the years since he carried out his original fieldwork, such as the boom in institutions, festivals, and research (both in India and abroad), further technological revolutions, a broadening in class, the increasing importance of pop music—and the scene has continued to transform since. While the general sound of the tradition has proved quite resilient,

as constant as the sound itself is the persistent concern and dismay about the present state of classical music, an ever-present dismay that must be as old as the tradition.

In his Introduction, Neuman asks

how such a characteristic, yet elusive and ephemeral, cultural phenomenon continues to maintain its integrity and autonomy in a world so vastly changed from that which gave it birth.

He reminds us of the 19th-century background of elite private patronage, with musical events taking place in the noble courts and homes of the wealthy, rulers going to great lengths—as in baroque Europe—to sustain a top-ranking musical establishment. And from the 1920s, the scene was partially redefined by the tastes and economic power of the rising middle class and the search for a national identity, with musicking becoming one of the social graces of the bourgeoisie, not least among women—as in 19th-century Europe. From the 1930s new radio stations, and the film industry, played an increasing role in patronage; the culture of art music was becoming urbanized and diversified.

I like Fox Strangways’s comment (1914!):

India has had time to forget more melody than Europe has had time to learn.

Take that, Berlioz!

In Chapter 2, “Becoming a musician”, Neuman focuses on riaz “practice” and the guru–shishya relationship between master and disciple that defines the gharana stylistic “school”. Riaz is a source for many stories of extreme, ascetic devotion to practice (“scars, scorpions, and sleepless nights”), many of which have taken on a mythic air. Such tales of the moral virtues of perseverance put my tribulations with Ševčík violin studies in the shade.

Neuman gives a nice instance of participant observation:

Often when I met musicians, the very first thing they asked me was whether I had been practicing hard; and while saying this, one would take my left hand and look at my nails and cuticles for the “hard” evidence. If the cuticles were built up into a horny ridge, and if my nails had grooves at the point where the nail meets the cuticle, then the evidence was there.

He discusses the transition from the dedicated discipline of the disciple to maintenance in later years, as “the leisure of the idealized village of the past or the princely patronage system is replaced by the scramble to earn a living”. As Ram Narayan observed, an important stage is learning how to practice correctly. Again, parallels here with WAM.

Exploring the relationship between disciple and master, Neuman cites a venerable ustad on the possible demise of the surbahar bass sitar, with a simile that precisely recalls the Chinese proverb “playing the qin for an ox” 对牛弹琴:

You think that the ustads want to keep the surbahar to themselves. It is wrong to think that way. We want to teach, but who is going to learn? It is such a big science, and if anybody asks for it and we give it then it would be like playing the vīṇā [the bīn] in front of a water-buffalo, so we can only play for those who understand.

Some “secret” ragas, too, are conveyed only to exceptional disciples.

In Chapter 3, “Being a musician”, Neuman discusses music as divine expression. But

although music and God are closely related, music and religion are not.

By “music”, he’s referring to the raga tradition—the soundscape of Indian ritual practice is another subject. He mentions rāg Malkauns, considered especially attractive to jinn spirits. But the move to the concert stage has attenuated such knowledge:

Musicians are, in a sense, twice removed from the sacred and magical. They believe in the power of music, but rarely seem to experience it. Like riaz as a sacred duty and the guru-shishya system as a hallowed relationship, musicians as magical performers are becoming a thing of the past. “It is the common man,” as some musicians are fond of putting it, “who calls the tune”. The piper’s patron which has emerged is a very complex mixture of people, and musicians are now listening carefully so that they know which tune to play.

This leads Neuman to a discussion of the listening public. As audiences have become more diverse, musicians adjust their repertoire. Sometimes they perform in special mehfil gatherings for connoisseurs, including other musicians—the most intimate and satisfying context (I think of the flamenco juerga, or the qin gathering in China).

But usually in recent decades they have to perform on the concert platform for a large, unfamiliar audience, or even (as often in the case of radio) with no listeners present as they play. Neuman gives instances of audiences around India considered more and less discriminating, and discusses amplification. He mentions the verbal reactions of audiences—at prescribed junctures—such as kyā bāt! (“what a thing!”) or javāb nahī (“no answer”), yet again reminding one of the jaleo calls of flamenco (olé, agua, and so on).

The move to the concert stage has made performers tailor their repertoire, calibrating the sequence and length of more highbrow alap and vilambit, and the more virtuosic sections of the raga, including crowd-pleasing sawāl-jawāb question-and-answer exchanges.

The book wisely refrains from discussing the substantial variations in length of the preludial alap in the various vocal and instrumental genres. [2] Rather than a simple modern abbreviation of a once-grandiose form, in some cases it may be the opposite. The advent of recording, with its limited capacity, may have influenced performance practice to some extent, but doesn’t seem to correlate closely with the varying duration of alap in live performance. A major factor may be the performer’s assessment of the changing audience’s discernment.

Neuman discusses musicians’ own evaluations under the headings of competence, appropriateness, and affect. His account doesn’t quite resemble the contrast between an abstract study period and having to make a living in the real world (cf. Training Daoists in Shanghai).

In Chapter 4, “The social organization of specialist knowledge”, Neuman attempts an etic taxonomy, observing hierarchies. As in many cultures, there is no common term for “musician” (and even our term is extremely vague). Neuman unpacks the term “professional musician”—an occupational category that subsumes a variety of performing specialists from various social groups. He discusses performers by ethnic origins (based in Delhi, he found that most musicians came from hereditary Muslim families), community, caste; by gender, residence, and age; by the extent of their musical knowledge; and by the type of music that they performed.

Musicians acknowledge the distinction between soloists and accompanists: a singer with an accompanying instrument (harmonium increasingly replacing sarangi), or a melodic instrumentalist with tabla. Vocal genres (dhrupad, khyal, thumri, ghazal)—ranked on a scale of seriousness—are a constant theme.

Neuman notes that the sarangi player Ram Narayan was rare in making the transition from accompanist to soloist; and he discusses the female vocalists, formerly associated with the courtesan tradition. While most soloists still perform on sitar and sarod, performers of other instruments such as shahnai oboe, bānsrī (bansuri) flute, and violin have occasionally come to achieve celebrity (see also Indian and world fiddles).

He goes on to consider the sarangi and tabla accompanists, mostly belonging to specific occupational groups and “associated by outsiders with dancing girls, tawaifs, and brothels”. The sarangi players are mainly associated with khayal, but never accompany dhrupad. Their knowledge is different from that of soloists (“artists”): while less creativity is expected of them, they are skilled, expert craftsmen (“artisans”). The role of the tabla, previously subsidiary, has grown. Neuman unpacks their basis in the caste system, with historical leads involving rural and urban origins.

In Chapter 5, “Gharanas: the politics of pedigree”, he notes conflicting views about the value of the gharana, yet another fluid system formed with “the introduction of the railway and telegraph system in the 1850s, the great uprising of 1857 with its concomitant social dislocations, and a slow but steady increase in urbanization”.

Chapter 6 concerns adaptive strategies. He returns to the theme of changing patronage; for the former musical parties of the nobility he reminds us of Sayajit Ray’s 1958 film The music room. A fine section follows on the important role of All India Radio, which became a major employer of vocalists and instrumentalists. Neuman discusses the accompanying role of the harmonium, now standard: commonly used in India since the 19th century, it became popular with vocalists themselves. As it came to threaten the livelihood of sarangi players, its use was controversial; All India Radio banned it in the 1950s, but had to recant by the 1970s (cf. the violin in Crete).

An image of Gauhar Jan led me to this 1902 recording—with harmonium:

For another early instance to illustrate that the use of harmonium is not just a modern abomination, listen to Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1909 here.

Neuman then discusses public performances, fixing fees, “foreign returned” artists, contacts, and changing modes of tuition, including educational institutions. Against the broad and superficial teaching of such schools,

professional musicians are often heard to say that it is far better to concentrate on one or a very few rags, exploring each in depth to enable the disciple to extend his understanding of many other rags quickly. “If you practice rag Yaman intensely, and come to really know it, then the knowledge of other rags will come of itself”

Again, this reminds me of the Chinese qin zither: Wu Jinglue, one of many senior masters recruited to the conservatoire yet never wholly absorbed into its ethos, gave me just the same advice. More broadly reminiscent of Chinese music are the decline of elite patronage, and social change since the traumas surrounding independence—though the historical trajectories of China and India are utterly different.

In Chapter 7, “The ecology of Hindustani music culture”, Neuman ponders the perceived constancy amidst social change and a radically altered cultural terrain (again recalling Nettl’s parameters). On producers of music, he further ponders themes such as the increasing diversity of the scene, hereditary and non-hereditary musicians, and the growing participation of women.

Such changes are reflected in repertoires. Returning to rāg Malkauns, he comments:

When rāg Malkauns ceases to be the rāg of jinns and becomes a pentatonic scale, the music becomes something different because it means something different.

Here are two versions by Nikhil Banerjee and Vilayat Khan, both with magical long alap: [3]

As to consumers, Neuman includes advertising and sponsorship in his discussion, as well as the role of the state and audiences for live and recorded music. For modern stage performances, he distinguishes “courtly” and “devotional” models, noting stage presentation and costume. He discusses technologies of production and reproduction and their influence on performance practices—again a popular theme in studies of WAM. He suggests a decrease in the diversity of performance styles along with an increase in the variety of experiments and forms.

Chapter 8, “The cultural structure and social organization of a music tradition”, further unpacks the relationship of musicians and audiences to the imagined past. While there is not always a harmonious equilibrium between social and cultural changes, Neuman suggests that the structure

can adapt to changing social conditions because it is constructed from elements which allow both contradictory intepretations and a continuing potential for revision.

* * *

Among the accompanying instruments, the sarangi has long been prominent, though (as we saw) threatened by the harmonium. The remarkable website of Nicolas Magriel contains a wealth of information on individual players, along with a treasury of precious audio and video field recordings—made just at a time when the system was going into decline. As he comments in this interview,

“One thing that’s really unique is the amount of footage inside very traditional musicians’ homes. No one else has done this with anything in Indian music. I happen to be crazy enough to make 450 hours of video of sarangi players—I met most of them in the 1990s, in 18 cities across India. This is the real life of the musician—people practising and teaching at home, while the women are cooking vegetables, people are wheeling motorbikes in and out of the room, and the kids are going crazy. Even in India the concert-going public has no idea what this traditional life of musicians is; they know music as a packaged item that they see on the stage.” […]
“The sarangi is the black sheep of Indian music. It’s the most difficult instrument and the lowest status. It was a rural folk instrument, and in the 18th century it came into the classical world because courtesans needed it to accompany singing and dance. It was by far the most popular and widespread instrument in 19th-century India, because every brothel had sarangi players. But in the 20th century sarangi players were more and more marginalised; they were excluded from the mainstream of classical music, so they maintained their premodern way of life.”

Magriel’s Sangi Rangi website has both male and female stars—the men are sarangi players and teachers, while the women are courtesans: skilled dancers and singers who employ sarangi players as accompanists and sometimes their agents. “In the words of my dear Ustad Abdul Latif Khan,” he says, “these women kept this music alive for the last 400 years.” The site has films of them at work, and pays tribute to their role, which Magriel feels has been written out of Indian musical history. “That was the core of classical music, and it’s something that’s been whitewashed, both in the West but specially in India. Everyone wants to think of it as a kind of spiritual music that was played in the temples. There was court music, but in many cases the male musicians who were idolised, actually they existed in order to teach the women how to sing. When India moved towards independence there was a feeling that there should be a classical music tradition, and so you needed first to connect it with ancient texts. Secondly they tried to create a pure Hindu art, whereas music had been the domain of muslims in India for 400 years. Ordinances were passed which in effect gradually repressed the courtesan tradition. Muslims were discriminated against, and sarangi players were discriminated against by association.”

Still, while Magriel finds a growing shallowness in the music, along with Indian art music in general, he doesn’t entirely subscribe to the notion that the sarangi is endangered.

sarangi pics

Among the numerous masters covered in depth on Magriel’s site are Sabri Khan and Bundu Khan, who feature in Neuman’s study. The site includes much material on female musicians (such as here), as well as his films for the Growing into Music project.

One of the first sarangi players to attract attention abroad was Ram Narayan, who was largely responsible for elevating the sarangi as a solo instrument on the international concert stage, and who collaborated with Neil Sorrell in Indian music in performance: a practical introduction (1980), just as Neuman was writing. Joep Bor (compiler of the indispensable annotated CD set The raga guide) also paid great attention to sarangi players.

Having featured rāg Marwa in a previous post on Heart of glass (yeah, I know), here’s a version by Ram Narayan:

What I find so attractive about this raga is the challenge of having to struggle to keep track of the scale and its relationship with the tonic. This is always true, actually—just that in this case one is forced to engage with the pitch hierarchies.

While our interests in the diverse ways of musicking around India, and elsewhere, have broadened substantially, the northern raga tradition remains a major topic, for which Neuman’s work was an important early ethnography.

[1] Among myriad sources (from early monographs by Alain Daniélou and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, to the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, The Rough Guide to world music, and so on), useful references include Jairazbhoy’s chapters in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993) and Richard Widdess’s lucid introduction in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

[2] For dhrupad, note Richard Widdess, Dhrupad: tradition and performance in Indian music (2004), chapters 5 and 6.

[3] NB for those who are no more expert than me in the subtleties of sargam solfeggio: taking C as the notional tonic, you may at first here the basic scale as
C–E♭–F–G–B♭–C;
however, the drone strings are not the common C and G, but C and F—so it’s actually
F–A♭–B♭–C–E♭–F—or rather, rearranged with the tonic as C:
C–E♭–F–A♭–B♭–C,
in sargam (lower-case denoting the lower degrees of pitches):
S–g–m–d–n–S,
with the 5th (Pa) and 2nd (Re) degrees absent. As always, it’s a lot more complicated, and enthralling—but that’s a start…

Heartland excursions

Ethnomusicology at home

Heartland

Following the recent loss of the great Bruno Nettl, I’ve been revisiting another of his stimulating books,

  • Heartland excursions: ethnomusicological reflections on schools of music (1995).

It’s thanks to works like this that we can now understand WAM within the context of musicking in societies throughout the world. Such “ethnography at home” belongs with a corpus of studies like those of Henry Kingsbury, Christopher Small, Ruth Finnegan, and more recently Stephen Cottrell.

Nettl opens his Introduction thus:

Let me be quite personal. What is it about ethnomusicology that has fascinated me for over some four decades? At first, it was the opportunity of looking at something quite strange, of hearing totally unexpected musical sounds and experiencing thoroughly unfamiliar ideas about music. Later, to learn to look at any of the world’s cultures, and listen to any of the musics, without being judgmental. And further on, the notion that one should find ways of comprehending an entire musical culture, identifying its central paradigms, and finding points of entry, or perhaps handles, for grasping a culture or capturing a music. And eventually, having also practiced the outsider’s view, to look also at the familiar as if it were not, at one’s own culture as if one were a foreigner to it.

He shows that while this idea was taking root in ethnomusicology by the 1980s, scholars native to the traditions they researched (Africans, Indians, Native Americans, Indonesians, and so on—and Chinese, of course) had been studying the musics of their own “cultural backyards” all along; as indeed had those studying urban minority cultures in North America and Europe, including popular genres.

Listing some major contributors to the field, Nettl explains his description of WAM as “the last bastion of unstudied musical culture”: ethnomusicologists

try to understand the musical culture through a microcosm, to provide an even-handed approach without judgment, to look as well as possible at the familiar as if one were an outsider, to see the world of music as a component of culture in the anthropological sense of that word, and to view their own music from a world perspective.

Here his main subject is his own musical “home”: schools of music in universities in the Midwest (rather than the world of professional WAM performance, for which see Small, Cottrell, and so on). He makes suggestive comparisons with other musical cultures, notably those of the Blackfoot, Tehran, and Madras.

Always seeking to elicit structures, he comments

A wonderful musical system may not mean a wonderful cultural system, only the desire for one; a musical system with sharp social distinctions may reflect a social system, or it may only remind us that the social system contains the seeds of inequality.

He ends the Introduction by explaining that his purpose is not (quite?) to criticize, reminding me of Small’s ambivalence and the doubts of his reviewers:

Although I may discuss Western classical music—and the subculture that practices and teaches it in one of its 20th-century venues—with a raised forefinger, or with tongue in cheek, or with wrinkled nose, and maybe even with a note of cynicism or sarcasm, and although I think it may reflect the cultural structure of a sometimes mean and unkind society, I nevertheless cannot imagine life without it.

RCMThe Royal College of Music, London.

In Chapter 1 Nettl views the music school as “something like a religious system or a social system in which both the living and the dead participate” (cf. aboriginal culture), viewing it as “a society ruled by deities with sacred texts, rituals, ceremonial numbers, and a priesthood”. He introduces the extraterrestrial ethnomusicologist from Mars, who

arrives at the mid-western school of music and begins work by listening to conversations, reading concert programs, and eavesdropping at rehearsals, lessons, and performances. The E.T. is overwhelmed by hearing a huge number of names of persons, but eventually it realizes that many of these persons are alive, but many are no longer living and yet the rhetoric treats them similarly. […]
The E.T. soon finds that many kinds of figures populate the school: students, teachers, administrators, members of audiences, musicians who are not present but are known, and a large number of musicians who are not living but are treated as friends in conversation. Among these are a few who seem to be dominant figures in the school. They constitute pantheon, the composers about whom one rarely if ever hears a critical word. Two seem to get more (well, just a tiny bit more) attention than the rest: their names are Mozart and Beethoven, and they appear to have the roles of chief deities.

He discusses

the Mozart and Beethoven of the present, as they are perceived by music lovers today, as living figures in today’s musical culture. My purpose is not, however, to participate in the now widely respected study of reception history, but to characterize contemporary art music culture.

Going on to describe pantheons and canons. By way of the dream songs of the Blackfoot, he discusses acts of creation, and the identity of the quasi-sacred composer. The “great works” of the WAM canon are akin to religious scriptures, served by a priesthood of performers and musicologists.

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; right, Mahler.

He discusses the significance of the names of the great composers engraved on concert halls and music schools, making the analogy with bumper stickers and T-shirts. What is the purpose here? Such buildings are like shrines where we should pay homage.

Despite the apparent claim to eternity, tastes change: as with other league tables, composers can be promoted or demoted over time. This can be entertaining; to Nettl’s instances from the USA, we might add the list of names at the Concertgebouw, where

around the balcony and ceiling of each are inscribed the names of the great composers, perceived from an earlier Dutch perspective: Wagenaar beside Tchaikovsky, Dopper next to Debussy, and Rontgen alongside Richard Strauss, while in the small hall Rubinstein and Hiller rub shoulders with Mozart and Beethoven.

Suggesting that the Mozart–Beethoven axis reflects the dualism of modern Western thought (genius and labour, light and heavy, Zeus and Prometheus), he notes that as in other pantheons, lesser deities have their distinct personalities too.

As in The study of ethnomusicology, Nettl explores the nature and role of genius. He discusses myths central to cultures, from the supernatural beaver of the Blackfoot to those of Mozart and Beethoven. He explores the notion of greatness—large orchestral performances of great works by great composers; and costume (“tuxedos, blazers, turtlenecks, robes, dhotis, Elizabethan garb, T-shirts with holes, leather jackets”) as an indicator of musical hierarchies:

Uniform accomplishes the depersonalization of the individual, giving the orchestra a faceless quality that is exacerbated by requirements of such uniform behaviour as bowing. […] Your uniform tells people what you do, and musical uniforms tell what kind of music musicians “do”.

He is alert to gender:

It is indicative of gender roles in American society that these uniforms derive principally from men’s dress, that there is less difference among their various female versions, and that women sometimes simply use the men’s versions of uniforms.

and always takes a broad view:

The tendency of musicians in Western culture to wear clothes different from their everyday attire contrasts with the custom of Plains Indian powwow singers, who wear precisely and determinedly what they might wear at other times—jeans, T-shirts, and farmers’ caps—despite the clearly special nature of musical performance. Perhaps they do so because virtually all others present—the dancers—are in costume, and the singers wish to separate themselves from them.

The symphony orchestra may be seen as a metaphor of industrial factory, political organization, and colonial empire. The concert master is “a kind of factory foreman keeping things in shape for the management”, while the conductor, with a “baton” of military origin, is the general:

he gets credits for victories, is listed on the album cover, takes bows, but is not heard and so risks little. […] The occupants of the first chairs are officers who have a certain amount of authority over their trrops, whose main task is to march—that is, bow and finger—in unison, mainly for the appearance of discipline. There is little democratic discussion. […] Conductors are often permitted or even expected to be eccentric; sport long hair, strange dress, and a foreign accent; and lead a strange life.

He enjoys reiterating the metaphor:

If the orchestra is a kind of factory or plantation for producing great music or an army for exhibiting perfection on the parade ground, it is principally in the service of the great masters.

Nettl unpacks the major role of notation in the culture, and the strange notion of “reading” music:

Having perhaps forgotten that they learned their first songs by hearing them, many of the denizens cannot conceive of a musical culture that does not use notation, and until recently my colleagues were inclined to marvel at my account of Indian musicians’ improvising interestingly for an hour, or Blackfoot Indians’ maintaining a repertory of hundreds of songs, keeping them separate and knowning which go where in rituals, without any visual mnemonics.

Notation is a meta-language:

Various musicians can communicate with each other and play in the same orchestra, even when they do not share a language. It is also a separating device in the sense that it enables individual musicians in orchestras or bands to play their parts without knowing what sounds will emerge or how the entire work sounds.

He wonders what it is that is transmitted:

We should ascertain whether a performer is required to play a piece exactly as he or she learns it, whether changes are permitted, whether there are interpretive choices, or even whether there is the requirement that a piece be altered every time it is rendered. The cultures of the world vary greatly in their answers to these questions.

He discusses the changing structures of concert programming, again comparing other cultures:

In a concert of the classical music of South India, the multi-sectioned improvised number called ragam-tanam-pallavi begins just after the midpoint, although there is actually no intermission. In Persian classical music, the conceptually central and most prestigious section, the improvised Āvāz, appears in the very centre of the full-blown performance.

He ends the chapter provocatively:

In this system of Western culture that produces wonderful music, what are the principles and values that are expressed and that underlie it? Here are intriguing concepts such as genius, discipline, efficiency, the hierarchical pyramid of musics and composers, the musician as stranger and outsider, the wonders of complexity, the stimulus of innovation, and music as a great thing with metaphorical extensions. But we are also forced to suggest dictatorship, conformity, a rigid class structure, overspecialization, and a love of mere bigness are all explicitly or by implication extolled. One may counter that the analysis is faulty, that instead of conformity there is cooperation, instead of authoritarians there are leaders. Or argue that the kind of social structure described, for all its undesirable aspects, is essential for the proper performance of music by the great masters, that in order for music of such an incredibly elite character as that of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s to be created and performed one must simply sacrifice independence and personal opinion, must undertake an incredible amount of discipline and accept dictates of an elite wherever they lead.

But Nettl never downplays the role of hierarchies in other traditions. He opens Chapter 2 by observing the competitive, even conflicting distinctions among performers in south Indian music, where caste, professional status, and gender play major roles. He then explores the opposing forces of our schools of music (teachers, students, administrators; performers and academics; singers, string players, wind players; conductors and conducted), reflecting the hierarchies, the “corporate ladders”, in American society. As ever he offers parallels: the progression by age of singing and playing didjeridu in Aboriginal societies, Persian radif, and south India again. He elaborates on the industrial model, with its customers (students and audiences) and products; and he discusses classes of musicianship, and competing central and peripheral roles. On the tension between music educationists and musicologists, he observes:

Performers see musicologists as a kind of police, imposing music history requirements on their students, making them take entrance examinations, and otherwise forcing them to jump through hoops of (they think) an essentially irrelevant defence of an obscure and ephemeral canon. They may see little need for their students to know about medieval and Renaissance music, or about the music of India and China.

Still more revealing is the division between singers and instrumentalists. Again he highlights gender, noting that in other societies (and indeed in our own popular music and jazz) women sing more commonly than playing instruments. Of course, in line with broader social changes over recent decades, women have come to play an increasing role in orchestras and as conductors. Nettl unpacks cultural stereotypes:

Men are traditionally thought in this society to be better at handling tools (e.g., instruments) and better at solving intellectual problems, whereas women are “closer to nature” and more “emotional”.

Such distinctions are to some extent submerged beneath the wider struggles between the music school and the rest of the university, the arts versus the sciences, and art music versus pop and rock.

He observes a further distinction between “bowing and blowing”, with string players generally more esteemed than wind players, mainly due to their greater place in the canon. And he notes the major role of the piano.

The maintenance of the stock of pianos is one of the major financial—and ideological—commitments of the school.

By way of a discussion of the importance of heritage (like Indian gharanas), adducing pedagogical lineages such as those of Theodor Leschetisky, Leopold Auer, and Ivan Galamian, he moves onto the various types of ensembles within the school. The role of the conductor (another godlike persona, further elevated in the professional world) is discussed at greater length in Small’s Musicking.and Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth.

If the music school might seem a potential meeting-place for all musics, in Chapter 3 Nettl’s ethnomusicologist from Mars quickly notes that not even the various genres of WAM are treated on equal terms, and when other types of music are considered at all, it is only on special terms; indeed, in some ways

The music school functions almost as an institution for the suppression of certain musics.

This is worth noting, though it’s no great surprise: other musical institutions around the world (families in Rajasthan or Andalucia, and so on) also naturally privilege their own traditions; outside music too, other Western institutions have long been selective about including popular genres. Nettl likens such policing of choices to “purification rituals”. He suggests the model of concentric circles to evoke the taxonomy and relative value of musics at the school, with the canon at its centre; as in the world’s cultures at large, genres converge and collide. Again, he outlines the changing modern history of the school of music, with early and contemporary musics gaining a certain ground, as well as jazz, folk, and world music, noting degrees of bimusicality and polymusicality, as is routine outside the elite institution.

A Blackfoot man whom I knew claimed to have two musics central to his life—the intertribal powwow repertory of Plains Indian culture and the country and western music that he plays in a small band in a bar. He was also trying to learn, but slowly, some older and explicitly Blackfoot ceremonial music. He played trumpet in high school band and learned the typical repertory of such institutions (marches and some concert band music), he goes to a Methodist church and can sing several hymns from memory, and—a person of some curiosity—he has seen two opera or musical comedy productions at a nearby college.

Many institutions, however (his list includes the Met, the First Lutheran Church, groups in Tehran and Madras, and some radio stations), are mainly unimusical.

In North American society he finds a certain potential mediation between styles in the form of concerts, record stores, the film industry, and even the music school. He unpacks the various kinds of music presented in concert—quite diverse, yet still only rarely encompassing rock and Country.

The similarity of the concentric circle structure to a colonial system is suggestive. Musics outside the central repertory may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants’ entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population).

He reminds us that each society has its own music history:

Nowhere is music simply “what happened”; it is always interpreted in ways that are determined by, and support, fundamental values and principles of culture. Even where societies have little information about their own musical past, they still have ideas and beliefs of what happened based on myth, folklore, and oral tradition; they also have some idea of how music history “works”, about its mechanisms of change and continuity.

While many cultures emphasize that their music is ancient, a pure expression of the culture, distinct from—and even superior to—the music of other societies, this notion is particularly central to WAM. Nettl ponders the “specialness” of Western music history.

Other societies also insist on the uniqueness of their own music, but they usually do not suggest that it ought to be adopted by all other cultures. Western musicians, like the Western politicians of yore, impose their music on the rest of the world. Western society regards its [art—SJ] culture as different from the rest, not only in degree but also in kind, and reflects this in its attitude towards music.

Nettl notes the contrasting stresses in WAM between the values of the old and the demand for innovation. In the potential meeting of musics he finds convergences and collisions, encouraged or inhibited by the preservation of purity, specialized audiences, and among the “peripheral” ensembles, the privileging of those that seem to reflect the values of the central canon.

He broaches the widely-used metaphors of the melting-pot and mosaic (and the bazaar is another one). Within the central repertoire the meeting of musics is blunted, while genres outside it—which are often unsuitable to concerts, for a start—are approximated to its ethos: the (modern) concert format rules. Mediation is limited: the peripheral genres are “permitted to maintain a modest spot in the institution if they bow to the values of the centre”. Again, all this may seem unremarkable, a common feature of musical groups around the world.

In Chapter 4, mustering his usual cross-cultural comparisons, Nettl further explores the school’s repertoire, with its central canon. But he begins with more Martian contextualizing, considering the obligatory songs of the music school and the wider society, “that everybody seems to know and can sing, a group that she may not find attractive but seems to hear a lot”: the ceremonial repertoire, such as songs for life-cycle and calendrical events and graduation ceremonies, including Happy Birthday, Auld lang syne, and Stars and stripes forever. Such songs might also seem to be “central”, yet “it is not what the denizens of the Music Building regard as their culture’s great music, and most of it is not serious music to them”; despite the ritual origins of much of the core repertoire,

in the art music world of today, it seems inappropriate to associate what we consider the best music with specific ritual or ceremonial functions; it is a way of denigrating the music’s stature.

Typically, he compares such pieces to ritual items like Peyote songs and the Proper and Ordinary of the Christian Mass. The rituals of the Music Building

are not carried out, in the last analysis, for the sake of humans and their necessary activities, but in the service of the great masters, whose works stand above the hustle and bustle of human coming and going and exist as art for art’s sake.

He now points out that rather than defining the “central” as “normal” or indeed “popular”, in the world of WAM it resides in the more abstruse “great works” of the canon, which he proceeds to unpack. Musical “greatness” seem to reside in bigness and complexity, and its centre lies between 1720 and 1920.

Do the typical musical structures of that time reflect the social structure that the American middle-class desires, or was it what society used to desire, or did musical structure and the relationship of musical and social organization just freeze at some point, as Small has suggested?

Nettl surmises that

the kinds of relationships that are evident in the the society of people in the Music Building, and in art music generally, play an important role in determining ways in which they conceive of the musical materials themselves—pieces of music, kinds of compositions, and instruments.

YYXY 86Cellist, Shanghai Conservatoire, 1986. My photo.

Noting that the taxonomy of instruments among cultures is modeled on important aspects of their worldviews, adducing Chinese and Arabic classifications, he considers “families” of instruments—a concept also adopted in African societies. He adduces the development of orchestras with SATB “choirs” of “traditional” instruments as a pervasive pattern of musical Westernization:

The four-part structure does reflect some major tensions in family and between genders and generations in society—and this perhaps accounts for its amazing tenacity.

He discusses the hierarchical concept of leaders and followers (accompanists) in music and society (cf. McClary on Brandenburg 5), going on to consider genres and forms within the “ruling class” of WAM.

Is it not conceivable that certain composers and groups of composers or musical cultures simply discovered better ways of producing music, and that this ability was recognized by later musicians and listeners?

Yet

We are tempted to ask whether modern music listeners are most comfortable with music reflecting a social structure that precedes the social upheavals of the French revolution and the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While noting that some of the canonical works, like Mozart operas, “go further than simply representing or going along with the inequalities and inequities of society”: they also provide a critique of the system. Nettl is

struck by the ways in which the critique is incorporated into a style that otherwise reflects a conservative view of society.

He explores the values of the concerto, with its “tension between art as the organization of forces and art as individual accomplishment”.

Under “the priesthood of the repertory” and the concept of equality he notes some of the most highly valued music, such as fugues,

in which there is textual equality of parts, and in which distinctions of power, volume, tone colour, and role specialization are relatively unimportant, a body of music that has, in addition to its sonic existence, a life in the abstract. This is music whose structural details play a greater role than the pleasurable nature of its sound, moment to moment. In general, it has no programmatic content and perhaps little in the way of obvious emotional connotations.

The discipline of the fugue “seems to result from a combination of technical and social principles”, and it had a significant afterlife even after the heyday of the art.

He reflects on the role of the string quartet in the canon—I’d love to see him or Susan McClary discussing the Große Fuge, so very full of conflict. And he surveys the quartet audience (“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards).

Discussing “cultural performance”, Nettl again opens with the instructive instance of the Blackfoot powwow, going on to consider the tensions of the secular academic “commencement” ceremony, where the values and allegiances of the WAM community are celebrated and graduates admitted to the priesthood of elite music, an army to defend its beleaguered position in society. He offers an interlude on the colour pink, suggestive of subordination, curiously used for their academic hoods since 1895.

In his brief Afterword, Nettl, like Small, expands on the trepidation he expressed at surveying his heartland in such terms. In an important passage he considers the related work of Henry Kingsbury, Music, talent and performance: a conservatory system (1988), and its review by Ellen Koskoff (Ethnomusicology 34.2, 1990)—herself no hidebound defender of the autonomy of WAM, but a great ethnomusicologist focused on gender issues (see Flamenco 2, under “Gender”):

The impression Kingsbury gives to some readers is of a culture or subculture that is essentially mean and even brutish to most of its population. Ellen Koskoff’s review suggests that Kingsbury has “an axe to grind”; that he wishes to “laugh, poke fun at, or cry… at the grim reality of conservatory life” [cf. Mozart in the jungle]; and that he will only convince those musicians “who remember their own musical training with resentment and who want, deep down, to settle the score”. Kingsbury does not totally deny these aims in his response, because he closes his rejoinder by citing Howard Becker to the effect that social scientists must make judgments and that “appeals for ‘balanced’ accounts in the social sciences are all to often merely veiled admonitions to endorse the status quo”. Kingsbury would presumably like to see change in the conservatory, change that would improve life and maybe improve music, and I applaud and agree. Even the rosiest picture would have to contain its share of grimness. And so I, too, would like to see change, although at this point I am not sure from what to what.

It’s a complicated place, the Heartland music school, existing as it does at a number of crossroads. It’s a place that aims specifically to teach a set of values, and it does so not only through practical instruction but also through the presentation of a quasi-religious system. It’s a place that puts “music” first and looks at music as if it were a reflection of a homogeneous human society. It is an umbrella under which different approaches to music can coexist, interact, and argue. It collects many kinds of music, brought from many places and composed at many different times, putting them all under one roof but making them all march to the drummer of the central classical tradition. It reflects the culture in which it lives, but it also tries to direct that culture in certain directions. […]

However, I have tried to avoid endorsing anything. If an explicitly critical stance will preach only to the converted, then perhaps an approach that tries to present a balanced picture might show champions of the status quo why they should depart from it. But that will have to be their own choice. An article of faith with most ethnomusicologists is that they should try their best to avoid disturbing the cultures they study or introducing new musics and practices, and that they should also restrain themselves from unduly encouraging musical cultures to eschew change in order to preserve the past. And, in my role of ethnomusicologist, I wish to abide by this principle, even when considering the culture in which I live. As much as I can.

Yet again I relish the lucid accessibility of Nettl’s style. As a system within a particular society, the rules of WAM deserve unpacking just like those of any other. But, just as Nettl implies, while WAM scholars and aficionados would benefit greatly from such an analysis, I suspect they may be the last to read studies like this; still, they should feel stimulated rather than threatened by such an approach.

For more armchair ethnography from my Chiswick home, see here.

 

 

 

 

Musicking

There is no such thing as music. Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do.

Musicking

It should go without saying that “music” (and, by extension ritual), in all its manifestations, is not some trivial diversion; nor is it some disembodied object for solitary contemplation. Rather, it’s a basic part of what makes us human.

Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening (1998), by Christopher Small (1927–2011), is already a classic. While his insights have long been part of the basic credo of ethnomusicology, the book is more accessible than some weightier tomes, and deserves a far wider readership—not least in Daoist ritual studies…

A deeply personal work, it’s also part of a corpus that approaches WAM with the same mindset that we would apply to any genre of world music (cf. Nettl, Kingsbury, McClary, Taruskin, Finnegan, and more recently Cottrell; note also Ethnomusicology forum 20.3 (2011), “The ethnomusicology of Western Art Music”, with Laudan Nooshin’s introduction here), inviting a global view of the meanings of performance within social interaction (cf. Das land ohne Musik).

It’s worth citing the opening at some length, as it expresses such a basic way of understanding:

In a concert hall, two thousand people settle in their seats, and an intense silence falls. A hundred musicians bring their instruments to the ready. The conductor raises his baton, and after a few moments the symphony begins. As the orchestra plays, each member of the audience sits alone, listening to the work of the great, dead, composer.

In a supermarket, loudspeakers fill the big space with anodyne melodies that envelop customers, checkout clerks, shelf assistants and managers, uniting them in their common purpose of buying and selling.

In a big stadium, fifty thousand voices cheer and fifty thousand pairs of hands applaud. A blaze of colored light and a crash of drums and amplified guitars greet the appearance onstage of the famous star of popular music, who is often heard on record and seen on video but whose presence here in the flesh is an experience of another kind. The noise is so great that the first few minutes of the performance are inaudible.

A young man walks down a city street, his Walkman clamped across his ears, isolating him from his surroundings. Inside his head is an infinite space charged with music that only he can hear.

A saxophonist finishes his improvised solo with a cascade of notes that ornament an old popular song. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and nods absently to acknowledge the applause of a hundred pairs of hands. The pianist takes up the tune.

A church organist plays the first line of a familiar hymn tune, and the congregation begins to sing, a medley of voices in ragged unison.

At an outdoor rally, with bodies erect and hands at the salute, fifty thousand men and women thunder out a patriotic song. The sounds they make rise toward the God whom they are imploring to make their country great. Others hear the singing and shiver with fear.

In an opera house, a soprano, in long blond wig and white gown streaked with red, reaches the climax of her mad scene and dies pathetically. Her death in song provokes not tears but a roar of satisfaction that echoes around the theater. As the curtain descends, hands clap thunderously and feet stamp on the floor. In a few moments, restored to life, she will appear before the curtain to receive her homage with a torrent of applause and a shower of roses thrown from the galleries.

A housewife making the beds in the morning sings to herself an old popular song, its words imperfectly remembered.

So many different settings, so many different kinds of action, so many different ways of organizing sounds into meanings, all of them given the name music.
[…]
But none has succeeded in giving a satisfactory answer to the question—or rather, pair of questions—What is the meaning of music? and What is the function of music in human life?—in the life, that is, of every member of the human species.

It is easy to understand why. Those are the wrong questions to ask. There is no such thing as music.

Music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do. The apparent thing music is a figment, an abstraction of the action, whose reality vanishes as soon as we examine it at all closely. This habit of thinking in abstractions, of taking from an action what appears to be its essence and of giving that essence a name, is probably as old as language; it is useful in the conceptualizing of our world but it has its dangers. It is very easy to come to think of the abstraction as more real than the reality it represents, to think, for example, of those abstractions which we call love, hate, good and evil as having an existence apart from the acts of loving, hating, or performing good and evil deeds and even to think of them as being in some way more real than the acts themselves, a kind of universal or ideal lying behind and suffusing the actions. This is the trap of reification, and it has been a besetting fault of Western thinking ever since Plato, who was one of its earliest perpetrators.

Note how he could have used more “exotic” examples from further afield, but rather chooses cases that we take for granted in Western society. As he goes on to unpack the meanings of a symphony concert with Geertzian thick description, he doesn’t belittle his (and my) heritage, but asks What’s really going on here? In a personal passage that will strike chords, he observes:

It is my heritage and I cannot escape it, and I understand well the continuing urge on the part of performers, as well as of musicologists, theorists, and historians, to explore those repertories and learn their secrets. I myself continue to love playing such piano works of that tradition as are within the reach of my modest technique and take every opportunity to do so, both in public and in private.

But from the moment when I began to attend large-scale public concerts, I have never felt at ease in that environment. Loving to hear and to play the works but feeling uncomfortable during the events at which they are presented has produced a deep ambivalence that has not lessened over the years. Now, in my seventy-first year, I have come nearer to pinning down what is wrong. I do not feel at ease with the social relationships of concert halls. I can say that they do not correspond with my ideal of human relationships. For me there is a dissonance between the meanings—the relationships—that are generated by the works that are being performed and those that are generated by the performance events.
[…]
It seems obvious to me that performing these works under certain circumstances generates different meanings from performing them under others. For instance, when I, an amateur pianist using material provided by Josef Haydn under the name of Piano Sonata in E-flat and charging nothing for admission, play the piano to a couple hundred of my fellow citizens of the little Catalan town where I live, people from a variety of occupations that could be called working-class as well as middle-class, most of whom I know and who know me, at least by sight in the street, I think: we are together making different meanings from those made when a famous virtuoso pianist performs from that same material to an anonymous paying audience in a big concert hall. At the same time, since we are both playing from the same material, making more or less the same sounds in the same relationships, there must also be a residue of meanings that are common to both performances. Maybe if we knew completely where the differences and the similarities lay, we should understand completely the nature of musical performance. In any case the first step is taken when we ask the question What’s really going on here?

Rotunda

Contrasting the social behaviour reflected in and encouraged by earlier buildings (like the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, painted by Canaletto in 1754, with people standing or walking about, talking, coming and going), Small unpacks the assumptions of modern concert-going—such as architecture, planning, organization, tickets, programming, programme booklets, sponsorship, dress codes, behaviour.

On the 19th-century invention of the concert hall, sealed from the outside world, with its “quiet opulence” and discreet colours:

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this building is that it is here at all. For musicking, even large-scale musicking, does not need a building such as this.

and the audience:

A grand ceremonial space such as this imposes a mode of behavior on those who are unaccustomed to it. They become somewhat self-conscious, lowering their voices, muting their gestures, looking around them, bearing themselves in general more formally.
[…]
The very form of the auditorium tells us that the performance is aimed not at a community of interacting people but at a collection of individuals, strangers even, who happen to have come together to hear the musical works. We leave our sociability behind at the auditorium doors.

Small cites George Lipsitz’s comment on sharing “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”. Indeed, as in other contexts like theatre, sporting events and popular concerts,

the building is designed to discourage social contact between performers and listeners.

By contrast with the premiere of the Rite of spring,

today’s concert audiences pride themselves on their good manners, on knowing their place and keeping quiet.

At rock festivals, as at any kind of musical event, there were, and are, right and wrong ways to behave, right and wrong ways to dress, to speak and respond, both to one another and of course to the musical performances.

Comparing WAM musicking in the 18th century and today,

That audience took from the performance what they wanted, and we take from it what we want. Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by human beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships. These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.

Musicking is reduced to consumers and producers. Meanwhile scholars of Western music,

rather than directing their attention to the activity we call music, whose meanings have to be grasped in time as it flies and cannot be fixed on paper, have quietly carried out a process of elision by means of which the word music becomes equated with “works of music in the Western tradition.”
[…]
This privileging of Western classical music above all other musics is a strange and contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, it is claimed to be an intellectual and spiritual achievement that is unique in the world’s musical cultures; […] on the other hand, it appeals to only a very tiny minority of people, even within Western industrialized societies; classical music records account for only around 3 percent of all record sales.
[…]
It is regarded as somehow unique and not to be subjected to the same modes of inquiry as other musics, especially in respect to its social meanings. […] It is in fact a perfectly normal human music, an ethnic music if you like, like any other and, like any other, susceptible to social as well as purely musical comment.

He rails against the concept of “autonomous art”, encapsulated in Walter Benjamin’s maxim “The supreme reality of art is the isolated, self- contained work” (sure, discredited in more enlightened circles, but still widespread), where

What is valued is not the action of art, not the act of creating, and even less that of perceiving and responding, but the created art object itself. Whatever meaning art may have is thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simply there, floating through history untouched by time and change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out.
[…]
It suggests also that music is an individual matter, that composing, performing and listening take place in a social vacuum; the presence of other listeners is at best an irrelevance and at worst an interference in the individual’s contemplation of the musical work as it is presented by the performers.

Instead,

Neither the idea that musical meaning resides uniquely in musical objects nor any of its corollaries bears much relation to music as it is actually practiced throughout the human race. Most of the world’s musicians—and by that word I mean, here and throughout this book, not just professional musicians, not just those who make a living from singing or playing or composing, but anyone who sings or plays or composes—have no use for musical scores and do not treasure musical works but simply play and sing, drawing on remembered melodies and rhythms and on their own powers of invention within the strict order of tradition.
[…]
Music’s primary meanings are not individual at all but social. Those social meaning are not to be hived off into something called a “sociology” of music that is separate from the meaning of the sounds but are fundamental to an understanding of the activity that is called music.

On orchestral musicians, Small’s remarks anticipate Cottrell. As he notes, they live in a paradoxical world. Highly tuned virtuosi, proud of their skills, generally well paid, their profession enjoying a social status that is respectable and even considered glamorous:

Although any glamor they themselves might initially have felt the job to have quickly wears off under everyday work pressures, [cf. Alan Bennett!] they do feel themselves generally to be heirs and guardians of a great tradition.

But most orchestral musicians do not investigate their feelings about this very deeply. […] They resemble, in fact, the members of any other occupational group in that they will engage in any amount of shop talk, gossip, and locker-room humor.
[…]
In general their attitude is more that of the craftsman than that of the autonomous artist.

Like Cottrell, Small notes the “guerrilla warfare” they wage on over-paid conductors.

With its rigid division of labour and social hierarchy,

the modern professional symphony orchestra is in fact the very model of a modern industrial enterprise.
[…]
What for members of the audience may at its best be a transcendental experience of communication with a great musical mind, for the orchestra members may be just another evening’s work and even, for some, a time of boredom and frustration.

On the conductor—a rather recent job-description, with a defined geographical base, of course—Small discusses the changing authority of the “heroic” conductor (or industrial boss), “the incarnation of power” (cf. Lebrecht):

He is the magus, the shaman, who immerses himself in the sacred book and summons up the spirit of the dead composer.

He goes on to unpack the myth of the Great Composers, and the sacrosanct nature of the score. Again he notes things we take for granted—like the music stand, a humble piece of furniture without which the performance could not take place. As he observes, notation is the exception rather than the rule in human musicking.

Invoking Susan McClary, he explores the dramatic conventions of tonal harmony, and is disturbed by the violence of Beethoven.

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being produced by staid-looking ladies and gentlemen dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward signs of the experience they are all presumably undergoing. It is no wonder that members of other musical cultures should find it a curious, if not downright comical, scene.

All this is punctuated with three theoretical Interludes exploring the nature of performance—The language of gesture (based on Bateson), The mother of all the arts (on ritual), and Socially constructed meanings.

While it is fruitful to view WAM as just another genre of world music, it may seem like an eccentric form of behaviour in many respects. But despite the prestige claimed for it by elites, it is far from a dominant form of musicking worldwide.

Criticisms
Though the book has been criticized, it’s a refreshing and valuable tirade. Those deeply invested in WAM will feel threatened (tough); even ethnomusicologists have reservations about his romantic contrast with ideal local communities.

In the final chapter he evokes a solitary African herdsman playing the flute. Even with no clear social relations involved, he imagines the technology of the instrument’s construction (based on personal relationships), and the generational experience involved in mastering its playing, with its different style of complexity from which musicians in Western industrial societies enjoy, and its delicate inflections, timbre, and rhythms.

Whatever he is playing, it will not be invented from nothing. No human being ever invents anything from nothing but is guided always in his invention by the assumptions, the practices and the customs of the society in which he or she lives—in other words, by its style.
[…]
How he plays will be within the limits of the style he has received from the group, and in playing in that style he will be exploring, affirming, and celebrating the concepts of relationships of the group, as well as his own relationships within it and with it.

Such relationships, he notes, stand along a continuum of conformity–innovation.

He himself notes that some of his friends found this characterization

too much like a totalized representation of the “other” that has beset European thinking about the rest of the human race.

In the Postlude he contrasts the Western divorce of musicianship from society with the way that children grow into music in traditional societies.

I report this, not to demonstrate any inherent superiority that Africans may have in this regard (it happens, in fact, to various extents and in various ways, in most traditional societies), and certainly not in any sentimental spirit of harking back to imagined “simpler” times, but to show that the universal distribution of musical ability is not a fantasy but in many societies and cultures an everyday reality.
[…]
The big challenge to music educators today seems to me to be not how to produce more skilled professional musicians but how to provide that kind of social context that leads to real development and to the musicalizing of the society as a whole.

Earlier he observes,

What is going on in this concert hall is essentially the same as that which goes on during any musical performance. Members of a certain social group at a particular point in its history are using sounds that have been brought into certain kinds of relationships with one another as the focus for a ceremony in which the values—that is, the concepts of what constitute right relationships—of that group are explored, affirmed, and celebrated.

Despite his explanations, I still take issue with his “explored, affirmed, and celebrated” mantra, when (as he would have been the first to observe) all kinds of performances (whether in the concert hall or the notional village community) are so contested and conflicted, often taking place in social milieux that are far from ideal (cf. Geertz).

* * *

Small’s plea for musics of the world to take their place within academic musicology has to some extent already been realized (though see here). Like other disciplines, ethnomusicology can be arcane, jargon-ridden, and forbidding, but Small spells out its mission in an accessible fashion. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m all for detailed analysis of musicking in every society, including WAM. However—and mutatis mutandis this is a caricature that runs through academia since the 1960s—corduroyed professors churning out earnest lectures analysing Renaissance polyphony are now up in arms that their birthright is being threatened by trendy young whippersnappers presiding over jam sessions with nose-flutes and bongos. ** “Whatever next—will women will be allowed to vote? PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Small (and indeed ethnomusicology) provides us with the tools not only to appraise musicking in all kinds of changing social contexts (a Prom, a Sardinian festa, a Chinese or Javanese funeral)—to make critical reflections, observing how participants experience such events as successful or flawed.

In the end I love this book for raising issues that were so long submerged.

 

** More harmless fun for all the family: create your own parody of the perfect fusion gig, along the lines of

Throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, kora, and didjeridu!!! In a yurt, FFS.

For the abolition of world music, see here.

 

 

Flamenco, 1: palmas—soleares, bulerías

*Revised, with some sections moved to Part 3! Part 2 is here.*

palmas

Tony and Two-Jags explore the intricacies of flamenco palmas.

Coinciding with the thrilling Portugal–Spain match the other day was a flamenco gig in Chiswick with the splendid Ramon Ruiz.

Unlike the football, it’s not a competition, but much as I love fado (and you just have to listen to the Carminho song there; see also here), I’ve long been enchanted by flamenco. One benefit of the life of a touring WAM muso: how blessed to have had the chance to wind down from performing Bach Passions in Andalucia in time for late-night sessions in flamenco bars.

Acton

The rustic Andalucian charm of Ramon’s courtyard. Photo: Ramon Ruiz.

Recently my passion has been reinvigorated by occasional palmas sessions with Ramon. Flamenco is yet another illustration of the wonders of all the diverse regional cultures throughout Europe (e.g. east Europe, or Italy). And despite the efforts of those who would float off into an imperial ocean idyll of tweed and Morris dancing, London is still a wonderful microcosm of world music! You can find everything…

YouTube opens up a rich world of flamenco, not least the fantastic documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante. [1] Here’s a briefer introduction to flamenco as part of social life:

This is just a preliminary reccy—more to follow.

* * *

Flamenco is about as far as you could possibly get from its cosy tourist image—Torremolinos, castanets, rose between the teeth, and all that. Like tango or rebetika, its life is “among the folk”, as the Chinese would say: at lineage gatherings, at informal fiestas and local peña clubs; and it’s rooted in the exorcizing of suffering. Rather than the commodified tablau shows, one lives in hope of sitting in on a juerga among aficionados (cf. the touring musos’ game). [2]

* * *

Like Lorca [name-dropper—Ed.], my taste draws me to the intensity of cante jondo “deep singing”, with genres like seguiriyas and martinetes. But my Spanish is rudimentary, I don’t play guitar, and No Way am I going to dance (like, ever)—so a great way of learning is to get a basic grasp of the wonderful palmas hand-clapping that accompanies singing, guitar, and dancing. Not to mention foot stamping, and the cajón box.

Come to that, palmas is a great way for British kids to become musically competent, growing into music—as Ramon finds in his school workshops.

Like the human voice, our hands, our bodies, are the most elemental musical instruments. Hand-clapping, relegated in northern societies to children’s games, is a captivating art in some Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures. And it’s belatedly come into its own with so-called minimalism—Steve Reich’s Clapping music,

and Anna Meredith’s exhilarating Hands free.

* * *

Complementing my explorations of YouTube clips, I’m finding some practical sites useful, like this and this; also instructive are Ian Biddle’s chapter on cante and the Appendix “Cante, definition and classification” of Paul Hecht’s The wind cried.

As usual, we need an overview of the genres: this tree suggests the riches of all the various palos styles.

And then, within all these palos are the compas rhythmic patterns—embodied by specific (hands-on!) palmas. Not to mention all the local styles of towns throughout Andalucia—Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Morón de la Frontera, Granada…

For a sophisticated model of metrical analysis, see here.

Palmas seems like a relatively easy way of getting a basic grip on flamenco. But focusing narrowly on the rhythms, it still takes me a lot of time to absorb the important clues from the guitar and voice that are equally basic.

Ramon suggests I begin with soleares (linguistic note: associated with soledad, like saudade in fado!) and buleríasthe latter faster, difficult but much prized.

Here’s a soleares from Perrate de Utrera, with the ever-quirky Diego del Gastor:

And bulerías by the de Utrera sisters, with Diego del Gastor:

I start by internalising the basic 12-beat cycle while swimming, taking breaths before the accents:

       1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

or rather (beginning on 12)

12 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

So it’s a recurring hemiola* pattern; that should be simple enough, but at first, for pedantic hidebound WAMmies like me it feels as if it begins on the “wrong” beat. (¿¡Surely this is as wacky as the Spanish upside-down question and exclamation marks?!). One soon learns to bounce off the 12, but I find it harder to internalize the varying patterns in the second half of the cycle.

Anyway, you can already hear just how complex the rhythmic variations are. As always, if you’re hampered by a classical education like wat I is (innit), or if you don’t happen to come from a long lineage of Andalucian blacksmiths, then you have to unlearn any ingrained assumptions from WAM and just immerse yourself in the whole style through the experience of the body.

I think of Indian tala; or even the way that household Daoists in Yanggao pick up, largely by ear, their ritual percussion items—seemingly simple but endlessly varied, with large cymbals and drum interacting. Indeed, the way that the clappers often leave the main beat empty reminds me somewhat of Li Manshan “calling the beat” with a busy drum pattern just before the down-beat on the small cymbals.

It’s no good just going oom-pa-pa like a waltz—in one video, Ramon spots some old ladies at the back doing just that! And then there’s the nuance of fuertes hard and sordas soft dynamics, and all the contra-tiempo cross-accents between multiple clappers.

As Ramon explains, it’s a series of questions and answers. I’ll have a better handle on this once I’ve learned to latch onto the guitar, with its chord change on 3, and the extra cadential flourish ending on 10—though the beginner may find few landmarks in between those points. The YouTube option of slowing down playback can come in handy.

Here’s yet another fine programme in the Rito series, with a series of bulérias (featuring, after Camaron, Cristobalina Suarez with young sleeping child from 23.20—see also my Part 2):

This is seriously complex funky stuff. No sooner have you learned a basic pattern than you find how variable it is—like sonata form. Given its considerable theorization (as if that mattered), that theory is orally transmitted, and the brilliant exponents are often semi-literate. But while insisting that flamenco should absolutely be admissible to the ranks of “serious music” (whatever that means), the only important point is that it’s extraordinarily life-enhancing.

For more bulérias, see here.

* * *

I also love it when all extraneous elements are stripped away: when everyone just claps their complex patterns in counterpoint with the dancer’s feet. Or the cantes a palo seco, when the singer dispenses entirely with guitar and even palmas, just howling in solitary pain… I’ll pursue these songs in my third post.

Talking of the Rito y geografïa del cante flamenco series, with all its precious archive footage, the programmes on the Utrera sisters illustrate the compilers’ fine ethnography of lineages, changing society and music, the amateur–professional continuum, and all the subtle distinctions that folk musicians always make:

All this wealth of musicking on our doorstep! I’ll keep studying and updating this post. The next post in this series outlines gender, politics, wine, and deviance!

As an aperitivo for the third post we just have to have a seguiriyas from Camarón de la Isla:

 

*BTW, lutenist Paul O’Dette told me this story on a long tour of the USA:
Summer school in Utah on baroque music. A professor from England solemnly writes “HEMIOLA” on the board and begins to explain the occasional use of three groups of two within a triple metre. One of the local students guffaws,
“HEY! We don’t have no hee-my-olas in Utaww!”
For another vignette from that tour, see here.

 

[1] In a nice illustration of how the concepts of “singing” and “music” are culturally conditioned (see also Is music a universal language?), the word flamenco doesn’t appear in the series title!

[2] Among a wealth of sources, in English one might start with the flamenco chapter of The Rough Guide to world music; William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics and popular culture; ethnographies like  D.E. Pohren, A way of life and Paul Hecht, The wind cried; and for cante jondo, see e.g. Timothy Mitchell, Flamenco deep song. Some of these are cited in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

Deviating from behavioural norms

Deviation

In Paris with the Li family Daoists, 2017. For a Dublin diversion, see here.

Under my fetish for taxonomy, the new subhead for humour under the WAM category contains many orchestral stories.

As Stephen Cottrell observes, they may often be subsumed under what Merriam calls the musician’s “licence to depart from behavioural norms”.

Many, indeed, relate to maestro-baiting (see also conducting tag), like John Wilbraham‘s celebrated comments.

Several stories go in pairs, like

And there’s an indecent wealth of Matthew Passion stories, such as Mein Gott.

Spreading the net wider, for instances of deviant behaviour

Of course, it’s not only performers who may have license to depart from behavioural norms, as is clear from the career of Bumbling Boris.

Armchair ethnography: Chiswick

Chiswick old map

Why bother traipsing halfway around the world to hang out in poor dusty Chinese villages, I hear you ask, when my home “village” of Chiswick offers such rich potental for local history?! OK, it’s not noted for its Daoist ritual; its cosy church fêtes can’t quite compete with the bustle of Chinese temple fairs; and doubtless any séances held there were rather different from those of the Yanggao spirit mediums—but still. For my culture shock on coming home, see here; and for flamenco in Chiswick, here.

In that latter post I cite Nigel Barley‘s classic The innocent anthropologist, and talking of armchair ethnography, in a chapter bearing the fine title “Honi soit qui Malinowski” he has some wise words qualifying the demonising of missionaries:

It was something of a betrayal of anthropological principles even to be talking to missionaries: anthropologists have been obsessed with keeping themselves free of this taint since Malinowski, self-styled inventor of fieldwork, first issued his impassioned cry to the ethnographer to get off the mission veranda and go out into the villages. Still, I would be on my guard against the devil’s wiles and might save myself much time by talking to people who had actually lived in Dowayoland.

To my great surprise, I was received with much warmth. Far from being rampant cultural imperialists, I found the missionaries—except for one or two of the old school—to be extremely diffident about imposing their own views.

Evoking some fine work by missionaries in China such as Grootaers, he notes:

It was surprising how much work was being done on the local cultures and languages, translation work, pure linguistic research and attempts to adapt liturgy to local symbolic idiom; my own research would have been quite impossible without the mission’s support.

“Ethnomusicology at home” has an impressive tradition too: from Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians (on the exotic musical rituals of the tribes of Milton Keynes) to wise analyses of WAM by Nettl, Kingsbury, and Cottrell, as well as Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle.

* * *

I’ve already noted the leaning pillarbox of Chiswick. The Chiswick timeline project provides fine material on the area’s changing topography with artwork and maps (albeit not by Artisan the Sixth or Li Manshan), also now adorning the archway by Turnham Green station. Would that such material were available for Li Manshan’s village of Upper Liangyuan! This is just the kind of community project that can be achieved in a bourgeois enclave, even as desperate families are being incinerated a mere stone’s throw away in North Kensington.

This advertisement from 1882 (“Annual death rate under 6 per thousand”) is particularly drôle, evoking flawed campaigns like that for Chumleys vinegar:

healthy Chiswick

“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”.

Blake

Peter Blake, Chiswick Empire Theatre, 2017. I hardly need point out the Sgt Pepper link.

* * *

painting of pool

John Lavery (1856-1941), Chiswick Baths, 1929.

Even without getting onto Chiswick House, or Bedford Park and its fine architecture in the Dutch style, I’m intrigued to learn about the history of my regular swimming pool (see also here), the New Chiswick Pool—like the “old” and “new” musics of the Tang dynasty, and the stile nuovo of 17th-century Italian music, it was new when they chose the name. [1]

Chiswick Baths opened in Edensor road in 1910:

With their innovative architecture—including the double-decker changing cabins—and risqué mixed bathing sessions, this watery west London meeting place was a prototype for the classic art deco lidos, promoting freedom, frolicking and fun [a Chiswick variant on fado, football, and Fátima].

You can watch charming clips here, from 1924 and 1927 (“California hasn’t a monopoly of bathing belles or the latest in beach costumes”)—and many more on that site.

No matter what doom and gloom was going on elsewhere in the country [Phew–Ed.], the flighty, sprightly, bright young bathers of Chiswick’s “inland seaside” could be found embracing a sense of gay abandon.

Just as with Daoist ritual in Yanggao, it’s safe to say that Things ain’t what they used to be.

But by 1981, the council found the lido (as it had become known) too expensive to maintain, and it was closed, amidst considerable—if perhaps genteel—protest. Half of the site became home to the Moldovian Embassy (“Not a lot of people know that”), while by 1991 the New Chiswick Pool was opened on the other half.

So that’s the background of my regular swimming pool; it’s closed for repairs at the moment, so it’ll be even newer soon (with or without the gay abandon).

In case you haven’t spotted my fictional address at the foot of the home page, I rather like it:

Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle* within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity, Chiswick
京西微玄觀內碧雲罐庵

*Azure Cloud Bottle: Bombay Sapphire

 

[1] See Picken and Nickson, Music from the Tang court 7, ch.3; for stile nuovo, among much analysis, I’m dead keen on Susan McClary, Feminine endings, ch.2.

 

 

A stunning keyboard break

The work of Susan McClaryboth for its ideas and its lively language, has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

* * *

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962—don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 8.06ish:

Reception history and performance practice are always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

And here’s Furtwangler in 1950 (cadenza from 8.54ish)—praised by Richard Taruskin, no less:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century. So now, despite a rearguard action to rehabilitate the Golden Age before HIP (see Alternative Bach, and Playing with history), modern ears may find such early versions heavy going.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights (from 6.30ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

180!!!

More local cultural knowledge:

One morning in Maida Vale studios, as the great Pierre Boulez was rehearsing the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he stopped and said suavely,

“Please, we play again from measure* 180.”

Brilliant cockney percussionist Gary Kettel, from the back of the orchestra, punched the air gleefully and screamed out,

“ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTYYY!!!”

Since Boulez’s broad erudition didn’t stretch to the world of UK darts, he was somewhat nonplussed [‘Ow you say in French?] by Gary’s recondite allusion to the fabled score of three triple 20s. Still, he and Gary always had the utmost respect for each other’s musicianship.

 

*Boulez always used the French word for “bar”. Endearingly, he called the cor anglais “ze English ‘orn”.

Interpreting religious symbols

Alan Bennett’s 2011 diaries begin with typically drôle observations:

6 January. The alterations we have been having done are now pretty much finished, thanks to Max, a young Latvian who’s unsmiling but an excellent carpenter and Eugene, much jollier and from New Zealand who has supervised it all. Walking around the job this evening R. is shocked to discover in the bathroom above the bath a crudely made wooden cross. He takes this to be the work of Max who, scarcely out of his teens, already has two children and is, I imagine, Catholic. R., whose feelings about religion are more uncompromising than mine, finds the cross disturbing and is determined to ask Eugene to tell Max to take it down. I’m less exercised by it, seeing it as some sort of dedication, the sort of thing (though more crude) that a medieval workman would have put up at the completion of a job. We are both of us wrong as when Eugene is approached he explains it is not a cross at all but a makeshift coat hanger he has rigged up over the bath in order to dry his anorak.

And more comments on the behaviour of WAM musos:

 14 January. George Fenton tells me of a memorial service he’s been to at St Marylebone Parish Church for Maurice Murphy, the principal trumpet of the LSO, who did the opening solo in the music for Star Wars. The service due to kick off at eleven thirty, George arrives with ten minutes to spare only to find the church already full, the congregation seated, silent and expectant. It beings promptly at eleven thirty with everyone behaving impeccably and not a cough or a rustle throughout. And he realizes that it’s because they are all musicians and orchestral players for whom this is like any other concert and where the same rules apply.

Quartets

Quartets

BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC, for you to catch online before it disappears again.

Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodskys’ work with Elvis Costello.

I like the early footage of the Allegri led by Eli Goren, predecessor of Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a select group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:

And among hours of harmless fun on YouTube:

How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.

Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s Daoist band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—a worthy ethnographic topic (see e.g. articles here and here, and Anthea Kreston’s diary on slippedisc.com).

But I digress. I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars (before long we will all look quaint) to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war… Which leads nicely to the delightful thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet!

See also Late Beethoven quartets, and Schubert.

Barbed comments

My dubious encomium for Rowan’s CV (The Feuchtwang variations, n.3) reminds me:

The brilliant Roy Mowatt (see under comments here), a real bedrock of the early music orchestral scene, was always remarkably tolerant of my violin playing in the section he led. I treasure a remark he made to me over a beer or three in a piazza in Parma after a Mozart opera, c1994 (evoking Hugh Maguire’s comment to Pete Hanson—“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”):

Thing about you, Steve, is that it doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!

You can take that either way, and I think he meant it both ways. I was quite adaptable; yet my intonation wasn’t necessarily helped by tuning up… Cf. “It was in tune when I bought it”.

While I’m in confessional mood, here’s another comment I might add to my CV. Just around that time, a certain maestro took me aside and observed suavely,

Steve, I can’t help noticing that you have a somewhat low threshold of boredom…

JEG

Photo © Jim Four.

Like the review of the Berlin Phil’s response to Simon Rattle, it lacks a certain nuance.

Recording and editing

After our rendition of The Feuchtwang Variations à la chinoise at Stephan’s party—which surprised us as much as the guests, even without kazoo—we wanted to make a separate recording, but we had few illusions about how it could turn out. However modest our remit (it would be too ambitious to try and edit within movements, and we didn’t do too many takes), even the minimal editing that Rowan undertook was still a time-consuming process.

Typical exchange during rehearsal:

Me: Can you give me a lovely lingering arpeggio on that first chord, like a theorbo?
Rowan: No.

For me, it recalls all those orchestral recording sessions through the 80s and 90s—with section leaders crowding into the box to make notes and report back, doing endless retakes of a single chord, with the editor then taking months to compile a version that was a total fabrication. Of course, live recordings are far more satisfactory, if we can wean ourselves off glossy perfection—even then, we tended to do a couple of patching sessions after the concert.

It also reminds me of a comment from—you guessed it—Alan Bennett, in his 1990 diaries, on working with the Delme string quartet in recording the soundrack for his Proust film:

27 June. […] Striking about the musicians is their total absence of self-importance. They play a passage, listen to it back, then give each other notes, and run over sections again. George Fenton, who is coordinating the music, also chips in, but he’s a musician. David H., the director, chips in, but he isn’t a musician, just knows what atmosphere he wants at various points in the film. In the finish even I chip in, just because I know what I like. The musicians nod and listen, try out a few bars here and there, then settle down and have another go. Now one could never do this with actors. No actor would tolerate a fellow performer who ventured to comment on what he or she was doing—comment of that sort coming solely from the director, and even then it has to be carefully packaged and seasoned with plenty of love and appreciation.  Whereas these players, all of them first-class, seem happy to listen to the views of anyone if it results in them doing a better job.
[…] The readiness of players in a string quartet to absorb criticism from their colleagues has been noted by doctors, and the BMA video was made to be shown to businessmen as a model for them to emulate. Perhaps it should be shown to Mrs Thatcher.

Such humility is a trait that musicians might not recognise in themselves; anyway, AB was lucky to work with a quartet, as orchestral recording sessions are (inevitably) far more hierarchical, with a clear pecking order (giving rise to maestro-baiting). Still, the contrast with actors (and politicians) rings true.

Performance ethnography

Pace Robert Hanks and indeed the great man himself, one can never have too much of Alan Bennett.

From his 2008 diaries, more perceptive ethnography of both orchestral musicians and audiences (cf. here and here), about a TV broadcast of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the Proms:

… one of the cameras fascinated with a particular woodwind player who has a good deal to do, but who in turn obviously fancies the flautist who’s next but one. So at the end of his own contribution he’ll often half-turn in order to pass the tune or whatever to this flautist, and she is equally attentive during his solos. There’s a cellist with a cheeky face who plainly makes jokes, a bear of a violinist who throw himself about a lot, and next to him the child violinist with a face made tragic by concentration. It’s hard to conceive how such a small figure copes with the great winds of Brahms, though he’s more composed about it than his hairy and demonstrative neighbour.

It’s moving, too, of course because of the moral stance of the orchestra, though the players are by now probably bored or at least matter-of-fact about this ethical burden. But with similar experience in the theatre (including I hope The History Boys), one longs to stay with them once the performance is over and they disperse. Who looks after the child, I wonder, whom does the cheeky cellist sleep with and are the flautist and the woodwind player as close as their performances suggest? So there’s sadness too in being excluded from all this and longing, just as there is coming away from the theatre or for some people, I imagine, the football stadium.

Competing with the lofty claim of detached spiritual contemplation of the work in hand, such observation is a universal yet little-documented feature of attending public performances—just the kind of detail that ethnomusicologists might seek, and that the “absolute music” wing of WAM scholars would eschew.

My work with the Li family Daoists is full of such detail, both for their funeral practice at home—such as Golden Noble corpsing the others while reciting the Invitation memorial, or the reluctance of the kin to pay attention to the liturgy of the Daoists they still feel obliged to hire—and for their concerts on tour (such as this, and this). But even in the 1990s I had apparently read enough Geertz, Barley, and so on to pay attention to the behaviour of the Gaoluo villagers—like this passage (Plucking the winds, pp.304–5):

After supper on the 15th, the “temple” courtyard is packed. Apart from South Gaoluo villagers, some have also come from the North village and elsewhere. Many have come to offer incense, but many also just for the fun. Boisterous children are chasing around letting off firecrackers, both outside and inside the “temple”. Five sticks of incense are considered “a bundle” (yifeng).

As to ordinary villagers, though there are more women than men offering incense, quite few of the people are elderly: young and middle-aged women and young men seem to be more active in this. Many pray silently to the goddess Houtu for a healthy son, or for the health of their aged parents; more generally, people pray for good luck and prosperity. One couple were offering incense for the safety of the husband, who is a driver—even for the most diehard atheist, recourse to divine help is particularly tempting on Chinese roads. The atmosphere is highly jocular as people enter the courtyard. As they go to offer incense and kowtow they look embarrassed, but then when they are actually doing it they become extremely serious. Then as they get up and dust down their trousers, they look all embarrassed again, and, avoiding meeting the gaze of all the onlookers, they leave the area, often going into the “temple”.

Of course, Geertz, Barley, and indeed Bennett may do it better, but as with WAM, such social ethnography is quite rare in (both Chinese and foreign) studies of Daoist ritual, which are more concerned with recreating the abstract deep structure of medieval texts and ritual sequences. And similarly, it’s not one or the other—both angles are desirable.

* * *

Later in 2008 AB notes a comment on the distressingly populist Classic FM radio:

Elgar’s Nimrod conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It doesn’t get much better than that. Or does it? Give us a call.

Wind, ethnicity, gender

My time with Chinese shawm bands (most ubiquitous of performers for rural ceremonial) leads me to dabble mildly in studies of early European wind bands. So I’m struck by this detail of a 1520 Portuguese painting:

trombone

The Engagement of Saint Ursula and Prince Etherius,

It makes an alluring image for reviews of Miranda Kaufmann’s new book Black Tudors: the untold story, though it’s familiar to musicologists on the period—leading me to a glimpse of some of the fine work that scholars do for early European organology. See these images—Keith McGowan’s groundbreaking work on wind bands (which we await, um, breathlessly) encompasses social aspects of early European players of ethnic minority backgrounds—who, as in China, were generally low in status. And the painting is included in a survey by Will Kimball on early sackbut grips (and I thought my work was niche…)

That image comes from Portugal, but Kaufmann opens her book with a vivid account of John Blanke, trumpeter at the Tudor court.

John Blanke (rear, centre), from Westminster tournament roll, 1511.

As she notes, African musicians (mostly wind players) had been playing for European monarchs and nobility since the 12th century. More commonly represented in painting are Middle-Eastern shawm bands, as in Carpaccio’s Baptism of the Selenites.

So if the 1520 Portuguese painting is the earliest surviving representation of a black trombonist, then when was the next, eh? Before the 20th century?

Moving laterally (like a trombone slide), here’s Melba Liston:

While we’re about it, any excuse to cite Some like it hot:

And Vermeer’s The art of painting attracts as much interpretation as Las meninas:

* * *

Now, much as I admire Chinese music historians and the many fine collections of early iconography of Chinese instruments, I wonder if the Confucian habit of merely citing early written sources without discussing them applies in that field too: beyond merely displaying images, we need to interpret them.

While I’m on the subject, citations of early texts by Chinese scholars seem to assume we all know what they mean; they feel no need to translate them into modern Chinese. Yet when I query how to translate such passages, even the best scholars aren’t necessarily clear—and the uncertainty is precisely why we need to discuss them.

* * *

On a topical note, I caught a glimpse on the news recently of a shawm band playing for a demo in troubled Catalonia. Among the amazing regional variety of folk culture in Spain, folk Catalan double-reed instruments include grallatarota, tible, and tenora.

For a handy list of posts on trumpets, wind and brass bands, see here. See also trumpet tag.

 

Ute Lemper

In My Time I’ve heard a few divas live in concert (Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming)—indeed, I’ve accompanied some (Monserrat Caballé, Cecilia Bartoli). In this blog I also praise outstanding male singers like Michael Chance and Mark Padmore.

In Italian the term divo is occasionally used, but elsewhere there’s no male equivalent of the diva, or the related femme fatale; both terms reveal male anxiety—dangerous, damaged women meeting (and luring men to) a bad end (cf. Lulu). Male behaviour, more intrinsically fatal, is not advertised thus. The chanteuse is a similar archetype. And the skewed language continues with prima donna—as if male performers are never temperamental, self-important, and demanding (yeah right).

Susan McClary opened the way for later unpacking of such stereotypes in both opera and popular music, such as Lori Burns and Melisse Lafrance, Disruptive divas: feminism, identity and popular music (2001). And the use of these terms in English adds xenophobia to sexism—our impeccable moral virtue threatened by these loose foreign women (“They come over ‘ere, with their dramatic genius, and their perfect control of phrasing and diction…”).

Anyway, “that’s not important right now” (Airplane clip, suitably in a post on solfeggio!)—

I can’t think when I’ve been so entranced by a singer (that’s the word we’re looking for!) as hearing Ute Lemper in concert at the Cadogan Hall last week. I thought I could consign her to a comfortable old Weimar pigeonhole, but her music is endlessly enchanting. Never mind that I wasn’t quite convinced by this latest project based on Paolo Coelho, with a world music sextet—she keeps exploring. Her sheer physical presence is irresistible—as with Hélène Grimaud, it’s an intrinsic concomitant of her musical magic. Audiences hang on her every breath, every inflection of her slender wrist… I’d love to hear her in a little jazz club.

As with Billie Holiday or Amy Winehouse, the variety of dynamic, timbre, and vibrato that “popular” singers can command is all the more moving by being deeply personal. Once again, I rarely find perfect distinctive vocal artistry in the world of WAM. They’re all building on their respective traditions, but it’s harder for WAM singers, more burdened by formality, to convey such intimacy. Of course, Ute Lemper is also somewhat polished and controlled—less destructive than Billie and Amy; that may make her slightly less moving, but it also helps her stay alive. Her stage presence is breathtaking.

For a recent incarnation of the femme fatale, see here.

Mozart in the jungle

Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs, and classical music (2005) is the kind of book that I (if not my imaginary bank manager)* am glad I didn’t try and write. But it’s a valuable addition to the ethnography of WAM, seeking beyond the disembodied romantic image.

Despite its salacious subtitle, it’s of an entirely different order from fictional romps like Jilly Cooper’s Appassionata. As an insider’s account, it’s all the more revealing for being, um, “true”. The “muckraking” hype may make it seem like tabloid fodder, but I’m all for lifting the lid on the orchestral business with thick description.

Those reading it for the kiss-and-tell stories may get bogged down in the detailed accounts of arts funding—and indeed vice versa—but as one reads on, it’s well worth it. As I seek to integrate the thick description of contemporary Chinese life with the more arcane minutiae of ancient Daoist texts, I take this to heart.

While not initially sympathetic, the story later becomes a bravely candid and noble indictment. Fighting through depression. when Tindall finally escapes the twin prisons of the Allendale (graveyard of many a career—“a squalid rat-infested building where musicians lived because they had no choice”) and her stagnant orchestral life, you want to cheer. As if to explain and put in perspective the reinventions that Taruskin unpacks, she comments:

I was in a narcissistic industry that that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape. (247)

As she finally tunnels her way out of the Gulag to a journalism course in Stanford, she wonders,

How could I have allowed such an insular, incestuous business to rule me for a quarter century? (291)

* * *

Ethnographies are always specific to their time: for orchestral life, Vienna around 1900, 1950s’ Leeds, Dubai in 2015, and so on. Here we have New York from the eve of AIDS into the 21st century. But whatever the time and place, it’s always about real people seeking work.

Tindall argues against the kind of cloistered education she received. Soon she is plunged into the fray of the New York scene. Freelancing, all over the world, is an insecure life. She makes a terrifying debut with the NY Phil, doing Tchaik 5 with Tennstedt, soon followed by The rite of spring with Bernstein. Sounds glamorous, eh? What could possibly go wrong?

She describes the transition from the initial excitement, during a boom, to the decline of the 90s as ideals hit the rocks. Such stultifying routine is well observed by Alan Bennett in 1950s’ Leeds. After the Golden Age of the 1980s, Tindall notes the irony of the transition:

The culture boom was fizzling, yet the business of the arts were gaining momentum.

With an on-off relationship with the NY Phil, she schlepps around on out-of-town gigs with her friends. And she’s just as good at describing the life of the pit band for shows, a more dependable livelihood to which her career “descends”. Getting a regular job in Aspects of love, she

discovered an unusual skill possessed by about 10 percent of Broadway musicians. I could read a magazine while playing my part simultaneously. Those without the gift passed the time in other ways, plugging in transistors, knitting, making lists, or doing crosswords. One trumpeter studied maps.

This puts in perspective the reported churlishness of the Berlin Phil towards S-S-Simon Rattle—at least they have secure jobs, playing different masterpieces every night with a highly sympathetic conductor.

Tindall notes adverse changes in the recording industry. On an increasingly rare film session she comments:

As I watched the violinists’ bows going up and down in unison, reflected against glass beyond which sat the film’s production team, I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of people. In the booth sat men who made money out of trying a new idea, succeeding or failing and then trying another. On my side of the business, musicians returned to the same kinds of gigs, playing someone else’s music and earning a per-service wage. As the bows went up and down, I was reminded of a scene in Ben Hur in which galley slaves rowed without much idea of where they were headed. (275)

As she admits, she was proud to be unable to identify a pop song from the Beatles to Blondie (90). Indeed, she was missing out on a vibrant period for popular culture in New York—just as I would have, and indeed did, in London.

A full-time symphonic job evolves into monotony for many players. Orchestra musicians saw away like factory workers, repeating the same pieces year after year. Once a player is employed in a desirable orchestra, career advancement is severely limited. Perfectionism and injuries wear musicians down. Nighttime and holiday work disconnect them from mainstream life. Players complain that they forfeit autonomy to an omnipotent conductor who works a third of their schedule, is paid as much as twenty musicians [so little?!—SJ], and gets credit for the music they make.

In a world where the livelihoods of the rank-and-file are so tenuous, Tindall attacks the grossly inflated fees of conductors, soloists, and management with detailed arguments (see also here).

Reminding me of a survey of trusted professions in China, she cites a survey of job satisfaction of workers in a variety of industries,

in which orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in overall job satisfaction than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. (215–16)

I doubt if people go into hedge-fund management, or restaurant service, burdened by particularly high spiritual ideals. So it’s the disjuncture of lofty youthful dreams of making beautiful music (and the enduring rosy public image) with the harsh mundane realities of eking a living that can make for such soul-searching. Even those aspiring to some other professions—like becoming a cook, or a teacher or nurse—are better armed with cautionary tales.

The book is full of poignant passages like

I was tired of pretending I wanted this. Tired of my hopeless reed-making. Sick of the same old excerpts. Sick of spending every cent trying to win a job that offered only a minimal salary. After twenty-five auditions, I had spent $30,000 on flights, hotels, private oboe lessons, and missed work, most of it accumulating on a credit card. Even if I had won this gig, I’d never get out of debt.
I signaled the bartender and ordered a double Dewar’s. He wiped down the bar. I swallowed the burning whiskey and cleared my throat.
“I tried out for the Nashville Symphony today,” I told the bartender. He didn’t know Nashville had an orchestra. He loved music though, playing a little guitar himself. What was my instrument?
“Oboe,” I said simply. “I play the oboe.”
Oh-boe?” he asked, and stopped wiping, rag suspended over the bar. “What the heck’s an oh-boe?”(186–7)

* * *

Perhaps the more deviant behaviour that Tindall describes is prompted by the mismatch between ecstasy and drudge. For London since the 1970s, the main drug of choice was alcohol—as well as the elephant in the room, beta-blockers. Tindall reflects on drug use (“substance abuse was almost a badge of honor”), and its often-tragic consequences, with elegant summaries:

There were plenty of reason for musicians to get high—to soothe the frustration of spotty employment or to dull the repetitious nature of practicing and performing the same works over and over again. For others, it was the pursuit of perfection in an art whose quality cannot be measured. (106–10)

Noting that Tindall used to sell bags of weed as a teenager to subsidize her budding career, if you don’t know the Family Guy song, then you must!

She notes gender relations, with the ratio improving more quickly than the attitudes of the still-dominant male elite (86–7). Personal life can suffer too (as in the UK musos’ motto “touring doesn’t count”). Moaning with a girlfriend about the difficulty of finding a suitable partner, she observes:

Back in my early twenties, men my age lived in squalor, and the ones I met in orchestras were either geriatric or already spoken for. By their thirties, though, responsible guys had jumped ship for a career that could support a family. That left people outside the business, who were difficult to meet and had peculiar notions about us anyway. Outsiders were forever intimidated by musicians, whom they imagined as erudite superintellects.
“Ha! Musicians are more like blue-collar workers than PhDs,” Sydney joked. She had a point. Music performance was a specific craft that was perfected more by practice than by analysis. Our colleagues’ narrow focus sometimes made for dull conversation too, centering around dirty jokes, shop talk, and expensive wining and dining that everyone pretended they could afford. (226)

* * *

Tindall acknowledges some positive recent changes in symphony orchestras that put the needs of their communities first (301). Yet in the end the concerts she attends leave her cold. She sums up:

The role of classical music has changed in American society since 1960. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, [“classical”—SJ] music had been a part of everyday life for Americans, many of whom played instruments or sang together as amateurs. Today, classical music has become peripheral and irrelevant to mainstream life. It is regarded as an incomprehensible art that must be performed perfectly or not at all. […]
Today, amateur musicians are conservatory-trained professionals who cannot find work. Typically, their lives are the reverse of the 1950s amateurs—highly trained in their hobby but uneducated in whatever becomes their money-making career. […] They […] may flounder through life doing non-musical work that does not use the high levels of ambition and intelligence many gifted musicians possess. […]
I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. […] What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. (306)

The book is unlikely to transform the staid image of WAM, but that’s not the point at all (she comments wryly on the rampant “sexing-up” of WAM). As Tindall herself commented on young audiences in interview,

My experience with them is that when people see live musicians wearing clothes that they wear, who look like them, they’re mesmerized by it. But when it’s presented as something very highfalutin, it’s frightening. The wall comes down right away.

* * *

As an oboist, Tindall sprinkles the book liberally with shavings from reed-making and all its paraphernalia, reminding me of Wu Mei and Ciaran Carson:

Jimmy dug into his satchel. Oboists carry reed tool kits: knives, mandrels, pliers, sharpening stones, plus cigarette papers for leaky keys. He shook a plastic film canister filled with water for soaking reeds. He put it aside and grabbed a second canister, tapping out some pot to roll a joint. We smoked dope, got naked, and embraced. (100)

It’s good to find an early source for my casual reference to TFL’s use of classical music at London tube stations. As she schlepps back from a church gig in New Jersey, she passes through the bus station at Port Authority, known as a magnet for crime:

Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray”. […] The technique had first been used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. […] I thought about the message of Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime. How could we, the industry producing the stuff, demand that our fans pay top dollar for the same treatment? Ironically, the public’s distaste for classical music opened up a new market for repackaging symphonies and sonatas as cultural spinach. Mozart may be yucky and boring, went the reasoning, but it’s good for you. (205)

* * *

As Edward Smith notes in a finely-titled review,

the sex and drugs are peripheral to the much more important things she has to say about the music industry and the broader relationship between society, finance and the arts. […] By the time Tindall turned pro in the 1980s, the classical music industry still expected a deference that it no longer commanded. Supply outstripped demand.

Given such insights, Smith’s conclusion seems unkind:

First Tindall used sex for advancement in one profession, now she has used writing about sex for advancement in another.

Anne Midgette’s review also has some reservations:

There’s a lot wrong with the classical music business. But there is a lot wrong in other fields, too. Plenty of people in this country are stuck in dead-end jobs even more repetitive and less interesting than Ms Tindall’s. Plenty of them can’t afford health insurance. Plenty of industries need fixing. Plenty of people used a lot of drugs in the 1980’s. Plenty of workers die in car accidents during their daily commutes. So these arguments alone are not a strong indictment of classical music per se.

Of course the frustrations and injustices of other professions are indeed important topics, but ethnographers like those of Tindall are valuable partly in order to deflate a dangerous myth that is less common elsewhere.

Aaron Bady gives a fine review of the book along with the more recent, and predictably more benign, Amazon TV series:

She spent the first half of her life trying to be a good musician in a system that no longer had a place for her, yet a system that needed her drive and passion and desperation to keep itself viable… but that would never allow her a life in which she could thrive. Once she understood this cruel fact, she left.[Tindall describes]
how trickle-down austerity feels on the bottom of the pay-scale, how economic disparities become social exploitation, and how an appeal to idealism and doing-what-you-love becomes a ticket to poverty for those foolish enough to believe it (all against the backdrop of a data-driven journalistic analysis of how overpaid administrators have mismanaged classical music into oblivion).
[…]
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Amazon’s version is a point-by-point response to Tindall’s critique. If Tindall tries to disillusion us, Amazon gives glamorous cameos to Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, and Anton Coppola, the very same rich and famous stars who (as Tindall showed) luxuriate in a system built on bloody hands, broken lungs, and crushed ambitions. Their participation in the show is fun, perhaps because it puffs up the mythology that Tindall was trying to deflate.

 For more reviews, see here.

* * *

Of course, the life of a few elite orchestras doesn’t represent the totality of music-making, even in urban areas. The classic ethnography (largely free of sex and drugs) is Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians, on all kinds of musical life in Milton Keynes. Tindall’s account should also take its place alongside all the jazz biographies detailing another side to New York musical life (vibrant yet also insecure), and all the ethnographies of local music-making in world societies.

Some orchestral players, both in regular jobs and freelancers, take the rough with the smooth and find considerable fulfilment. But I suspect they are outnumbered by those who reach a point of frustration and helplessness. This book should be compulsory reading for idealistic young musicians—not necessarily to dissuade them from a musical “career”, but just to increase awareness and encourage debate.

 

* Remember them? They had bowler hats and moustaches and caught the 7.46 from Surbiton.

Ethnography: Geertz, Nettl

 

Commenting on my post The brief of ethnography, Keith McGowan draws our attention to a fascinating video that illustrates the conflict between rural and urban values:

* * *

One of the most influential and inspiring ethnographers is Clifford Geertz (1926–2006).

Two seminal articles based on his fieldwork in Indonesia are illustrative—both instances of his blending of theory with his signature “thick description” (shenmiao 深描). They should also be compulsory reading for Chinese fieldworkers. Most basically, they are dynamic interpretations.

* * *

Geertz describes a ritual “which failed to function properly”—a funeral for a young boy, held in a small town in eastern Central Java, revolving around a slametan communal feast, with all its attendant psychological and social tensions. But the article is so good that a summary can’t possibly suffice: just read it!

Early in his article he explains, in a passage highly relevant to our studies of Daoist ritual:

As has been noted by several writers […], the emphasis on systems in balance, on social homeostasis, and on timeless structural pictures, leads to a bias in favor of “well-integrated” societies in a stable equilibrium and to a tendency to emphasize the functional aspects of a people’s social usages and customs rather than their disfunctional implications. In analyses of religion this static, ahistorical approach has led to a somewhat over-conservative view of the role of ritual and belief in social life.

His reflections are based on a detailed case study:

A young boy, about ten years of age, who was living with his uncle and aunt, died very suddenly but his death, instead of being followed by the usual hurried, subdued, yet methodically efficient Javanese funeral ceremony and burial routine, brought on an extended period of pronounced social strain and severe psychological tension. The complex of beliefs and rituals which had for generations brought countless Javanese safely through the difficult post-mortem period suddenly failed to work with its accustomed effectiveness. To understand why it failed demands knowledge and understanding of a whole range of social and cultural changes which have taken place in Java since the first decades of this century. This disrupted funeral was in fact but a microcosmic example of the broader conflicts, structural dissolutions, and attempted reintegrations which, in one form or another, are characteristic of contemporary Indonesian society.

In principle, through the slametan (“a quiet, undramatic little ritual”) the spirits are appeased and neighborhood solidarity is strengthened. But

in all but the most isolated parts of Java, both the simple territorial basis of village social integration and the syncretic basis of its cultural homogeneity have been progressively undermined over the past fifty years. Population growth, urbanization, monetization, occupational differentiation, and the like, have combined to weaken the traditional ties of peasant social structure; and the winds of doctrine which have accompanied the appearance of these structural changes have disturbed the simple uniformity of religious belief and practice characteristic of an earlier period. The rise of nationalism, Marxism, and Islamic reform as ideologies, which resulted in part from the increasing complexity of Javanese society, has affected not only the large cities where these creeds first appeared and have always had their greatest strength, but has had a heavy impact on the smaller towns and villages as well. In fact, much of recent Javanese social change is perhaps most aptly characterized as a shift from a situation in which the primary integrative ties between individuals (or between families) are phrased in terms of geographical proximity to one in which they are phrased in terms of ideological like-mindedness.

Such tensions increased sharply during the year Geertz was in the field.

It seemed as if the ritual were tearing the society apart rather than integrating it, were disorganizing personalities rather than healing them.

Geertz queries the functionalist explanations of social disintegration or cultural demoralization—that rapid and disruptive social change are reflected in a disintegrated culture, with the broken society of the kampong mirrored in the broken slametan of the funeral ritual, cultural decay leading to social fragmentation; or that the loss of a vigorous folk tradition weakened the moral ties between individuals.

But as he goes on,

It seems to me that there are two things wrong with this argument […]: it identifies social (or cultural) conflict with social (or cultural) disintegration; it denies independent roles to both culture and social structure, regarding one of the two as a mere epiphenomenon of the other. Religion here is somehow the center and source of stress, not merely the reflection of stress elsewhere in the society.

He warns:

We cannot attribute the failure of the ritual to secularization, to a growth in skepticism, or to a disinterest in the traditional “saving beliefs,” any more than we can attribute it to anomie.
We must rather, I think, ascribe it to a discontinuity between the form of integration existing in the social structural (“causal-functional”) dimension and the form of integration existing in the cultural (“logico-meaningful”) dimension—a discontinuity which leads not to social and cultural disintegration, but to social and cultural conflict. In more concrete, if somewhat aphoristic terms, the difficulty lies in the fact that socially kampong people are urbanites, while culturally they are still folk.
[…]
Thus when an occasion arises demanding sacralisation—a life-cycle transition, a holiday, a serious illness—the religious form which must be employed acts not with but against the grain of social equilibrium. The slametan ignores those recently devised mechanisms of social insulation which in daily life keep group conflict within fixed bounds, as it also ignores the newly evolved patterns of social integration among opposed groups which balance contradictory tensions in a reasonably effective fashion. People are pressed into an intimacy they would as soon avoid; where the incongruity between the social assumptions of the ritual (“we are all culturally homogeneous peasants together”) and what is in fact the case (“we are several different kinds of people who must perforce live together despite our serious value disagreements”) leads to a deep uneasiness of which Paidjan’s funeral was but an extreme example. In the kampong, the holding of a slametan increasingly serves to remind people that the neighborhood bonds they are strengthening through a dramatic enactment are no longer the bonds which most emphatically hold them together. These latter are ideological, class, occupation, and political bonds, divergent ties which are no longer adequately summed up in territorial relationships.

In sum, Geertz deduces an incongruity between the cultural framework of meaning and the patterning of social interaction, due to the persistence in an urban environment of a religious symbol system adjusted to peasant social structure.

The driving forces in social change can be clearly formulated only by a more dynamic form of functionalist theory, one which takes into account the fact that man’s need to live in a world to which he can attribute some significance, whose essential import he feels he can grasp, often diverges from his concurrent need to maintain a functioning social organism. A diffuse concept of culture as “learned behavior,” a static view of social structure as an equilibrated pattern of interaction, and a stated or unstated assumption that the two must somehow (save in “disorganized” situations) be simple mirror images of one another, is rather too primitive a conceptual apparatus with which to attack such problems as those raised by Paidjan’s unfortunate but instructive funeral.

This is the kind of integration of thick description with theory to which we should all aspire.

* * *

The other article I’d like to recommend here is Geertz’s

  • “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (1972: ch.15 of The interpretation of cultures).

Along with a critical discussion, you can view the article here (a useful site). It contains much thoughtful analysis of the place of cock-fighting in Balinese society, but here I”d just like to cite his description of his own relationship with the village —which again remind me strongly of my experience in China.

Early in April of 1958, my wife and I arrived, malarial and diffident, in a Balinese village we intended, as anthropologists, to study. A small place, about five hundred people, and relatively remote, it was its own world. We were intruders, professional ones, and the villagers dealt with us as Balinese seem always to deal with people not part of their life who yet press themselves upon them: as though we were not there. For them, and to a degree for ourselves, we were nonpersons, specters, invisible men.

They moved into an extended family compound, and were soon ignored by most of the village population. But

The indifference, of course, was studied; the villagers were watching every move we made and they had an enormous amount of quite accurate information about who we were and what we were going to be doing. But they acted as if we simply did not exist, which, in fact, as this behavior was designed to inform us, we did not, or anyway not yet.

Ten days or so after their arrival, a large cockfight was held in the public square to raise money for a new school. Most such fights were illegal—with echoes of Chinese values, they were regarded as “primitive,” “backward,” “unprogressive,” and generally unbecoming an ambitious nation. For several reasons the villagers supposed that they could hold this fight without attracting the attention of the law.

But they were wrong. Soon a truck full of policemen armed with machine guns roared up, with villagers scattering in all directions. Geertz and his wife followed suit, following another fugitive as he ducked into a compound—his own, it turned out.

As the three of us came tumbling into the courtyard, his wife, who had apparently been through this sort of thing before, whipped out a table, a tablecloth, three chairs, and three cups of tea, and we all, without any explicit communication whatsoever, sat down, commenced to sip tea, and sought to compose ourselves.

A policeman soon arrived.

Seeing my wife and I, “White Men”, there in the yard, the policeman performed a classic double take. When he found his voice again he asked, approximately, what in the devil did we think we were doing there. Our host of five minutes leaped instantly to our defense, producing an impassioned description of who and what we were, so detailed and so accurate that it was my turn, having barely communicated with a living human being save my landlord and the village chief for more than a week, to be astonished. We had a perfect right to be there, he said, looking the Javanese upstart in the eye. We were American professors; the government had cleared us; we were there to study culture; we were going to write a book to tell Americans about Bali. And we had all been there drinking tea and talking about cultural matters all afternoon and did not know anything about any cockfight.
[…]
The next morning the village was a completely different world for us. Not only were we no longer invisible, we were suddenly the center of all attention, the object of a great outpouring of warmth, interest, and, most especially, amusement. Everyone in the village knew we had fled like everyone else. They asked us about it again and again (I must have told the story, small detail by small detail, fifty times by the end of the day), gently, affectionately, but quite insistently teasing us: “Why didn’t you just stand there and tell the police who you were?” “Why didn’t you just say you were only watching and not betting?” “Were you really afraid of those little guns?” As always, kinesthetically minded and, even when fleeing for their lives (or, as happened eight years later, surrendering them), the world’s most poised people, they gleefully mimicked, also over and over again, our graceless style of running and what they claimed were our panic-stricken facial expressions. But above all, everyone was extremely pleased and even more surprised that we had not simply “pulled out our papers” (they knew about those too) and asserted our Distinguished Visitor status, but had instead demonstrated our solidarity with what were now our covillagers. (What we had actually demonstrated was our cowardice, but there is fellowship in that too.) Even the Brahmana priest, an old, grave, half-way-to-Heaven type who because of its associations with the underworld would never be involved, even distantly, in a cockfight, and was difficult to approach even to other Balinese, had us called into his courtyard to ask us about what had happened, chuckling happily at the sheer extraordinariness of it all.
In Bali, to be teased is to be accepted. It was the turning point so far as our relationship to the community was concerned, and we were quite literally “in.” The whole village opened up to us, probably more than it ever would have otherwise (I might actually never have gotten to that priest and our accidental host became one of my best informants), and certainly very much faster. Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid [SJ: cf. my own run-ins with the Chinese constabulary] is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside view grasp of an aspect of “peasant mentality” that anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get. And, perhaps most important of all, for the other things might have come in other ways, it put me very quickly on to a combination emotional explosion, status war, and philosophical drama of central significance to the society whose inner nature I desired to understand. By the time I left I had spent about as much time looking into cockfights as into witchcraft, irrigation, caste, or marriage.

On the Li family Daoists, there are modest echoes of Geertz’s approach under “A flawed funeral” in ch.19 of my book, introduced in this post.

* * *

Meanwhile next door in ethnomusicology, Bruno Nettl (always a pleasure to read—for a roundup of posts, see here) has outlined types of musical change in his magisterial

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, ch.19, pp.272–93.

This outline has since been constantly refined, and of course after Geertz’s level of detail it may seem simple. But in brief Nettl suggests a rudimentary four basic types (or levels) of change, with stimulating examples:

1) Substitution: a population that shares and maintains one musical system abandons it for another—an extreme case for which Nettl actually finds no instances.

2) Radical change in a system of music whose new form can definitively still be traced in some way to the old.

3) Gradual, normal change: “any musical system is likely to contain, or require, a certain amount of change as part of its essential character. Most societies expect of their artists a minimum of innovation, and some demand a great deal.” But he goes on to suggest the lesser degrees of change expected in folk societies. “An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”.

4) Allowable variation: “For musical artifacts such as songs, or in song types, groups, repertories, a certain amount of allowable individual variation may not even be perceived as change.”

As he notes, “all societies may experience all four types of change, but probably to varying degrees”. For those societies where change seems slight, he suggests he goes on to suggest various possible reasons, such as simple technology; societies where musical and social systems have achieved a certain equilibrium; those genres within a culture which resist change—notably religion. Similarly, he notes cultures where change is rapid and dramatic.

This embryonic taxonomy complements his next section, “Adaptation, preservation, survival”, mainly concerning responses to the growing hegemony of Western musics of all kinds, and again with instances. Here he considers three main headings:

1) Abandonment (again, rare)

2) Impoverishment or reduction: diminishing repertories, replacement of instruments, standardization, and so on; in social behaviour, adoption of Western habits like concerts, applause, and so on.

3) Isolated preservation: “relegation to a museum”—particularly relevant to the whole heritage debate. This comment hits the nail on the head:

The desire is to preserve this older music without change, to give it a kind of stability that in fact it probably did not experience in the past, and to do this at the expense of permitting it to function as a major musical outlet for the population.

Again, all this should be essential reading for anyone working on Daoist ritual.

* * *

Apart from heavier scholarly tomes, I may also adduce another book by Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave—a diverting exploration of the local meanings of mortuary rituals worldwide.

On visual culture

As with my remarks on punk and so on,

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Or to adapt it to the topic in hand,

You think I know Shag Nothing, but I know CHAGALL!

More genteel would be the old “I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like!” (groan from Myles). So, following Myles, I write this in the spirit of The Plain People of Ireland. As often, I’m seeking clues relevant to my own areas of study, making connections that can easily get buried beneath our individual specialities. Perhaps this post might be entitled Renaissance art for Dummies in the Field of Daoist Ritual Studies—not one of their bestsellers, I suspect.

Sassetta: St Francis giving his cloak to a poor soldier.

I first came across

  • Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy: a primer in the social history of pictorial style (1st edition 1972)

while browsing Rod Conway Morris’s library in Venice, along with Horatio E. Brown’s splendidly-titled Some Venetian knockers.

It’s my kind of book, full of the practical detail of materials, technical skill, and patronage, as well as exploring changing perceptions. Quite short, and eminently readable, it gains much from having grown out of a series of lectures that he gave. It addresses issues that I hardly find in discussions of Chinese ritual and music (for any period), so I’d like to explore it at a certain length.

Baxandall opens by encapsulating, in plain and elegant language,** issues that, um, scholars of Daoist ritual (of all periods) should absorb:

A 15th-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship.
On one side there was the painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it, provided funds for him to make it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions—commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social—that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made.

He observes that

The picture trade was a very different thing from that in our own late romantic condition, in which painters paint what they think best and then look round for a buyer.

Exploring the mismatch between our concepts of “public” and “private”, he notes that

Private men’s commissions often had very public roles, often in public places. A more relevant distinction is between commissions controlled by large corporate institutions like the offices of cathedral works and commissions from individual men or small groups of people: collective or communal undertaking on the one hand, personal initiatives on the other. The painter was typically, though not invariably, employed by an individual or small group. […] In this he differed from the sculptor, who often worked for large commercial enterprises. (p.5)

He meshes all this with detailed technical discussion, like the use of ultramarine:

The exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are likely to miss. (p.11)

Thus in the Sassetta painting above, the gown St Francis gives away is an ultramarine gown.

The contracts point to a sophistication about blues, a capacity to discriminate between one and another, with which our own culture does not equip us.

Baxandall notes change over the course of the Quattrocento:

While precious pigments become less prominent, a demand for pictorial skill becomes more so. […] It seems that clients were becoming less anxious to flaunt sheer opulence of material.

But he goes on:

It would be futile to account for this sort of development simply within the history of art. The diminishing role of gold in paintings is part of a general movement in western Europe at this time towards a kind of selective inhibition about display, and this show itself in many other kinds of behaviour too. It was just as conspicuous in the client’s clothes, for instance, which were abandoning gilt fabrics and gaudy hues for the restrained black of Burgundy. This was a fashion with elusive moral overtones.
[…]
The general shift away from gilt splendour must have had very complex and discrete sources indeed—a frightening social mobility with its problem of dissociating itself from the flashy new rich; the acute physical shortage of gold in the fifteenth century; a classical distaste for sensuous licence now seeping out from neo-Ciceronian humanism, reinforcing the more accessible sorts of Christian asceticism; in the case of dress, obscure technical reasons for the best quality of Dutch cloth being black anyway; above all, perhaps, the sheer rhythm of fashionable reaction. (pp.14–15)

To show how skill was becoming the natural alternative to precious pigment, and might now be understood as a conspicuous index of consumption, he returns to “the money of painting”—the costing of painting-materials, and frame, as against labour and skill.

You will no longer be surprised to learn that the Quattrocento division of labour between master and disciples (pp.19–23) reminds me of Daoist ritual specialists.

Baxandall goes on to note the differences in patrons’ demands for panel paintings and frescoes. He attempts to address the issue (even for the time of creation) of public response to painting:

The difficulty is that it is at any time eccentric to set down on paper a verbal response to the complex non-verbal stimulations paintings are designed to provide: the very fact of doing so must make a man untypical. (pp.24–5)

Aesthetic terms expressed in words are contingent, varying from age to age, and anyway elusive. Even with the vocabulary of such accounts, discussing that of a Milanese agent, Baxandall notes:

the problem of virile and sweet and air having different nuances for him than for us, but there is also the difficulty that he saw the pictures differently from us.

He goes on to explore different kinds of viewers’ own exercise of skill in appreciating a painting, with their different backgrounds:

… the equipment that the fifteenth-century painter’s public brought to complex visual stimulations like pictures. One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing classes, one might say. […] The peasants and the urban poor play a very small part in the Renaissance culture that most interests us now, which may be deplorable but is a fact that must be accepted. […] So a certain profession, for instance, leads a man [sic—SJ] to discriminate particularly effectively in identifiable areas. (p.39)

Whatever [the painter’s] own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit. (p.40)

And given that “most 15th-century pictures are religious pictures”, he asks in detail,

What is the religious function of religious pictures?

His answer, in brief, is that they were used “as respectively lucid, vivid and readily accessible stimuli to meditation on the Bible and the lives of Saints.” But he goes on to enquire:

What sort of painting would the religious public for pictures have found lucid, vividly memorable, and emotionally moving?
[…]
The fifteenth-century experience of a painting was not the painting we see now so much as a marriage between the painting and the beholder’s previous visualizing activity on the same matter. (pp.40–45)

Again he makes the crucial point:

15th-century pictorial development happened within fifteenth-century classes of emotional experience.

Alongside colour, he discusses the beholders’ appreciation of gesture and groupings, adducing dance and sacred drama.

It is doubtful if we have the right predispositions to see such refined innuendo at all spontaneously. (p.76)

And apart from their basic level of piety (largely lost to us today), many of the “patronizing classes” would have assessed the work partly through their knowledge of geometry and the harmonic series.

In Part III Baxandall attempts to sketch the “cognitive style” of the time, with the reservation that

A society’s visual practices are, in the nature of things, not all or even mostly represented in verbal records. (p.109)

Finally he reverses his main argument—that “the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances” (and so “noting bits of social convention that may sharpen our perception of the pictures”)—by suggesting that “the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society” (p.151).

An old painting is the record of visual activity. One has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language; both language and pictorial representations are conventional activities. […]

In sum,

Social history and art history are continuous, each offering necessary insights into the other.

Such reflections seem more sophisticated than the “autonomous”, timeless approaches still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual. To be fair, we are quite busy trying to document ritual sequences, hereditary titles, and so on—but the Renaissance scholars have just as much nitty-gritty to deal with too.

* * *

Carpaccio

Carpaccio: Baptism of the Selenites, c1504–7 (detail). San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

(The painting features a shawm band that I’d love to hear! For Venice’s musical contacts with the East, see e.g. here).

Baxandall ends with a caveat:

One will not approach the paintings on the philistine level of the illustrated social history.

I don’t think he quite had in mind

  • Alexander Lee, The ugly renaissance: sex, greed, violence and depravity in an age of beauty (2014),

a less technical, more sociological book with a firm political agenda that some may find more appealing than others (cf. this review of Catherine Fletcher, The beauty and the terror: an alternative history of the Italian Renaissance (2020).

Poking around beneath the glamorous surface image of the Renaissance, seemingly “an age of beauty and brilliance populated by men and women of angelic perfection”, he observes:

If the Renaissance is to be understood, it is necessary to acknowledge not just the awe-inspiring idealism of its cultural artefacts but also the realities which its artists endeavoured to conceal or reconfigure.

Lowe explores the brutal social universe in which artists were immersed. Like Baxandall, he explores the relationship between artist and his assistants and apprentices:

The relationship was naturally based on work, and hence could often be punctuated by squabbles, or even dismissal. Michelangelo continually had trouble with his assistants, and had to sack several for poor workmanship, laziness, or even—in one particular case—because the lad in question was “a stuck-up little turd”.

Given that patrons were as important as artists in shaping the form and direction of Renaissance art,

Rather than being seduced by the splendor of the works they commissioned, it is essential to uncover the world behind the paintings; a world that was populated not by the perfect mastery of colour and harmony that is usually associated with the Renaissance, but by ambition, greed, rape, and murder.

He shows the often dubious motives of patrons. They often valued a commission “for the contribution it could make to reshaping the image of often extremely disreputable men”. Such works “were intended more to conceal the brutality, corruption, and violence on which power and influence were based than to celebrate the culture and learning of art’s greatest consumers”.

Lowe also seriously questions the image of the period as one of “discovery” of the wider world:

In their dealings with Jews, Muslims, black Africans, and the Americas, the people of the Renaissance were not only much less open towards different cultures than has commonly been supposed, but were willing to use fresh experiences and new currents of thought to justify and encourage prejudice, persecution, and exploitation at every level.

I suspect such angles may not go unchallenged, but I find it refreshing. And these unpackings again augment my comments on the “Golden Age nostalgia” of the heritage industry in China.

* * *

jue

China: jue libation vessel, Shang/Zhou dynasty.

Reception history has perhaps become a rather more established feature of visual culture (including the history of art) than for musical culture. The term “visual culture” itself reflects a more mature holistic approach, like that of “soundscape” for ritual music in China, and indeed the whole inclusive brief of ethnomusicology.

As I dip into Marcia Pointon’s History of art; a student’s handbook, she soon observes:

The meanings of the painting will be determined by where, how and by whom it is consumed.
[..]
Art historians are interested not only with objects with but with processes. […They] concern themselves with visual communication whatever its intended audiences or consumers.
[…]
Art historians investigate the origins, the connections between “high” and “low”, and the ways in which imagery such as this contributes to our understanding of a period of historical time, whether in the present or in the far distant past.

On one hand, as with music, we envy earlier viewers/audiences their familiarity with subjects/languages that we can no longer interpret easily, if at all. At the same time we have also lost the shock of the new.

We’re familiar with the idea of restoring old paintings to their original colours—negating their history?—but we can’t perform a similar operation on our eyes and minds. Doubtless there’s a vast scholarly literature on this, but one might be reluctant to remove the patina from Shang bronzes, restoring them to the condition of glossy Italian kitchenware. For patina, see also Richard Taruskin’s comments on Gardiner’s Schumann.

Just as most people who experienced art in 15th-century “Italy” had access mainly to those works on public display in their particular city, so, long before CDs and youtube, Leipzig dwellers heard little music apart from Bach and the pieces by other composers that he selected, mostly within the Leipzig tradition. Some creators themselves might be so lucky as to travel, gaining a certain experience of other styles. And in both art forms, a majority of such work was contemporary—even the instruments that baroque musicians played were mostly modern.

To try and get to grips with what art and music meant at the time doesn’t make us able to experience it as did the “consumers” of the day—we can’t unsee Monet, TV, or skyscrapers any more than we can unhear Mahler and punk. And I hope our teeth are in a better state.

* * *

I also admire

  • Michael Jacobs, Everything is happening: journey into a painting (2015), [1]

on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)—with chapters by his friend Ed Vulliamy added after Jacobs’ untimely death. As Vulliamy observes,

In this half-book, beyond a fragment, we have not only a typically Jacobs-esque narrative of his life with Velázquez—one of chance encounters, aperitifs, musings and restless autobiography—but also this manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting. (p.146)

Jaccobs does that thing that people always do in blurbs:

cutting a picaresque swathe

—and the picaro simile is fitting. Jacobs was constantly deploring the “sunless” world of academia. He documents the shift in art history that was then occurring widely in scholarship:

Many of the younger lecturers and researchers, conscious perhaps of the lingering popular image of their discipline as a precious and elitist pursuit, began adopting what rapidly became the prevailing art-historical methodology—a pseudo-Marxist one. People who might once have become connoisseurs in tweeds reinvented themselves as boiler-suited proselytisers dedicated to exposing in art revealing traces of the social conditions of a period, often resorting in the process to a hermetic prose peppered with terms I had first come across in Foucault, such as “discourses” and “the gaze”. (p.44)

Oh all right then, I’ll go for a hat-trick:

You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FOUCAULT!

(Note on pronunciation: whereas I can only hear “You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FUCK ALL!” in the caricature-Nazi accent of Karl Böhm, the above bon mot clearly belongs on the foam-specked lips of an angry young Alexei Sayle.)

By contrast with the treatments of Baxendall and Lowe (themselves quite different), Jacobs’ approach is based on including “us”, the viewers, as agents in the picture—whatever his reservations, he was inspired by Foucault.

Proust, writing on Rembrandt, had spoken about paintings as being not just beautiful objects but also the thoughts they inspired in their viewers. [Svetlana] Alpers was cited as saying that “looking at a work in a museum and looking at other people looking at a work in a museum is like taking part in the life story of this work and contributing to it.”

Still, Jacobs ploughed his own furrow. As Paul Stirton recalls,

Michael always believed in the wonder of looking. Yes, there may be a profound message in a painting, but Michael didn’t want to dress it up in philosophical trappings. By all means approach a painting in a scholarly manner, but never lose the wonder. (pp.179–80)

In his book about artists’ colonies at the end of the nineteenth century, The good and simple life, he is scathing about how most painters wanting to live that life considered “the downtrodden country folk … as little more than quaint components of the rural scene. Their social conscience was as little stirred by them as by pipe-playing goatherds in the Roman Campagna.” At moments, though he is the antithesis of a “political” art critic, Michael’s writing reads like Walter Benjamin fresh from his Frankfurt School, but with a glass of Sangria in his hand. (p.182)

From both his own experience and Thomas Struth’s photos of the public response to Las Meninas over several days, Jacobs recalls

All the faces of the bored, the transfixed, the distracted, the deeply serious, the adults whose only concern was to get the perfect snap, the school children who were wondering when their ordeal would be over, the others who fooled around or diligently made notes, the few whose lives were being transformed. (pp.69–70)

So (suitably) like Monty Python’s Proust sketch, Jacobs never quite got as far as discussing the painting “itself”—not so much due to his death, as by virtue of his propensity to dwell on personal reminiscences on modern Spanish history and his own relationship with it and the painting.

He remarks wryly on the images of Spain current in his youth, reminding me of images of China, not to mention Away from it all. He recalls a train journey in the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy, when he was reading a book that

gave no hint of Spain’s repressive military regime, but instead referred to the country’s “growing agricultural and industrial prosperity” and to the “happy coexistence of the old and the new”.
The book’s role as a catalyst for my early, life-changing Spanish journeys was due entirely to its black-and-white photos, which neglected this supposedly modern and prosperous country in favour of basket-laden donkeys, adobe-walled farms, palm groves, sun-scorched white alleys and other such images that endowed Spain with a predominantly medieval and African look. Even Madrid, so regularly criticized by past travellers for its brash modernity, was made to seem more exotic and rural than any other western city I had seen. The sole street-scene was one of a large flock of sheep being herded in front of a neo-Baroque, cathedral-like post-office building popularly dubbed “Our Lady of the Post”. (p.60)

He discusses the fortunes of Las Meninas during the civil war, as well as more recent events:

… closed shops wherever you looked, restaurants offering “crisis menus”, daily protests, and graffiti and posters revealing grievances with everyone and everything, from the monarchy, to the banks, to the multinationals, to the European Community, to the politicians who made Spain the country with the the highest number of politicians per capita in Europe. (p.72)

And he describes the painting’s changing frames and settings:

The Sala Velázquez was like a shrine. […] On entering this inner sanctuary, people took off their hats, spoke in low voices, and tiptoed around so as not to destroy the atmosphere of worshipful solemnity. Every so often someone would be observed bursting into tears.
There were of course others visitors who disliked this room’s churchlike theatricality and the sentimentally nationalistic and mindless emotional reactions it inspired. (p.115)

So as it stands, Jacobs’ book is concerned more with reception history than with the society of the time of the creation of Las Meninas (though he explored this elsewhere, and doubtless had voluminous notes on the painting to supplement existing research). Background on the society of Velazquez’s day is provided mainly by Vulliamy’s fine Introduction. Evoking Lowe, he notes that Seville, far from “the great Babylon of Spain, map of all nations”,

was also headquarters of the Inquisition. Indeed, the “Golden Age” which followed the unification of Spain in 1492 was accomplished, writes Michael Jacobs, “in a spirit of brutal fanaticism”, with the expulsion or enforced conversion of Andalucia’s many Moors and Jews. This dogmatism and what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” [here Vulliamy writes with traumatic personal experience in Bosnia] had a major and insidious demographic impact on the city, yet Seville remained characterized by “an architecture … of great contrasts”, wrote Michael, “for alongside the Muslim-inspired love of decorative arts richness is an inherently Spanish love of the austere”.

    * * *

GL Ten Kings

Yama King painting from Ten Kings series, North Gaoluo 1990.

All these books incorporate ethnography and reception history far more than the fusty old reified appreciation of “autonomous” objets d’art. For China,

  • Craig Clunas, Art in China (1st edition 1997)

makes a useful, wide-ranging, and thoughtful introduction, exploring themes like genres, techniques, functions, patrons, markets, producers, class, and gender.

For instance, discussing a wooden sculpture of the female deity Guanyin from Shanxi carved c1200CE, he describes its original multi-coloured decoration:

All this added to the immediacy of the image for worshippers, but it was covered over at some point, probably about 300–400 years later in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was painted gold in imitation of a gilded metal sculpture. Such an aesthetic change must have gone hand in hand with some change in the understanding of what a successful image ought to look like, a change at the level of both popular belief and the attitudes of religious professionals which is as yet hardly understood. (pp.56–7)

Whereas much scholarship remains based on artefacts in museums and galleries, fieldwork reveals a vast further repository of images still used in ritual practice. One thinks of the vast hoard of religious statuettes found in rural Hunan, subject of fine research.

And apart from statues and temple murals, ritual paintings depicting the Ten Kings and the punishments of the underworld—hung out for temple fairs and funerals—suggest comparisons with Christian equivalents in medieval and Renaissance art. And they too must have changed their meanings for audiences over recent centuries. At least, illiterate rural audiences would be affected rather deeply, and modern viewers may be underwhelmed now that they are saturated with horror films and video games. But we learn rather little about this from the scholarship; Daoist culture tends to be reified. Meanwhile, household ritual specialists have continue to perform Ten Kings scriptures for funerals.

It reminds me, challenged as I am in the field of visual culture, that ritual images through the ages also need unpacking—assessing changing meanings there too, including early sources for music iconography.

This has a lot to do with reception history. Such studies of visual culture may feed into our experience of Bach and all kinds of early and folk music. If even scholars of WAM and Renaissance painting feel it germane, then studies of Chinese musical cultures, and of Daoist ritual, shouldn’t lag behind.

* * *

But I’d like to end with some more populist vignettes (“Typical!”) on the meanings of art.

Among the numerous virtues of Alan Bennett is his accessible promotion of painting, found in Untold Stories (pp.453–514) [2] notably a talk he gave for the National Gallery, with the fine title “Going to the pictures”. These essays are also a passionate plea for culture to remain accessible, a rebuke to mercenary philistine governments.

He recalls an inauspicious early lecture he gave at Oxford on Richard II:

At the conclusion of this less than exciting paper I asked if there were any questions. There was an endless silence until finally one timid undergraduate at the back put up his hand.
“Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

 We’ve all been there. But his remarks on painting are priceless:

Somewhere in the National Gallery I’d like there to be a notice saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. When you’re appointed a trustee, the director, Neil MacGregor, takes you round on an introductory tour. Mine was at 9am, when I find it hard to look the milkman in the eye, let alone a Titian.

We were passing through the North Wing, I remember, and Neil was about to take me into one of the rooms when I said, “Oh, I don’t like Dutch pictures”, thereby seeming to dismiss Vermeer, De Hooch and indeed Rembrandt. And I saw a look of brief alarm pass over his face as if to say. “Who is this joker we’ve appointed?”

He cites his play A question of attribution, about (Michael Jacobs’ teacher) Anthony Blunt:

“What am I supposed to feel?” asks the policeman about going into the National Gallery.
“What do you feel?” asks Blunt.
“Baffled,” says Chubb, “and also knackered” … this last remark very much from the heart.
[… Blunt] tries to explain that the history of art shouldn’t be seen as simply a progress towards accurate or realistic reprentatation.
“Do we say Giotto isn’t a patch on Michelangelo because his figures are less lifelike?”
“Michelangelo?” says Chubb. “I don’t think his figures are lifelike frankly. The women aren’t. They’re just like men with tits. And the tits look as if they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. Has nobody pointed that out?”
“Not quite in those terms.”

In a *** passage AB blends hilarity with insight, evoking Baxandall:

In A Question of Attribution the Queen is made to have some doubts about paintings of the Annunciation.
“There are quite a lot of them,” says the Queen. “When we visited Florence we were taken round the art gallery there and well … I won’t say Annunciations were two a penny but they were certainly quite thick on the ground. And not all of them very convincing. My husband remarked that one of them looked to him like the messenger arriving from Littlewoods Pools. And that the Virgin was protesting that she had put a cross for no publicity.”
This last remark, though given to the Duke of Edinburgh, was actually another flag of distress, stemming from my unsuccessful attempts to assimilate and remember an article about the various positions of the Virgin’s hand, which are an elaborate semaphore of her feelings, a semaphore instantly understandable to contemporaries but, short of elaborate exposition, lost on us today. It’s a pretty out-of-the-way corner of art history but it leads me on to another question and another worry.
Floundering through some unreadable work on art history I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these elaborate expositions—gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth—that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasped by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called “over meaning”. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.
When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. I must have seen Citizen Kane when it came round for the first time, but with no thought that, apart from it being more boring, this was a different order of picture from George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, unthinkingly, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, and induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of the cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

Unpacking the complex attributes of two stock characters, he concludes:

The 20th-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

For a similar case, see here.

* * *

Apart from any intrinsic merit this little tour of visual culture may have, for me it also suggests several angles barely explored for Daoist ritual.

OK then, just one last aperçu—this time from Kenneth Clark (thanks, Rod). On the contrast between and reified art and social reception, here’s his typically urbane formulation in Civilization:

At some time in the 9th century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable.

 

On behalf of the splendid Craig ClunasI accept full responsibility for any inanities in this post. If you all play your cards right, I promise not to do this kind of thing too often.
Craig and any other art historians who have managed to read this far might care to exact revenge by writing Specious Flapdoodle
[famous 19th-century Baptist pastor—Ed.] about early music or Daoist ritual… 

 

** Not, may I just say, the kind of moronic homespun language used by one maniacal Führer about another: “smart cookie” or “total nut-job”? Roll over Cicero.

 

[1] Some stimulating reviews may be found herehere, and here.
[2] Online excerpts include http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/i-know-what-i-like-but-im-not-sure-about-art-1620866.html and https://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n07/alan-bennett/alan-bennett-chooses-four-paintings-for-schools.

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, Sellars–Rattle, ENO, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation Day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special. Note also his book Playing with history.

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

Taruskin on early music

***Link to this page!***

I’ve finally got round to reading the great Richard Taruskin properly. Among his wide-ranging themes, in this page (under WAM in Menu), I discuss his seminal comments on early music, informed by my own humble experiences of the scene.

As he links it with modernism, placing it firmly within the context of our contemporary culture, this is no mere niche topic, it’s profound, essential reading on culture in modern society— and with maestro-baiting galore!

Even if one disagreed with every word of the book, the writing is always a joy to read.

Sappho and Hildegard

T-shirt

Taking pride of place on the fine T-shirt of female composers, Sappho is the subject of an engaging Radio 4 programme by Natalie Haynes, both educative and hilarious—I can’t find this episode online at the moment, but here’s the link.

Proceeding in an orderly fashion further down the T-shirt, it was also good this Monday to find Hildegard of Bingen in The Birth of Polyphony on Radio 3’s Composer of the Week:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zdbb7

The tracks are very fine (for further discography, see here), but I don’t quite know how I want such music to sound. Indeed, as Christopher Page commented,

There’s no real reason to think that any of Hildegard’s songs were ever performed at all. Hildegard writes these pieces as acts of prayer in themselves, and exactly what use they were put to, if any use at all, is something that we don’t really know. It’s possible to imagine Hildegard or somebody else humming them or singing them softly in the context of private prayer, for example.

Despite contemporary medieval groups that immerse themselves in medieval sources, and resulting fine “experiments” in vocal style (Jantina Norman, North African, and so on), most recordings sounds exactly what they are—Oxbridge-educated choral singers since the 1970s. And they communicate with the type of audiences that like to hear that kind of thing. Our ears. The problem lies partly in the medium: the acoustic of recording, or concerts.

The modern sound ideal might succinctly be described as virginal, but I’m not sure a 20th-century Oxbridge virgin sounds quite the same as a 12th-century German one. But after Taruskin, we can all relax.

For “The hottest 900-year-old on the charts”, an entertaining and informed review of recordings and performances of her work, featuring the Hildegurls, see here.

 

 

Mahler in Chinatown

It’s always worth tuning in to Donald Macleod’s Composer of the week on BBC Radio 3. Even for a Mahler fanatic like me, last week’s programmes (based on the well-trodden theme of his years with Alma) were instructive.

I suppose this story belongs to the cliché of “international cultural exchange” (guojixing wenhua jiaoliu 国际性文化交流, which deserves an entry in my Catechism of Chinese cliché):

We all know (don’t we) about Mahler’s settings of Hans Bethge’s embroidered translations of Tang poems for Das Lied von der Erde (composed in 1909 but only performed after his death in 1911). In 1910, as he was fêted in New York, the Schirmers [some sources say the Roosevelts] took him and Alma on a visit to an opium den in Chinatown. Long before the stereotypes of Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, this could have been an intriguing encounter.

Their visit to the “teeming” Lower East Side Jewish quarter must have been more conflicted (among myriad discussions of Mahler and Judaism, Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? is accessible). Alma’s portrayals are not always reliable, but here it’s worth citing her account (Gustav Mahler: memories and letters (pp.161–2)—more prurient than ethnographic:

We were invited by the music publisher, Schirmer, and his wife to dine with them one day and drive with them afterwards “down town”, into China town. The indispensable detective sat beside the chauffeur. We turned out of the busy streets into narrower ones which became by degrees quieter, narrower, darker and more uncanny. We got out, accompanied by the detective with a loaded revolver in his pocket, and went into an opium den. A creature with a sickeningly womanish face received us in an ante-room, where we had to put down a sum of money. He began at once to give us a long list of his successes with white ladies, and told us he acted female parts in the Chinese Theatre. A Chinese woman, of course, may not either act or look on in a theatre. He showed it in his face—it was the most degenerate man-woman face you could imagine. He showed us numerous photographs of American women he had—and he said the rest by gestures. Then he conducted us into several small but high rooms, empty in the middle but furnished with bunks along the sides, each of which contained a stretcher; and on each stretcher lay a doped Chinese with his head lolling into the room. Some of them raised their heads heavily as we approached, but at once let them sink again. It was a gruesomely horrible sight. They were simply dumped there to sleep off their intoxication. They might be robbed or murdered while they were in this state and know nothing about it. The whole scene resembled a baker’s shop with human loaves.

On now to a house of cards higher and higher, up into a room luxuriously furnished for strangers, cushions everywhere, and beside each cushion an opium pipe. And a Chinese, for payment, was ready to smoke a pipe on the spot while we watched him slowly succumb, rolling his eyes and twisting his limbs about. We were invited to smoke too but declined with horror. Next the theatre. Charming, but no play was being given. If it had been, no European would have been allowed among the audience. On again. Rats with long pigtails slunk nimbly and rapidly along the walls of the stinking street. Mahler said: “I can hardly believe that these are my brothers.”

On again. Small shops, small hotels, all silent. Finally, on the outskirts of this district we came on the habitat of a religious sect. There was a large hall at the far end of which sat a man with the face of a fanatic playing hymns on a harmonium in a pronouncedly whining style. The benches were occupied by a starving congregation. We were given the explanation. For listening to those hymns and joining in—a cup of coffee and a roll. What wretchedness in those faces! We pushed our way out, followed by hostile eyes, and for long afterwards we could still hear the flat notes of the hungry singers.

On again, and now the Jewish quarter. It was dark by this time. But here all was life and bustle, chaffering and shouting. The racial difference was staggering, but it was because the Jews worked day and night shifts to lose no time. The whole street was full from end to end of old clothes and rags. The air was heavy with the smell of food. I asked Mahler softly in his own words, “Are these our brothers?” He shook his head in despair.

With a sigh of relief we at last turned a corner and found ourselves in a well-lighted street among our own sort of people. Can it be that there are only class and not race distinctions?

Mahler’s music is so full of what would be known as folk and world music that his consternation is startling; can his success have made him so oblivious to his own background? And as ever, while trying to visualize the ethos of the time, we can only read this with later history in mind.

For more on Der Abschied, see also here and here. For more on Mahler in New York, and an ominous funeral, see Mahler 10.

 

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!”
—John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.”
—John Wilbraham (Jumbo) on Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (Noddy)

(For more orchestral nicknames, see here).

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,

“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”

“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.