A Beatles roundup


Under the Beatles tag in the sidebar are several posts on particular albums, based on the insightful comments of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online: see his guide to the whole series, as well as a useful overview by Ger Tillekens). I began writing what turned into a series in non-chronological order, so now I’ve tried to re-edit them more logically, with this as the introductory post.

From the age of ten—though with my sheltered, genteel, classical upbringing I was quite immune to a lot of pop music—I avidly spent my pocket-money on the early Beatles singles and EPs. In my book Plucking the winds I reflected on the stark contrast between the lives of my village friends under Maoism and my own tranquil upbringing:

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

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

* * *

Wilfrid Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music. And with his book Twilight of the gods: the Beatles in retrospect, published in 1973, quite soon after the Beatles had disbanded, he was among the pioneers of taking pop music seriously. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do, although for them the Beatles  seemed more palatable candidates for admission to the elite club than many popular and folk genres.

Clearly, popular music is not dependent on such complex skills for its efficacity; but neither are folk or art musics. Many, even most, popular songs (e.g. Country: “three chords and the truth”), making use of a more limited technical palette, can make a deep effect individually, without the verbose sanction of the metropolitan elite and all our fancy analytical vocabulary. In his Preface Mellers qualifies his approach:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So some may still find it redundant to analyse such works that are so widely appreciated on an intuitive level, but For What It’s Worth, Mellers’ analysis reveals the great artistry of the Beatles. Actually, such are the riches of their creativity that his discussion could be far more extensive—covering their whole ouevre, Twilight of the gods only has space for eleven pages on Abbey road, for instance. Others, notably Pollack, have taken analysis further.

Great as the songs on the other albums are (and Revolver has been much praised), I still find Sgt Pepper and Abbey road most cohesive as orchestral song-cycles (for wonderful examples of which, see here), like unstaged operas—whether or not they were designed as such. So whereas I can select some individual songs in the earlier LPs, in discussing these final masterpieces I have to give them all equal weight in the total effect.

* * *

So here’s a roundup of my main posts:

In his page on Here, there, and everywhere Pollack makes a wonderful observation:

I save my favorite free association, this time, for last. Now, this song is characterized by the following gesture that opens each verse: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent in the tune, as in—”Here (pause) making each day of the year …”

He lists other songs by Paul that share this feature:

  • Listen (pause) do you want to know a secret
  • Eleanor Rigby (pause) picks up the rice
  • Day after day (pause) alone on a hill
  • Hey Jude (pause) don’t make it bad
  • Hold me tight (pause) tell me I’m the only one
  • Honey pie (pause) you are making me crazy
  • The long and winding road (pause) that leads to your door
  • Michelle (pause) ma belle
  • Oh darling (pause) please believe me
  • Try to see it my way (pause) do I have to keep on talking
  • Look (pause) what you’re doing
  • When I call you up (pause) your line’s engaged
  • Yesterday (pause) all my troubles seemed so far away.

The vocal melodies and harmonies of the Beatles, and their technological innovations, are so entrancing that one may underestimate their instrumental skills. So I may also mention pleasingly technical discussions of their guitar technique, such as this and this.

* * *

In his final chapter, “Elegy on a mythology”, Mellers reflects on the whole trajectory of Beatle music, pondering on the relationship between music and myth.

As pop musicians they are simultaneously magicians (dream-weavers), priests (ritual celebrants), entertainers (whiling away empty time), and artists (incarnating and reflecting the feelings—rather than thoughts—and perhaps the conscience of a generation). If this multiplicity of function is a source of much semantic confusion, both on the part of the Beatles themselves and of those who comment on them, it is also a source of their strength.

He observes

Only in a very partial sense can we dismiss the teenager’s orgiastic dancing as a tipsy escape from the hard realities of life. On the contrary, as compared with the romantic unreality of the previous generation’s ballroom dancing (which is in turn related to the fairy-tale myth of classical ballet), one might rather describe teenage dance as practical and functional in Collingwood’s sense: an inchoate attempt to rediscover the springs of being.

On revivalist movements he cites Mary Douglas, who notes that

it is not quite true that effervescence must either be routinised or fizzle out. It is possible for it to be sustained indefinitely as a normal form of worship.

Mellers goes on,

The magical-religious and the art-entertainment functions of Beatle music don’t cancel each other out; they do, however, in their interrelationship, contain an element of equivocation: which is part of the Beatles’ “representative” fascination.

He returns to Collingwood, citing his distinction between hedonistic amusement (entertainment) and utilitarian magic. And he disposes of red herring of the profit-motive. He stresses:

To deplore the illiteracy of the Beatles—or of any pop or jazz group—is nonsensical: for the essence of their achievement is that it is a return from literate and visual to aural and oral culture.

He considers their creative process (cf. Unpacking “improvisation”); however important the contribution of George Martin, he recognised himself as an intermediary. And

if they guffaw at intellectuals (like me) who discover “hidden meanings” in their songs, they’ve given plenty of evidence that these meanings are not hidden at all but merely, like 80% of the meaning in all art, in part unconscious.

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

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

Like the audiences of Bach and Mahler, we didn’t know how lucky we were… But beyond any personal identification with the zeitgeist that the Beatles express, all this is significant not only because of the Beatles’ central place in modern Western culture, but in view of the whole incorporation of popular culture into our perspectives on musicking around the world

Given my whole argument about society and soundscape, I’m aware of the irony of my celebrating “great works” mostly created in the recording studio without an audience. So I’d like to stress again that stunning as all this artistry is, efficacity, generally, doesn’t depend on complexity, or on narrative development; not only does the logical flow of Indian raga or Messiaen work within very different parameters, but more static sound-worlds are also valid—such as punk, Northern soul, Aboriginal songsNote also What is serious music?!

Native American cultures 1

More from Bruno Nettl—and the Blackfoot


In a Piegan lodge: Yellow Kidney (left) and his father Little Plume inside a lodge, pipe between them (Edward Curtis, c1900, Library of Congress). In a later version, Curtis erased the clock in the centre; by now, I suspect some anthropologists might even add it.

Learning about the disturbing story of Grassy Narrows reminded me at last to delve modestly into Native American ritual and musical cultures. [1]

Like ethnic minorities within the PRC, such groups are a much-favoured subject for fieldworkers (“The typical Indian family includes a father, a mother, three children, and an anthropologist”). Meanwhile the popular imagination easily reduces such cultures to an Exotic Other, sweeping social issues under the carpet—further compounded by New Age flapdoodle (cf. dervishes, Tibetan singing bowls).

Fortunately, changing Native American cultures have long been the subject of serious academic study. Their musics were among the major focuses of the great Bruno Nettl, and besides his dedicated monographs, for a novice like me in this vast field his The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions makes a cogent and eminently readable introduction, the fruit of his long engagement with Native American groups—notably the Blackfoot, his long-term fieldwork project—recurring as illustrations within his topics illuminating global musicking. So here I’ll assemble some of Nettl’s most pertinent insights (cf. Iran: chamber music and Heartland excursions).

Here’s a very basic map:

Map N. America

I’ll begin with a passage from Chapter 31, “Second thoughts: some personal disclosures”, where Nettl notes that our own ideas can and should be revised—such as concepts about the simplicity and complexity of “folk” and “art” musics (pp.455–8; for China, see e.g. my own Dissolving boundaries):

Fundamentally, around 1950 the principal distinction between the music of indigenous societies (then called “primitive”) and “art” (or “cultivated”) music involved intellectualisation. Indigenous music, it was thought, didn’t have ideas about the technicalities of music, while art music (in Europe but also in the so-called high cultures of Asia) was based on complex theoretical systems. Essentially, this is what my teacher George Herzog taught, although in one article, “Music in the thinking of the American Indian”, he contradicts this view. But it’s significant that this (actually very interesting) article is extremely short and appeared in an obscure periodical, in contrast to Herzog’s several major works on Native American musics of the 1930s, which appeared in major journals and were often quite voluminous but said virtually nothing about the ideas about music held by Indians. He analysed the songs and showed that structurally they were often moderately interesting. I have to confess that for a long time, this made sense to me. Societies that had been nonliterate, learned songs orally, had no formalised music teaching—they couldn’t, it seemed to me, have much in the way of a system of ideas about music.

Well, by now I think the opposite. The styles of Native American songs are certainly very interesting but hardly very complex, but in my experience the Blackfoot people, for example, didn’t seem to think that the structure was worthy of much attention. To them, Western music—which they called “white” music—now that was complicated music. One had to know a lot to perform it, including reading music and understanding harmony. But white people, some Blackfoot singers told me, didn’t think very deeply about their own music, they only enjoyed its sound.

The Blackfoot people, I discovered from a good many interviews and observations but also from reading older ethnographies and examining myths, actually had (maybe used to have) a very complex system of ideas about music. […] For one thing, music was a reflection, a kind of counterpart, of the whole of life. The most important myth about the origin of the Beaver medicine bundle, perhaps the most fundamental ceremony [see also pp.257–8], told how each animal or bird had its own song and its supernatural power. The right way to do something is to sing the right song with it; everything has its song. A man would expand his musical knowledge by having repeated visions in which he learned songs and by moving through a series of age-grade societies, each of which had its songs. The old man, the most respected, was also the one who had learned the most songs. And further, songs are like objects [!]: they can be given, traded, bought, inherited—though just what constitutes the identity of a song is not totally clear—and as a result, it is believed that songs cannot be divided, or changed.

These are the kinds of things that show that indigenous peoples do indeed have complicated ideas about music and about the role of music in culture. I certainly had to change my mind about that, moving from an image of indigenous peoples as having songs but no ideas about them to one of peoples whose systems of ideas about music gives you far more insight into the culture than merely listening to the songs. […]

These thoughts led me to consider Native American music more broadly. It’s the music with which I’ve been concerned longest, and early on two things struck me as significant, things that were generally accepted in the scholarly literature up to that time. One was that in each society or nation, there is one dominant musical style. These musical styles were grouped in somewhat homogeneous areas, each one geographically delimited; these areas correlated somewhat with culture areas, and somewhat with areas determined by language relationships, but they did not follow either—how shall I say it—slavishly. And second: many Native nations had a number of songs that were simpler than the rest—game songs, songs in stories, lullabies—and were pretty much alike throughout the continent. From this, one was led to believe, there could be reconstructed a kind of broad history of Native American music, in which an old, homogeneous layer of simple songs that all people shared was followed by a layer of styles that correlated somewhat with language and culture, and this was followed by individual and unique developments in each nation, representing relatively recent events.

I’ve come over the years to realise that this is a very simplistic approach. Let me fast-forward to the past couple of decades in which I’ve begun to think that if there is “a” history, it might have been quite different. We’re becoming increasingly aware of the complexity of many Native cultures before 1492. The advanced state of agriculture, which developed many plant foods that were then taken up and became staples in Europe, and the large cities in the Andes and Mexico, but also in what is now the United States, such as the metropolis of Cahokia near present-day St Louis—these suggest cultures whose social, religious, and economic structures matched their European and Asian counterparts, and so did the size of their populations. I find it hard to imagine that they didn’t have music consisting of long compositions with complex structures, perhaps polyphonic, performed by large groups of singers and percussionists and other instruments. Perhaps there was court music, and surely mass ceremonials. To be sure, we have no evidence of notation or complex melody-producing instruments. And we can’t talk about musical styles except in terms of 20th-century Native music. If we imagine that Cahokia had music with complex styles, we have no idea what it sounded like. […]

And it’s not as if the contemporary Native cultures we do know about didn’t have some pretty complicated music, especially when it comes to architectonic structure. I think of the song cycles of southeastern nations, of Pueblo peoples, of the Navajo, of Peyote songs of the Kiowa. But instead of seeing these as a kind of apex of Native American musical creativity, I would now like to think of them as the remnants of what may once have been a more complex musical culture—or cultures. […]

These ideas relate to some hypotheses recently promulgated by Joseph Jordania and also Victor Grauer, proposing that relatively complex music—polyphonic singing, in Grauer’s approach—was once more widespread in indigenous societies than it is now, suggesting to me that while many of the world’s musical cultures have moved to increasingly complex systems, the opposite—simplification, abandonment of complex structures—might, for a variety of reasons, be another type of development. Anyway, I’ve had second thoughts; the typical history of a society’s music may not be unidirectional at all.

In Chapter 19, as a prelude to his useful taxonomy of musical change in world societies, Nettl speculates on the more recent history of indigenous groups (p.282):

Our understanding of change in the past in indigenous and folk societies is extremely limited. But as an example, trying a bit of reconstruction and conjecture, let us see in a bit of detail what can be know or at least conjectured of the Plains Indians before about 1800CE, noting conditions parallel to some of those characterising the modern world. It is difficult to know when things happened in the history of the Plains Indians, but we know at least that certain things did happen. At some point, probably in the period between 1000 and 1500, a number of peoples from diverse areas collected in the western Plains. Their diverse origin is attested by the diversity of languages. In various ways, the area began to be culturally unified. Travel began to be widespread, related to the nomadic lifestyle adopted in part because of the horse. […] Relatively dramatic changes thus seem to have taken place, and we have in microcosm evidence of some of the characteristics of 20th-century world culture: technology, suddenly improved by the introduction of the horse and other indirect acquisitions from the whites; increased intertribal communication; a unified religious system overlaying more individual tribal traditions; and no nation-states, but a unified culture that led to tribal allegiances and intertribal languages, such as sign language and the widespread use of Lakota and, eventually, of English.

The evidence is extremely scanty, but there is a bit of an indication that rapid musical change accompanied or immediately followed this development. The geographic distribution of the so-called Plains musical style indicates rather recent origin, at least in the “classical” Plains culture, where this style developed its extreme characteristics. Distribution also suggests a diffusion to outlying areas—the eastern woodlands, the prairie tribes, and certain Salish and Great Basin peoples such as the Flathead and the Shoshone. Merriam particularly notes the Plains-like character of Flathead music and culture, despite the Salish background. The overlay of Plains music in the Flathead repertory, contrary to the homogeneous style of the coast Salish, appears to be recent, as does the introduction of the Plains style in the previously simpler and homogeneous basin repertory.

Again, it seems likely that rapid or at least substantial change in music and its surrounding social events occurred with, or perhaps followed, the development of technology, communication, and widespread standardisation along with knowledge and tolerance of diversity. But of course, this highly generalised ans speculative discussion is intended to do nothing more than suggest to the reader the possibility that certain kinds of cultural situations seem to be accompanied by large-scale change and others by its virtual absence.

More on styles (pp.325–7):

Physically, the Plains Indian groups, extending from the Blackfoot in the North to the Comanche in the South, are not particularly alike. Yet Blackfoot music is very similar to that of other Plains tribes, and so we rule out biological factors. There is a closer relationship between the distribution of the Plains musical style and the physical environment of the high Plains. But while it’s difficult to separate culture from ecology, the Plains musical style is also found in peoples living in other areas, and it has become a major component of the more recently developed intertribal powwow culture.

Language also appears not to be a factor. Although the minor musical difference among Blackfoot, Crow, and Comanche (members of three language families) might in part be related to differences in language and speech patterns, the main thrust of the musical style of the Plains peoples is the same, even though the languages belong to four or more language families.

On to matters of culture. The Blackfoot in their recent “precontact” history were a hunting-and-gathering society in the western Plains, but there is evidence that they came from farther east and once enjoyed a different lifestyle, possibly including some horticulture. Marius Schneider’s description of the music of hunting cultures sort of fits them: it is “interspersed with much shouting, is formed from free-speech rhythms, and has little tonal definition”. But Schneider’s correlation of hunting with polyphony and with metric predomination over melody doesn’t apply here at all.

Here’s my summary of traditional old-time Blackfoot culture, coming from standard ethnographies: based on human and animal energy, it had little social stratification. The social organisation was quite complex, revolving about the individual’s association with a nuclear family, with a band, with various societies, and with other individuals who shared the same guardian spirit, and so on, all however within a rather informal framework. For all of those characteristics, we can easily identify close relationship to musical concepts, functions, behaviour. But when it comes to musical style, we look far and wide for correlation. The variety of social relationships is paralleled by a number of musical genres with stylistic boundaries that are blurred, reflecting conceivably the informal approach to life’s rules. The lack of complex technology is reflected in the predominantly vocal music. In a more speculative vein, we would associate the great difference between Blackfoot singing and speaking styles to the supernatural association of music.

Referring again to McFee, Nettl concludes:

In the end, some of the most obvious musical traits cannot be related to a culture core, however defined, and we are unable, say, to associate pentatonic scales with bravery and heptatonic with cowardice. […]

In traditional Blackfoot culture, […] there was a great difference in cultural role between men and women. In most respects, human relationships were informal and easy. A person was associated with several social groups. Political hierarchy was absent and authority temporary. People did cooperate and showed little hostility to each other, but most actions were carried out by individuals, while collaboration was not pervasive.

In Blackfoot music, there are also substantial differences in men’s and women’s activities and repertories. The singing styles differ considerably. Informality is evident in many aspects of music, notably in the difference between theory and practice, between stated rules and execution. Thus, songs are said to be repeated four times, but recordings show a lot of variation. The musical system is exhibited as a large body of separable songs, but in fact the difference between similar songs and sets of variants is not easily drawn. Songs have texts but may also be sung with newly created words or meaningless syllables. As a person is associated with several groups, a melody may be associated with several uses. Musical authority resides in part with song leaders, who, however, hold musical power temporarily and informally.

Change more recently: intertribalism, the powwow, and white music
Bringing the discussion into the modern period, Nettl goes on:

In a powwow singing group—a “Drum”—there is a male (or, recently, sometimes a female) leader whose tasks are mainly administrative. He also leads more song performances than others, but the leadership role in a song’s structure is confined to the beginning, after which others, again informally determined, hold roles of prominence. Singing in groups is common, but in earlier times solo singing predominated. In group singing, a loose kind of musical cooperation is necessary, and articulation of notes and drumbeats must be in good unison, but singers make little attempt to blend voices and it is easy to hear the individual. Nonmembers of singing groups may be welcome to sit in, and a singer may perform with several groups tough mainly associated with one. Those elements of style that can be best related to components of social relations and conceptions of life are those that are conventionally called “performance practice” and are present throughout a musical performance. But Blackfoot culture and other things we know about the Blackfoot people really haven’t given us an explanation of the particular sound and style of their music.

Under the global theme of minorities under a dominant society, he ponders the influence of white contact upon Native Americans (pp.410–414):

Native American peoples of the north Plains readily distinguish between “Indian” and “white” music, both of which they perform and hear. The two are symbolic of the culture in which Indians move. “White” social contexts, such as drinking in a bar or going to a Christian church, are accompanied by white music performed by Indians. The traditional contexts of Indian music may be largely gone, but when the people are engaged in activities in which they wish to stress their Indian identity, such as powwows, social dances, or gambling games, they use Indian music.


Frances Densmore recording Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916. Source: wiki. Cf. Bartók in 1907.

Nettl goes on to adduce the Native Americans as a case study of “a minority overrun by immigrants to their territory who became the majority”:

But their musical cultures have not been studied very much from this perspective. […] I have in mind issues such as these: how being a minority has affected a Native tribe’s musical culture, how the music of the majority has affected them, how they have used music in relating to the (white) majority, or how they affected the music of the white majority. Typical studies of American Indians have essentially treated each culture or tribe in isolation, trying to reconstruct their musical life as it might have been before and without majority intervention—before the coming of white people and their music.

My principal experience has been with the Blackfoot people of Montana, and this conventional approach was the one I followed when I studied, principally in the small town of Browning and its surroundings. Looking back now, I could have come up with a somewhat different ethnographic and musicological picture if I had looked at the Blackfoot people as a minority among the various culture of North America. Let me give a few examples of the kinds of things on which I might have concentrated:

Basically, the Blackfoot say they have both Indian and white music, and in their musical lives Indian music is a minority music, but it has special functions in the modernised Blackfoot culture. Their most important musical activity, the powwow, is used to negotiate and to a degree resolve conflicts. For example, at a large powwow there is the daily presentation of the US flag with an American military colour guard to the accompaniment of unmistakably Indian music. The functions and uses of the traditional repertory have shidted in accordance with culture change. While powwows are explicitly modern events, some of the older and at one time central Blackfoot musical traditions that were wiped out, forgotten, or abandoned are being reconstructed, and there are some musical styles of white-Native fusion. The participation of non-Blackfoot Native Americans, and also of white dancers and singers (usually referred to as “hobbyists”), in certain components of Blackfoot musical life would be important to study. Now, coming initially from a tradition of scholarship that emphasised the purity and authenticity of the tradition to be investigated, I have to criticise my research tradition for treating these issues as merely the result of corruption or pollution.

But the Blackfoot picture is made more complicated because their main town of Browning, Montana, population around 8,000, is not homogeneous but consists of several groups perhaps best labeled as minorities. When I worked there, around 1966–83, there were a small number of whites, including the majority of professionals and business owners, the wealthy; there was a majority of people who called themselves mixed-bloods, although this was a category less biological than cultural, as biological descent is hard to specify, indicating allegiance to a mixture of cultural values and practices; and then there was a smallish population of so-called full-bloods, largely poor people whose cultural interests were closer to older traditions. They were treated like a minority by all of the others, and this included customary stereotyping with undesirable connotations—drunkenness, laziness, ignorance of modern ways. This kind of a mix goes back to prewhite days, when the various and complex ways in which traditional Blackfoot divided themselves socially—including the special role of women—had its musical analogues.

And so, as with most Native American peoples, the musical culture of the Blackfoot, despite their small population, was not homogeneous. To put it very simply, not all people knew all the songs. On the contrary, the Blackfoot repertory was divided among formally constituted age groups, among people associated with different guardian spirits, among different bands of people who separated during winter, by gender, and more.


Source here.

Very significantly, some of this situation was the result of the events of the 19th century when Native American peoples came to have a minority status among the white invaders. The musical repertories experienced both centrifugal and centripetal forces. On the one hand, as tribal allegiance of individual Blackfoot people began to vary and among some to simply disappear, the typical musical idiolect (the individual’s musical experience) became more varied. Some people held on to many songs, even singing songs to which they traditionally would not have been entitled. Others again forgot most Indian songs and learned “white” music—church music, vernacular music, folk music. On the other hand, as the extant repertories of most Native American peoples shrank because their functions declined or disappeared, and as member sof once separate tribes were thrown together on common reservations and in cities, some songs became a core of common property that, through the intertribal powwow circuit, came to be shared intertribally.

Like most American minorities of European origin, a large proportion of Native Americans in the United States today live in large cities, maintaining a tenuous, perhaps love-hate relationship to the reservations from which they came and where relatives still live. Like the Europeans (more properly, Euro-Americans), they have developed national festivals celebrating music, dance, foodways, the most important being the already mentioned powwow. Thus, for example, about half of the nation’s Blackfoot people live in large cities in the North—mainly Seattle and Minneapolis—and many schedule annual visits to relatives in Montana so as to participate in the main four-day powwow. But while there are anthropological studies of urban Native American communities, not much has been done to learn about their musical culture. How is it like and unlike that of Italian Americans, Arab Americans, Mexican Americans, Hungarian Americans? Although there are, perhaps surprisingly, interesting parallels, one is struck by the significant contrasts.

Further to the idea of expressing various kinds of identity (p.271):

The major midsummer powwow, North American Indian Days, is a kind of event that would not have been conceivable in earlier Blackfoot history and even in the first part of the 20th century. It is polysemic, overtly and subtly expressing
1) Blackfoot national identity—the emcee says so, and occasionally speaks Blackfoot;
2) Native American ethnic identity (or is Blackfoot the ethnic group, and are Native Americans the nation?)—again, the emcee tell us, the Drums, the singing groups, come from many reservations in the United States and Canada, and the dancers perform a widely intertribal repertory;
3) US national identity—much is made of the presentation of the colours by military veterans;
4) age identity—there are dance contests for different age groups; and
5) personal identity—there’s the incredible variety of costumes.
There is plenty of “white” music going on in town at the time of the powwow; country music and rock at dances for older and younger folks, respectively; US patriotic song recordings on sale at an “Indian” rodeo. But at North American Indian Days, while all kinds of appurtenances from “white” culture are in evidence, from flags to tape recorders, the music is totally “Indian”, even for the presentation of the military guard. The association of music with identity is very strong here.

More on the powwow (pp.351–2):

If one were to look for a ranking of musicians among modern Plains Indians, one could do it most conveniently by comparing ensembles of singers who habitually perform together and by examining the social and musical structure of the individual ensemble. At the major Blackfoot powwow […] in the 1960s, several Drums (singing groups) alternated, each performing for an hour or two. The groups were associated with towns on and off the reservation—Browning, Heart Butte, Starr School, Cardston (Alberta), and so on. Members did not need to be residents, and membership was informal and floating; a singer from one group could occasionally sing in another. Each group had a leader who began many but by no means all of the songs and who assembled the singers. Each singer in the group could lead songs, for example, determining what song to sing and to begin it by singing the first phrase solo; there was no set order for the leading of songs. On the surface, at least, the situation was one of informality and equality. Most of the time, little was made of distinctions among groups and singers. In the powwow sector of the culture, there is only one class of individuals who make up something of a musical elite, the class of (mainly) men known as “singers”. But the Blackfoot do distinguish quality and status of musicianship. The singing groups competed for prizes, and during my stay with the Blackfoot there was one that had the reputation of being the best, its superior quality attributed to the members’ musicianship,with details unspecified. Individual singers were also singled out as being particularly excellent. The criteria included knowledge of a large repertory, as well as the ability to drum well (quality of singing was evidently a less important criterion), with emphasis on the ability to drum in a precise “off the beat” relationship to the vocal rhythm, and in perfect unison. Men who made songs were also (automatically) regarded as superior singers but not put into a separate class as composers. Since the 1960s, the culture and social organisation of powwow Drums have become much more formalised and commercialised; it is now similar to that of professional musicians in American society as a whole, and the music has become part of American mass-mediated musical culture.

Nettl also reflects wisely on the scholarly use of Native American music in education. In Chapter 9 on comparative study he again considers changing academic perspectives, giving instances of student reactions to his lectures outlining musical styles over 25-year intervals (pp.122–3).

Native American culture again features in Chapter 29 in a highly pertinent discussion on applied uses of ethnomusicology and social activism (cf. Guo Yuhua), “Are you doing anyone any good?”—including sections on healthcare, the politics of representation, and “Trying to make peace”.

Music and learning
Nettl points out that while such music may seem “simple” in certain parameters, it’s quite complex in many other respects (cf. What is serious music?!).

In his very opening discussion of how to define “music” in the first place, he observes that rather like the Hausa of Nigeria, Native American societies have no word to tie together all musical activities (p.24):

The Blackfoot have a word, paskan, that can be roughly translated as “dance”, which includes music and ceremony and is used to refer to religious and semireligious events that comprise music, dance, and other activities, but this word does not include certain musical activities, such as gambling, that have no dancing. They have a word for “song” but not one for instrumental music [cf. the care needed in approaching “music” in China (cf. here; in traditional north China it doesn’t apply to vocal music, or even other genres of intrumental music, but narrowly to the paraliturgical shengguan wind ensemble!].

In Chapter 26, engagingly titled “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?“, among Nettl’s instances of teaching, learning, and rehearsing in a variety of cultures around the world, he wonders how traditional Native American societies worked (pp.381–3):

Blackfoot people traditionally believed that humans could learn music in two interconnected ways, from supernatural powers such as guardian spirits in visions and from other humans. The ideal was the learning of songs from the supernatural, and the concepts of learning and creating music are therefore closely associated. The way in which songs were thought to be learned in visions, normally in a single hearing, has influenced the concepts that people have about learning music in an entirely human context. In the culture of the Blackfoot, “once” may presumably mean four times through, so the concept is there, but the idea that the guardian spirit teaches you a song simply by singing it to you is important, and human teachers instruct similarly. Thus, a medicine bundle, with its attendant songs, was transferred from one person to another by a single performance of the ceremony, during which the new owner was expected to learn the songs. Today, when people learn songs from each other and recognise the process as such, they say that quick learning is desirable and certainly possible, though lately often subverted by the ever-present cassette recorder. The standardisation of form and the possibility of roughly predicting the course of a song from its initial phrase also facilitate quick learning. […]

There is evidence that those cultures that demanded the precise rendering of music for validation of religious ritual also required systematic practising and rehearsing and looked at it all competitively. We are told this about the Navajo and the North Pacific coast peoples […]. Rehearsing was essential, mistakes were punished, and rituals in which mistakes were found would have to be repeated entirely or in part in order to be valid. Some northern Plains peoples took a less formalist attitude. Having been learned largely from visions for the use of one person, music was more closely associated with the individual and private rituals, and therefore the control of the community over musical performance was less highly developed. Evidently, a man who learned a song in a vision would use his walk or ride back to camp as an opportunity to rehearse or work it out. No doubt, actual composition took place along this walk [cf. Unpacking “improvisation”—including a wonderful passage on the creative processes of Mozart, Blackfoot singer Theodore Last Star, and Brahms!]; the inspiration from the white heat of the vision would be rationally worked out. Practising in effect took place at this point, and the song would be readied for presentation to the other members of the tribe. But since music was primarily a personal and individualistic activity and experience, practising was not done systematically to any large extent, and not much heed was paid to the accuracy of performance. Just as composing and learning are related concepts, composing and practising overlap. How things have changed!

 Nettl’s consultant told him (p.293):

“Oh yes. Every year about a hundred new songs come to the reservation.” Did they sound different from the old songs? “No, they are new songs and we add them, and that way we get more and more songs.” The Blackfoot regard change as basically a good thing.

Pondering the life of the “typical musician”, Nettl comments on the changing life of an individual Blackfoot (p.195):

He moved through a series of age-grade societies whose activities included ceremonies and music. As an individual grew older, he or she was successively initiated into new societies, learning their songs and dances. Again, the oldest men would know the largest amount of music, learned gradually, more or less at four-year intervals. The vision quest of the Plains Indians and of tribes surrounding the Plains exhibited a similarly gradual learning of songs. A so-called medicine man or woman would have a succession of visions of his or her guardian spirit, each time learning more in the way of dealing with the supernatural, which included songs.

This is the traditional picture. For recent times, the tendency to gradual learning of new material is a pattern both supported and altered in the career of one Blackfoot singer with whom I worked. Born about 1915, this man was first exposed to Western music through his reservation school, learning French horn, but he also—sometimes secretly—learned a few traditional songs. As a young adult, he took up the modern intertribal repertory of the powwow culture, which consisted largely of social dance songs without words. In later life, he gradually became interested as well in the ancient traditional Blackfoot music, learning it from older persons who knew but rarely performed the songs. This sequence had idiosyncratic causes: the third stage coincided with the death of the singer’s stepfather, an esteemed tribal leader. But the pattern may also be typical, at least insofar as the most sacred music has long been the province of tribal elders. In this respect, my consultant, although he was exposed to musics not known in earlier times, such as the so-called intertribal songs and powwows and the music of the whites, seems to have followed a traditional pattern. But in the sense that he withdrew from interest in one musical repertory as he learned a new one, he probably did not reflect the gradual and cumulative learning of a cohesive musical system. In any event, the concept of typical pattern in musical life can be found among the ordinary singers of a small tribe as well as the master composers of Western music.

In a passage on “genius”, he finds technical virtuosity of little significance among the Blackfoot (p.59):

Outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

Related are Nettl’s comments in a section on locating informants, consultants, and teachers in various cultures (pp.152–3)—reminding me of our search for ritual specialists in China:

In working with Blackfoot people, I was introduced to a man who was described as a singer. I did not ask further; he had been so designated in contrast to dozens of others who were not. I didn’t care whether he was the best or the worst, as I was grateful for anyone’s help, and I assumed that he would be somehow representative of that part of the population who were titled “singers”. I had it in mind to study the musical culture as it existed, was interested in the mainstream of musical experience, not in what was exceptionally good, or, for that matter, bad. I valued most the contact with someone who would speak articulately and give me a lot of information. I hoped he would in some way be typical, and I thought I would later be able to put my hope to the test. I believed, rightly or not, that among the sixty or seventy “singers” whom the community turned out to have, perhaps a half dozen would be considered outstanding, another few barely adequate, and the majority simply good, in a sort of bell-shaped curve. This majority group interested me the most. The members of the society seemd to find my approach compatible, didn’t feel that I should be concentrating only on the best.

More on “polymusicality” (p.314):

Most of the world’s societies find themselves in the 20th century participating in two or more musics that can be rather easily distinguished, and the idea that each music functions as a symbol of particular aspects of a culture is a convenient approach to the study of one aspect of musical symbolism. In the culture of the Blackfoot during the 1960s, three kinds of music were distinguished by insiders and outsiders: older, traditional, tribal music; modernised intertribal or “pan-Indian” music; and Western music. The three had different symbolic values, the first as a symbol of the tribal past, to be remembered but placed in a kind of museum context; the second, of the need of Indian cultures to combine in order to ensure people’s cultural survival as Indians; and the third, of the modern facts of Indian life. Integrations as a tribe, as an Indian people, and into the mainstream American environment are symbolised. The relationships seem obvious to an outsider, but they are also articulated by the culture’s own interpretation of itself.

McFee, looking at modern Blackfoot society, followed a similar line of thought, dividing the Blackfoot population and its values into white- and Indian-oriented groups. For Indian culture, he lists individualism, bravery, skill, wisdom, and generosity; for white orientation, self-dependence, acquisition, and work. The two groups overlap, but one can find some of the Indian-oriented values in traditional music and musical behaviour. Individualism is evident in the need for people, ideally, to learn their own songs in visions and to develop personal repertories of songs, and perhaps also in the tendency for traditional music to be soloistic or, when performed by groups, to avoid a high degree of vocal blend [cf. Lomax].

Bravery can conceivably be related to the practice of singing before a group, sometimes with improvised texts, in a ceremony replicating courage in physical conflict. Generosity is exhibited in the system of giving songs, the willingness to borrow from and give to other tribes. The three “white” values given by McFee can be associated with “white” music and with the modern Indian music used by the Blackfoot. The use of notation and the ownership of complex instruments such as pianos and electric guitars can in various ways be associated with all three. Composition (in contrast to acquisition of songs through visions) is related to self-dependence. The importance of size of repertory in the modern genres and the idea of rapid learning with the use of tape recorders are relevant to the idea of acquisition. The practice of rehearsing and the development of complex performance styles in modern Indian music can be related to the idea of work.

Gender, scholarship, and recording
Nettl was always attuned to gender issues (for my brief reading list under flamenco, see here). Among the Blackfoot in the mid-20th century (p.394),

women probably sang little in public (my consultants regarded it as evidence of immodesty). I was told they had some songs of their own (some of these songs could be given to men), but often they “helped” the men, and they seemed to know—though usually not to sing—many of the men’s songs. But I was told (and read) that women were important as sponsors of music-bearing rituals [cf. China], and in the mythology they are instrumental in bringing songs into existence. Since 1980, however, women have become very active in the powwow repertory, participating as a minority in many of the Drums, and forming a few “women-only” Drums. Early recordings show women’s singing style to have been rather different to that of men. Thus, in the public dance repertory, the rhythmic pulsations that in men’s singing consisted of sudden, momentary increases in amplitude or dynamics were rendered by women as slight changes in pitch. When participating in Drums, in recordings made after around 1980, women’s singing style approximates that of men.

Besides women as performers, Nettl also observes (pp.400–401) that

the five most significant scholars of Native American music before 1950 were the following four women (plus George Herzog). The major accomplishments of this group constitute the classics of that period: Alice C. Fletcher (1904) published the first detailed description of a ceremony, with complete transcriptions. Frances Densmore’s oeuvre of publications still probably exceeds what has been published by anyone else, but her detailed musical and ethnographic collections of Chippewa and Teton Sioux musics (1910, 1918) are early exemplars of comprehensive accounts of musical culture. Natalie Curtis’s main work, The Indians’ book (1907), did much to bring Native American music and culture to the attention of the public. And Helen Roberts’s imaginative analytical work on Native Californian and Northwest Coast music and her study of geographical distribution (1936) of musical styles, providing the first continental synthesis, belong to the central literature of this area. After 1950, too, women scholars, including Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner, continued to provide leadership. To a somewhat lesser degree, the same could be said for other world areas and repertories.

(In China the preponderance of female music scholars and students had to wait until the 1990s.) He goes on:

It’s interesting to contemplate the cultural or personal roots of the special contributions of women scholars to Native American music studies. It may be suggested that women were motivated in this direction because their own unfavourable social position made them sensitive to oppressed peoples and also because they found themselves directed towards the margins—to marginal peoples, and to music, a marginal field in the Western academy, and in America marginal even among the arts. No doubt a few early figures, who had arrived by chance and through personal interest and determination, such as Densmore and Fletcher, became models for others. Franz Boas encouraged women to enter anthropology in its early American years. Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

On the “repatriation” of recordings and archives (pp.182–3; cf. similar projects for Australian Aborigines) Nettl refers to archives such as the Federal Cylinder Project, the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center, mentioning works such as Victoria Levine, Writing American Indian music (2002) and Brian Wright-McLeod, The encyclopedia of native music: more than a century of recordings from wax cylinders to the internet (2005).

Blackfoot cover

He describes his own “longitudinal” work on the Blackfoot (p.186):

After doing some fieldwork and making some recordings, I had the opportunity to examine collections of Blackfoot songs made earlier. I was astonished to find that although, for some reason, no ethnomusicologist had published research on the subject, a huge amount had been recorded, beginning in 1897. By 1987 (when I finished with this project), I could identify some sixteen collections made by ethnomusicologists and anthropologists—cylinders, acetate disks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes. And I identified about forty commercial recordings, largely LPs (but there were five songs on a Victor record of 1914), and some prerecorded cassettes. Since then, a few dozen more cassettes and CDs have been produced, for Blackfoot listeners and for tourists, and for some singers in other tribes. Well, comparing those early recordings with the recent ones helps to show how very much things have changed in repertory, singing and drumming styles, form, intonation, and—I guess—aesthetics. If early ethnomusicology concentrated on how consistent an authentic culture had to be, using archives and the history of records helps us to see, at least for a period of about 120 years, some aspects of the way musical life has changed [for early Chinese recordings, see here and here].

So here’s Nettl’s An historical album of Blackfoot Indian music (1973/2004; click here for his fine liner notes), with 19 tracks recorded between 1897 and 1966 (the latter by Nettl himself), including Beaver Medicine and Sun Dance songs, war music, love songs, lullabies, gambling and social dance songs:

And for a taste of Blackfoot ceremony, here’s the 1956 documentary The Piegan Medicine Lodge, filmed in Heart Butte, Montana, on a ceremony commissioned as a vow to give thanks upon a grandchild’s recovery from polio (for background, click here):

Nettl’s perspectives, accessible even for those diffident about tackling “music”, are valuable for us in studying any culture—including WAM and China.

This is followed by posts on the Navajo and the Ghost Dance.


[1] The anthropology of Native American cultures is a vast field. For musicking, see e.g. The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 1; Elaine Keillor, Timothy Archambault, and John M. H. Kelly (eds), Encyclopedia of Native American music of North America (2013); and Chapter 2 of Jeff Todd Titon (ed.), Worlds of music: an introduction to the music of the world’s peoples (with CDs; 5th edition by David McAllester, 6th by Christopher Scales).

Heartland excursions

Ethnomusicology at home


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?


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.





In memoriam Bruno Nettl


The great ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl (1930–2020) died last week. So far we have this tribute from Philip Bohmann, and I’ll add others as I find them. Here’s a brief appreciation from me.

A great inspiration, Nettl’s writings were accessible and engaging as well as wise, his perspectives always valuable. Alongside his rare overview of the global picture, he had a gift for explaining the nuts and bolts of musicking in particular societies—seting forth from his fieldwork among Native Americans, and in Iran and south India. His 1995 book Heartland excursions: ethnomusicological reflections on schools of music makes a fine complement to the ethnomusicological literature on WAM (see e.g. herehere, and here).

NettlPosts on this blog inspired by his insights include:

DO read Nettl’s wonderful The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions—for anyone still not attuned to the importance of soundscape in society, in search of a mind-opening book, this is what we need!!! 




The genius of Abbey road

Abbey road

Abbey road album cover: no title, band unnamed.

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

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

Just in case you’re on another planet, here it is as a playlist, with the songs individually—it’s far better just to put on the LP (or CD), listening to the two sides whole, with the original transitions—and silences—between tracks. [1] You can find the lyrics on sites such as this.

Both Sgt Pepper and Abbey road are full of extraordinary variety, nuance, and (even within single songs) contrast, with multiple layers and homages to the whole gamut of popular culture. Even the lighter, seemingly jocular songs contribute to the panorama. As I will comment in a general post on the Beatles, both albums make cogent sequences, resembling unstaged operas, or orchestral song-cycles, even if only Side 2 of Abbey road seems to have been so designed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mellers observes that

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

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



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


Backing vocals

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

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

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

The Pardon, 1991



What is serious music?!

*For main page, click here!*
(in main menu, under WAM)

I’ve just added a lengthy article on the demotion of WAM, and the flawed concept of “serious music”. It’s based on the stimulating work of Richard Taruskin on the “classical music crisis” prompted by the defection of critics to pop music since the 1960s, as he challenges “centuries-old cultural assumptions” such as the myth of musical autonomy. This is typical of his bracing style:

The question that throbbed and pounded in my head was whether it was still possible to defend my beloved repertoire without recourse to pious tommyrot, double standards, false dichotomies, smug nostalgia, utopian delusions, social snobbery, tautology, hypocrisy, trivialization, pretense, innuendo, reactionary invective, or imperial haberdashery.

On the evidence before me, the answer is no. The discourse supporting classical music so reeks of historical blindness and sanctimonious self-regard as to render the object of its ministrations practically indefensible. Belief in its indispensability, or its cultural superiority, is by now unrecoverable, and those who mount such arguments on its behalf morally indict themselves.

I go on to query his recourse to the term “serious music”, broadening the topic to musicking in other societies.

If there are so many “serious” genres all around the world, what seems exceptional about WAM is its apologists’ sense of mission, and their concomitant sense of embattlement. Without wishing to discourage ongoing research, perhaps we should just leave the WAMmies to get on with their arid defences of a waning prerogative. So we might simply ignore labels like “serious” as a nervous attempt by an impotent elite to claim that “our culture is superior to yours”.

That’s just a taster for the article—now click here!


World music abolished!!!


Taraf de Haidouks (for whose priceless comment on the fruits of success, see here).

Further to Society and soundscape, I’ve long been resistant to the glossy World Music bandwagon, but just as I thought I was being broad-minded by creating a sidebar category for it (subheaded, to boot), I find it’s been abolished. Typical!

Both Anglo-American pop and WAM (for which, despite my best efforts, the term “classical music” remains entrenched) pretend to a blinkered hegemony, barely acknowledging each other. This is more realistic for the former, but the latter still lays impotent claim to a fictive prestige.

Defining “music” itself turns out to be a tricky business. For a global view, I admire the stirring opening of Christopher Small’s book Musicking. Among the endless taxonomies for music (both emic and etic), terms like “folk” and “traditional” are flawed.

The term “world music” was used in the Music faculty of Wesleyan University by Robert E. Brown from 1960; but as a marketing label in wider currency it dates only from a 1987 meeting in a London pub—and its African basis has proved enduring.

But now I’m amused to read a recent Guardian article noting that promoters are already finding the term outdated. Indeed, in 1999 David Byrne wrote a piece entitled “I hate world music”; concerned about ghettoising, he commented:

It’s a way of relegating this ”thing” into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us.

He also noted that the messy fusion of such genres belies the “myth of the authentic”:

White folks needed to see Leadbelly in prison garb to feel they were getting the real thing. They need to be assured that rappers are ”keeping it real,” they need their Cuban musicians old and sweet, their Eastern and Asian artists ”spiritual.” The myths and cliches of national and cultural traits flourish in the marketing of music. There is the myth of the untutored, innocent savant whose rhymes contain funky Zen-like pearls of wisdom—the myth that exotic ”traditional” music is more honest, more soulful and more in touch with a people’s real and true feelings than the kid wearing jeans and the latest sports gear on Mexican television.

This is a fair point, even if the world music market is dominated by “ethno-lite” fusion pop, largely Afro-Cuban; and even if its commercial basis tends to marginalize less marketable traditions studied by ethnomusicologists. Meanwhile the Guardian‘s worthy switch from “world album of the month” to “global album of the month” doesn’t seem to butter many parsnips.

Along with world music, in the parallel academic world the definition of ethnomusicology has long been the subject of laborious debate. As ever Bruno Nettl gives a fine overview. In the opening chapter of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, he notes changing emphases from comparative musicology to ethnomusicology, with “primitive” and “traditional” biting the dust, and occasional subtleties like “ethno-musicology” and even “(ethno)musicology” creeping in.

Nettl continues to ponder definitions in Chapter 2, as well as in his Chapter 1 of Philip Bohlmann, The Cambridge history of world music (2013). Bohlmann, in chapter 7 of his World music: a very short introduction (2002), astutely discusses the Rough Guides phenomenon and world music festivals, noting how ethnomusicologists can’t remain aloof from the world music scene. And he observes:

If indeed we share world music globally through our encounter with it, we nonetheless experience it in very different worlds, which in turn are shaped in distinctly different ways because of economic, ethnic and racial, political and historical disparities. There are today more different technologies that enable us to encounter more world music than ever before, but the question arises as to whether these faciliate or complicate encounter. More to the point, pronouncements by media experts about the ubiquity of CDs, Internet, and the transnational recording industry notwithstanding, not everyone in the world has equal access to the technologies of world music, and most people in the world have no access.

If you’re so inclined, there’s a wealth of theoretical discussion to digest; but here I just wanted to make the drôle point that I yet again find myself living in the past. Of course, society is slow to take on board the pronouncements of pundits, so the label seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. Perhaps we could coin the rubric “Folk/world/traditional”, just for the pleasure of using the acronymn FWT, or FuckWiT (for some mischievous airline acronyms, see here).

One looks forward to the day when world music means all the musickings of all the peoples of the world (including pop and WAM), so we can simply call it “music”—“all music, everywhere, and everything about it”, as Nettl says. No-one ever said classifications were going to be watertight; but for the time being I guess we still need some kind of catch-all rubric for the didjeridus, mariachi bands, and Balkan–Malian fusion gigs, along with more hardcore traditions…

Society and soundscape

While I always gravitate towards the ethnographic nitty-gritty of local fieldwork, it seems time for a succinct roundup for some general posts on society and soundscape—a theme pervading this blog, for China (see below), sundry world music traditions, and WAM alike (see world music category, under “general“).

Most authoritative and accessible are the works of Bruno Nettl—essential reading:

Susan McClary is another influential author:

And Christopher Small gives important perspectives, placing WAM within the broader picture:

An article by Michelle Bigenho is most instructive:

Also worth consulting is

Classics on society and soundscape include

And among many fine chapters in the stimulating 1997 volume Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology, I’d recommend those by Nicole Beaudry (on fieldwork among the Inuit) and William Noll (on fieldwork in the Ukrainian past).

* * *

All this informs my work on local ritual traditions in China. As I commented in my post on Bigenho,

Here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

As  Adam Yuet Chau observes, this is related to the whole scholarly bias towards discursive, scriptural analysis. Indeed, within China studies more generally, expressive culture, and musicking as a vital aspect of social activity, still seem to be considered marginal themes, with research dominated by silent written texts and immobile visual culture. It’s as if sinologists only consider music as a legitimate part of culture when it’s dead and mute, imprisoned in a museum or text. The ethnomusicological mindset should offer us valuable perspectives on Chinese studies.



Northern soul 北靈


Inspired by Detroit 67, I’ve been reading

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Young soul rebels: a personal history of northern soul (2016).

In all kinds of wonderful ways, this book does my head in. [1]

Quite rightly, devotees of northern soul will be underwhelmed if I describe it as a diachronic ethnography based on participant observation—which is just what it is, like some of the great works of ethnomusicology…

Cosgrove captures the buzz of his addiction:

Saturday passed slowly as I browsed around local market stalls. The night slowly fell and we walked through the backstreets of Stoke along cobbled terraces. The army of leather feet resonated like a drum solo, building percussion in our speeding heads and raising the adrenaline of anticipation. A swell of people hung by the door of what looked like a wartime cinema, and a blackout curtain seemed to have closed across the north of England. It was virtually impossible to make out faces or detail; everything was sound. A pounding noise escaped through the doorway and the wild screeching sound of saxophones pushed through the fire escapes, desperate for air. We paid at the ticket booth, but even in the foyer, an intense heat much like an industrial oven scorched through the thick aggressive air, and the noise was so pure, so fearless and so commanding, it dragged you inwards into a scrum of lurching bodies: hot, wet, and demonic. This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floor. There was no going back. No music later in life would ever touch its uniqueness, no rock concert could match its energy, and no rave could come close to its latent illegality. This was northern soul: the reason they invented youth.

Of all the diverse tribes of popular music, this scene is just as alien to me (and, I surmise, to Alan Bennett) as the spirit mediums of Guangxi are to a scholar trained at a Beijing conservatoire (for China, I broach the issue of insider/outsider status here, here, and here).

Ethnomusicologists like Nettl and Small highlight music as a social activity, and McClary valorizes the physical, bodily response to music as a caveat to the cerebral, disembodied, “autonomous” bias of WAM.

Basic to the northern soul experience were the all-nighters hosted by clubs throughout the north. They may evoke the “red-hot sociality” of festivals worldwide; but such club scenes also broaden our picture, in that live music is subsidiary. At the heart of northern soul was live dancing, athletic and technical—amazing dancers like car mechanic Frankie “Booper” New, at the Torch:

It was as if NASA had invented a device that could drill into the surface of the moon, and the device was a sixteen-stone guy from Widnes.

Some visiting live bands made memorable appearances, but recorded music was more common. After all, a multitude of bands, often inspired by old blues records, were being formed (not least in the north), creating all kinds of new music; but here the point was not to try and form your own soul band—the fetish for rare Motown discs was sacred. Nor did club-goers care to keep pace with the ever-changing tastes of black Americans, for whom both blues and soul were mere staging posts in a constantly evolving scene.

Thus DJing assumed a crucial role (akin to that of the conductor?), with fanatical, driven DJs like Ian Levine and Ian Dewhirst. Another basic element was the amphetamine scene. While not hesitating to depict its squalor (the Wigan toilets “resembling a war zone”), Cosgrove naturally refrains from moralistic prurience. Andy Wilson, a northern soul pioneer from Harrogate who spent much of his formative years at Wigan Casino, going on to become senior lecturer in Criminology at Trent University, “is now an expert in drug subcultures. He always was”. A model of participant observation, then.

Obscurity and obsession
Alongside the sweaty hedonism of northern soul, just as important was the craving for obscurity—not just any obscurity, like seeking out early blues, but “rare soul”—rougher, less polished than the mainstream Motown sound. Even the origin of the term “northern soul” itself, commonly attributed to Dave Godin, is somewhat arcane (pp.25–6).

Cosgrove lovingly details the nerdiness of the scene: “compiling lists and recording obscure detail is part of the everyday autism of northern soul”. OCD was rife. He even provides a suitably nerdy Glossary.

One of the cardinal rules of the northern soul scene is a respect for obscurity and those who die young. […] Northern soul cherishes its role as savior of the neglected—rescuing some acts from being almost wholly forgotten while plucking others from semi-obscurity and giving them the status of gods.

Ill-fated singers like Linda Jones and Darrell Banks were idolized. Cosgrove also pays tribute to some of the casualties within northern soul itself.

He notes, and shares, the jihad mentality, “the Hezbollah rituals that defined the scene”:

Eclectic tastes were rarely tolerated on the northern soul scene, which by the mid seventies was hardening into a zealous sect with its own strict rules. […]

One night, a DJ was brought in front of the crowd charged with playing a Bowie record; he was given a stern warning and a second chance, but there was a noisy faction on the committee who wanted him hounded through the streets in sackcloth and then burned at the stake outside H Samuel. I was among that zealous throng and I have not mellowed since.

Northern soul devotees shared a virulent aversion to the mainstream as embodied in Top of the pops; they were creating their own charts. Meanwhile in a parallel universe, Morris dancing was enjoying a revival, and my own nerdy tastes were for Boulez and Zen scriptures. The northern soul collectors remind me rather of scholars poring over the cataloguing systems of the Daoist Canon, or WAM bores who can’t help citing Köchel numbers.

At a certain remove from the quest of Oxbridge academics for neglected Renaissance church music, northern soul addicts were on a different kind of “early music” craze. Trapped in a mythical past, they were also on a constant quest for new material from that past.

Cosgrove notes the importance of rail and road networks (“You can go everywhere from Wigan train station”, as DJ Richard Searling commented), the impact of immigration, and the scene’s distinctive fashion sense. Chapter 7, elegantly titled “Soul not dole” after a Doncaster club, explores the effects of the miners’ strike, with the story of pit closures running in tandem with the high points of northern soul. There’s a cameo for Grimethorpe, whose brass band was to be immortalized in the film Brassed off. And the heyday of northern soul coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror.

Unlike punk, which was more openly anti-authoritarian, the northern soul scene has often been written about as if it “floated free” from the politics of the day, but the reverse is true. The northern soul scene was rooted in the industrial towns and cities of Britain, which across the arch of time faced unprecedented waves of deindustrialization.

The book has more on the relation with punk:

Britain’s two greatest subcultures had much in common. Both were underground and frequently misunderstood. Northern soul had grown up organically across a period of ten years since the height of the first-generation Mods and was a subculture that was more authentically the product of young people themselves, often hiding from authority, dodging the drug squad and attending self-managed clubs that were only sparsely advertised. Punk was largely contrived and skillfully managed in part by [Malcolm] McLaren, driven by his genuine love of New York garage bands and an opportunistic interest in anarchism and the Situationist movement.

He cites Paul Mason: “we were using the black industrial music of the late sixties to say something about our white industrial lives in the seventies”. I think also of the intriguing Finnish affinity for tango.

Though—like Daoist recluses—the northern soul crowd prided themselves on shunning outside attention, the scene was soon discovered by media moguls like Tony Palmer, whose 1977 film This England: Wigan Casino divided opinion:

Echoing Alan Bennett’s lament, Palmer

added smouldering furnaces, decaying coalfields and derelict canals—overwrought historical imagery that the citizens of Wigan had long since tired of.

But amidst ongoing debate over “purists not tourists”, the Casino soon became a casualty of economic recession.

Cosgrove’s passion for the music is always evident too:

If the beginning of the night was hectic, the end was emotionally more subdued: it was regretful, solemn, almost elegiac. By 1973, it had become established practice that all-nighters would finish with “3 before 8”: these were three soul songs to mark the end of the night, played as the clock reached 8am and the morning light sliced through the skylight windows in the decaying roofs of the Casino.

Discussing them in sequence, he gives pride of place to the second-to-last song in the set, Tobi Legend’s “Time will pass you by”:

The chapters describe the heydays of the legendary clubs in turn. In the early days they came up against another kind of fundamentalist, James Anderton (“God’s copper”), with his moral crusade to clean up Manchester. The Twisted Wheel there became “the template by which all subsequent northern soul clubs were judged: the intense atmosphere, the rare soul music and the extravagant dancers”. It was succeeded by the Golden Torch Ballroom, a converted cinema in the suitably obscure venue of Tunstall, near Stoke-on-Trent:

The interior of the Torch also told a story of change, not least the collapse of traditional religion and the rise of youth culture. It was a small hall with marble pillars and a balcony overlooking the wooden dance floor. It had started out as a church, before becoming a roller-skating rink and, in the immediate post-war period, morphing into the Little Regent Cinema. Local soul fan and businessman Chris Burton changed its use again and it became a Mod club, and then eventually an all-nighter whose influence stretched across the Potteries, to Lancashire in the north and the Midlands to the south.

Many clubs

aped the patterns of older working-class institutions—electing committees and treasurers, and holding nights in fading workers’ clubs, miners’ welfares and industrial social clubs.

Next the baton was taken by Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca, with their musical policies competing. Describing the rise and fall of seaside venues, their decline complementing the rise of foreign package holidays, Cosgrove gives an evocative portrayal of Blackpool, “a wonderland of donkey rides, kiss-me-quick hats and venereal disease”.

He sings the praises of the all-nighters at the Top of the World in Stafford, a late flourishing of the scene from 1982 to 1986, and serving as a bridge between the warring factions. By now he had moved on to a media career, joining the drift to London—a city pithily described by a friend as “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. He continued to collect rare soul:

After a few days in Washington DC I had perfected a modus operandi that has served me well over many years in America. Written down on paper, it sounds like the machinations of a serial killer, but here goes…

In Birmingham, Alabama he has an epiphany as he discovers a rare copy of the DC Blossoms’ “Hey Boy” (Shrine, 1966) in an inauspicious-looking store minded by an inscrutable assistant:

For northern soul collectors there is nothing more visceral than a “find”. A sudden surge more emotional than meeting an old friend, more powerful than an away goal, and more satisfying than sex itself. I stared in wonder at the light blue label and the iconic burning Shrine logo. I checked for vinyl cracks and deep scratches, but whatever its wandering history, the disc was virtually pristine and had survived its orphan years with no damage. The paint that had splashed over it like semen on a truck driver’s T-shirt had stained the sleeve, but the record itself was flawless. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated joy. I had an uncontrollable urge to snatch the Kool cigarette from the woman’s hands, kiss her peachy lips, rip off her velour pants and make urgent love to her over the cash register. But sense prevailed. I calmly gave her another dollar bill and waited obediently for my fifty cents change. As she handed me the loose coins, her lips curled into a chubby smile, and she gave me the most generous grin I’d seen in three days in Alabama. It had the look of post-coital ecstasy—the look of true love.

Of course, as he notes, northern soul collectors were far from alone. Such initiatives had

a hundred-year history of collectors and black-music pioneers scouring the backwoods of America, visiting brutal prisons, outdoor chain gangs and hidden rural villages, searching for blues performers and for early recordings. […] Northern soul was not the unique leader I had imagined; it was part of a long legacy of trying to collect and catalogue the very best of the African-American heritage from jazz, to blues, and on to soul.

In 2009, just as Frank Wilson’s “Do I love you” came up for auction,

the National Gallery of Scotland had secured the £50 million it needed to prevent Titian’s 16th-century masterpiece Diana and Actaeon being sold at auction. Fearing that Kenny Burrell’s copy of Frank Wilson would also leave Scotland, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek feature for the Sunday Times arguing that northern soul was as worthy of public investment as high art: “Comparing a soul record to a masterpiece by Titian will seem ludicrous to the uninitiated. But leave aside the mores, prejudices and snob value that separate high art and popular culture, and the strange world of northern soul bears very deep similarities with art. Both are driven by collectors who are fixated by rarity, authenticity and the provenance of their collections. So far, both have also resisted the pressure of recession and the value of collections has either increased or held strong. Words like rare, original and limited edition exist in both communities. Respected dealers existed in both worlds and auctions are a familiar mode of transaction. Art and soul share a culture where fakes, bootlegs and shady attempts to replicate the look of original works are not uncommon.”

Cosgrove mentions the multitude of new underground subcultures, like warehouse parties, the Carolina beach scene, the Chicano low-rider scene, and the rare groove scene in London—where the 100 Club also played a major role.

By the millennium, there was a new and lasting schism within northern soul, the latest division in a series of civil wars: those who wanted to look back to the grand days of the past and saw northern as a revivalist and reunion scene; and those clubs that kept the torch burning and insisted on new discoveries and an upfront music policy. Each new era brought with it ever more demanding clubs. […] Many thousands of people who had drifted away from northern soul returned to swell the ranks of new faces who had discovered the music via the scooter scene and still more who had lasted the journey and never left.

The final chapter, opening with the excellent quote

Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born,

describes how social and digital technology has given the scene a new lease of life—YouTube, Facebook groups (where he notes in particular “I used to Go to Stafford All-Nighters”, a veritable popular history project), Mixcloud, and so on.

For all his fundamentalism, Cosgrove admires the new generation:

Younger and brasher than the survivors on the scene, are passionately engaged in the scene and its origins, but have a healthy disregard for its arcane rules: the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better. […]

The worldwide web has been kind to northern soul. What was once a scene restricted to cardboard boxes and wooden crates in a few obscure clubs is now a global phenomenon, and the footprint that was restricted to a few hundred miles of the industrial north of England now has worldwide reach.

Popular all-nighters now sprung up in Germany, Spain, and Japan (cf. the punk scene in Beijing).


Fran Franklin.

As to gender, while many female singers from the Motown heyday were worshipped by aficionados (as long as they weren’t too well-known), there were few female DJs, and we find little portrayal of the lives of female dancers—like the young Pat Wall from Rochdale, an early denizen of the Twisted Wheel:

While swimming, she would imagine the body turn at the end of a length as part of a dance routine and would simulate the northern soul “swallow dive”. She often practised in the kitchen of her mum’s council house, mastering the smooth sliding style across uneven linoleum, and within a matter of weeks she would compete with any of the Twisted Wheel’s young men. Her dance trucks were mesmerising and her unassuming smile, whispering the lyrics as if she were praying, as if there were no greater music in the world, made her stand out in a crowd of older and brasher men.”

Another regular on the scene was none other than Jane Torvill, who described her 1984 Boléro at the 1984 Winter Olympics as “the dance of my life”—but as Cosgrove gleefully observes, “that had already happened nearly ten years earlier on the floor of Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.”

As the obscure civil war raged, a more benign figure on the scene was Mary Chapman, who hosted events at Cleethorpes Pier—also including a 1976 appearance of the Sex Pistols as the moral panic over punk exploded. And the much-loved Fran Franklin (1961–2014) gives perceptive insights in documentary footage. More recently, female DJs have become important on the scene.

On film
As usual, however evocatively one writes about music (or ritual), it’s still a compromise: silent immobile text can never approach the sensation of the lived experience (cf. China). Among myriad finds on YouTube, following Tony Palmer’s 1977 This England, try

  • Paul Mason’s tribute Northern soul: keeping the faith (BBC, 2013):

  • Northern Soul: living for the weekend (BBC, 2014; some breaks in sound):

Note also Ian Levine’s YouTube channel.

* * *

I’m rather envious that they coined the term northern soul 北靈 before I could use it for the ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi, but ethnographies like this can inspire us (obscurely, as ever) in documenting pilgrimage networks and temple fairs in China. Echoing northern soul aficionados’ aversion to the mainstream, I essayed an arcane Strictly spinoff here.

And as I write, I also delight in the wondrous Bach orchestral suites in a live broadcast from the Proms, alternating with new compositions inspired by them. Though from an utterly different social milieu, devotees of Bach—whether amateur concert-goers or nerdy professors poring over manuscripts and watermarks—have more in common with the early music movement of the northern soul scene than one might think. Up to a point…


[1] Apart from numerous websites, other books on northern soul include

  • David Nowell, The story of northern soul: a definitive history of the dance scene that refuses to die (1999)
  • Elaine Constantine and Gareth Sweeney, Northern soul: an illustrated history (2013, complementing the former’s feature film).



Iran: chamber music


Ostad Dariush Talai.

Following my post on shawm bands of Lorestan, I went along to a fine concert of Iranian chamber music at the Purcell Room led by the unassuming ostad Dariush Talai (b.1953).

In contrast to the loud outdoor soundscapes of rural ceremonial, which inevitably draw us towards changing local social life, outsiders are often attracted to the more “classical”, “refined” urban chamber genres. Such music is much better represented in recordings, and feeds into the WAM taste for “autonomous”, “absolute” music—a notion convincingly debunked by ethnomusicologists such as NettlMcClary, Small, and Bigenho.

Amaneh Youssefzadeh provides context (in Michael Church, ed., The other classical musics, 2015):

Until the 20th century most classical music was performed in private gatherings—for small circles of connoisseurs, at Sufi brotherhoods, for family and friends, or in festivities including poetry recitation; the public concert was essentially a Western phenomenon. Moreover, apart from military music, public musical performance took place mostly in the context of religious and ceremonial rituals which are not considered musical per se; these include events in zurkāneh (Iran’s traditional fitness-clubs), the recitation of the Qur’an (tajwid), the call to prayer (‘azān), the recitation of the national epic Shāhnāmeh (naqqāli), the Shi’a passion play (ta’zieh) and the singing of laments (rowzeh-khāni) […]. Such ceremonies require singers skilled in classical music, and they have been crucial supports for classical music during. the periods of decline and discrimination. And in Iran, as in many parts of Middle East, classical singers have traditionally honed their skills in the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an; many celebrated singers from the first half of the 20th century sang in the ceremonial mourning rites described above. Mohammad Reza Shadjarian was a noted qāri (reciter of the Qur’an) before gaining fame as a classical performer.

* * *

At the Purcell Room Dariush Talai, on tar and setar plucked lutes, was supported by his younger protégés Hooshmand Ebadi (ney end-blown flute), Kaveh Mahmoudian (tombak drum), and singer Hadi Hosseini. Like the Chinese qin masters of yore, they play for their own self-cultivation—the dedicated audience in the austere Purcell Room must have felt they were eavesdropping on a private gathering.

In the first half Talai played in duo—first on tar with sensitive tombak accompaniment, and then on setar with the breathy ney. The second half consisted of one long suite, with all three musicians joined by the singer Hadi Hosseini. While the progression of such suites is more episodic than the gradual acceleration of Indian raga from alap to fast sections, it’s always engrossing to follow long sequences—by contrast with the short snappy solos of the Chinese conservatoires!

The opening duet was Dastgah Nava—here’s an earlier solo version with Talai on setar:

And here’s a track from Talai’s 1991 Ocora CD:

As a novice, while spellbound by the musicians’ artistry, it would require a thorough grounding for me to get a handle on the modal and melodic features of such pieces. Part of a widespread muqam family that also extends to the Uyghurs, each of the two hundred or so gushehs and the twelve dastgahs of the complete radif repertoire are individually named (cf. nanyin in south Fujian).

This music was one of the main focuses of the great Bruno Nettl. In chapter 7 of The study of ethnomusicology, “Contemplating musical repertories: a sampling of descriptive and analytical approaches”, he is as lucid as ever:

Iranian musicians taught the radif, the body of music that is memorized and then used as the basis for improvisation and composition. They labelled its sections (dastgahs) and their subdivisions (gushehs) clearly, although there was some disagreement on terminology and in determining which gushehs properly belonged to which dastgah. Musicians were willing to analyze certain performances, dividing them into sections and stating upon which sections of the radif each of them, in the improvised performance, is based. An ethnomusicologist who has studied with Iranian musicians can analyze such sectioned performances in this way but can’t be sure, on account of the lack of complete consensus, that the analysis will be accepted by every Persian master. This is the kind of analysis in which the ethnomusicologist does what the musicians of the culture do.

But one could go further. There are, for example, performances or sections that masters of the radif are not willing to analyze in this fashion, giving their equivalent of “he’s just improvising here”. They may say about such a performance that the musician does not know the radif, or he is purposely and expertly mixing materials from several sources, or he is simply playing avaz (nonmetric improvisation) in a dastgah in general, not taking account of the differences among the subdivisions of the dastgah that the radif provides. The first approach mentioned here would simply report these anomalies and perhaps point out the difference between the carefully sectioned and the other performances and refer to the fact that it seems to be readily recognized by Iranians. The second approach would take these unsectioned performances and, with the use of motivic analysis, determine almost moment by moment on which part of the radif each short bit of performance is based. Instead of just accepting that a particular five-minute segment is simply “avaz of the dastgah of Shur”, one could show that it is composed of materials from three gushehs (for example, salmak, golriz, and shahnaz), and makes fleeting references to three other gushehs. Now, certain Persian musicians, when confronted with analysis of this sort, pronounced it correct but found the information only mildly interesting, and not particularly relevant. It seemed that I had tried to take their way of looking at their own music further and had managed to avoid violating their way of approaching the analysis, but I had gone beyond where they were prepared to go, had divided their concepts into units smaller than those they were willing to use. I had gained some insights into how the music is put together; on the other hand, I could no longer claim simply to be presenting the system as it presents itself.

By comparison with my Chinese experience, I find it intriguing how the radif tradition in Iran seems to have been maintained more successfully under the umbrella of conservatoire training and concert performances. Again, Nettl’s templates for the various possible forms of change and responses to modernization are salient.

* * *

The concert inspired me to go back to the great senior masters like Mohammad Reza Shadjarian (to whom the suite in the Purcell Room concert was dedicated), with his ecstatic singing, and Mohammad-Reza Lotfi.


This live performance by Shadjarian is part of a playlist:

I’ve included a wonderful kemenche solo from Mohammad-Reza Lotfi under Indian and world fiddles.

For a general introduction to the musics of Iran, with discography, see Laudan Nooshin’s article in The Rough Guide to world music: Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and chapters in The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol. 6: The Middle East. Note also the site https://mahoor.com/en/. For the “classical” tradition, see e.g. Jean During, Jean During, Zia Mirabdolbaghi, and Dariush Safvat (eds), The art of Persian music (1991), and Amaneh Youssefzadeh’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics (2015).

For related posts, see Performance, and Three women of Herat. For more on the folk-art dichotomy, see e.g. Italy: folk musicking, and Das Land ohne Musik, as well as Popular culture in early modern Europe.


Mozart for winds, and “genius”

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.

The specialisation of professional training in WAM tends to work as an obstacle to appreciating the broader soundscape. Of course as a fiddle player, taking part in The Rite of Spring, Bach, Mahler, or opera gave me ample opportunity to admire great wind playing and singing; but somehow it seemed impertinent, as if it was none of my business—”just play the dots”, do your job, like a factory worker or a soldier not privy to the grand design (cf. Ecstasy and drudge). Chamber music offers more personal input, but makes a less reliable food-bowl for most performers.

Studying world music inevitably broadens our horizons. However inept, my training in participant observation among Chinese ritual groups and shawm bands helped me focus on the artistry of a range of musicking outside my own expertise.

Returning to WAM, Mozart’s piano concertos are full of exquisite wind parts (see also here, and here). And during our time at Cambridge my ears were opened by Stephen Barlow conducting the astounding Serenade in C minor—here’s an earlier recording:

Such miraculous inspiration is movingly articulated in one of the great scenes from Amadeus (on the Gran partita):

Such wonders are not the exclusive preserve of WAM composers. As always, Bruno Nettl has wise words (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, pp.57–9):

“Musical genius”. It’s the term music lovers in Western culture use to describe their greatest creators of music in classical music and also in jazz (like Louis Armstrong). It is sometimes also used for key figures in the history of popular music (like the Beatles and Elvis Presley).

After unpacking the mythology of Mozart and Beethoven, Nettl compares similar figures in Carnatic music—notably Tyagaraja, also credited with divine inspiration. He goes on:

There certainly are many cultures that share the concept of musical genius on one way or another. Again in my experience, a kind of star system was there in the classical music of Iran in the mid-20th century,  where the line between stars and others was even more pronounced than in Europe, star performers being accorded relatively more status, artistic license, and money. The nonstars were readily ranked from acceptable to incompetent. What distinguishes the “stars” among the most significant creative musicians in Iran, the ones who excel in the improvisiatory section of the performance of a dastgah—the avaz—is their ability to do something new within strict confines.

And while technical virtuosity was less of an issue in my experience of the music of the Blackfoot people, outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

He explores the issue further in Chapter 26 (see here, under “Music and learning”).

Anyway, while we naturally seek out the most outstanding bearers of tradition, yet as Christopher Small observed, musicking is a diverse social activity in which genius and virtuosity play only a limited part. Indeed, in both art and popular traditions they serve as something of a red herring; all kinds of performance events can be meaningful, and moving—from lullabies to a Dolly Parton gig.

Still, to return to inspired wind playing, I always relish Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations of Daoist vocal liturgy, or Hua Yinshan’s searing and soaring shawm playing. See also jazz and trumpet tags—selection here.


Playing with history: HIP

*For main page, click here!*
(under WAM at the right of main menu)


On the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, further to my article on Richard Taruskin, I’ve added a page on

  • John Butt, Playing with history (2002).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.

In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.


A taxonomy of taxonomies


One of the challenges of maintaining this blog is to overhaul all the categories and tags in the sidebar, although they remain rough and ready. After all, Life Itself is about classifying, organizing—plastic toys, musical instruments (indeed both), bookshelves, shopping lists, concepts, and so on. Here are a few headings:

Indexing is an under-estimated pleasure:

On slicing the pie of music, and religion:

Scholars’ attempts to classify expressive culture in China illustrate how we need a fluid concept of genres, constantly intersecting and crossing borders, as I outlined in my review of the great Anthology. Ethnography is the key.

Organology is a fascinating topic, with the endlessly fascinating Sachs–Hornbostel system:

And, definitively, an early Stewart Lee sketch clearing up a flawed interpretation of the Lord’s Creation:

Far from validating narrow discrimination, all this demands a nuanced, flexible view of human culture…

Gender: a roundup


“Daughters are also descendants”: village slogan, Hebei, 1990s. My photo.

For International Women’s Day, here’s a varied roundup of some highlights from the gender category in the sidebar.

For China, posts on the lives of rural women include

and on urban women:

For Europe, posts include:

Some thoughts on sexist language, featuring “Rear Admiral” Foley—the Benny Hill of the US Navy:

and a paean to AOC and Katelyn Ohashi:

In music, gender studies have become a major theme, besides female musicians generally:

and many more. Indeed, my varied Playlist of songs is dominated by female singers. Oh, and don’t forget The T-shirt of female composers—constantly in need of new additions!


Among humorists, Stella GibbonsBridget Christie, and Philomena Cunk have their own tags in the sidebar, among which some favourites are

Relevant posts on film include

Anyway, that’s just a selection from an ever-growing list…



New tag: dance

I’ve just added a tag in the sidebar for dance, suggesting some of the diversity and creativity of dancing around the world, such as





Das Land ohne Musik


Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912. More here.

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

There is no city in the world, I am sure, where so much music is consumed as in London.

Hector Berlioz, 1851

Susan McClary’ s book Feminine endings is always full of leads, such as:

Linda Austern and Richard Leppert have demonstrated that one reason the English have produced so little music is that they—more than their German or French neighbors—have long associated music with effeminacy. (p.17)

An intriguing thought, but it begs questions. First of all, “produced” here clearly refers to the composition of art music. A perceptive essay is

  • Peter Holman,* “Eighteenth-century English music: past, present, future” (ch.1 of David Wyn Jones (ed.), Music in eighteenth-century Britain, 2000),

where he tellingly probes the description of 18th-century England as “Das Land ohne Musik” (cf. Haydn). He dates it back further to a pithy 1840 comment by Heinrich Heine:

These people [the English] have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting.

Touché! As Holman notes,

Of course, this agenda is part of a larger one that has more to do with 19th-century cultural politics than with a proper, balanced evaluation of the total corpus of 18th-century music. It privileged what was perceived as as the centre—Italy, Germany, and Austria— over the supposed periphery—Scandinavia, eastern and central Europe, France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It privileged instrumental music, especially those genres that used Viennese sonata form, over vocal music. And it privileged the work of the professional secular male in concert music over all others, such as church musicians, amateurs, and women.
The most persistent observation on musical life in 18th-century England is that it was dominated by Handel and other immigrant composers, the implication being that native composers were too feeble, parochial, or conservative to offer them much competition.

OK, he’s broadly following the continental critics here in equating “musical life” with art music—not all the diverse folk traditions, such as the musical life of taverns in East Anglia. But he unpacks the assumptions of even this limited definition:

It was not a new situation. Immigrants had played an important role in bringing new ideas from the continent ever since the reign of Henry VII. (See Wind, ethnicity, and gender, and They come over ‘ere…)

Adducing Ferrabosco, Notari, and Draghi, Holman notes that that as the scale of immigration increased,

these developments were not symptoms of weakness or decline, but evidence of a vibrant and complex musical life. Musicians were not attracted to London from all over Europe by the prospect of becoming big fish in a small, stagnant pond, but because London was the largest and most exciting pond of all, where you did not need to be a big fish to make a fortune.

Indeed, it could be argued that England was the most musical country in Europe by the second half of the 18th century, judging by the amount of musical activity of all types.

The variety he cites here includes rival concert series, Italian opera, provincial music societies, church choirs, and amateur musicking such as “gentlemen” competing in taverns. This is indeed more diverse than the narrow picture he criticizes, but still doesn’t subsume “folk” activity such as sea shanties or street fiddlers. He goes on:

My second objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that there is little sign that immigrants replaced native musicians in lucrative employment, or prevented them from obtaining it.

Just as the Lupo and Bassano families had supplemented indigenous instrumentalists at the court of Henry VIII, Italian opera became just an extra strand enriching the musical life of London. But

My most serious objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that it is based on an anachronistic conception of national and racial identity. […] England has always been a nation of immigrants, and it makes no sense to restrict an account of its culture to the work of natives, or, more accurately, to the work of the descendants of less recent immigrants.
What is often forgotten is that immigrant composers, anxious to be accepted in England, adapted their own idioms to conform to English taste.

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

At the same time, the “foreign domination” theory does rest to a large extent on the focus on the composers and performers of art music. Despite my pleas to broaden the social scope, Holman’s perspective, like a lot of in-depth studies of WAM, belongs firmly within the wise counsels of ethnomusicology. His chapter contains many more perceptive observations, which you must read!

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

  • Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (1987)

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

  • “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”,

which I introduced here. As the book’s Introduction notes, recent changes in scholarship,

especially evident in literature, film, and visual art, have led to a systematic investigation of the implicit assumptions underlying critical methods of the last two-hundred years, including prominently the assumption that art consistutes an autonomous sphere, separate and isolated from the outside social world.

Janet Wolff’s Foreword is another nail in the coffin of “autonomous” art—and another critique that should be compulsory for heritage pundits in China. The book ranges rather widely, with chapters from Rose Subotnik on Chopin, Simon Frith on popular music, John Shepherd on music and male hegemony, John Mowitt on electric technology in sound production, and Leppert’s own discussion of the music, domestic life, and cultural chauvinism of British subjects in India.

The authors point out that they hardly deal with music and society in non-Western cultures, touching “only lightly on questions about the music of women, and ethnic and racial minorities”. They observe that women, and the lower classes, have been erased from the received picture, though they are rarely excluded from musicking—just from prestigious public musicking.

So again the book is largely based on the musical activities of the bourgeoisie—not least because the source material largely derives from them. Still, the debt to ethnomusicology is clear: even if WAM scholarship may seem to contrast with ethnomusicology, they can enter into a rapprochement [uh-oh, more non-national terms?—Ed.].

* * *

Actually, all we need to deflate the idea of Das Land ohne Musik is the classic question “What is music?“—or rather, “What is musicking?”. Pundits of both WAM and pop music tend to take a limited view, as I often observe (e.g. here, and here).

By a narrow definition based on composers of art music, most of the world over most of history would be considered “without music”. Do mothers singing lullabies, spirit mediums, or percussion bands, count? Even once we’ve thrown out the narrow assumption that music means art music, I wonder how one might rank the cultures of the world in terms of “musicality”: Inuit, Italian, Andalucian, Tibetan, Bolivian, Malian, Afghan, and so on. Were Afghans or Andalucians “unmusical”, and are they now? And we may be lumbered with the dodgy cliché that Africans, like Chinese ethnic minorities, are “good at singing and dancing”—but where might north Americans come in the spurious league table, for instance?

Cultural genocide—the suppression of indigenous cultures by a dominant force—is a separate subject. As I write this, I notice this blurb for what I’m sure is a fine BBC4 programme:

Masters of the Pacific coast: the tribes of the American northwest
Exploring how culture was established on the American northwest.

Discuss… An inspiration for the Party’s current replacement of the complexities of Uyghur music by “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (note also this post)?

Is a society in which most people frequently sing or dance less musical than one with an opera house, a symphony orchestra, and a conservatoire? “Expenditure on the arts” is a dubious index. Is a funding-dependent society in which children are discouraged from singing and dancing unless they’re formally trained as musical as one where such activity is assumed, embedded in the culture? Indeed, even in such a culture, formally-trained musicians make up only a small proportion of participants.

As always, it’s worth considering the wise words of Bruno Nettl, in his

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

He addresses the issue of “what is music?” —a point also made by Christopher Small in his introduction to Musickingin a famous vignette in his chapter 2, “Combining tones: the concept of music”:

Let me reconstruct a cocktail party conversation about 1975 when I confessed to working in ethnomusicology. “Studying American Indian music?” says one amazed person. “I didn’t know they even had music”. I try patiently to explain. “Oh yes, I knew they had chants, but is that really music?” From an elderly gentleman: “I spent a year in Africa, heard a lot of singing and drumming, but is that music? After all, they don’t write it down. Maybe they just make it up as they go along. Do they really know what they’re doing?” More explanation. A young man has added himself. “But these sounds that some peoples in Asia make with their instruments and voices, or the Indian chants, can you call them music? They don’t have harmony.” And a middle-aged lady: “My teenage sons play something they call music all day. I can’t stand any of it.”

We might now wonder if Nettl was going to the wrong kind of parties; indeed, he notes that people may have since become more broad-minded, but the issue remains. He discusses John Blacking’s important book How musical is man? (1973):

writing today, he would likely have asked “How musical are humans?” […] He recognized the world as a group of musics, though he personally was always more interested in their borderlands than the centers, but he wanted to make sure that his readers understood a major point: in the end, all musics are equally valuable, or, let’s put it this way, all musics are to an equal degree music.

Nettl’s whole book explores such themes—essential reading! Even his models for types of cultural change may be instructive to understand the fates of native American and Uyghur cultures.


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

So the Land ohne Musik slight rests on a blinkered valorization of a league table of Great Works by Great Composers, rather than the diverse forms of musicking in society generally. Ironically, it’s based on new music.

As to England being ohne Musik in 1914 (or indeed 1714), never mind all the WAM activity then, how about all the traditions then being unearthed by Cecil Sharp and Co.—singing, local dance traditions, street music, wind bands? In the narrow view, none of these seem to count.

Issues here include the balance of “active” producers and “passive” consumers, amateur and occupational performers. What of a society which expects to invite performers often, as in Hokkien cultures in southeast China; or one where people simply attend a lot of parties?

Music does seem more ubiquitous than ever today: not just via technology (over speakers in malls and, um, elevators), but actively: both listening to recorded music most of the time, and active musicking at all kinds of social events, including clubbing, places of worship, and football matches.

So never mind 1730s’ Leipzig or 1780s’ Vienna, how about Liverpool and Detroit in the 1960s, or Herat in the 1970s—or Beijing, New York, and London today? I’m not exactly disputing the notion that some societies may be more “musical” than others, but attempting to compile a league table of world musicality would ultimately be a cul-de-sac. Whether for the 18th century or today, it’d take a thorough broad-based survey of soundscapes to assess all this—one fine example of the broad view is Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 The hidden musicians, on musical life in Milton Keynes.

At least, people don’t wait for composers (whether indigenous or foreign) to write symphonies and operas to express their musicality. All this may seem obvious, but people still tend to stick within their particular tribes.

By the way, I constantly dispute the narrow dominance of one particular limited view of what constitutes “Chinese music”. I’ve given many instances of the narrow dominance of the conservatoire style and commercial pop; but punk, all kinds of vocal music along the continuum from folk-song to opera, spirit mediumshousehold Daoists, shawm and percussion bands, and so on, are all part of the picture we have to consider—as for any society in the world, for any period. Yet again, we should delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse

* This is neither here nor there, but it was on tour with Peter that Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story


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!



Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans

Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.


Source: reddit.com.

Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. Some tracks appear on YouTube, such as

Note also this channel.

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodály, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples (cf. The whisperers). Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding the interest of early east European music scholars in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though by the 1970s they had weathered the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

See also The Kazakh famine.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course the latter too would have suffered under the policies of their own regime.

* * *


Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.


Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodály’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.


In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: Tibetan monks lay down their arms, 1959 (AFP/Getty.).
Right: Norbulingka, Lhasa 1966 (from Forbidden memoryessential reading).

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1956 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo (see Labrang 1).

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.


Musical cultures of east Europe

tanchaz 93

String trio with cimbalom at the Meta táncház, Budapest 1993another perk of my orchestral touring life. My photo.

Having written about the ill-fated blind minstrels of Ukraine, here I’d like to outline the importance of the varied soundscapes around east Europe (a region I’ve also touched in several posts). Also, changing expressive cultures there—besides their intrinsic fascination—suggest useful perspectives for our studies of China.

This may be Old Hat for World Music fans, but perhaps less so for China-watchers or scholars of Asian ritual. Here I’ll offer a mere smattering of reading and audio-visual material.

As in China, sandwiched between the timeless ancient and recent turbo-rock images of the whole region are the elusive fates of local cultures during the state socialist era. Parallel with the official state ensembles, folk traditions were not entirely dormant (a major theme of mine for China; for the spectrum, see e.g. here and here); and fieldwork and research continued, despite political obstacles. These traditions are not so much national as regional, indeed local; subcultures cross boundaries.

And they are not timeless reified commodities to be preserved, but ever-evolving amidst complex social change. Changing political boundaries, and mutual borrowings, belie ongoing nationalist agendas—another reminder of the fantastic and enduring diversity of European cultures (see e.g. Iberia tag for flamenco and fado). Tensions are apparent between local values and official images—and latterly the World Music scene.

Life-cycle rituals, notably weddings, remain a major context. But as the image of the unspoilt rural idyll recedes, turbo-folk tends to dominate. Weddings have become a focus of modernization; secular festivals, no longer manipulated by the Party state, also come to the fore. Yet changes in rural life also remain a lively topic. There’s never a simple progression from unspoilt rural traditions through kitsch state ensembles to turborock.

Both vocal and instrumental genres are remarkable. Older instruments haven’t entirely been replaced, such as gadulka and gusle fiddles, kaval end-blown flute, zurna shawm, gaida bagpipe.

For an introduction to the different early post-war histories of the whole region, see

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956.

* * *

Fieldwork on east European traditions began still before the explorations of Bela Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Constantin Brăiloiu, but they make a convenient starting-point. Their interests extended far beyond the borders of Hungary and Romania—indeed, Bartók made fieldtrips as far afield as Turkey and north Africa.

Bartok LP

We can admire Brăiloiu’s 1933–43 recordings on this CD:

For convenient collections of articles, see

  • Bela Bartók, Essays (1976)
  • Zoltán Kodály, Folk music of Hungary (1960/1982—translation revised by Laurence Picken, who maintained a lively correspondence with east European musicologists!)
  • Constantin Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology (1984).

Still, their work belongs towards the “music” end of the music—culture spectrum, and later under the Communist era, social and political analysis was discouraged from developing. On the one hand, the early fieldworkers are laudable for making trips long before the formal discipline of ethnomusicology; on the other, under state socialism the scholars were laudable for attempting to pursue ethnographic principles under political pressures. Later the whole region became one of the most lively topics of the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology (ESEM).

As Carol Silverman observes about the Roma,

Early folk music studies focus on aesthetics and creativity rather than on power differentials; they were primarily about the culture within folk groups, not about domination, resistance, and conflict among groups.

Indeed, there are varied ways to study the topic, from popular to scholarly. We might start with the articles in the Rough guide to world music and Songlines magazine, where east Europe is well covered thanks largely to the enthusiasm of their editor Simon Broughton. Apart from the recent glossy World Music stars, it also features local traditions and archive recordings (mostly listed at the start of the discographies).

Among more scholarly studies, note relevant chapters in

  • Timothy Rice and James Porter (eds.), The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe (2000).

For many further refs. at the traditional end of the spectrum, showing the energy of early collecting and recording, see

  • Barbara Krader and Bálint Sarosi, “Southern and eastern Europe”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.160–96,

and in the same volume, updating the story, relevant sections of

  • James Porter, “Europe”, pp.215–39.

Chapters in

  • Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe (1996)

suggest Chinese parallels in the adjustment following the demise of state socialism. Of course, while the early 1990s were a time of pivotal significance, the scene has continues to change since then. I cited a couple of salient general points from Retuning culture here.

In all these regions, educated urban “roots” movements have become an aspect of the revival since the fall of Communism. In Retuning culture Judit Frigyesi describes this for Hungary, whereas in the following chapter Barbara Rose Lange discusses the reaction against it in the form of lakodalmas rock—resembling similar tensions in China.

At the same time, as Timothy Garton Ash comments in a review of Witold Szablowski’s Dancing Bears,

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment, of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe, as Voltaire did with Russia and Rousseau did with Poland. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region.

Another constant theme is ritual, along with religion—which persisted in various ways under state socialism. See e.g.

  • Jacek Jackowski, “Folk religious songs sung during the peregrination of Virgin Mary’s icon: an example of traditional Polish peasant piety in Communist times”, in Music traditions in totalitarian systems (2010).

I won’t attempt to cover Polish, Czech, or Slovak traditions here, though they too are a rich topic, with a wealth of material (for Moravia, see here; for Polish jazz, with a side order of folk, here). For an introduction to the perspective from Poland, see Anna Czekanowska in Retuning culture. And I already mentioned Michael Beckerman’s piece in Retuning culture on Milan Kundera’s brilliant dissection of culture clash in The joke.

But despite the glossy stars of the World Music scene, it’s not all about them: they are just the tip of the iceberg of changing social life (cf. my flamenco series, starting here). That’s far from saying that folk traditions are anonymous—on the contrary, personalities are always important, and locally there are always hierarchies and admired performers.

Under state socialism, in the wake of the tradition of Bartók, Kodaly, and Brăiloiu, fieldwork on regional traditions was avidly pursued. Before and after 1989 I returned from concerts in Budapest with suitcases full of box-sets of LPs from the Hungaroton label, founded in 1951.


There’s also a wealth of material on film and online. Gigs are all very well; feature films (see below) are more revealing; ethnographic documentaries are fewer (if only the BBC films of Simon Broughton were available now).

Hungary, Transylvania, Romania
Here—by contrast with the brass-band sound that has come to dominates the Balkans—string bands are still plentiful, surviving notably in Transylvania, source of much of the inspiration for Hungarian folk music studies ever since Bartok’s fieldwork.

The combo of primas fiddle, contra viola, and bass is enchanting (for this and other world fiddle traditions, see here). Foremost among many recordings with a more traditional brief is a series of fine box sets from Hungaroton, followed by the Fono label, including their Final hour/ Új Pátria series.

Unearthing Transylvanian bands has long been at the heart of the projects of the enterprising Budapest-based concert band Muzsikás and the wonderful singer Márta Sebestyén, and of the Budapest táncház (“dance house”) scene (for which see e.g. Jávorszky Béla Szilárd, The story of Hungarian folk, 2015, and an introductiion in Songlines #112). But the fortunes of most such rural bands remained based in the lives of their local communities.

Here Muzsikás accompany the master fiddler Sandor “Neti” Fodor (1922–2004):

Still in Romania, the Rough Guide introduces many distinctive traditions, such as those of Maramureș and Moldavia. The Csángó people of Gyimes are famed for the duo of fiddle with gardon slapped bass—one of the best possible things to do with a bass, apart from furniture effects and marriage guidance counselling (cf. viola jokes).

Here’s a documentary made soon after the 1989 revolution, with contributions from Muzsikás and (from 28.28) the Gyimes fiddle and gardon:

Transylvania is also another of the enviable fieldsites of Bernard Lortat-Jacob:

  • Jacques Bouët, Bernard Lortat-Jacob, and Speranţa Rădulescu, A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie (2002, with DVD),

a detailed ethnography of social musicking in the Oaș region, including musical analyses.

From Clejani near Bucharest, Taraf de Haïdouks were plucked up into the World Music scene; indeed, they are the source of my favourite quote about such success. Speranţa Rădulescu had recorded them from 1983, and introduced fellow-ethnomusicologist Laurent Aubert to them in 1986. Later, taken up by the likes of Johnny Depp, they toured with the Kronos quartet (“Californian pointy-heads” apud Cartwright, Princes amongst men, pp.196–7—actually a telling vignette on the different aesthetics of folk and art musicians).

But with the goals of ethnomusicologists and World Music promoters not always in tandem, such collaborations may not unfold smoothly. The World Music scene not only propels certain bands to fame, but may engender rival clones, misunderstandings, and lawsuits.

Retuning culture has a fascinating article

  • Steluta Popa, “The Romanian revolution of December 1989 and its reflection in musical folklore”,

documenting songs just as they were being composed—if only we could hear them too. But we can hear, from Latcho Drom (see below), the “Ballad of the dictator” by the late great Nicolae Neacșu (of Taraf de Haïdouks)—including my very favorite fiddle technique, evoking anguish, earthquake, or perhaps the creaking door that precedes “The master is not at home” in a Hammer Horror movie (perhaps not so suitable in the Mahler Adagietto, but who knows):

Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the people doing?
They’re taking to the streets, yelling and crying “Freedom!”
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the students doing?
They’re marching on Bucharest, yelling and crying “Sweep away the dictatorship.”
Green leaves, a million green leaves on this 22nd day
Here, the time for life has returned, to live in freedom
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, There in Timisoara people are taking to the streets, yelling “It’s all over for the tyrant!”
What are the men doing? They’re taking out their guns. They’re shooting at people. Ceaucescu hears them:
“Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania.”

Beyond all the traumas of warfare and occupation, these are regions where countless Jewish and Roma peoples were deported and murdered in the mid-20th century, transforming the cultural landscape. In addition to its articles by country, The Rough Guide has a section on the trendy tag of Gypsy music—indeed, casting the net as wide as Rajasthan, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France, and Britain.

The fortunes of Roma peoples in various nations are tellingly described in

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing (1995),

and turning to music, another most accessible book is

  • Garth Cartwright, Princes amongst men [sic]: journeys with Gypsy musicians (2005),

with vignettes from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Though based on interviews with the stars, it makes a lively and well-observed read, a popular introduction not only to the scene at the time of his visits but also to the state socialist background. See his playlist here.

 The transgressive lifestyle of the Roma, Exotic Other “deviating from behavioural norms”, has long made an irresistible commercial proposition, as gleefully evoked in many popular feature films (Cartwright, pp.306–8 gives a useful list), such as those of Emil Kusturica like Time of the Gypsies (1989), Underground (1995), and Black cat, white cat (1998), or—more acceptably to the Roma community—Tony Gatlif, including Latcho Drom (1993, travelling from Rajasthan, Egypt, and Turkey to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain):

and Gadjo dilo (1997):

An impressive early film was I even met happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967).

The Balkans
Here the scars of the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia are constantly on display. Brass bands have come to dominate the soundscape, the Guča festival making a heady showcase. Among the stars are Boban and Marko Marković (Serbia), the Kočani orkestar (Macedonia), and Fanfare Ciocârlia (from Zece Prăjini in Moldavia, Romania). While high-octane numbers dominate, the slow ballads are also most affecting.

Sorry, can’t find English subtitles for this 2002 documentary Iag bari/Brass on fire, so here’s some Swedish practice:

Modern brass bands have developed from groups led by zurna shawms with percussion, rather as Chinese shawm bands have added Western brass and pop music to their instrumentation since the 1980s.

The label “Balkan jazz” reminds me that I couldn’t resist describing the amazing Hua family shawm band as Chinese gypsies playing Ming-dynasty jazz; but accounts of both the social life of Balkan musos and the wildness of their playing do indeed suggest similarities.

In Bosnia–Herzegovina, apart from sevdalinka singing (sevdah resembling Romanian dor, as well as duende and saudade), Islamic soundscapes include kaside, ilahije, and zikr rituals—note the Smithsonian Folkways CD Bosnia: echoes from an endangered world:

Bulgaria, Macedonia
Academic studies include

  • Timothy Rice, May it fill your soul: experiencing Bulgarian music (1994, with CD)
  • Donna Buchanan, Performing democracy: Bulgarian music and musicians in transition (2006)
  • Carol Silverman, Romani routes: cultural politics and Balkan music in diaspora (2012, with companion website)

See also Silverman’s 2007 article on the changing wedding market, and chapters by Rice and Silverman in Retuning culture.

Silverman notes that Bulgaria had one of the most centralized forms of state socialism, Macedonia one of the least. But under both regimes the Roma—“powerless politically and powerful musically”—continued to play for non-Rom as well as Rom audiences at village and town events, such as weddings, birth celebrations, soldier send-off celebrations, circumcisions, and baptisms.

In the West, broad awareness of Bulgarian music began when “World Music” was just a twinkle in the promoter’s eye, with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The original LP, released as early as 1975, was reissued more widely in 1986. After the collapse of state socialism they reinvented themselves with several reincarnations, with further albums following. They made rather more earthy recordings too, like this track from Bulgarian custom songs (1993):

Another early star of the World Music circuit was Ivo Papazov—subject of a fine article by Donna Buchanan in Retuning culture, and vignettes in Rice’s May it fill your soul. Reminding us again that musicking doesn’t necessarily take place in designated venues like concert halls, the wedding scene is important. But Buchanan unpacks the ethnic and cultural tensions. In summer 1989, 370,000 ethnic Turks and Muslims were deported. Buchanan also puts into context how Papazov was promoted abroad by Joe Boyd with the Hannibal albums Orpheus ascending (1989) and Balkanology (1991), soon launching him as a global touring star—just as the local economy was collapsing.

Weddings had been lucrative, and moreover musos prefer their ambience—as Ivo commented,

In truth, a wedding is equal to a dozen concerts. There a person can create… A great deal of music is introduced in a wedding, and in a concert you lack this thrill.

However, by the 1990s weddings lasted only one day: he was being nostalgic for the extravagance of the 1980s! He returned to recording with the great albums Fairground (2003) and Dance of the falcon (2008). Meanwhile the wedding scene in Bulgaria continues to change.

Whatever setting he plays in, his music is just intoxicating. Here’s one of several YouTube playlists, including some raw footage from local gigs also featuring other bands:

And a drôle quote from Frank Zappa, no less:

Ivo’s wedding music, played first thing in the morning, provides thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive.

Though additive “limping” metres feature in much folk music around the region and further afield (notably Turkey), Bulgaria has been particularly associated with them.

In Macedonia, megastars (sic) are Esma Redžepova (e.g. here, and here; and a playlist:)

and sax player Ferus Mustafov, also featured by Cartwright.

But again, it’s not all about the stars of the World Music scene. At the same time, musical appraisals expand from local to global, which are often at variance. By contrast with both nostalgic romantics and World Music fans in search of the latest groove, the brash sounds of Bulgarian chalga and Romanian manele have become highly popular.

As Cartwright observes,

The difference between what the West’s world music industry sells as Gypsy music and what the Roma listen to back in the Balkans can be huge. Sure, in Serbia Šaban is king and across Macedonia Esma reigns. But this is akin to African Americans acknowledging James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Don’t mean they’re listening to them. And in Romania the breach seems wider than anywhere else. Fulgerica is respected but he’s no pop star while Fanfare Ciocârlia and Taraf de Haïdouks exist only for Western audiences. That they play superior Gypsy music, rooted in tradition, means nothing. The local Roma aren’t listening. What they want is Adrian. And Guța.

Meanwhile, as he notes, the Venezuelan soap opera Kasandra became wildly popular across the Balkans, giving Šaban Bajramović a huge hit in 1997.

Albanian cultures
As a respite from the bombardment of turbo-folk, it’s good to return to a more traditional milieu. Again, ethnic Albanians occupy not just Albania but Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and northern Greece; the soundscape is highly regional, with Gheg culture in the north, Tosk and Lab further south.

The splendid A. L. Lloyd somehow issued a fine album as early as in 1966:

The polyphony here is amazing. From the south, another fine CD from Bernard Lortat-Jacob is

  • Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales (notes here):

A substantial study is

  • Jane Sugarman, Engendering song: singing and subjectivity at Albanian Prespa weddings (1997, with CD).

Again, the epics sung by bards, over a wide region of south Yugoslavia and Albanian communities, don’t neatly fit national or ethnic boundaries.

The classic study is

  • Albert Lord, The singer of tales (with CD-Rom; complete text here)

following the work of Milman Parry, Most singers are accompanied by a one-string fiddle like the gusle, as in this celebrated 1935 clip:

And in case all this seems like a bygone world, see here for a 2018 Venice performance of a Kosovan bard.

* * *

Under all these unwieldy national rubrics, the diverse ethnic groups negotiate the changing times, interacting. As ever, this is far more than a “merely musical” topic, as such cultures are not merely quaint ornaments, aural pashmina; they are windows on changing local societies, an essential part of what makes them click. As in China, it’s no use clinging onto a romantic idealization of the past; and we should always delve beyond the World Music stars to musicking in local societies.

As ever, Bruno Nettl offers useful perspectives, as in his taxonomies for various types of change and responses to them.

For any sinophiles who have read this far, it may serve as a reminder of the persistent variety of regional and local traditions in China—not just the ethnic tapestries of the northwest, southwest, and indeed northeast, or even Hakka and Hokkien cultures, but all kinds of musicking beneath the provincial level in Han Chinese regions.

The cultures of all these groups—before and during state socialism, and since— deserve detailed attention. And World Music fans may tend to favour modern commercial pop, but it’s important for ethnographers to include it in the picture too. Even in my work on Daoist funerals in China, I could hardly neglect the pop bands outside the gate (my film, from 30.32).

Both academic and popular accounts repay study: and both keep track of change. I wonder what Bartok would have made of all this—another of those fruitless debates like “Would Bach have used the ondes martenot?” or “Mozart would have written advertising jingles”…

For a sequel, click here. See also under Some jazz fiddling.

On a lighter note, far from PC, there’s Molvania

Why music matters


I’m just re-reading

  • Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe (1996).

I’ve stressed the importance of soundscape to the study of both ritual and, more generally,  local cultures (Nettl, Small, Bigenho, and so on; see also category World music > general). Ethnomusicological literature explores endless variations on this theme, but the opening paragraph of Slobin’s introduction might serve as a mission statement:

Music is both deeply rooted and transient. It dissolves into space while simultaneously settling into individual and collective memory. Yesterday’s songs trigger today’s tears. Music harbors the habitual, but also acts as a herald of change. It helps to orchestrate personal, local, regional, ethnic, religious, linguistic, and national identity. Stable yet constantly in flux, music offers both striking metaphors and tangible data for understanding societies at moments of transition.

He goes on to comment,

Each hegemonic thrust and subcultural parry are just episodes in a long fencing match on the battlefield of culture.

In the same volume, Carol Silverman also stresses the importance of music:

Music shapes politics and economics and social life as well as being shaped by them. Moreover, music is often part of a cultural milieu that displays specific social values, values that may represent the existing hegemony, counter it, or subvert it.


Taco taco taco burrito


Wondering how to get to grips with additive metres?
Awed by the complexities of flamenco palmas?
Despair not, help is at hand!

As a prelude to aksak “limping” metres, we might start with quintuple metres, which go far back, even in WAM. By the baroque period there are niche examples by composers such as Schmelzer, and they feature in 19th-century Russian music—a most popular instance being the “limping waltz” of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony (2+3).

This reminds me of two other subversions of the waltz, albeit in regular triple metre: the 2nd movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (cf. here and here), and Ravel’s La valse, a “surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”, as I said in my Ravel page. Elsewhere, perhaps inspired by the Basque zortzico dance, Ravel was partial to additive metres—such as in his piano trio, and the quintuple-time Bacchanale finale of Daphnis and Chloé (both also featured on that page, the latter from 45.29).

Quintuplets, of course, are something else altogether; as are the creative use of additive rhythms in minimalism (see also examples from Reich and Meredith).

From Tchaikovsky we might graduate to

  • the Pearl and Dean theme (which we may hear as two groups each of 3+3+2; or for a Bulgarian, perhaps two fast groups of 3+3+3+3+2+2)
  • Un homme et une femme (after the three upbeats, 3+3+2+2: the first two 3s, in the original “Dabadabada, badabadaba”, were later remembered as “Chabadabada“, a word that entered the language to denote alternating male and female candidates in electoral lists!)
  • and Lalo Schifrin’s theme to Mission impossible (5/4, with a duplet over the first 2 beats).

If you can hum along to such easy examples, then that’s a good start in mastering the intricacies of so-called aksak metres around east Europe and the Middle East…

Indeed, Take five was inspired by hearing Turkish musicians. Rather more challenging is the opening section of Blue Rondo à la Turk (2+2+2+3):

Note the helpful BTL comment there (only without the punctuation!):

Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito. Taco, taco, taco, burrito.
[SJ: not to be confused with potato, potato]

Still, that’s a rather crude, mechanical usage, the melody merely marking out the metre in regular quavers—whereas further east, melodic rhythms are infinitely varied within the basic metre.

Admittedly, the additive patterns of the Rite of spring have been transcribed in 4/4—was it really Boulez who had this drôle idea?! Cf. Slonimsky‘s help for Koussevitzky, here). Indeed, the scores for both the Pearl and Dean and Un homme et une femme tunes were written in duple metres.

And Max Richter’s welcome recomposition of the Four Seasons mixes in some great limping 7/8 bars (2+2+3—just the two tacos before the burrito today, thanks waiter) (from 1.14):

An intriguing instance is I say a little prayer, with its quirky insertion of a triple-time bar in the chorus—which no-one apparently even has to think about.

* * *

But all this is mere child’s play compared to folk music. Though such metres are quite widespread, Bartók, Brailiou et al. coined the term “Bulgarian rhythm”.


Some instances of “Bulgarian rhythm”, found here; see also here.

A classic essay is

  • Constantin Brăiloiu, “Aksak rhythm” (in Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology, 133–67, based on a 1951 lecture),

which contains far more detailed schemata. His work followed that of

  • Bela Bartók, “The so-called Bulgarian rhythm” (1938).

A transcription by Bartók of a Turkish zurna–davul shawm band shows how, over the basic metre, melodic and percussion rhythms seriously thicken the plot:

aksak 2

The whole repertoire of players like Ivo Papazov is based on aksak metres:

I don’t think I’m quite ready for Sedi donka (Plovdivsko horo), a 25-beat pattern divided

    7             7                 11
3+2+2 | 3+2+2  | 2+2+3+2+2

For more on the diverse musical cultures of Bulgaria and environs, see here. And for a wide-ranging discussion, see

  • John Blacking, “Irregular rhythms: movement, dance, music, and ritual”, ch.3 of A common-sense view of all music (1987).

Back with Merrie England, there’s a fascinating article:

* * *

Further east, an example from the muqam of the beleaguered Uyghurs of Xinjiang is sadly topical (see this useful site). A common metre consists of one long beat divided into two equal stresses, followed by two regular beats—which we might notate cumbersomely as


with the initial duplet over a notional 3/8 unit:

Some sections add another duple unit, like this dastan from Chebiyat muqam (actually a duplet over 3/8,  followed by 3/4):


And some muqam have still more metrically complex segments to explore.

As with many world genres, the Uyghurs have no tradition of notation, and seem to have no terminology for such metres (though see Rachel Harris’s chapter in Harris and Stokes (eds.), Theory and Practice in the Music of the Islamic World). As with flamenco, this kind of thing is only an issue for those (like me) hampered by a visual classical education. The trick is to internalize it in the body—and to dispense with notation. Let’s remember that much of this music accompanies dance.

Uyghur musical traditions are part of a rich culture that is currently being systematically erased in Xinjiang.



Musicking worldwide: a new category!

Bartok 1907



As I write more about musicking worldwide, I’ve upgraded the former world music tag to a new category in the sidebar, which allows me to make some rudimentary subheads—and do click on all the internal links too!

The rubric “world music” is a compromise. Of course, all these posts are about far more than mere “music”: they concern the cultures of local societies along with the soundscapes that animate them. The glossy commercial category of “World Music” (to which I am almost as resistant as to “heritage“) features only as an occasional irritant—though it does appear magnificently (under “drôle”) here.

Here’s a selection of some highlights, by subheads:

  • Under Asia, I have included some posts related to the Chinese soundscape (like Different values, and Festivals), but my myriad posts on the Li family Daoists (with subheads!) and other ritual groups (many linked here), as well as the qin, all have their own separate categories and tags. And I’ve included some articles on Indian music, but it’s worth exploring the Indian tag too. Note this post on Afghan musicking.

AND it’s always worth basking in this playlist—while it could be yet more eclectic, it has a variety of gorgeous, plaintive, exuberant songs.


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.

Analysing world music


My writings on Chinese ritual may seem to privilege ethnography and social change. But I do also like to relate all this to the nuts and bolts of the language of sound, as with my Dissolving boundaries (comparing qin and shawm pieces!), and for the liturgy of the Li family Daoists, clues in my book, chs. 14 to 16.

Having just made a plea for soundscape to be considered an intrinsic component of ritual studies, these analyses are highly technical, so I may now be shooting myself in the foot, but hey.

Once upon a time, analysis was the bread-and-butter of world music studies, often following Western Art Music musicology in taking reified “works of art” as its object. Recently the online journal Analytical approaches to world music takes a valuable step forward—enriching silent text by embedded audio examples. And while the analyses are dense, they always take note of changing social and performance contexts.

Some highlights that appeal to my own tastes—starting with flamenco, since I’m always grappling with the palmas hand-clapping patterns:

And a perspective on chant:

Anyway, none of this should dissuade the ethnographer with a less technical grasp of musical elements from paying attention to the soundscape of ritual and the lives of performers and their patrons!


Thinking outside the (music) box

Li Yuan qushui better

In studying any socially-grounded human activity such as Chinese ritual, those with an interest in soundscape (which, after all, is the basis of ritual performance) may feel pigeonholed, marginalized. And I’m not alone in resisting the categorization of “ethnomusicologist” (for an accessible overview of the field, see Nettl).

Michelle Bigenho reflects cogently on the issue in her chapter


I take her words to heart. As she writes,

I resist being classified as an ethnomusicologist because the label often inadvertently carries with it certain assumptions. Under the label “ethnomusicologist,” “music” becomes my object of study, and I am then expected to musically map the geographic area of my purported expertise, an expectation that clings to a notion of bounded, discrete cultures tied to specifically grounded places. When music becomes the object and geographic mapping becomes the project, many compelling anthropological and theoretical questions are swept to the sidelines. Many ethnomusicologists are working beyond and outside of these two problematic assumptions, but the discipline’s institutional affiliations often inhibit its ability to move beyond these conceptualizations of “culture.” Furthermore, the ethnomusicologist label also carries with it expectations about a researcher’s position as a participating musician. While this point is usually held up as a particular strength of ethnomusicology, to privilege “doing music” over other kinds of fieldwork participation is to play into Western ideologies about music, talent, giftedness etc.—all points that should be under anthropological scrutiny rather than assumed as givens.
I contend that even though maintaining the idea of music participation as a special realm of ethnographic work may have its benefits, such framings also have significant drawbacks. All forms of fieldwork participation are different and unique, but constructing music participation as a privileged realm works hand in hand with an ethnocentric ideology that affords music an autonomous space. Emerging from very powerful ideologies about music in Western society, the awe factor cuts two ways—amazement at the imagined talented colleague who “does music too,” and a tendency to assume that one cannot fully understand work on music without being a musician. While anthropologists seem to be quite adept at opening their minds to absorb complex specialized information about kinship or linguistics, strong ideologies about musical knowledge, who has access to it, and who is empowered to speak about it, shape their open-ness to hear about musical details of ethnographic work. The apologetic “I’m not a musician, so…” seems to be invoked in a peculiar way. I suggest that anthropologists might heed Michael Herzfeld’s suggestion that we learn proficiency in other expressive modes beyond what is usually expected in terms of language training (2001:280).

Not everyone who learns Quechua as a fieldwork language ends up speaking it fluently, but having studied it at all is considered one of the many ways to struggle toward an anthropological understanding. I think more supposed “non-musicians” should be learning proficiencies in music and writing about social life through the lens of music.
When music participation is claimed as a privileged form of ethnographic experience the claim plays into hidden Western ideologies about talent and giftedness (see Kingsbury 1988), about music as an autonomous sphere, and about experience and personhood.

Bigenho unpacks the assumptions of insider and outsider status, as well as the constraints of academic disciplines and area studies.

Anthropologists may admire their colleague who does music, but along with that admiration come ideas about an imposed insider-ship and the suspicion that one may be having too much fun to do anything of theoretical significance. Herzfeld calls attention to how anthropologists suspect media as a legitimate area of inquiry because of media’s associations with pleasure (2001:312). Similarly, music—unless it is closely allied with linguistic anthropology (see Feld and Fox 1994)—may be seen as a realm of too much pleasure, a realm from which substantive theoretical contributions are imagined to rarely emerge.
When anthropologists present work with intricate details of kinship, linguistics, and the law, these details are not the object of analysis, but rather the lenses through which to examine broader cultural questions. When people call me an ethnomusicologist, music implicitly becomes the object of my studies; the practice of music-making becomes my work; and I am immediately imagined on conference panels with others who “do music,” even though I feel much more in dialogue with scholars focussing on anthropologies of nationalism, the State, indigeneity, and embodied experience. Even though ethnomusicologists have worked on these themes, music still overwhelms ethnomusicology’s project. Like it or not, external perspectives and institutional demands (more below) on ethnomusicology still construct music as the discipline’s central object, and this construction, because of powerful Western ideologies about music, remains at odds with one of ethnomusicology’s major projects (at least as I understand it): to move music out of the autonomous space afforded it by Western-centered musicology. Michelle Kisliuk argued the same point from a different angle, underscoring the problem of analyzing music as a separate entity when in many contexts there is no such conceptualization of “music” (1998:313; also see Herzfeld 2001:280). Ethnomusicology may benefit from a closer positioning with musicology and a focus on specific questions of music practice—a positioning where ethnomusicology might wield a productive influence over transformations within the older and usually dominant of the two disciplines. But when music is taken as the object or when music practices are privileged over other kinds of fieldwork participation, “music” begins to get in the way of questions that could be of interest to both anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.
Most of my courses do not have “music” in the title because the questions I find most compelling are about embodiment, the politics of sensory  perceptions, the politics of pleasure, nationalism and indigenous representations, ideas of property, national patrimony, and performance in social life.

music box

She concludes:

I have found it useful to think outside the “music” box. * My work through music evokes questions about the politics of perception, the politics of authenticity, ideas of property, processes of folklorization, the pleasures of viewing/listening to Others etc. (Bigenho 2002; Bigenho 2005). Participation in music performance led me to these broader questions, but I resist claiming a privileged position for this kind of ethnographic participation. Like many anthropologists, I am engaged in the practice of  participant-observation, a problematic methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, no matter how you slice it. Oh yes… and I “do music” too, and I usually have a great deal of fun doing it.

As we get to grips with Chinese ritual performance in changing society, all this should strike a chord (in this case, the organum of the sheng mouth-organ and the heterophony of the voices and instruments in long slow hymns at the ritual site!). Among the varied social, political, and economic topics that concern so-called ethnomusicologists, we are interested in all kinds of sounds, performers, behaviour, and audiences that some might not even consider under the narrow rubric of “music” (and again, see Nettl)—such as spirit mediums and their utterances. We want to know how performers learn, about their social status, and how patrons assess the success of an event; the impact of collectivization and migration, indeed people’s changing lives; the ancestry of ritual manuals, and their relationship with texts as performed; where wind players get their reeds, how percussion patterns may vary according to context; and so on and on. Without demanding detailed semiotic analysis, none of this is beyond the abilities of scholars less highly trained in “music” (cf. McAllester on the Navajo).

So returning to my theme, here’s the deal: if we come to your party, you have to come to ours too:

Just as “music scholars” have learned to consider all kinds of social elements as they study performance, so scholars of ritual too must include in their brief all kinds of issues arising from soundscape, rather than coyly farming it out to musicologists.

* Zen update
NY governor Cuomo, April 2020:

Everybody has to think outside the box, because there is no box.

This appears to go back not to the Platform sutra of Huineng but to Walt Disney; for his Daoist inspiration, see also here.

Is music a universal language?

What is music, anyway?
And who’s asking?


Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,

  • Bruno NettlThe study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions (3rd edition, 2015, augmenting his original 1983 version),

gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.

In Chapter 2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music” (cf. McAllester on the Navajo):

There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.

The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.

In Chapter 3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.

It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.

He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.

In Chapter 5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries. For more, see here.

* * *.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilisations (which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.

In the first programme, Searching for paradise, Service notes the basic importance of music to religious observances, with a collage of ritual music from around the world (shamans, qawwali, plainchant, Sardinian liturgy, Bach…). Unpacking the “spiritual” and reflecting on the historical ambivalence of religious leaders towards the embodiment of ritual texts through sound, he makes connections with the latter-day rituals of the concert hall.

Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).

But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.

Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.

Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.

Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.

In his last programme, Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.

As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…

* * *.

Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are part of the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here.

A playlist of songs


Apart from the mainly-Chinese playlist in the sidebar (commentary here), below are some links to an eclectic selection of All-time Great Songs* on this blog. Besides the songs, the posts are worth reading too—Trust Me, I’m a Doctor.


* Of course, varied as this selection is (à la McClary; see also here, and here), it isn’t so eclectic as to include Albanian funeral laments, Sardinian tenores, flamenco deep song,  Indian singing, Inuit throat-singing, Umm Kulthum, Aboriginal dream songs… (see also Voices of the world). But I can’t resist including

For a similarly diverse playlist of trumpeters, see here (indeed, trumpet has its own tag); and for some feminist lists, here (with bonus tracks including Sheridan’s Smith’s amazing cover of Anyone who had a heart) and here.


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


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?


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.


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.

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.



Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary


Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing Madonna as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. And even while she rails against the denial of the body, what most reactions share (as she comments) is an automatic dismissal of Madonna’s music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work); perhaps Madonna might herself respond by reviewing Mantel’s significance without referring to her literary output?

As McClary comments, Madonna’s pieces

explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

In her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture. (For another lead suggested by the book, see here.)

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture, is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous YouTube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:


In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!



Flamenco, 2: gender, politics, wine, deviance



As I try to get to grips with the wonderfully varied palmas patterns of flamenco, I’m going to keep updating my introductory post—an aural, rhythmical equivalent of the blind leading the blind (cf. my “Turning a blind ear”), perhaps useful for those (like me) hampered by a WAM (or even simply “Western”) background…

In that post I featured both female and male performers—but gender and power relations in genres like flamenco are complex. I’ll begin by outlining the study of flamenco politics.

Though flamenco and fado (for the latter see here, and here) are remarkably different musically, their social history has some similarities—with shared underworld origins, an early commercial strand alongside popular activity in a still very poor society, misleading associations with regressive political conservatism, and then the fascist state gradually forced to open out, partly through tourism.


From site here.

  •  William Washabaugh, Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture (1996)

is worth reading whole, but here I’ll focus on his chapters on Women and on a major documentary series.

In Franco’s Spain between 1939 and 1975, following the physical devastation and lasting psychological scars from the civil war,

the diverse traditions, customs, practices and, of course, musics of different regions were represented as elements of the integral body of Spain, analogous to the “Mystical Body” of the Roman Church.

Indeed, the reactionary role of the church recalls that in Salazar’s Portugal (see also The struggle against Mussolini).

This motto (Washabaugh, p.viii) might be inscribed above the portals of Daoist and Chinese music studies:

As Michael Bakhtin and his colleagues have noted, something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.

In 1959 a law was enacted requiring bars in Andalucia to close by 12.30am, just as flamenco events would have been just beginning—a thinly-veiled attempt “to silence musical events that would normally have bred local loyalty and stimulated political debate” (see also Don Pohren’s A way of life, pp.16–17). At the same time, staged flamenco was becoming a tool of propaganda.

But just as in China, the commodified spectacles are merely the tip of the iceberg of activity among local folk communities. And dissident artists and scholars expressed their opposition to Franco’s nacionalflamenquismo—“the promotion of meretricious spectacles that celebrated the richness of Spanish art while hiding both the poverty and the regional allegiances of the artists” [again, shades of China and the whole heritage flapdoodle!].

Flamenco clearly survived under Franco, even before tourism—not merely in the form of the peña spectacles instituted in the 1950s, but “among the people”. And nostalgia for the regime still lives on.

Washabaugh has a stimulating chapter discussing the important documentary series Rito y geografïa del cante flamencoone hundred half-hour programmes made from 1971 to 1973 in the declining years of franquismo, at once representing and resisting the images of the flamenco scene of the time: “a political statement rather than a nostalgic review”. He even unpacks the concepts underlying the title sequence (150–57). While expressing reservations about the “realism”of the series, he is full of admiration for its subtle juxtaposition of the “front” and (more “authentic”) “back” regions of flamenco.

Reminding me of Guo Yuhua‘s Narratives of the sufferers, Washabaugh comments:

The fact that the filmmakers made liberal use of selective emphases in presenting these remembrances should not render the series particularly liable to claims that it is unfaithful as a document of history. On the contrary, these Rito films embody the principle only lately popularized among social scientists, that documents of memory often make inventive uses of the past for the purposes of “willing backward” the future.

Citing Horkheimer and Adorno’s motto “All reification is forgetting”, Washabaugh observes the process whereby the sounds of daily life came to acquire fixed genre names in flamenco, detached from their the social relations in which they arose—like the way that songs for selling wares (Rito #72) evolved into pregones (#79).

Some scenes from the “back region”:

  • The potter Oliver de Triana:

  • MarÍa Sabina from Cadiz—who with her blacksmith son Santiago Donday, “if there were ever a pair who would qualify as puro, that pair would be certainly be Sabina and son”:

  • Some fascinating ethnographic scenes from Extremadura bordering Portugal, including tangos, jaleos, and alboreá wedding song:

As if tourism wasn’t bad enough, later, inevitably, the Intangible Cultural Heritage came along to muscle in on the act; but as in China, it hardly affects the beating heart of local traditions. Rather like nanyin in south Fujian, flamenco has long experience of commodification, though this will only be a minor aspect of its life; indeed, their whole history is one of utilizing commodification while maintaining grassroots social practice.

Still, below we’ll see how Washabaugh warns against the fiction of “authentic” flamenco (cf. the musos’ touring game).

Gender studies, and power relations, are a major and growing theme of ethnomusicology (so far on this blog I’ve subheaded the gender tag under the basic themes of China, music, and other). Just a little selection of some of the major works:

  • Ellen Koskoff (ed.) Women and music in cross-cultural perspective (1987), and her
  • A feminist ethnomusicology: writings on music and gender (2014);
  • Susan Cusick, “Gender, musicology, and feminism” , in Cooke and Everist, Rethinking music (1999);
  • Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, Music and gender (2000), including Marcia Herndon’s Epilogue there, and others by her;
  • Ruth Hellier (ed.), Women singers in global contexts: music, biography, identity (2013).

Among many studies of women’s musicking in particular cultures, I love

For a typically articulate and reader-friendly  overview of the field, see

  • Bruno Nettl, “I’m a stranger here myself: women’s music, women in music”, ch.27 of his canonical The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions.

As always, he also reflects with insight on gender relations in WAM (for which there’s a parallel field of study—one might start with Susan McClary, also featured in my post on Ute Lemper in discussing the diva–femme fatale–prima donna complex).

In my post on a wonderful Swedish psalm (just about as far as one could get from flamenco) I cited a relevant observation on gender and vocal timbre from Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics project.

There’s a fine collection of essays on Mediterranean musics:

  • Tullia Magrini (ed.), Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).

Gender in flamenco
Among fine essays on Corsica, Calabria, Eastern Europe, Greece, and the Maghreb, the latter volume contains a useful article on flamenco:

  • Joaquina Labajo, “Body and voice: the construction of gender in flamenco” (variant here),

analyzing the most basic elements of staging, including role distribution, the actual nature of the interacting voices, and the resources of the protagonists’ corporal expression; and exploring the demystification of images laden with exotic and romantic references that have come down to us through the years, confronting them with other social, political, religious and economic realities and strategies of both the past and the present.

Articles elsewhere include

I must read the book

  • Loren Chuse, The cantaoras: music, gender and identity in flamenco song (2003).

But here, again, here I’ll mainly cite Washabaugh’s chapter on “Women” in his Flamenco: passion, politics, and popular culture. He observes that the Rito compilers’ resistance to nacionalflamenquismo

could consist of nothing more spectacular than disturbing the overly neat franquista portrayal of men as public, women as detached, confined, and, except in the absolute privacy of the family, untouchable.

He notes the widespread, and early, “Manichean” dichotomy of madonna and whore, and the “male-dominated music of the streets”, “a noise that made it possible for people to deal with the confusions of urban life”, “the music of the brawling popular religiosity of men, the music of boisterous binges carried on in the name of the Virgin”. Citing Christopher Small, he notes.

Such music inevitably included the component of percussion that had been banished from the reasoned music of the 17th century because percussive tones elude rational control—”It was not until late in the 17th century that the first percussion instruments were readmitted, the timpani,* which could be tuned to a pitch”.

Urban spaces became increasingly associated with images of “pleasure, excitement, the carnivalesque and disorder”.

While I have reservations about any such portrayal of popular culture through the prism of the educated elite, flamenco artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries “lived in a lowbrow [sic] underworld dominated by males, a flamenco bar-and-party circuit”, with flamenco song riding on “waves of alcohol to reach peaks of dubious ecstasy”.

Such ecstatic catharsis mediated by sodden singers may have been acceptable for men, but women were singled out and inevitably relegated to the category of the shameless and the whore. Proper women were said to be out of place in a juerga— an all-night binge of song and drink.

Washabaugh notes the exception of the feria, seasonal celebrations of the fair and the carnival providing “occasions for women to flaunt their culturally defined wildness, their seductive physicality, their passion”.

Men were, and are, in the driver’s seat, and they typically use their power to marginalize, exclude, and subordinate women.
In Andalucia, as elsewhere, men control popular culture regardless of the significance of women’s contributions.

Moving on to the Franco regime, Washabaugh comments:

More than merely discriminating against women, franquista practices virtually annihilated women. In public affairs, the identity of women was systematically denied.

Catholic traditionalism, underwritten by the state, severely limited the place of women, relegating them to a sphere defined as narrowly, and perhaps more so, than the women’s sphere of the 19th century. Women could aspire to marriage and motherhood but little more. The Franco regime literally [sic] turned back the clock on the legal position of women.
Flamenco bars were nudged out of existence. […] The peña fraternities [sic] [now a welcome relief from the touristy tablau] came into being in the 1950s—formalized, licenced, and, one must suppose, subjected to surveillance, […] a forum in which flamenco aesthetes could pursue issues of artistic purity wholly detached from any practical public interests. Such sterile estheticism in flamenco circles was passively complicit with franquismo. On the other hand, franquista policies encouraged the development of flamenco spectacles that presented women as examples of detached femininity and untouchable beauty, and in these respects, women became powerful magnets for tourist dollars.

Discussing the image of women in the Rito series of the early 70s, Washabaugh observes how the compilers

picked up on some of the tentative and largely unnoticed innovations in both content and style made by female artists in flamenco circles during the Franco years, [… advancing] a picture of women deeply involved in flamenco while still consummately honorable. The documentarians produced this effect by emphasizing the family as a common and fertile site for musical activity, an emphasis that weakened the longstanding association of flamenco with “booze-bars-and-babes” while strengthening associations of flamenco with women, wine, and Andalucian family life.

While many of the films do show tablaos and peñas where women are absent or subordinate, or “caught somewhere between participant, witness, and decoration”, “nevertheless they never venture into that often parodied domain that includes shameless women”. The films deliberately refrain from showing juergas (“notorious occasions for excessive drinking and shameless womanizing”).

(In a lapse from ethnographic empathy, Washabaugh seems to concur with the elite view of the “ugliness, the grotesque vulgarity, the lewdness, and the obscenity of the debauched juergas of the past?!)

Instead, women are presented a pivotal figures, as matriarchs of song. Some examples:

  • The Pinini family:

  • and the Perrate family:

  • Tia Anica la Piriñaca:

  • MarÍa Vargas:

  • Cristobalina Suarez—note the seguiriyas from 12.05, and tangos from 16.01! In her introduction to the latter she refers to the bulerías featured in my first post:

Washabaugh observes,

Paradoxically, the shrewdness of this resistant response lay in its complicity with so many other aspects of Franco’s cultural politics. […] By using family to cloak their revisionary images of flamenco, the Rito filmmakers managed to oppose franquismo while seeming to comply.

  • Having admired Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera in my previous post, here’s a wonderful soleares from them in their youth, from the 1952 Duende y Misterio del Flamenco (punctuated by the great torero Juan Belmonte):

  • From the same film is a gorgeous bulerías showing the familial basis of flamenco, yet tinged by tragedy—the singer Pastora Amaya, first wife of the great Farrucco, died in a car crash later that year, aged 15:

And here’s a stunning clip of La Negra (born in Algeria) and her daughter Lole Montaya singing an Umm Kulthum song as a tangos (duple rhythm!), partly in Arabic (see the comments to the video)!

Deviant behaviour
Leading on from his discussion of the role of women, Washabaugh notes the somewhat sanitized treatment of alcohol in the Rito series’ :

Wine […] never suggested debauchery, nor did it operate as a component of a “drinking subculture”. Instead, quite to the contrary, wine symbolized home and family.

Wine drinking was discussed in the soberest of terms, as a stimulant to song, as a catalyst to artistry, and as a lubricant for performances.
Transformed in the Rito films, wine became a rite (a rito) of Andalucian family life rather than a stain left over from Andalucian bar life.

Programme 97 is devoted to wine and flamenco:

Conversely, in the “Triana” programme Washabaugh notes the scene (from 26.47) filmed in the Morapio bar in a housing project outside Seville, the women’s dance subverting the traditional image:

Her antics as a dancer mocked the traditionally conceived “flamenco woman”, the beautiful but inactive, unthinking, and untouchable totally self-possessed woman.

Indeed, somewhat at odds with the Rito‘s mission to embed flamenco in respectable family life are the many stories of musicians’ deviant behaviour, evoking Merriam’s classic “license to deviate from behavioural norms”.


Any romanticizing tendencies are well corrected by reading Don Pohren‘s classic A way of life, a candid grassroots account based on his stay in Andalucia in the 1950s and 60s, a constant orgy of juerga.

As he makes the finishing touches to his flamenco bar in March 1966,

the town of Morón was absolutely sure of one thing: the finca was slated to be a cabaret featuring prostitutes and flamenco.

His vignettes on the “impish” Diego del Gastor (pp.103–21) are wonderful—such as his disciples’ ill-fated gift of a fine Santos guitar (WAM musos have similar stories!):

Diego was like a child with a new toy, and played and played and accompanied us like never before. Finally, late at night, he grew tired of playing and wanted to rest, but couldn’t find a safe place to put his guitar, as none of us had thought of buying a case for it. Diego solved the problem by locking it in the cab outside. He rejoined the gathering jubilantly, and amidst the ensuing drinks and merry-making completely forgot the existence of the guitar. At juerga’s end, still unusually exuberant for some reason he could not quite recall, Diego danced out to the car, hurled himself drunkenly into the back seat, lit atop his beloved Santos and smashed it into pieces.

Timothy Mitchell unpacks the myths of flamencology in his fine 1994 book Flamenco deep song:

A decoding of cante jondo from a psychohistorical perspective will reveal self-pity, posturing machismo, hypersensitive adolescent egos, and a defensive flight into narcissistic ethnicity.

Washabaugh encapsulates Mitchell’s approach to flamenco:

“maudlin music that lubricates the wheels of an essentially bipolar society and a culture of victimage”!

Mitchell notes the importance of alcohol, and gives telling instances of the mania for pranking (pp.182–8, cf. Pohren pp.41–3):

Flamencologists are thus presented with a difficult choice indeed. Whom are they to prefer, amoral señorito-pranksters or the humorless mystagogues who gathered in Granada in 1922?

For more on cante jondo, see the third post in this series!

* * *

The study of the Rito series is a worthy reminder that even filmed representations of which we may approve are just that—representations. The authors’ “realism” in filming the “authenticity” of the “back region”, and the back region itself, are also constructions. Authentic flamenco is a fiction:

The danger posed [by the Rito series] is that we will canonize this version of flamenco, and use it as a fixed standard for assaying contemporary performances, thereby surrendering ourselves to the very ideology that the Rito series so vigorously opposed, and, in the end, bailing out of our human responsibility to struggle with our own noise.

All this is very fine, but as in China,** what I miss is a diachronic grass-roots account of family milieux less subject to state control, and more free from academic representation; beyond Pohren’s A way of life, perhaps such accounts exist in Spanish or even English. Meanwhile the performers interviewed in the Rito series, both women and men, are articulate and perceptive.

Alongside the Rito‘s fine social documentation, it provides wonderful material to immerse ourselves in all the diverse song genres—so while I gradually begin to absorb the melodic contours of singing, the coplas lyrics, and the toques de guitarra, I’ll keep updating my original post on palmas.

At all events, whatever the class background of flamenco, there’s nothing “lowbrow” about this music. I just don’t get this false dichotomy between art and folk music (cf. China): the prestige that the elite claims for its own culture is notional (see What is serious music?!).

And call me old-fashioned, but while I have no choice but to concede to listening to WAM in the sterile concert-hall, these videos illustrate perfect settings for musicking, don’t you agree…


* I just have to direct you to two classic timpani stories, here and here.

** Another echo of Maoism: “if it isn’t prohibited, it is compulsory” (Washabaugh 161).


The notation of ritual sound


In articles on this site I often stress how soundscape is basic to ritual performance. In north China ritual specialists identify three types of organized ritual sound, “blowing, beating, and reciting” (chuidanian): melodic instrumental music, percussion, and vocal liturgy—in reverse order of importance, with vocal liturgy primary. Some groups accompany their vocal liturgy only with percussion, but where melodic instrumental music is performed, it is an essential component of ritual: “holy pieces” (shenqu), transcending language. Whereas vocal liturgy is not notated—most ritual manuals document only the texts, not the melodies to which they are sung—the outline of the melodic (and indeed percussion) instrumental music that punctuates and accompanies it is recorded in scores of gongche solfeggio. [1]

When the Qujiaying village ritual association, south of Beijing, was “discovered” in 1986 we already knew about the shengguan ensemble and its gongche scores (notably those of the Zhihua temple in Beijing) thanks to the ground-breaking work on Yang Yinliu in the early 1950s, later comprehensively studied by Yuan Jingfang. In our project on the Hebei plain, we soon broadened our attention to ritual manuals, but the shengguan wind ensemble and the scores of village ritual associations were always among our major concerns.

In the fine tradition of anthologies that Chinese musicologists do so well, the major new compendium

  • Zhongguo gongchepu jicheng 中国工尺谱集成 [1]

collects some of the most important scores of gongche solfeggio. It provides rich material on the continuity of early history with modern folk practice.

The anthology is based more on northern shengguan than on southern genres—the distinctive scores of nanyin in Fujian and Taiwan are already collected in many separate anthologies.

The compendium comprises ten volumes to date:

  • General (a fine introduction to historical variants of notation and metrical markers)
  • Beijing (2 vols)
  • Hebei (3 vols)
  • Shaanxi (2 vols, for the major repertoires of ritual groups around Xi’an)
  • Jiangsu (including major early Daoist scores)
  • Liaoning (including scores for both shengguan and the amazing shawm bands there)

The scores of Beijing temples, and those of the related village ritual associations on the Hebei plain just south, take pride of place. The detailed commentaries on the Hebei and Beijing material are the work of Zhang Zhentao, continuing the masterly chapter in his book Yinyuehui.

Hanzhuang XWJ

Most volumes further include useful tables of qupai labelled melodies.

Such scores also often contain precious prefaces bearing dates of transmission, as we saw in Xiongxian.

Hanzhuang xu 1

Gaoluo 1989

* * *

Of course, like the Daoist Canon, and like the ritual manuals of living groups, scores are merely silent artefacts. They should be combined with recordings of their transmitters, who have long experience of bringing them to life—first by decorating the skeletal notes of the score by singing in unison, and then in ritual performance, taking the instruments up to play them in heterophony suitable to the different instrument types. While some musicians learn mainly by ear, the score is an important repository representing the tradition.

But just in case you think the silent score is somehow equivalent to “the music”, then don’t just consult my transcription of Hesi pai under West An’gezhuang here (§2), but listen to the shengguan tracks on the playlist in the sidebar (including tracks 9 and 10, showing the progressive decorations)!

I should also add that notation is not a criterion for excellence. Many musicians, and ritual specialists, in the great and small traditions of the world don’t need it at all, and for others it is merely an aide-memoire, as in this case.

Indeed, this isn’t just an issue for music. This is not the place to discuss wider issues of oral and literate cultures, but this radical comment from Plato, no less, is suggestive:

This discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things but will remember nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

As Paul Cooper comments,

I love that when Plato complains about the spread of the written word in 370 BC, he sounds like my granddad complaining about the internet.

Such issues are thoughtfully explored by ethnomusicologists—for leads, see the fine chapters of Ter Ellingson and Richard Widdess in Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), and Bruno Nettl, The study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, chs. 20 and 26. And for wise words on the history of notation in WAM, see here.

These gongche scores are a major aspect of the study of ritual. But that’s enough writing—wouldn’t want to offend Plato…



[1] See e.g. http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-09/06/c_129697492.htm,
[2] I gave an overview of gongche notation in my Folk music of China (ch.7); cf. my article “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996, pp.375–88. As ever, Yang Yinliu gave a masterly survey in his Gongchepu qianshuo 工尺谱浅说 (1962).

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.

More Messiaen

Yay! Messiaen was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the week!


With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.

His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!

For yet more Messiaen, see here.

Singers of the world?

Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos (for Alexei Sayle and others on contests, see here).* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.

Bartok 1907

Bela Bartók recording Slovak folk singers, 1907.

And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. For a more rigorous attempt to document the riches of world singing, see here.

It’s not that I really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing; but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior. For yet more, see here.


* Another fatuous Bible quote:

The race is not to the swift.

Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?

Just remind me again, what is music?!

Hardly was the ink dry (or whatever we should call it nowadays) on my comment

It’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music (WAM), if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg.

than I perused the BBC4 schedule to find:

The Birth of British music
The legacy of Austrian composer Josef Haydn in Britain.

Hmm. Discuss (with the aid of Bruno Nettl; cf. Das Land ohne Musik).

Of course, it’s just an amusing casualty of knocking up a snappy publicity blurb. And to be fair, it’s the third in a series that runs from Purcell and Handel (sic) through Haydn (sic) and Mendelssohn (sic­—well that’s quite a lot of sic). I’m not blaming anyone—making programmes about four WAM composers who lived or spent some time in Britain is cool by me (cf. They come over ‘ere…).

Still, it combines two common misapprehensions—about history and about class. Much as I love Purcell, I’m sure the engaging presenter Charles Hazlewood is perfectly aware that even British ART music (BAM!) goes back a little before that. This isn’t my forte, but never mind Tallis, Byrd, Lawes, and so on (whatever would Francis Baines have said?!)—how about the medieval mystery plays and early manuscripts, or musicking at the time of Boudicca?!

And anyway, if we’re talking about “British music”, there’s that social ellipsis again—how about broadside ballads, singing and fiddling in tavern culture, early wind bands, and so on?

This casual use of language is just as bad as the (still more common) other extreme, which is to date the origins of British music from Lonnie Donegan or Frank Ifield.

I’m sure it’s a great series on those four composers. “British Art Music from the 17th to 19th centuries” doesn’t make quite such a snappy title.

Conversely, here’s another misleading title, this time from the Guardian:

The 20 best music documentaries.

There are some great films in this list (including Amy and, at No.1, In bed with Madonna), but it’ll be disappointing for those expecting to find coverage of WAM, flamenco, musicking in Sardinia or India, and so on. Again, the title The 20 best documentaries on Anglo-American pop doubtless struck them as pedantic.

Just saying, like…

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi—click here for a fine website.

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing. See also here.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands (see mainly here):

From Iran, here’s Mohammad Reza Lotfi on kamancheh:

Kamancha playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for a reified official concert version:

And here’s a stellar gathering of players, all with their own distinctive styles (with thanks to Jeffrey Werbock, himself a fine exponent of Azeri music):

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar—played here in a more natural setting:


And the Uyghurs use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:

Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I leave jazz fiddling to another post… For yet more, see fiddles tag in the sidebar, introduced here.

The iceberg

For Chinese culture (ritual, music) I always use the image of the iceberg—

to contrast the tiny little chunk that protrudes above the water (the conservatoire concert solos, and so on) with the vast unseen mass of popular culture below the surface—like temple fairs, shawm bands, household Daoists, spirit mediums

Of course it applies widely to world cultures (cf. Italy). Even under the umbrella of WAM, there’s a fluid canon changing over time, with many outer rings; socially too, it’s not just the professional symphony orchestras. And Indian music is far more than sitar solos.

As to Daoism, it’s far more than the Daoist Canon and the White Cloud Temple; and far more than wise southeastern Daoists doing their mystical sublimation in the course of a jiao Offering. And Daoist ritual—over China, north China, Shanxi, north Shanxi, and even in the north-eastern central area of Yanggao county, is far more than the Li band!

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and mazar, and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, the Mediterranean (Andalucian fiestas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” and “red-hot sociality” (Chau!)…

Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Yue Yongyi, Stephan FeuchtwangAdam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well known than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] At the height of the Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao visited communes there. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county-town, Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang brigade in Xushui, which performed for this visit.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaozhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaozhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaozhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “front altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “rear altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaozhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Cangu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (Dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe. For more on Xushui, see here.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context. I haven’t heard stories as distressing as the fate that befell kobzari blind minstrels in Ukraine when summoned for an official festival in the early 1930s; but folk ritual specialists were still anxious about performing for officials around 1980.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. In 1990 the Li family Daoists took part in a festival of religious music in Beijing.

By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3). Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show, WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of vignettes from May 2017), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour. The ambience and acoustic of churches makes a fine setting,  the Daoists’ sheng mouth-organs filling the Peterskirche in Heidelberg (cf. Buildings and music):

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

Still, their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out—is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.



[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, dance and the art of seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3, and here, under “Famine in China”.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

Voices of the world

Voix du monde

For those coming to Daoist ritual from a sinological background (as is likely)—and for those who recognize that if we are going to study ritual, that involves performance, which in turn involves sound—a quick crash course. Indeed, it comes in handy for anyone—those whose concept of singing is based on either WAM or pop music.

Among all the ethnomusicological surveys of vocal music, the 3-CD set

  • Les voix du monde: une anthologie des expressions vocales
    (CNRS/Musée de l’Homme, 1996),

with its detailed booklet, makes a precious introduction. A wide range of styles of vocal production is covered here:

  • Techniques
    Calls, cries, and clamours
    Voice and breath
    Spoken, declaimed, sung
    Compass and register
    Colours and timbres
    Disguised voices
    Voices and musical instruments
    Employ [sic] of harmonics
  • Polyphonies
    Echoes and overlapping
    Drones and ostinato
    Parallel, oblique or contrary motion
    Counterpoint and combined techniques.

Apart from a veritable smorgasbord [sorry, been writing too many blurbs] of amazing audio tracks from all over the world, the booklet contains valuable notes, a glossary, and tables such as “Different forms of polyphony” in graphic form (p.105).

Then all we need is to digest

  • Bell Yung “The nature of Chinese ritual sound”, in Yung, Rawski and Watson eds., Harmony and counterpoint: ritual music in Chinese context, pp.13–31

and we’re all set to enter the fray…