Chant and beyond


From my book (p.364):

The vast body of reports on local Daoist traditions, largely devoid of context, may appear as an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry.

It’s a basic and crucial point that Daoist ritual is not merely ancient text on the page, but gains its life through performance—notably through sound. So while I take care to avoid the limiting term “Daoist music”, it should become de rigueur to incorporate an ethnomusicological approach to Daoist ritual. This doesn’t merely mean handing over recordings to ethnomusicologists for them to produce arcane transcriptions, but, rather, normalising (as part of the basic mindsets of scholars of Daoist ritual) the kinds of ways that ethnomusicologists think.

For Daoist ritual, our database of the diverse regional melodies—both monastic and household—around Beijing, Shandong, Shanxi, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Fujian, and so on—is still slight, even for modern times. In the absence of recordings, or even notations, early historical clues are lacking. When and how they took shape is an elusive question. Still more ambitiously, one would hope to incorporate Buddhist and sectarian repertoires, the latter including the singing of “precious scrolls” (baojuan)—regrettably, another area hitherto limited to textual studies (see my In search of the folk Daoists, Appendix 3).

WAM being a broad church (so to speak), expanding the theme still more unmanageably, I note the slim tome—both admirable and daunting—

  • Jeffery, Peter, Re-envisioning past musical cultures: ethnomusicology in the study of Gregorian chant (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

One may beware inter-cultural comparisons (Jeffery pp.52–9), but conservative, monophonic, regional traditions like Gregorian chant, where clues to “composition” are elusive, may offer clues to how we might approach Daoist ritual singing.

Though (as in Daoist scholarship) Jeffery’s focus is on the medieval era, he adduces living traditions too (Europe, Byzantine, Armenian, Georgian, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian; he mentions Judaic, Islamic, Hindu, Samavedic, Zoroastrian, and Tibetan Buddhist (but strangely not Han-Chinese Buddhist or Daoist) traditions. For an example from Eritrea, click here.

In the case of Daoist ritual, I’m seeking not to re-envision a past culture but to find useful avenues to explore changing performance practice. Since scholars (not just for China) are inclined to privilege enduring practices, posited as ancient, this tends to relegate religious practice as a social activity.

Like Gregorian chant—the term “chant”, of course, is imprecise!— the texts of Daoist and Buddhist ritual are mainly performed (and experienced) through monophonic singing. But for the melodies of Gregorian chant we also have early notations, which are both welcome and confusing. But Jeffreys (p.59) wisely stresses orality—and “oral music cannot be studied in isolation, without reference to the lives of its performers.”

As he warns (p.2),

any attempt to liken some feature of Asian or African music to Gregorian chant is likely to draw a merely superficial parallel, because the social, cultural, and anthropological contexts of the chant are so poorly understood.

It is of course understandable that the critical study of medieval chant has been left to historical musicologists, because highly specialized skills are needed to investigate the ancient manuscripts and notations, the complex history of ancient Latin and Greek theoretical concepts, and the intricacies of the liturgy and its theoretical rationale. But because ethnomusicologists have shied away from chant research, many very basic questions that they routinely raise about every musical tradition have gone virtually unasked. As a result, entire areas of chant study that ethnomusicologists would find especially interesting and useful are very poorly researched.

As with Daoism, we find a similar emphasis on the medieval era. Attempts at standardization had limited effect. Few regional traditions developed music notation, and processes of oral tradition, still little understood, should be a major theme.

The luminaries in the field are Treitler and Hucke (references to whose erudite writings may evoke Flann O’Brien’s annotations to the de Selby commentaries in The third policeman). Treitler was influenced by the Parry–Lord theory, inspired by the “formulas” of modern epic poetry in the Serbo-Croatian language. This, though, is solo singing—whereas Gregorian chant, and Daoist singing, is largely choral (cf. Jeffery pp.20–21). While group coordination makes the renditions of individual hymns less flexible, such analysis may indeed be valuable in studying the overall vocabulary of a given repertoire.

For “regional chant dialects”, see Jeffery pp.74–6. For some analytical techniques (Formulas; Melody types, melodic models, tune families; Interpolated syllables; Melodic embellishment; Organum), see pp.87–118. Much of this may deter the scholar of Daoism, but the need to incorporate the sound of ritual remains.

Though I’m suggesting broader perspectives on how to handle detail, not necessarily on theory, Catherine Bell (Ritual perspectives and dimensions, pp.191–7) explored the tensions in ritual between thought and action. I have already cited Frits Staal’s emphasis on orthopraxy. Richard Widdess’s fine work on ritual in Nepal, such as

  • Caryā and Cacā: Change and Continuity in Newar Buddhist Ritual Song”, Asian Music 35.2 (Spring–Summer 2004), pp. 7-41

has both ethnographic and historical dimensions.

But like studies of Daoist ritual, work on south Asia tends to be dominated by early history.

Given the Western predilection for Eastern mysticism, scholars of Daoism are not alone in their tendency to seek the esoteric aspect of ritual. Conversely, they have also focused on its procedures for “cosmic bureaucracy”. Neither is prominent in Yanggao.

See also Is music a universal language?.