Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes

Whilst I was writing with affection and awe on the sheng mouth-organ, I recalled that Ciaran Carson has a similar passion for the tactile minutiae of Irish flutes and their human custodians (Last night’s fun, “Hard to fill”, pp.49–57). Each chapter takes the title of a tune, and (like life, and like jokes!) each tune leads into another.

A few excerpts to give a flavour:

He picks up the foot-joint and prises out the little brass pins which hold the C♯ key in place; he turns it over, and there, under the touch of the key, are the initials “A.L.”, the hidden mark of Alexander Little who spent some time with D’Almaine and later set up shop on his own at 24 Chenies Street (1847–54) and then at 35 Devonshire Street (1854–73).
This is a six-keyed flute of Jamaican cocus-wood, weathered to a rich dark chocolate brown with oxblood striations glinting under the immediate surface.[…]
We are in Sam’s workshop at 1 Exchange Place, Belfast. Exchange Place is, in Belfast parlance, an “entry”: a narrow lane between two streets, a backwater or a short-cut, a deviation from the beaten path. Exchange Place is an entry: we talk and breathe in an exhalation, a many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia. I believe you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it.
[…]
And this is not to speak of the unspeakable archaeological layers of things strewn and assembled on every available surface in the workshop: pins, papers, screws, tobacco tins and and coffee jars, thread, waxed paper, empty bobbins, walrus, tusks, billiard balls, sealing-wax and string, envelopes, cigar-boxes, empty glasses, tannin-encrusted teacups, bus tickets, knives, a bottle of Angostura bitters, a drawing-plate, a bicycle repair-kit, two old trade tin trays (Ross’s Mineral Waters and Buckfast Tonic Wine) with rusted pocks in them, bills, invoices, a blue tin of Vaseline, Christmas cards and postcards, a blowtorch, fluxes, solders, coils of silver wire, brass tubing, wine corks, an old cardboard advertisement for Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts, brass plate, a Swiss Army knife, dust, unaccountable detritus and filings of long-gone operations, a Bo-Peep matchbox which rattles with brass thumb-tacks when you pick it up, washers, drill-bits, oil-cans, tea-pots, files, gimlets, scissors, a copy of the Irish News from last year, a shrivelled chip, Kirby grips, bulldog clips, Jubilee clips and paper-clips, a square damp packet of Saxa salt, Blu-Tack, bits of putty, sealing-wax, a little paper packet of cigarette-lighter flints, a candle stub, a Zippo lighter, cotton-wool, a sticky tin of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, wisps of steel wool, and the blue glint of methylated spirits shivering in a glass square-shouldered glass-stoppered bottle against a stained, scarred patch of the workbench; on a window-sill, three little tinker-made tin inkwell-shaped receptacles with milled brass screwtops, containing pumice, tripoli and rouge, each bearing the original early Victorian price of three shillings (3/-).

And he’s just as wonderful on performance practice. His recollection of Pakie Duignan reminds me of Wu Mei:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

Astounding—go on, read the chapter, and the whole book!

Like Carson’s amazing fantasy on the role of the Irish breakfast in musical life (“Boil the Breakfast early”, pp.15–21), that’s just the kind of loving detail, mutatis mutandis, that we need for China, and Chinese ritual. Indeed, I linked Chinese and Irish music before.

As with the syncopated cadential pattern of the Li band’s hymns, we need to evoke all the practical insider’s detail and the embedding of ritual with daily lives—not just grandiose theory and ancient mysticism. If we’re going to write about music—and ritual—at all, then along with Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, Carson’s book is a paragon.

Ask my father

Another passage from Last Night’s fun (see Irish music, More Irish music, and More early music) that reminds me of Chinese music is Carson’s brilliant discussion (pp.7–13) of the naming of tunes, what the Chinese call qupai “melodic labels”:

A: What do you call that?
B: Ask my father.
A: “Ask my father”?

I can only hope we haven’t made such a mistake in documenting folk qupai. Indeed, I could well have asked Li Manshan’s son that very question…

More early music

In Irish music I already cited the tale of the three fiddlers from Carson’s Last night’s fun. “The standard” (pp.91–8) has many fine quotes, bearing on the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. The final passage in this section is remarkable (p.98):

I find among these people commendable diligence only on musical instruments, on which they are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen. Their style is not, as on the British instruments to which we are accustomed, deliberate and solemn but quick and lively; nevertheless the sound is smooth and pleasant.

It is remarkable that, with such rapid fingerwork, the musical rhythm is maintained and that, by unfailingly disciplined art, the integrity of the tune is fully preserved through the ornate rhythms and the profusely intricate polyphony… They introduce and leave the rhythmic motifs so subtly, they play the tinkling sounds on the thinner strings above the sustained sounds of the thicker strings so freely, they take such secret delight and caress [the strings] so sensuously, that the greatest part of their art seems to lie in veiling it, as if ‘that which is concealed is bettered— art revealed is art shamed’. Thus it happens that those things which bring private and ineffable delight to people of subtle appreciation and sharp discernment, burden rather than delight the ears of those who, and in spite of looking do not see and in spite of hearing do not understand; to unwilling listeners, fastidious things appear tedious and have a confused and disordered sound.

That passage might seem like a fine description of Irish music today—but it was written in 1185, by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hiberniae!

Generally (my book p.291),
I wage a tireless campaign against the Chinese scholarly trend to make ambitious links between ancient citations and living folk practice, but here is one case where I totally support it. Comparable to the centrality of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters, the sheng master was the grand director of courtly ritual music right from the Zhou dynasty around the 6th century BCE, with an unmatched understanding of scales and pitches, a custom that has persisted throughout imperial history right down to today. Of all the wise sheng masters we have met in north Chinese villages, Li Qing was among the most outstanding.

Doubtless Irish music has changed in many ways since the 12th century, and that passage is just general enough to allow us to discern parallels that may not add up to so much—but still, it’s impressive.

Irish music


As a caveat to reverse musical snobbery, in his brilliant Last Night’s Fun Cieran Carson cites a fine story of Mick Hoy:

There were these three fiddlers once upon a time.
And they were in for this competition
And the first one came up
and he was dressed in a dress-suit
and he had a dicky-bow and bib on him.
And the fiddle-case was made out of crocodile skin.
And when he brought out the fiddle,
what was it, but a Stradivarius.
And he started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

 And the second fiddler came up
and he was wearing a nice Burton’s suit
and a matching handkerchief and tie
and socks with clocks on them.
And he had a nice wooden case
and not a bad fiddle in it,
so he got it out and started to play,
and beGod, he was desperate.

 And the third fiddler came up
and the elbows was out of his jacket
and the toes peeping from his shoes,
and the fiddle-case was tied with bits of wire
and when he brought out the fiddle,
there was more strings on the fiddle
than there was on the bow.
And he started to play.
And beGod, he was desperate too.