A rare duet for qin and erhu


Much as I love the qin zither, I still need to rehabilitate myself for daring to query its dominance in Chinese music studies—as I observed here, it is as if the whole varied spectrum of European musics were represented mainly by the clavichord (see also here).

So here’s a rare version of the qin solo piece “No ulterior motives regarding seabirds” (Oulu wangji 鷗鷺忘機: I might suggest “Seabirds: forgetting ulterior motives”) as a duet with fiddle, recorded in 1962 by the great Zha Fuxi (1895–1976) on qin and Jiang Fengzhi (1908–86) on erhu:

In the 1954 image here, left to right are: Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhenping, Zha Fuxi, Jiang Fengzhi (looking remarkably  like Yang Yinliu!), Guan Pinghu.

The qin has such an intimate solo timbre that the only other instrument usually deemed suitable to play with it is the mellifluous end-blown flute xiao; the erhu, with its modern romantic conservatoire repertoire, is generally considered quite remote from the meditative ethos of the qin. But this version of Oulu wangji shows how a simpler, restrained style of fiddle playing can blend well, enhanced by the low tuning—a model for Bach on the erhu?!

It’s all the more poignant when we think of the date of recording—during the interlude between the traumas of the Great Leap Backward and the Four Cleanups. It may seem hard to imagine how anyone can be nostalgic for the period before the Cultural Revolution—but despite their tribulations, the stellar gatherings of qin masters, and the brilliant scholars of the era, have a numinous allure.

Oulu wangji is a favourite of qin players—among many versions online are performances by Guan Pinghu and Wu Zhaoji. As ever, John Thompson’s website is a treasury of information—for Zha Fuxi, see here, and for a typically erudite discussion of the piece, here.

The story goes back to the ancient Daoist sage Liezi[1]

There was a man living by the sea-shore who loved seabirds. Every morning he went down to the sea to roam with the seabirds, and more birds came to him than you could count in hundreds.

His father said to him: “I hear the seabirds all come roaming with you. Bring me some to play with.”

Next day, when he went down to the sea, the seabirds danced above him and would not come down.

Therefore it is said: “The utmost in speech is to be rid of speech, the utmost doing is Doing Nothing.” What common knowledge knows is shallow.


[1] Liezi, BTW, deserves a bit of an image-rebrand to boost his ratings alongside Laozi and Zhuangzi! By the Tang his work was honored with the fine title True Classic of Simplicity and Vacuity (沖虛真經)—an award now reserved for TV reality shows.

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

“Why I’m not an ethnomusicologist”

in the stimulating volume

  • Henry Stobart (ed.), The New (Ethno)musicologies (Scarecrow Press, 2008).

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”.

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.

Pontius Pilate, and the mad jailers


Hot on the vertiginous goose-stepping heels of Gepopo

In my series on stammering I’ve already covered Michael Palin’s authentic depiction in A fish called Wanda.

But he was already on the case of various types of imp-p-pediment with Monty P-Python, as in the iconic Pontius Pilate scene (taking the pith) in The life of Brian:

That’s all good harmless fun; but here I’d like to focus on another more disturbing portrayal. The cameos from the mad jailers (this time played by Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) are hideously well-observed, right down to the stamp of the foot to force the word out. In the first scene here, they taunt Palin as he channels the benign schoolmaster; and the second (from 2.07) is the coup de grace, with the jailers nonchalantly reverting to fluency once alone together—reminiscent of Larson’s cows:

Some stammerers may find that tough going, but I’d suggest it’s all part of chipping away at the iceberg of fear.

One of the benefits of group speech therapy sessions, however excruciating, is to watch one’s disfluent speech played back on video, so as to observe all the ways in which we sabotage the whole vocal apparatus—extreme tension of the lips and throat, holding the breath, futile movements of eyes, hands, and body, and so on. Disfluency takes many forms. Sufferers are often so trapped in desperate attempts to avoid stammering, and their audiences so trapped in embarrassment, that neither may have a clear idea of what exactly it is that is preventing them from uttering the word. The crucial first stage is monitoring.

And a further technique is for the sufferer to imitate such features deliberately—choosing a consonant on which to tense the mouth and lips, repeating it quickly or slowly with varying degrees of tension, even reproducing the way we backtrack and then start over, deciding how many repetititititions to do. Varying the severity of the block like this can create the precious experience of having control over one’s speech for a change. And then (maybe) one can insert “easy stammers”, and if not actually refrain from stammering, at least be aware of some options.

It’s easy for you to say that, SSSteve…

Anyway, far beyond its niche exploration of speech impediments, The life of Brian is brilliant!

Maoist worship in Gansu

Gansu Daoists 1

Huashan-branch Complete Perfection household Daoists performing the Receiving Water ritual, Qingshui county;
Buddhist temple monk playing shawm, Zhangye county;
Household Daoist band led by Wang Maoxue, Zhangye county.
Source: Zhongguo minzu minjian qiyuequ jicheng, Gansu juan (1997)

I’ve been longing for a comprehensive project on Daoist ritual in Gansu; the Anthology provides some promising leads (cf. my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.6).

The temple fair here wasn’t quite what I had in mind—but it’s all part of the picture:

Uploaded from tudou.com in 2015 (further clips on Chinese sites here and here), it shows the ritual of Receiving the Palanquin to consecrate a bronze statue of Mao Zedong at the Wulanshan temple fair in Jingyuan county northeast of Lanzhou.

We might see this as the continuation of a long tradition: the deification of historical personages has an ancient imperial history, and emperors too were revered as gods. Much has been written on the secular cult of Chairman Mao—not just his veneration while he was alive but more recent leftist campaigns inspired by him, which have attracted consternation (not least within China). Also intriguing are local temples built for his religious worship. Indeed, media attention focuses on such clickbait at the expense of more traditional religious life.

Still, popular temple worship doesn’t always involve liturgy, and for such temples I haven’t heard much about formal ritual activity. So what intrigues me with this Gansu temple fair—small in scale, apparently organized by the local community without outside official involvement—is its creative use of religious observances performed by Daoist ritual specialists, with full paraphernalia, a shawm band leading the way.

Once the god statue is installed inside the temple, the Daoists open proceedings with choruses of Chairman Mao comes to our village (far more earthy than the saccharine versions online, like this) and The East is red.

Left: idyllic image from YouTube Chairman Mao comes to our village—no irony apparently intended. Right: less idyllic image of the Great Leap Backward.

After helpers clothe the statue (to a schmaltzy added soundtrack), the chief liturgist, wielding sword and placard, animates it with incense, fire, and mirror (to a hardly less dodgy accompaniment of dizi flute solo).

* * *

I’ve explored post-traumatic amnesia in China and Europe (e.g. here and here). In this case, apart from the misplaced nostalgia for a regime that kept people in poverty (indeed, Gansu was one of the provinces worst affected by the famine), there’s the further irony of performing rituals for a leader who did his utmost to destroy religion. Nationally it’s not an isolated case, though I don’t know how common it is in this region. [1]

Already, an update would be interesting. Uncle Xi first criticized the personality cult of Mao worship, and then mounted one for himself—even while aligning himself with the Shaanbei mystique (a campaign ridiculed here). And as his power was further consolidated, “patriotic” rituals—obligatory demonstrations of the Party’s power over religion—have recently been incorporated into stage-managed events at some larger official sites of worship. Meanwhile, the secular cult of Mao doesn’t appear to be at odds with the goals of the current leadership; and manifestations of religious piety towards Mao at the grass roots (as at this Gansu temple) are a minor phenomenon, even if they may alarm the secular atheist leftists. Temples to Uncle Xi are a vision for the future…

So I still hope that scholars will focus on serious study of the enduring (albeit ever-changing!) life of traditional Daoist ritual in Gansu and elsewhere…

Gansu Daoists 2Daoists of the Daode guan temple, Zhangye county;
Cao Jixiang’s Daoist band performing the Ten Offerings ritual, Jingtai county;
Cao Jixiang’s band seated.

I’ve also written about a more traditional exorcistic ritual in Gansu that recently aroused the ire of the Party leadership; and for instances elsewhere of leftist campaigns opposing traditional customs, see here. Note also the Maoism tag.


[1] For Qinghai, note Gerald Roche and Wen Xiangcheng, “Modernist iconoclasm, resilience, and divine power among the Mangghuer of the northeast Tibetan plateau”, Asian ethnology 72.1 (2013), with many further citations.

Gepopo: pa-pa-pa-panic

Gepopo 2

Speaking (sic) as a stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for coverage of speech imp-p-pediments (see e.g. We have ways of making you talkStammering gamesPontius Pilate, and the mad jailers).

So in György Ligeti‘s wacky, grotesque, absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre (see e.g. this article by Tom Service) I note the character of Gepopo, whose extreme vocal irregularities occupy a special place in the spectrum of communication issues.

The astounding Barbara Hannigan introduces the role she has made her own:

The character Gepopo, the chief of the secret police of Brueghelland, approaches Prince Go-Go to warn him and the people of Brueghelland that intelligence has learned of a huge comet heading through space towards them which will destroy their planet. Unfortunately, Gepopo is paralyzed with fear and paranoid hysteria, so his almost unintelligible, coded warning is not easily understood by Prince Go-Go, who, mainly interested in a hearty meal, drives Gepopo to further convulsions of highflying vocal panic as the piece draws to a anxiety-ridden finale.


Shades of the Pearl and Dean theme tune? So far this passage has not found favour as an in-flight announcement (cf. Putana da seatbeltz; for airline acronyms, see here). But I digress…

Psychotic, deranged, Gepopo is hardly an advertisement for easy stammering—no more to be recommended as speech therapy than Rossini’s “stupefaction ensembles”. BTW, reasons for the far higher ratio of male to female stammerers are still not well understood.

Here’s Barbara Hannigan in an, um, “orthodox” stage version:

Gepopo’s three arias (“Pssst! … Shsht! … Cocococo!“, “Aah! … Secret cipher!“, and “Kukuriku! … He’s coming!“) are also performed as a cycle arranged by Elgar Howarth for the concert stage as Mysteries of the macabre—here conducted (suitably) by S-S-S-Simon:

Dazzling as it is, I’m not sure it’s exactly PC to distract the audience from Gepopo’s demented sadism with a fantasy schoolgirl uniform—perhaps the transgressive, meretricious device suits Ligeti’s concept (discuss…). We might also compare this version:

Feminist scholars have unpacked gender roles in music (including Berg‘s Lulu, another of Hannigan’s star roles, which she explores perceptively—and fluently!— here), with cross-genre discussions of the femme fatale/diva/prima donna, and such an approach could be instructive here too.

With thanks to Rowan—
whose own vocals, while not so ambitious,
are “less irritating than Glenn Gould”

(The Feuchtwang Variations, n.3).



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,

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

In Ch.2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music”:

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 Ch.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 Ch.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.

* * *.

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 Civilizations (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 among 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 and here.

The art of the miniature

Tom and Jerry

By way of supplementing my playlist of great songs with a little series on great theme-tunes (below):

Tom Service’s BBC Radio 3 series The listening service is always stimulating—like Susan McClary, he breaks down boundaries, as here.

This episode [sic] on Brevity, with a playlist of miniature gems encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Satie, Webern, Boulez, Zorn, Napalm Death, Bartók, Kurtag, and Ligeti, is full of fine observation—under the headings of absurdity, immediacy, density, violence, and eternity.

Irrespective of genre, such pieces are microcosms, crafted with a range of expression and intensity—akin to haiku or netsuke.

Also among the fleeting exhibits is the great Carl Stalling, composer of classic soundtracks for Warner Brothers cartoons (these playlists should work if you click on YouTube at the bottom right of the window):

Not forgetting Scott Bradley, of Tom and Jerry fame:

Not least, this is about taking seriously all kinds of musicking throughout human societies, including WAM and popular music.

So here are some thoughts on great theme-tunes: