Peccable musical sensibilities

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

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

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

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

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

bachs-goldberg-variations-1457709453

stravinskys-rite-of-spring-1457709448

barbers-adagio-for-strings-1457709451.jpg

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

Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities.—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:

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

Homage to Nina Hagen

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one youtube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

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 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 (fine website here).

I won’t try and cover the various bowed lutes of China here, and I only mention the erhu (least traditional among them) to remind you of this astounding playing.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

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

And Transylvanian bands:

Some amazing kamanca playing from Azerbaijan:

(BTW, just in case there are any romantic purists who are even holier-than-thou than me, I do like the filming and the scene—without fancy fakelore costumes, but with naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and the mobile phones. All good authentic visual anthropology…)

In related vein, for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar:

http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQ5NzM2MzY1Mg==.html?from=s1.8-1-1.2#paction

And they 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’ll leave jazz fiddling to another post…

Strings and voices

Bach on erhu and saz

My splendid neighbours Fiz and Mike just held a great 50th-wedding anniversary party. Otherwise gifted with fine taste, they inexplicably cajoled me into giving the guests a burst on the erhu Chinese fiddle—oblivious to my plea that its plaintive timbre really needs to be experienced at the hands of someone who can actually, like, play the instrument. After all, like Bernard Bresslaw in The Ladykillers,

I just sort of… picked it up.

Judiciously waiting until everyone was suitably inebriated, after a rousing (and apparently not entirely unrecognizable) erhu rendition of Jerusalem à la chinois (mercifully brief—my friends have suffered enough), I boldly attempted not to entirely mangle Bach’s so-called Air on the G string.

At short notice I secured the estimable services of another neighbour, Martyn—possibly the leading exponent of the Turkish saz in the whole of Bedford Park (sic)—who sensitively provided the bass line. Without regard to expense or the feelings of the public, we stretched to nine strings between us—four and a half each, three of them doubled (“Go figure”). As if it didn’t represent enough of a challenge, I rashly tried further to fill in the texture with the occasional juicy bit of counterpoint by “singing” (I use the word loosely). So I now admire fiddlers who manage to sing at the same time (actually, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself—perhaps it’s not so common to hear fiddlers singing counterpoint as they play).

A World Music version of the Bach Air is an Idea whose Time has Come, if not necessarily the intonation. We didn’t so much play it as hint at it, an esquisse in roughly drawn lines.

Thankfully, no audible trace survives of our rendition (“Case for prosecution collapses due to lack of evidence”)—nor, for that matter, of the ear-scouring Chinese wind-band version that our shawm band had played for a friend’s wedding during our, um, heyday.

The Bach Air is another instance of music that we can only hear with our own modern ears (also here)—imbued by the old cigar ad, and its whole ubiquity in popular culture. But in performance (OK, in the right hands…) it can hardly fail to move—eighteen bars of intense perfection.

Like Christopher Small (Musicking—essential reading), I now greatly value playing in an informal setting for people I know. In post-industrial societies this has inevitably been diluted by the exigencies of concert economics, with the irony of coming together to share “intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers” (George Lipsitz, cited in Musickingp.39).

Still, the Air always moves me by association with memorable concert renditions in which I’ve taken part over the years—like in Windsor Chapel once on my birthday (as part of the Bach 3rd suite, all the more moving in between exhilarating trumpets and ecstatic fast jazzy string noodling), and as an encore in Budapest with Trevor Pinnock.

It can be beautiful in the a cappella version too:

Like the Mahler Adagietto, another media staple that transcends its hijacking by popular culture is the Barber Adagio, equally moving in string quartet and orchestral versions, as well as this ethereal choral arrangement:

Although the Agnus Dei text was added later to fit the melody, it gives me a pretext to play Bach’s version from the B minor mass, sung again by the divine Michael Chance—more vocal and instrumental intertwining:

Calendrical rituals

Further to my thoughts on festivals, today is the focus of the round of Bach Passion performances, now a kind of secular pilgrimage very different from its original liturgical context—not just of Good Friday but the whole calendar. Different too are our ears, bodies, world-views, experiences, sanitation

Mark Padmore, incomparable Evangelist in the Passions, has made some thoughtful points.

One of Bach’s most moving arias is Zerfließe, mein Herze in the John Passion:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!

 More performative tears—like north Chinese Daoist ritual, the aria is also accompanied by anguished wind ensemble, almost evoking (for modern ears) French film music.

While Protestants do their thing, let’s not forget Holy Week in Spain, with solemn hooded processions, soaring trumpets, and saeta devotional songs for the images of Christ and the Virgin.

Indeed, among the benefits of being a touring muso was being able to combine both Bach Passions and flamenco. In southern Spain flamenco only tends to get going in the small hours, but concerts also begin at 10pm or later. So by the time we had played the final chorus of the Matthew Passion in Seville, there was plenty of time to stroll over the bridge to the wonderful Anselmos bar in Triana, downing a few G&Ts before the flamenco began to get in the groove.

***

But I digress. It’s a busy period in the Chinese ritual year too. [1] On the Hebei plain, apart from taking part in the lineage observances for the Qingming festival, Catholics are busy holding Masses and making pilgrimages—not least evading police road-blocks. It is also the time of the 3rd-moon festival for the goddess Empress Houtu, when many villagers go on pilgrimage to the Houshan mountain temples to revere her.

The Houshan pilgrimage, which had been observed only by a tenacious minority through the 1960s and 70s, began reviving in the 1980s; by the 1990s it was attracting around 100,000 pilgrims for its 3rd-moon temple fair. We met several village ritual associations on the mountain for the festival in 1995, though Gaoluo no longer organizes a group; in recent years “people’s hearts are in discord”, as He Qing lamented. In some places the Houtu festival has been revived within the village: for the 3rd-moon festival in 1996, for instance, we visited Shenshizhuang, south of Yixian county-town, whose four ritual associations all celebrate the Houtu festival in their separate ritual buildings in the village.

Many villagers make the pilgrimage in small groups on their own initiative. Their vows are pledged to Houtu. One can climb to the Houshan temples to offer incense and pledge a vow, or just make it at home; the vow often used to include a promise to “look after a banquet” for the ritual association.

So the red flag which one often sees adorning truckloads of villagers in the 3rd moon now heralds a group of pilgrims rather than any political campaign—another sign of the changing times. But despite the lengthy impoverishment of ritual and faith, the power of Houtu is still strong: even in 1997 Gaoluo friends reminded me “Here we believe in the Empress Houtu, so a lot of people offer incense”.

***

For the dispassionate (sic) observer, some photos may distinctly suggest a stress on masochism in Easter observances around the world. Meanwhile on a visit to the Saudis, celebrated defenders of religious values, our Prime Minister gets herself embroiled in a futile dispute about Easter eggs with the notoriously subversive National Trust. Hey-ho.

[1] These notes are revised from my Plucking the winds.

Trauma: music, art, objects

Norman Lebrecht has long laid bare the links of celebrated senior conductors (as well as Karajan…) to Nazism: it’s one subtext of his fine book The maestro myth.

I just read his review of Fritz Trümpi, The political orchestra: the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics during the Third Reich.

The book actually takes the story through to our own times. As Lebrecht observes, neither orchestra emerges with any credit—indeed, it’s a shocking story.

For me, as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB), another inspiring conductor (apart from Boulez) was Rudolf Schwarz (1905–94). Member of the Vienna Philharmonic in his youth, later inmate  of Auschwitz and Belsen, after the liberation of the camps he eventually ended up in Bournemouth, remoulding the orchestra there. His Bruckner 7 with the NYO was wonderful—all the more intense with his laboured conducting style, partly the legacy of a broken shoulder blade in Auschwitz. Never a superstar in the Karajan mould (which was why musicians appreciated him), he was a formative influence on the young Simon Rattle, my contemporary in the NYO.

Bruckner 7 is in the incandescent key of E major, just like the basic scale of the Li family Daoists’ shengguan music—I often think of it while I listen to the shengguan piercing the bright blue sky of rural north China.

Meanwhile, as Rudi was being dragged through the camps, here’s Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Adagio with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1942. Like Philippe Sands’ choice of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler 9 in 1938— and just as with Daoist ritual—we have to personalise such seemingly disembodied works, and place them in time.

Furtwängler’s relationship with Nazism has been much debated. Generally reluctant to collaborate, he did what he could, even helping some Jews escape, and with close ties to the resistence. Yet inevitably people baulk at his participation in events like this Beethoven 9 for Hitler’s birthday, also in 1942:

Lebrecht sums up his legacy (The maestro myth, p.93):

In Furtwängler the Nazis retained an interpreter who performed German music with undiminished conviction while genocide was committed in his name. By opting to remain, he endowed the Nazis with cultural respectability at a  crucial moment in their ascent, and in wartime gave moral sustenance to their cause. In his confrontations with tyranny, Furtwängler proved a feeble adversary who was all too easily manoeuvred into outright collusion. The humanity he expressed in music was was traduced and travestied by his paymasters. His legacy as a performer may well be among the most significant in the annals of conducting, but his conduct under political pressure compromised the very profession on which he wielded so formative an influence.

Still, it’s easy for us to say that. Reflecting on the Nazi era from the perspective of our blessed safety from invasion and  agonising choices, Neil MacGregor poses the disturbing question “What would we have done?” In his brilliant 2014 book Germany: memories of a nation (and no less enchanting are his podcasts—the perfect Radio 4 voice!), he ponders how we can fit the great humanistic traditions of Germany into the same picture with Nazi barbarism, using both works of art and everyday material objects. And having suffered throughout this whole period, people of Central and Eastern Europe would still have to continue making appalling moral choices for decades to come.

Apart from MacGregor’s astute discussions of earlier historical artefacts, one can’t help being drawn into those from more recent history—like the slogan (“to each what they are due”) above the camp gates of Buchenwald—just a few miles outside the Weimar of Goethe and Bach:

MacGregor observes the noble lineage of words that had once signified an ideal of justice—the very words that Bach used as the title of a cantata in 1715 Weimar. Indeed, as a prelude to John Eliot Gardiner’s epoch-making Bach Cantata Pilgrimage all through 2000, I played a modest role in the Christmas oratorio at the Herderkirche in Weimar:

Next day we all visited Buchenwald.

I’m not sure we can derive any encouragement from MacGregor’s idea that the stylish lettering of those words above the gate (designed by an inmate, Communist and former Bauhaus student Franz Ehrlich) might be read by fellow inmates as a subtly subversive message that the SS would eventually get their just deserts. By the way, Ehrlich survived, also disturbingly, to become a Stasi informant under the GDR.

MacGregor gives a fine diachronic survey of Käthe Kollwitz’s work,

as well as the incarnations and migrations of Barlach’s Hovering angel (1926),

along with reflections on Remembrance ceremonies.

But he also discusses movingly the “rubble women” (Trümmerfrauen) who rebuilt shattered Germany after the war, and objects such as a little hand-cart pulled by refugees from Eastern Pomerania in late 1945— now reminding us tellingly of the refugee crises of our own day.

The wonderful Forum of Contemporary History in Leipzig has a similar exhibit.

But to return to Trümpi’s book, this tale of two orchestras brings us, shamefully, right up to the lives of my generation and later. It was not until 2013 that the Vienna Philharmonic revoked the Ring of Honour it had bestowed on three leading figures in the Nazi genocide—including Richard Strauss’s patron Baldur von Schirach, who (also in 1942) described the deportation he oversaw of 65,000 Viennese Jews to the death camps as a “contribution to European culture”. Indeed, our feelings about those celebrated Viennese New Year’s concerts can’t help being stained by learning that it was Schirach who instigated them.

As an aside, these orchestras haven’t exactly been at the forefront of gender equality either. Competing hotly in the misogyny stakes with “Rear Admiral” Foley, Karl Böhm (a Great Maestro far more flawed than was Furtwängler) is quoted as saying that “the Nazis aren’t that bad—they want to eliminate women from politics.” Digging himself into a deeper hole, he went on, “Of course, not all women are worthless—Rainer Maria Rilke [sic] wrote some good poems.”

And now there are new causes for anxiety, threatening all the liberal values that have been achieved so painfully over several centuries.

Yet more conducting

In the Rozhdestvensky film, I like his solution (from 22’29”) to the perennial problem posed by the opening of the Symphonie fantastique: “I simply invited them to begin” and then let them get on with it.

Which reminds me, a noted baroque conductor was rehearsing the opening of a slow aria in the Matthew Passion. One of the wind players suggested he might try subdividing:
“Could you give us 7–8 into it?”
Conductor, indignantly: “I didn’t get where I am today by giving 7–8!”

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

And here’s Larson’s take on conducting.