Mahler 5 as you’ve never heard it

Mahler 5

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

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

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

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

A long and tedious work.

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

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

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

And the great Klaus Tennstedt in a recording from 1980:

And Claudio Abbado in 2004:

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

A recognition sextet, and more stammering

 

Sextet

To follow my Mozart opera dream:

Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.

The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:

A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:

But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):

* * *

The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!

Besides all the musical portrayals of disfluency that I mentioned in this post (including Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”), we can add Vašek in Smetana’s The bartered bride:

An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but

some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.

And the role of Dr Blind in Die Fledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.

 

Lyrics for theme tunes

 

A couple of ancient musical jokes—much shared online, but hey:

What does Batman’s mum call out when she wants him to come for his supper?

Dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner dinner Batman!

and

Where does the Pink Panther come from?

Durham (Durham, Durham Durham Durham Durham Durhaaaaaam)

(For UK and US variants, see comments below.)

For a more ambitious word setting for Berlioz’s March to the Scaffold, see here; and for a handy mnemonic for additive metres, here. For tributes to the artistry of theme tunes, see Pearl and Dean, Parks and recreation, Soap.

Köchel numbers

Bluff

Along with 1066 and all that and little-trumpeted works like The ascent of Rum Doodle and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, another classic from my youth is the slim tome

  • Bluff your way in music (1966).

Tactfully, the name of its author Peter Gammond is not disclosed. By “music” he means WAM, of course—HIP and “world music“, then only in their infancy, are spared, though folk music and jazz get succinct tributes. There is also a drôle Glossary, forerunner to many twee tea-towels—you know the kind of thing, like

  • Chamber music—music written for a very small number of listeners.
  • Development—what composers do with the melody in order to make a composition of decent length.
  • Exposition—the popular bit of a composition while the tune is still being played [see also Francis Baines‘s definition of sonata form].
  • Harmony—a term of no meaning whatsoever. Such phrases as “rich harmony”, “stark harmony”, “satisfying harmony” can be used indiscriminately.
  • Mode—scales which sound a bit odd.
  • Portamento—the ability to move from a wrong note to a right one without anyone noticing the original mistake.
  • Recitative—when an opera singer forgets the tune.

But my enduring memory of the book is:

Mozart had the distinction, as everyone knows, of writing Koechels instead of Opuses, a thing no other composer has done before or since. Mozart’s great popularity dates from the fact that this absorbing fact was discovered, by some strange coincidence, by a man called Koechel.

A post-concert gaffe

Many years ago, Maureen Smith was leading an orchestral concert in the north of England, at which the great clarinettist Tony Pay was playing.

After the gig Maureen was having a drink in the pub with some friends from the audience when Tony walked in, now in plain clothes, so she introduced them:

“Hey guys, this is Tony Pay—he plays the clarinet.”

One of them looked at him and went,

“Jeez, they could have done with you tonight!”

Tony likes to tell this story himself.

For other less-than-favourable reviews, see here and here. For many more stories from orchestral life, see here, and under the humour subhead of the WAM category.

 

The Tzar-spangled banner—diversity—female genius

 

I began writing this as another paean to the great Bill Bailey, to follow his greatest-ever love song (“soaking in the hoisin of your lies“), but it has soon turned into yet another tribute to diversity and female genius.

David Hughes (himself a prolific drôle songwriter as well as leading authority on Japanese music) thoughtfully alerts me to this (allegedly) Kremlin-sanctioned version of The star-spangled banner, which is becoming ever more topical:

See also “I think you’ll find—it’s MINOR!”

To return to the major (sung by a minor), this, from Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja (taking a rather different path from Alma Deutscher), is remarkable too:

They come over ‘ere…” See also And did those feet in ancient time?, and The haka.

While I’m here, how can I resist featuring another most inspiring viral clip—and do follow up with Katelyn Ohashi’s thoughtful blog and innumerable further links, like this and this—bearing on ecstasy and drudge, and the nature of artistic competition:

OK then, for a hat-trick of What Really Makes America Great:

For more, see here, and just about everywhere—don’t miss this documentary:

Do follow @AOC, the most articulate and engaged advocate for political change!

Yet more much-needed hope for our future… Call me a typical Grauniad-reading member of the metropolian liberal elite, but long may the likes of “Rear Admiral” Foley turn in their graves.

For another inspirational role model, see here.

Let me see now, what did I come in here for again?

Guide to another year’s blogging

 

Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!

 

 

A justly neglected composer

Somewhat less well known than Haydn and Beethoven is a composer immortalized in yet another Monty Python classic:

The final “of Ulm” is brilliantly chosen, the place-name both niche and monosyllabic (unlike “monosyllabic”).

Good to see Johann rescued from the obscurity that he so richly deserves (contrast Vernon Handley). His absence from the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians urgently needs correcting.

His name is reminiscent of a ritual title for a Daoist priest—like that of Zhang Daoling, handed down in the Li family (my book, pp.11–12; film, from 2.48):

IMG_1031 - Version 2

 

Ancestral Master,
Heavenly Worthy of the Grand Ritual
who Supports the Teachings of the Three Heavens,
Assists the Numinous,
and Embodies the Way.

 

 

Actually, that’s quite a succinct one: appellations to the Daoist gods, recited (mercifully fast, by contrast with the slow hymns) in the course of rituals, are lengthy (see.e.g. here), and ritual titles still handed down today to household Daoist priests in south China upon their ordination may be a mouthful too.

John Cleese’s interview technique is perhaps a less probing model for the fieldworker than that of Peter Cook.

All this long before Stewart Lee made a whole art form out of trying the audience’s patience.

Areas of expertise

 

 

Note: not quite to scale…

A true story to illustrate the parochial limitations of academic views of musical cultures of the world:

Way back in the days when ethnomusicology was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, a bright young expert on Korean music went to interview for a job at the Music Department of an English university. Besides his Korean speciality, he realized he should probably offer a wider course on East Asian music, to include China and Japan—a mere 3,000 years’ continuously-documented history of local folk, popular, and elite traditions.

The board politely commented that this was rather too limited, so he proposed he could do a yet broader course, on Asian music—further including south, southeast, and central Asia. Glancing at the map, these countries look quite small, don’t they—how hard can it be?

When they still felt this was too narrow, my friend asked, bemused:
“So what kind of courses have you been offering, then?”

The chair of the board eagerly replied:
“Well, last year we ran a very successful course on 19th-century English Art Song…”

 

For a similar debate at the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, see here. I often observe the diverse soundscapes within China alone, as here. For further drôle interview stories, see herehere, and now I come to think of it, here.

Creative tribulations

I don’t know what you see in that piano…

Further to Monty Python’s take on speech impediments, the process of artistic inspiration is not always smooth:

I’ve provided the subtitled version to allow us to practise our Spanish (cf. the Greek subtitles for Shoeshine Johnny).

The process of creativity is constantly mediated by—oops, better go, the chambermaid‘s just arrived.
Among many Monty Python clips on here, I think of the Sartre sketch, and the brilliant Away from it all.

A thrilling new sub-category!

tailgut

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

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

Musical self-defence

viola

Another orchestral story from 1970s’ London, not so much viola jokes and maestro-baiting as self-defence.

A senior conductor is rehearsing his own chamber orchestra—both have seen better days. There’s a tricky passage for the violas, so he gets the section to play it together without the rest of the band, but it’s still not sounding right.

Opting for the bold step of getting them to play it individually—a demand very much frowned upon—he eyeballs a trusty old player who’s been sitting innocuously at the back of the violas minding his own business since the dawn of time, and asks him imperiously,

“You, Norman—can you play this passage for me?”

Norman looks back at him and remarks dryly,

“Harry, if I could play this passage, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this orchestra…”

 

I can now divulge that this was the very same conductor who had the celebrated exchange with the timpani player. For a wealth of related stories, see here.

 

The Mary Celeste

A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:

Mary Celeste

Göttingen, mid-1980s. Concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).

We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *

But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.

Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:

“It was just like the Mary Celeste…”

Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.

tailgut

And here’s a related incident from the second half of a concert in Lübeck cathedral during the wonderful Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000, again being recorded:

I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.

I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.

Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.

My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted as I was by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness. Silver lining, then.

See also Muso speak: excuses and bravado, and the early music and humour subheads under the WAM category.

 

* If you like this kind of detail, then try my comments on the Daoist mouth-organ, and Carson’s on Irish music. If you don’t, then tough.

** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.

Mountweazels

guira
Further to the mondegreen, the mountweazel is also a fine creation—a bogus entry deliberately inserted in a reference work.

While I was editing the “China” entries for the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, I tried in vain to persuade the powers-that-be that a vast civilisation with a continuous history of thousands of years might just deserve as much coverage as a composer who lived for thirty-five years (Mozart; see also here). Anyway, what with all the labrynthine complexities of the Grove style “Bible”, one needs the occasional light relief (cf. the popular “composer or pasta?” quiz); and Grove now has a competition for spoof entries.

The 2016 winner was Caroline Potter:

Musical Cheesegrater
(Fr. râpe à fromage musicale; It. grattugia musicale)
A percussion instrument that enjoyed a brief vogue in Rome and Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification the instrument is reckoned as a friction idiophone. Of metal construction, it typically has four sides, each with raised perforations of a particular size. The player strokes one or more of the sides with a metal implement, producing a distinctive rasping sound. A rare rotating variant, where a perforated barrel is turned using a crankhandle to create friction against metal tangents, survives in the Musée de la Musique in Paris. The musical cheesegrater is cited in a posthumously published appendix to Luigi Russolo’s celebrated manifesto L’Arte dei rumori in the fourth category of his sound classification (screeches, creaks, rumbles, buzzes, crackles, scrapes). Its best-known use is in Maurice Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (1924), where it is rubbed with a triangle beater.

The musical cheesegrater was employed by Italian Futurist composers and associates of the Dada movement in Paris, and its popularity and decline mirrors the fortunes of these artistic groupings. The manuscript of Erik Satie’s Rabelais-themed Trois petites pièces montées (1919) features the instrument rubbed with a hard cheese, though scholars disagree whether Satie intended this to be a percussion instrument or part of a projected staging. Edgard Varèse showed enthusiasm for the musical cheesegrater during a dinner with Russolo; it appears in sketches for Amériques (1918-21), but not in the final version. Recent academic research in gastromusicology has revived interest in the instrument.

I’m gratified by the reference to the numinous Sachs–Hornbostel organological taxonomy, even if a whole host of stranger instruments appear there. So it’s of little consequence that just such an instrument is indeed used in several world traditions, such as the guiro/güira of merengue. Indeed, it brings to mind “our” very own washboard.

If it’s pithy organology you need, there’s also the vuvuzela.

 

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.

More musical criticism

Does anyone know who the composer in this story was?

Someone took a composer to hear an early British performance of Parsifal.* Asked what he thought of it, he replied,

“Well, it’s like the Brahms Requiem, only without the jokes.”

I have it down for some dour, ideally northern, English composer.

 

* The first staged performance was at Covent Garden on 2nd Februrary 1914.

 

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”.

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.

Nicknames

As Kate Fox observes, the creativity of the English language reveals itself at multiple levels.

The fragrant Gary Lineker recalls how the the team-mates of the footballer Kiki Musampa called him Chris (think about it). There are more where that came from, like Fitz Hall—known as One Size.

Brian Smith, a “straight” symphony-orchestra violinist who became a semi-detached admission to the rarefied early music scene in the 1980s, had a whole series of drôle nicknames for his new colleagues, making his conversation surreal: “I think Identikit’s gone off with Ironing Board”. Once word got round that I was making regular trips to China, I became The Missionary. He only used the real names of musos who had a life outside early music and thus qualified as Real People.

Conductors’ nicknames are another rich vein under the rubric of maestro-baiting. The great Charles Mackerras was known as Slasher—not an allusion to his conducting technique, but an abbreviation of his anagram: Slasher M. Earcrack.

Mein Gott

I’ve already offered one Crucifixion joke, and you can find more online. The devout may wish to look away now.

Musos often tell this one, a true story about a performance of the Matthew Passion in Bristol, and an extreme instance of corpsing. I’ll refrain from naming the performers, though I do rather feel they deserve to be immortalized rather than crucified (not a choice vouchsafed to Our Lord).

As the Jesus du jour (fortunately this was a scratch gig) wailed an anguished cry to his Father:

Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?

on declaiming the first cry of “Eli“, he spontaneously essayed an extra dramatic flourish by giving a resounding stamp with his foot. Finding the effect rather pleasing, he followed it up with another stamp on the second “Eli“.

This already had the other soloists, seated nearby, struggling to hold it together— it was even funnier considering that Jesus, up there on the cross, wasn’t exactly in a position to stamp his foot. But when it came to the evangelist’s turn to translate Jesus’s words (That is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to the same melody, for scrupulous accuracy of live reportage what else could he do except stamp again in his two equivalent cries of “Mein Gott“? The performers now totally lost it.
Lama 1

 

 

 

Lama 2

It strikes me that this may be even funnier the more deeply we engage with the anguish of the scene.

For good (or bad) measure, an encore of Always look on the bright side of life seems appropriate:

At such moments, it behoves me to stress that the Bach Passions are among the great monuments of Western civilisation…

Hector moves furniture

I’ve written about the Symphonie fantastique before—not least the wonderful Rozhdestvensky’s solution to conducting the opening (by not conducting it).

Apart from Berlioz’s prophetic evocation of a 1960s’ curry-house, another respect in which he was well ahead of his time is in his meticulously verité depiction of an irritating upstairs neighbour giving furniture-moving lessons** at 3 o’clock in the morning, just as the drama of the 1st movement is unfolding—an unwelcome interruption to the Rêveries-Passions of its title. You know, one of those disturbances you can’t quite be bothered to get out of bed for to bang your broom on the ceiling.

This touching domestic scene is economically evoked with a random series of little grunts in the double basses (from 12.00 in the recording below) punctuating little wind phrases in the brief lull after the first throbbing climax is interrupted (to evoke Susan McClary):

Berlioz moves furniture

Apart from John Eliot Gardiner’s rapport magnifique with French music, and the venue formidable, site of the première, [Uh-oh, he’s off again—Ed.], I use this 1993 version for the meretricious reason that I played a typically bijou role in it.

The fine Pete Hanson is leading. I can’t find the video on youtube at the moment, but we don’t look quite so young now—interrupted rêveries and passions can take their toll.

For Berlioz on oriental music, see here.

 

**Could Sir Malcolm himself have been among the pupils?

Critical reviews

I won’t have a word said against S-S-Simon Rattle.

But here’s one, by Alex Bruggemann (Die Welt am Sonntag, 2004), about a concert he gave with the Berlin Phil. Indeed, I found it posted with uncharitable glee on the notice board of the Chicago Symphony when we were doing a gig at Symphony Hall—our stay in Chicago another welcome opportunity to slope off to bars afterwards to hear some amazing blues.

I cite from the review not as an endorsement, you understand, but for the charm of the image:

While Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband.

No pleasing some people. It was just a phase they were going through.

A more inadvertent critique was offered by a Radio 3 announcer introducing Brahms’s Tragic overture:

We don’t know which particular tragedy Brahms had in mind when he composed this overture. … But here it is, conducted by Richard Hickox.

More orchestral drôlerie

As part of our ongoing series on the war of attrition between musos and conductors, not unlike the celebrated story about the opening of the Beethoven violin concerto:

During a rehearsal, as some tedious conductor insisted on honing the opening phrase of some symphony ad nauseam, making us repeat the first four bars for what seemed like hours, one player eventually piped up from the back:

“Excuse me Maestro—I believe bar 5 is rather good too!”

Note again the exemplary sarcastic deployment of the term Maestro.

More Chinese wordplay, and a poem

or
What’s in a name?

My Chinese name Zhong Sidi 鍾思第 was given to me by the great Tang-music scholar Yin Falu 荫法鲁 (1915–2002) at my first supervision with him during my 1986 study-period at Peking University.

“Zhong” approximates to my surname Jones; while itself a common surname, for me it has nice echoes of both ritual and music, evoking both Zhong Kui 鍾馗 the ugly drunken demon-queller (Ha!) and the woodcutter Zhong Ziqi 鍾子期, zhiyin soul-mate of qin zither master Bo Ya in the famous ancient story. And even Zhongli Quan 鍾離權, one of the Eight Immortals—a bit of a stretch, perhaps, since Zhongli is a rare double-surname (see here), but hey. Not to mention the huangzhong 黃鍾 and linzhong 林鍾 pitches of the ancient tonal system!

“Sidi” is short for “Sidifen”, a transliteration of “Stephen”.** Professor Yin chose the characters 思第, which in classical Chinese mean something like “mindful of advancement”—which is elegant but somewhat ironic, since I’ve always had enough of the hippy in me to mitigate against any worldly success (it never occurred to me that I might ever get a job, and sure enough I never did).

Without the bamboo radical at the top, the character di 弟 following the si would be a female name: “wanting a little brother”—one that peasants, disapppointed at having a daughter (yeah I know), do indeed sometimes adopt. And one cultural official in Yanggao, moved to write an article about my fieldwork there, somehow miswrote the character as 娣, with the female radical at the side. When I showed it to Li Manshan, we had another typical exchange:

Me: “WTF?! Doesn’t he know how to write my bloody name by now?”

Li Manshan (peering pensively at the character): “Maybe he thinks you’re a hermaphrodite…”

Anyway, as my interests soon transferred from early music history to living traditions of folk music, Yin Falu was remarkably tolerant of my frequent absences to go and hang out with peasants—as was Yuan Jingfang, my supervisor at the Central Conservatoire the following year. I’m also deeply grateful that Yin Falu introduced me early on to Tian Qing (then a lowly and impoverished research student!) and the Music Research Institute, beginning a fruitful long-term collaboration.

* * *

One of the most treasured gifts I’ve received is a scroll that the ritual association of South Gaoluo gave me in 1995 on the eve of my return to Europe (see my Plucking the winds, pp.236–8). They went to great trouble to have a piece of calligraphy made for me, which illustrates their ingenuity. First they “collectively” composed a poem, led by Cai Yurun and the urbane brothers Shan Ming and Shan Ling, most literate of the musicians. They then travelled to town to buy good-quality paper, went and found artistic Shan Fuyi (peasant xiucai litterateur, himself a great authority on the village history) in his work-unit and got him to do the calligraphy. To have the paper mounted, they then took the bus to Baoding, where they had a contact from Yongle village who had worked in the prestigious Rongbaozhai studio in Beijing. All this was a complex process, expressing their appreciation of our relationship.

GL scroll

The seven-word quatrain itself shows not only their literary flair but also their own perceptions of the significance of my fieldwork:

How rare the strains of ancient music
Gladly meeting the spring breeze, blowing is reborn
As the proper music of the ancient Chinese is transmitted beyond the seas
First to be praised is Stephen Jones

There are several charming puns here: in “blowing is reborn” (chui you sheng), “blowing” alludes to the breeze but also clearly to their wind music, and the “born” of “reborn” is homophonous with sheng 笙 the mouth-organ. The last line, impossible to translate, incorporates the device they had been seeking all along: the character di of my Chinese name Zhong Sidi is also an ordinal (as in diyi “first”, di’er “second”, and so on), so by playing with the caesura they managed to incorporate it into a meaningful phrase.

They couldn’t have thought of a better gift. I adore it, not for its flattery—foreigners in China are only too accustomed to receiving extravagant and groundless praise—but because they expressed their appreciation of our bond with such creative energy. In our everyday dealings, the musicians are all too used to me forestalling any incipient flattery by my favourite Chinese phrase, beng geiwo lai zheyitao 甭给我来这一套 “cut the crap”. This expression also comes in handy whenever someone is so sentimentally drunk that they, suddenly moved by the sheer fun of our fieldwork, rashly let out the awful Chinese cliché “international cultural exchange“.

My friends call me “Old Jonesy” (Laozhong 老钟), which is also a jocular way for Chinese people to refer to themselves (老中, for Zhongguo 中国 China) as opposed to laowai 老外 “foreigner”, even “Wog”. Laozhong then leads onto Naozhong 闹钟 “alarm clock”. (For nicknames in the music biz, see here.)

For Craig Clunas’s Chinese name, click here.

 

**Talking of transliterations of foreign names (see here and here), “Stephen” is conventionally rendered as 斯蒂芬. That last fen character is shared with Beethoven (Beiduofen 贝多芬), whose characters, following the brilliant (if controversial) gender analysis by Susan McClary, I like instead to render as 背多粪 “shouldering a load of shit”—“but that’s not important right now”.

Bach and Stravinsky

Useless musicological sleuthing of the day…

I like to think that I discovered this—on tour in Spain with the Sixteen, early 1990s:

The numinous opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring, rather than deriving from a folk melody on the elusive dudka, may instead be borrowed ingeniously from the Matthew Passion, 1st violin part in the 2nd orchestra (no.43, not long before Erbarme Dich):

Bach:Stravinsky

with Stravinsky varying Bach’s pitch and rhythms to his taste. Amidst the fray of the crowd scene, investing the phrase with inexplicable care, I always chuckle to myself, “Not a lot of people know that…” [Weirdo—Ed.].

A Bach mondegreen

WAM musos tend to pick up a smattering of what Peter Cook called The Latin. So in the spirit of Myles, we may interpret the fifth movement of the B Minor Mass thus:

Algernon was starving and scared as the van carrying gravy mix called round. The incident has been immortalized in many a baroque Mass:

Ate, in terror, Paxo minibus

Actually, like Un petit d’un petit, that’s a soramimi, not a mondegreen. Cf. Gandhi in Mary Poppins (I know, the italics don’t really make that sound any better.) For Sick transit, Gloria, Monday, see here.

Anyway, from ridiculous to sublime—a flippant pretext to extol the glories of Bach:

Et in terra

Not a lot of people know that Bach had a dog called Potentia. Hence the movement in the Magnificat:

Fetch it, Potentiam!

And this is perhaps a suitable place for “Most highly flavoured gravy”, a favourite remoulding of “Most highly favoured lady” by choristers Down the Ages: see here, with a link to Joseph Needham and Cambridge.

You can follow all this up with the mountweazel

A ruse for fiddlers

And when the fiddler is out of excuses, here’s a cunning ruse for orchestral players. Some background:

  • The violins sit two to a desk, following the same part on the stand. The inside player (on the left) has to turn the pages.
  • Walton overtures are fast and full of fiendishly difficult semiquavers.

So in my early days in symphony orchestras a seasoned old pro vouchsafed a handy trick to me:

If there’s a Walton overture coming up, the thing to do, Steve, is to make sure you’re sitting on the inside. You only have to hack out the first half-page—by the time you’ve whipped the page over and got your fiddle back up again, it’s time to turn the next page…

Muso speak: excuses and bravado

As I try to master more Bach on the erhu, suspending my disbelief, it’s good to be able to use the muso’s classic excuse

It was in tune when I bought it…

Also handy is

It’ll be all right on the night.

Or the immortal words (and notes) of Inspector Clouseau,

Better than ever!

That’s somewhat reminiscent of my Irish Heifetz story.

And then there’s the comment often on our lips after an underwhelming gig gets an inexplicable ovation:

Of all the concerts I’ve ever done in my life… that was one of them.

That’s remiscent of the quote (typically attributed to Groucho)

I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.

For more putdowns, see here.

I’ve also just found the clip from The Ladykillers to add to my post on studying the cello, so you can now enjoy Bernard Bresslaw’s delivery of the fine line

Well, I didn’t really study any place, Lady… I just sort of… picked it up.

The Proms, YAY

“Concerts” are a niche activity within the broad spectrum of music-making in human societies. Generally I find them a necessary evil, but with the festival of the Proms getting under way today (daily for the next two months), as usual I’m all agog (yes, a Complete Gog) for my favourite concert series.

Critical of concert halls too, I’m more than happy to settle for the Victorian setting of the Albert Hall—round buildings have a distinctive ambience, and the unique receptive atmosphere of the series is largely attributable to the Prommers in the Arena.

If you think my blog is mired between populism and elitism, then get this—WAM for Yoof:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mv2zh

That’s F hashtag minor, not A flat miner, you note.

 

The perils of the tannoy

Expanding our airline theme (Airplane has its own tag), here’s another classic—and apparently true—story handed down in the orchestral world:

On a long-haul flight, as the stewards* are serving refreshments, the captain makes the usual suave and tedious announcement. He then turns to his co-pilot, and—fatally—fails to realize that he hasn’t turned the tannoy off.

So the entire plane hears the captain’s next comment:

“Know what I could really do with right now? A cup of coffee and a blowjob.”

One of the, um, Trolley Dollies, realising the captain’s mistake, interrupts her serving of the drinks and hastily rushes back to the cockpit to alert him that he needs to switch the tannoy off. As she sashays down the aisle, one of the passengers calls out after her,

“Don’t forget the coffee!”

 

* Again, historical authenticity suggests that we use the term Trolley Dollies—in the teeth of PC, with which (I must reiterate) I entirely concur…

Subtle revenge

Prague opera

Another Strange But True story from my mentor Paul, again bearing on the surreal Czech imagination:

In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. Between performances the band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.

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.

Peccable musical sensibilities

I guess we should be grateful—nothing focuses the mind like having a vindictive sulky misogynistic illiterate baby as Philistine-in-chief in the White House. Some of his advisers were concerned that withdrawing from the climate agreement “might damage his credibility”. Where have they been?

Sure, we have worse things to worry about than his highly peccable aesthetic sensibilities, but they evidently developed early. In “his” 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:

In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.

I’d love to know more about this music teacher—just how little is it possible to know about music? Can it be that the young boy’s ire was caused by the inexplicable absence from the syllabus of the late Beethoven string quartets, which as we all know would later form his core listening?

But unseriously though folks, this is a fine spoof. I particularly love

bachs-goldberg-variations-1457709453

stravinskys-rite-of-spring-1457709448

barbers-adagio-for-strings-1457709451.jpg

Such is Trumpolini’s classical erudition that he should appreciate this fugue by “W.T.F. Bach” (lesser-known brother of P.D.Q.)—a must for your local choir:

Like Dudley Moore’s psalm, what makes this so brilliant is the incongruity between the juxtaposition of text and the solemn musical pastiche of baroque grandeur.

And if you think translating medieval Daoist texts is difficult, spare a thought for interpreters, trying to make sense of Tweety’s mangling of the English language. At least culona inchiavabile can be transformed into something even more evocative.

Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris (aka Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Disaster Weightloss Haircut Bullshit Wall-Spaffer Johnson) has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:

“How did he get out? I thought we packed him off to Bongo-Bongo Land.”

A fine turn of phrase

Simon

Further to my old theme of our irredeemably modern ears (and here), Simon Rattle,* on one of his early early-music outings with the Age of Enlightenment, was rehearsing Mozart with the band.

After one finely polished phrase, he stopped us and said admiringly,

“Wow! I’ve been waiting all my life to hear it played like that! … Anyway, now I’ve heard it, I don’t like it—can you just play it normally, please?!”

 

*As a stammerer, I hesitate (sic) to call him Sir Simon Rattle. As in the (real) line from a waggish Radio 3 announcer:

That was Sir Simon Rattle conducting Brahms’s 4th symphony. Next week’s guest conductor is M-Mark Elder.

But I now learn from Felix Warnock, encyclopedic authority for orchestral stories, that this line goes back to Symphony Hall in Birmingham, when both the CBSO and the Hallé were rehearsing on the same day for separate concerts. At the stage door, bumping into an old colleague he hadn’t seen for some time, one muso asks another,

“Hey! Are you here for Sir Simon?”

So the other one goes,

“No, I’m here for M-Mark!”

Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie

In our daily badinage on orchestral tours of the US of A in the Good Old Days, we got into the habit of handing over to each other by imitating CNN’s signalling style:

And they say there could be more revelations to come. Wolf.

[Wolf Blitzer, [1] of course, was an “anchor”. Considering that Britannia Rule the Waves (just dig that funky optative verb there, folks—”You Wish”, as the Argot of Yoof [2] would have it), it’s curious how we don’t much go in for anchors. [3]  I guess we consider them beneath us…]

Rather like my teacher Paul’s empirical use of classifiers, we interpreted it as a fixed signoff at the end of every sentence, which led us to:

I thought the Adagio was really too slow last night. Wolf.

I’m starving. Let’s go eat. [4] Wolf.

Usually, rather than an interrogative (“Wolf?”), it’s declaimed confidently in the matter-of-fact descending fourth tone.

It does seem wise to keep such signals simple:

On stage at the end of a concert, among ourselves we would also adopt the brilliant casual signoff,

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

This works particularly well after an obscure or meditative work. Like:

Join us next time for another wacky episode of Ockeghem’s Marian Antiphons!

For an equally zany intro for such pieces, see here; and PDQ Bach is also essential listening. Wolf.

 

[1] OK, we Brits have our own proud tradition of silly names, but American names are in a class of their own. Following the credits at the end of a Hollywood movie is like reading an avant-garde poem, plunging into an exotic cornucopia containing all the cultures of the world. Though if Tweety has anything to do with it, there will be no more films, no more culture, no more world. Nothing, as Stewart Lee observes.

[2] The Argot of Yoof: a popular media pub, always packed at lunchtime. Near the somewhat quieter Aardvark and Climbing Boot.

[3] Unless you count Piers Morgan, who tries unsuccessfully to lose the initial W.

[4] For me at least, there’s an illicit thrill in uttering the formulation “go eat”. Similarly for “Can I get” instead of “May I have”—a quick web search reveals mainly  the usual pompous British indignation yearning for ethnic purity, though one writer suggests rather elusively that “Shakespeare probably would have loved it” (as in the little-known line from Romeo and Juliet: “Can I get a Diavola and a supersize Coke to go?”). Can I get or May I have, that is the question. See also my thoughts on “Who is this?”.

Oh and that’s a bad miss

As Ronnie glides into the second week of the snooker, it’s also worth tipping our notional hats to the erudite commentators (themselves veteran performers, unlike most scholars of, um, Daoist ritual), full of brilliant detail on both the mechanics and psychology of the event—like good ethnographers (there I go again).

Not quite like this:

In WAM concerts, such detailed information is relegated to a printed programme, and unable to respond to the incidents of performance. This is remedied by PDQ Bach (in a live version of his classic radio show and LP):

And actually it’s a highly instructive way of listening…

My favourite BTL comment there:

Is it joke?

A tribute to Francis Baines

Baines concert

Cartoon of Francis by Gerard Hoffnung, 1958.

This week at the Cadogan Hall (among few London concert buildings that I find conducive), luminaries of the early music scene assembled to pay homage to the late great Francis Baines (1917–99) in a concert of music reflecting his wide-ranging tastes.

All-round eccentric and bon viveur, Francis was a true renaissance man, on double bass (sometimes deposited in left-luggage at Victoria because he couldn’t get it onto his barge), viols, hurdy-gurdy, and as composer. Despite being in constant demand on the professional scene, he was a true amateur at heart, a servant of music almost like an ashiqa dervish whirling with his bass.

From the late 1970s, as the early music world became ever more polished, fragrant, and marketable—the inevitable transition from “knit your own yogurt” to Chanel No. 5 (see also here)—one might imagine him finding his amateur ideal going against the tide, yet being both pragmatic and other-worldly, it never cramped his style. He always maintained a sense of both mischief and awed discovery.

He is also lovingly remembered in a beautiful book Francis Baines: musician of several parts, with reminiscences, both moving and hilarious (including more fine maestro-baiting stories), from a variety of egregious musicians—a contribution to the ethnographic history of musical life in 20th century Britain.

I’ll limit myself to one story from the book:

Nimbus recording session sometime in the 1980s. Mozart symphonies, Hanover band. Complete takes of whole movements being the modus operandi of this recording company, the rather inexperienced producer emerged from the box to report back on the first take. He said something along the lines of

“It started off well, and then became a bit confused and not so clear in the middle, but towards the end it got better and finished well.”

Francis piped up:

“I believe it’s what they call sonata form.”

Early bird

Two classics from the touring musos’ repertoire:

A trumpeter has enjoyed a convivial night out after a gig. Staggering back to his hotel in the small hours, he manages to recall that the band has an early flight, so (congratulating himself on his clear-headed practicality) he walks unsteadily up to the receptionist and asks her in suave yet slurred tones,
“I say, would you be so kind as to book me an alarm call for 6.30?”
“Certainly sir,” she replies. As he staggers off she calls after him,
“Um—you do know it’s 6.45?”

And one about another trumpeter:

After a gig in New York, he’s fast asleep when the phone rings.
A jaded voice drawls,
“Did you book a wake-up call?”
“Oh, um… yeah.”
“Have you had it yet?”
“Er… No.”
“Well, WAKE UP.”

Cf.

The early bird gets the worm. But the second mouse gets the cheese.

An orchestral classic

Gary

Gary Kettel.

À propos orchestral humourStewart Lee does a typically labyrinthine riff giving the old sardine joke his signature going-over:

Loath as I am to spoil the fun, in the WAM biz where people used to employ me, this story is famously attributed to the master-percussionist and all-round piss-artist Gary Kettel.

A hooliganesque Cockney, Gary was What They Call “a breath of fresh air” in the staid orchestral scene. During Boulez’s années dorées at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducting many challenging works, he much admired Gary’s musicianship, and they formed a charming and unlikely bond (see this story).

The version of the sardine joke handed down to posterity in the orchestral biz (which beyond Gary’s own recollections has some further effective, if fanciful, detail) goes like this:

Once (this must have been in the mid-70s) he was on tour in South America with the London Sinfonietta, doing the, um, challenging Eight Songs for a Mad King.

So Gary’s at this fancy British Council reception after the gig in Buenos Aires or somewhere, getting quietly pissed in a corner on his own, and this posh bird comes up to him and goes,

“I say, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced—weren’t you playing in the concert? I did so enjoy your delightful rendition of that charming work!” [that’s a nice touch, by the way, if you know the piece, “but that’s not important right now”].
“Do please remind me,” she goes on, “what was it you were playing?”

“Oh, I fool around a bit on the drums, luv,” goes Gary—”So wot you doin’ ‘ere then?”

“I’m here with my husband.” she replies loftily.

Gary goes on, chummily, “An’ wot does your old man do then, darlin’?”

“My husband’s in oil!” she exclaims, proudly.

Gary goes, “What is he, a fuckin’ sardine?”

I like the details here. And the punchline is a good instance of the importance of the word “fuckin’ ”—not least for rhythm and euphony. The story also reflects musos’ own delight in “deviating from behavioural norms”.

Keen as I am on the ancestry of texts (my book ch.11), just as one does in exploring the relation and transmission of Daoist texts (well, I say “one”…), I wonder: Gary’s not sure, but could he have heard it from Tom O’Connor, or did they both get it from someone else, and so on (zzz)?

The Tom O’Connor version is less personal and less funny—which is precisely what makes it a suitable victim for Stew to mangle, a banal ground-bass lying prone for his endless florid divisions, a Goldberg variations from hell…

For further detail, see How I escaped my certain fate, pp.257–69—by now tuned into the De Selby footnotes in The third policeman, (and here), you will find further verbose and erudite annotations there too.

For another reception story, see here, on George Brown pissed at a reception in Peru.

Concert etiquette, and auditions

À propos Ravel’s Piano concerto for the left hand: two-handed pianists soon got in on the act, though how to occupy the spare hand must take some thought. In This Day and Age one imagines young pianists saying,

“You know what’s so great about the concerto? You can text your mates while you’re playing it!”

<OMG GUESS WHAT I’M DOING LOL>

Alternatively one could wear a boxing glove on the right hand, or a glove puppet, making suitably cute gestures to reflect the changing moods.

In Certain Quarters such behaviour might go down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.

Conversely, watching people texting with two thumbs, I think of the mbira.

While we’re on deficiencies in the limb department, apart from the one-legged men in The third policeman, this classic audition springs to mind (Tarzan, “A role that is traditionally associated with…”):

LOOK!

Here’s another true story, that Andrew Manze told me at Chicago airport on a 2003 US tour, rendering me helpless throughout the flight and well into the rehearsal:

A renowned Swedish avant-garde trombone soloist (hmm—take your pick) is doing a concerto in Helsinki. He arrives at his hotel the day before the gig, and when he goes for a pee in his bathroom, the loo doesn’t flush. Same happens again after the rehearsal, so he thinks, I must tell them at reception to get it fixed. But he doesn’t get round to it.

Next morning the loo flushes OK, so he thinks no more of it. But just before going off to the gig, he has a spectacular pre-concert dump, and sure enough the loo again fails to flush. As he’s leaving his room to set out for the concert hall, all dressed up in his penguin suit, he notices a chambermaid outside. So he gestures to her to follow him into his bathroom, points theatrically to the massive turd floating unrepentantly in the bowl, summons up one of his few words of Finnish: “LOOK!”, and pushes the handle as if to flush it.

It flushes.

Yet more conducting

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22.29) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique:

“I simply invited them to begin”

and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor (or “semi-conductor“, to use Norman Lebrecht’s term) was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:

“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”

Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

“I didn’t get where I am today by…” soon became another musos’ snowclone.

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.

 

Studying the cello

“People often say to me…”

When I am asked how I came to play the violin, I’m inclined to cite The Ladykillers (1955):

As the gang is plotting their robbery, posing as a string quintet while they play a recording of the Boccherini Minuet, sweet little old Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) takes them by surprise, so to maintain the deceit they have to hurriedly pick up their instruments (which they can’t actually play). The magnificently obtuse One-round (Bernard Bresslaw) is clutching a cello like a sledgehammer:

Mrs Wilberforce: “May I ask you where you studied?”

One-round: “…Well, I didn’t really study any place, Lady… I just sort of… picked it up.”

I still can’t help thinking of this whenever I hear that minuet.

Intonation

Another maestro-baiting story about an unnamed conductor:

Rehearsing an orchestra, the conductor stops them after a complex wind chord and glares at the second oboist: “You there—that note was out of tune!”

Unabashed, the oboist retorts, “OK then maestro… so was it sharp, or was it flat?”

Floundering, the conductor goes, “It was sooo out of tune, I couldn’t tell!”

Viola jokes and maestro-baiting

Cottrell

  • Stephen Cottrell, Professional music-making in London: ethnography and experience (Ashgate, 2004)

takes a proud place among studies of more “exotic” cultures in the splendid SOAS Musicology series. Complementing the work of Bruno Nettl and Christopher Small, as well as Ruth Finnegan’s classic The hidden musicians, it strikes many a chord with my work on Chinese ritual groups.

As I noted under WAM, it’s not that Western cultures, of any kind, should be a benchmark for discussing other societies; to the contrary, it’s fruitful to integrate them into a “Martian” view of world cultures, wearing both emic and etic hats. Many of Cottrell’s themes resemble those that an ethnographer like me would explore in studying Daoist ritual specialists:

  • The practical aspects of earning a living
  • The importance of “on the job” training, sociability, and oral/aural experience in what seems like a narrowly text-based tradition.
  • The importance of timbre (44–55), little theorized even in WAM but quite prominent for the qin, deserves recognition in Daoist ritual and shawm bands.
  • His account of “depping” (pp.57–76) augments the parallel that I draw for household Daoists (Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.319–26), not least the insecurity of the freelance living—and it’s fascinating to read (Cottrell p.60) an account of depping from 1760s’ Britain.
  • The modification of dreams: the tensions or discord between early training and ideals (based on solistic individualism and creativity) and the delicate social/practical negotiations, frustrations, and grinding routine of professional orchestral life (42–4, 103–21; cf. also Scunthorpe and Venice, and Ecstasy and drudge); personalities and crisis management within an ensemble (89–90). I should add that household Daoists, as hereditary (almost ascriptive) artisans, don’t experience such a conflict, never setting out with such a spiritual ideal; but the practical exigencies of occupational routine are shared. Here I also think of Yang Der-ruey’s study of the changing training of Shanghai temple Daoists. Cottrell cites a telling comment:

We’re artisans rather than artists. What an orchestral musician is doing is taking someone else’s creative idea which they put down as dots on paper and actually turning it into sound. So we’re more like bricklayers—the architect would do the plan and then they actually put the bricks into place.

  • And his dissection of the performance event, subsuming ritual, theatre and play (149–82)—continuing from Small’s account, about which he expresses reservations. He observes diversity within the audience and in their responses (159–64)—a feature that for Chinese ritual is clearly germane, not only today but even in (supposedly more homogenous) pre-Liberation society.
  • Cottrell’s discussion of myth and humour (123–47), citing Merriam’s paradigm of low status, high importance, and deviant behaviour—“licence to deviate from behavioural norms” (137, cf. 143)—often reminds me of the Li band (cf. my book p.23); one might also think of other embattled freelancers like actors (“luvvies”). Like household Daoists, musicians are poorly paid. I might add that muso humour (particularly that of the classical muso—or the ritual specialist?!) further serves both to defuse pressure and to deflate pretension. A lot of our stories immortalize hooligan behaviour on tour. Such deviant behaviour—or at least deviant self-image—is a kind of “No, I won’t be a paragon of elite culture for you”, however childish.
  • Good too to see Cottrell drawing attention to “conductor-baiting”—better described as “maestro-baiting” (cf. his discussion of musos’ sarcastic use of the term maestro, p.139), recounting the famous story “You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!” (135–6) (for variations, see my post on Visual culture). He attributes it to Celibidache, but I’ve heard it about Böhm (both are perfect candidates!); and outside the orchestral context it is usually attributed to director Michael Curtiz. Conductors are an authority figure par excellence. Here’s another story about George Szell:

Talking to Peter Gelb, General Director of The Met, someone was defending Szell against the charge of being a bully, remarking “Of course Szell is his own worst enemy”—to which Gelb replied “Not while I’m alive he isn’t”.

  • He cogently discusses viola jokes (131, 136, 142, 144–6)—for which whole websites have arisen, of course. In Plucking the winds (p.233) I cited this one:

What two things have the Beatles got in common with the viola section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra?
Most of them are still alive; and they haven’t been together since the 1960s.

This dates from a time in the 1980s when at least the first part of the punchline was more applicable; though still funny, the joke now has an added period charm (cf. Musical joke-dating). I’ll limit myself to one more:

What’s the difference between a viola player and a supermarket shopping trolley?
The trolley’s got a mind of its own.

Anyway—in all, such ethnographic enquiry is routinely applied to all kinds of world societies, and scholars of Daoist ritual can of course learn much from studies of the “usual suspects” like south Asia or Africa. But it may be stimulating for us to see such approaches applied to an apparently familiar (prestigious? literate?) culture that is easily taken for granted. As with the “great composers” myth, reified ancient Daoist texts can also somehow be taken for granted, tending to dominate scholarly attention at the expense of real changing social performance and experience.

See also Mozart in the jungle.

Just a harmless bit of fun

mp

Only more serious scholars of the Python oeuvre may be aware of the LP Another Monty Python Record (1971), packaged as “Beethoven Symphony No.2 In D Major”.

The album contains some of the great classics (Spanish Inquisition, Spam, and so on)—”But That’s Not Important Right Now“. Here I’d like to highlight its “serious” liner notes on the back, which eventually degenerate into a commentary on Beethoven’s Wimbledon debut.

After a lengthy and erudite account of the composer and the symphony, little comments begin to slip in inconspicuously:

The important part of the first subject is Beethoven’s almost disdainful use of the high lob, forcing Hewitt to play right up to the net.
[…]
In all the Allegro is a compact and closely argued musical proposition, which would have been impossible on a hard court.
[…]
The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun”…
[…]
Beethoven now goes on to Forest Hills for the American hard court championships, and if this boy can repeat the devastating lobbying and volleying which he has shown on grass, but at the same time control his tendency to swing away on his second service and backhand returns, he could earn his position as No.2 seed behind the burly Roger Chopin of Puerto Rico.

For creative tribulations, see here; and for a justly neglected composer, here

Scunthorpe and Venice

Further to my reminiscences of The Li band in Italy (and my book pp.334–7),

We board another train to carfree and carefree Venice, where we have four wonderful days. We are staying—virtually alone—at the splendid hostel on the tranquil Isola San Giorgio, home of the majestic Cini Foundation, gazing across the water at San Marco. In the evening we take the vaporetto for our first meal at the excellent trattoria Il Giardinetto. This sure beats doing a Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea, as we London musos say.

In the spirit of the sinological footnote, the precise version goes like this:

A fixer calls us up and goes, “Hi—can you come and do a Messiah next Monday night in Scunthorpe? There’s no fee, but there’ll be a jolly good tea.”

For more on Venice, see here. Oh, and here. Not forgetting Monty Python’s sublime guide. For unlikely place-names to find in the index of a book on Daoist ritual, see here.

A flat miner

That, of course, is the punchline to

What do you get if you drop a piano down a mine shaft?

Chords

Among classical musos this is a popular story, whose own punch-line often crops up in rehearsals:

A burly murderer, sentenced to life, is doing his Grade V Music Theory in prison. The well-meaning Associated Board examiner (a perfect part for Michael Palin, surely – not that he exactly needs the work) shows up, and goes through all the exam questions nervously in a little room, seated at the piano with the prisoner standing at his side.

It’s all going rather well till they get to the last question, where the candidate has to identify chords. The examiner says pleasantly,
“Now I’m just going to play you a chord—and I’d like you, if you would be so kind, to tell me if it’s a major or a minor triad!”

and plays a major triad with an encouraging smile. The prisoner looks at him dourly and grunts,
“It’s minor”.

The examiner smiles nervously and says,
“Now I’ll just play it again and see what you think…”
Prisoner goes “It’s minor”.
Examiner, with ever more desperate encouragement: “Ah yes, very good… now I’m just going to play it One More Time, and this time I’d like you to pay attention to that teeny little note in the middle—see whether you find it a little on the low side, or is it, perhaps, rather, um, somewhat high, and bright, and happy…?”

The prisoner walks over to the piano, puts his huge gnarled hand on the examiner’s puny corduroyed shoulder, and says slowly and severely,

“I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

Often in rehearsal when there is discussion of the appropriate continuo chord in a figured bass line, we all snowclone in chorus, “I Think You’ll Find—it’s MINOR!”

For F hashtag minor, see link here; and for a music lesson from Bill Bailey, here.