Corpsing: Inuit culture and Haydn

A much-discussed piece of “salvage ethnography” is the film Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty, 1922):

For his 1926 film Moana, see here.

More recent is a highly praised film from Zacharias Kunuk, Atanarjuat: the fast runner (2001). Here’s a trailer:

It enacts an ancient legend while lavishing great anthropological care in evoking early Inuit culture.

But Nanook of the North is to some extent a fictional creation too, blurring the lines between documentary and drama. It is an early case-study in a substantial discourse in the ethics of visual anthropology that leads on to Jean Rouch, representations of the Yanomami, and so on.

As to vocal styles, in katajjaq throat-singing (e.g. Voices of the World, CD 1 §12), the duet is considered to come to an end when one of the singers laughs, loses her breath, or breaks concentration (LOL).

Hard to imagine a performance of such charm at certain other recent swearing-in ceremonies…

Now I’d like to seek ethnographies of changing life in Inuit communities since the time of Nanook (preferably not containing the words “traditional way of life” or “vanishing culture”—“but that’s not important right now“). This is a lively topic in ethnomusicology—there are many studies to add to my reading list, such as Maija M. Lutz, The effects of acculturation on Eskimo music of Cumberland peninsula (1978), Beverley Cavanagh, Music of the Netsilik Eskimo: a study of stability and change (1982), and studies of throat singing by Nicole Beaudry and others—as an introduction to the detailed work of Beaudry, note her thoughtful reflections in Shadows in the field. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.

Here’s a trailer for the short film Throat song (2013), in which a young Inuk woman, lost in a community that has been tragically separated from its past, begins to connect with other victims of violence in her community, and seeks to reclaim her voice:

Throat singing also inspires a lively experimental scene, with singers such as Tanya Tagaq.

* * *

Corpsing is one of the pleasures of musical life in WAM too—we’ve all done gigs like that. I can’t suggest here the numerous ways in which fiddle players try to corpse their desk partners by a tiny little gesture of resignation at the repeat of a minuet, or a fake sforzando attack on a pianissimo entry.

Generally “the show must go on”, but once, the Allegri string quartet were performing the intimate, intense slow movement of a Haydn quartet when the viola player let out an extended and voluble fart.* The leader giggled sotto voce, and as the mirth spread (even to the miscreant, who’s generally the first to keep a straight bat) all four of them were soon so helpless with laughter that they just couldn’t keep going, and had to leave the stage to compose themselves.

To be sure, this is at a certain remove from Inuit culture. In the latter, as if you haven’t worked this out already, corpsing is intrinsic to the performance event; in WAM, it’s an illicit part of the muso’s “deviant behaviour“.

* I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon:

Host (to guest who has just perpetrated an embarrassing histrionic effect) “Gad sir, you’ve farted in front of my wife”.

Guest, with air of studied nonchalance, “Oh, I’m most frightfully sorry, I didn’t realise it was her turn.”

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour (see also Irish tag), Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors. It was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story.

This reminiscence gives an idea of his sincerity (click “Watch on YouTube”!):

Hugh’s playing appears all too rarely on YouTube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Daphnis and Chloé—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Cieran Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s wonderful story.

This 1968 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet has long been a favourite, with Hugh leading a star cast including Neville Marriner and Iona Brown (or Iona Brown violin, as she’s known):

On the same LP, the poise of Hugh’s playing in the Minuet of the Boccherini Quintet is charming too—with a bold yet tasteful glissando on the cello (0.37, 1.03, and best of all at 3.15):

Boccherini also makes a priceless backdrop for The ladykillers. For an incident in the middle of a string quartet, see here; and for another string quartet, here.

And here’s Hugh leading the Allegri quartet in the Mozart clarinet quintet, with Jack Brymer:

In the 1960s Hugh also loved playing piano trios with Fou Ts’ong and Jacqueline du Pré.


Sometimes on early morning swims I have the pool to myself for a while. It doesn’t get much better than that (“or does it?“).

As I swim, I think of Bach, and Daoist ritual [unbeatable Pseuds’ Corner entry—Ed.] Some aspects of swimming may intermittently involve the brain—like in crawl, concentrating on getting the hand shape right as it enters the water, pushes forwards, and starts to pull back; aligning the pull-back of the arm with the body, and so on.

In Daoist ritual, far from the cerebral, conceptual, philosophical, or spiritual learning of texts, physical memory plays a major role—motor movement, muscle- and (for sheng, guanzi, cymbals) finger-memory, the body; internalizing through ritual practice, experience, starting from young, like boys in any hereditary folk tradition such as the Li family Daoists.

Learning violin pieces is more of a private affair. Apart from physical practice, I’ve always internalized them silently too—while walking, dozing, swimming, and so on. Even away from the instrument, it’s a physical exercise: my fingers are always moving—like those of guanzi oboe players in north China. This has always accounted for quite a lot of “practice”—for me, anyway. I didn’t get where I am today.

But so much learning consists of simple repetition. I note that in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. Conversely, might we interpret our “rehearsal” as putting into yet another conveyance for a coffin?!

So while swimming I engage the mind for a while and then empty it to let my body take over.

WAM on the erhu

Sun Huang

Long hooked on the gritty folk intensity of rural Chinese music-making, I’ve never had much time for the suave polished solos of the conservatoire virtuosos (pipa lute, zheng zither, erhu fiddle…) that dominate the media. In rural China, instrumental solos are virtually non-existent: ceremonial life is dominated by ensembles, often for wind and percussion—such as the searing shawm bands.

And if there’s one thing that Gets my Goat more than erhu solos, it’s erhu solo arrangements of WAM classics. So this isn’t the kind of thing you might expect me to say—but this has to be the greatest ever rendition of a piece that I wrestled with on the fiddle through my teens:

That’s a truncated adaptation, of course (even with Sun Huang’s technique, some of the violin arpeggio stuff just won’t translate). Here she is later, playing a fuller version—still heavily arranged:

Seriously though, this is jaw-dropping stuff. OK, it’s part of the whole conservatoire shtick of extreme emoting (yet more distressing when they play “traditional” Chinese solos), and similarly virtuosic techniques are all too abundant in China. But just compare the versions of Heifetz or any other hallowed violin maestro on YouTube—no-one has ever remotely approached that depth of expression and mastery (it’s hard enough with four strings, let alone two). Both Sun Huang’s left-hand technique (like qigong, utterly internalised within the body, all in the service of the music) and the engagement of her bow with the strings, by turns mellifluous and gritty, are beyond belief.

BTW, as with Švejk (Shuaike 帅克), here we have another fine Chinese transliteration of a foreign name—Saint-Saëns is perhaps flattered by the rendition Shengsang 圣桑 “Sage Mulberry”. It sounds like one of those pre-historic deities. So in another post I just have to posit a link between the two great sibilant sages.

In the first video, note how Sun Huang is deluged beneath an avalanche of cuddly toys at the end. Quite right too. Before we begin agonising over sexist infantilising, if Heifetz had ever managed to play the piece even half as well, he would have deserved a similar bombardment.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, you can listen to my own rendition of Bach on the erhu, and speculate on musical life at the 18th-century Beijing court, here.

For other types of Chinese fiddles, see here.

Studying the cello


“People often say to me…”

When I am asked how I came to play the violin, I’m inclined to cite The Ladykillers (1955):

As the gang is plotting their robbery, posing as a string quintet while they play a recording of the Boccherini Minuet, sweet little old Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) takes them by surprise—so to maintain the deceit they have to hurriedly pick up their instruments (which they can’t actually play). The magnificently obtuse One-round (Bernard Bresslaw) is clutching a cello like a sledgehammer:

Mrs Wilberforce: “May I ask you where you studied?”

One-round: “…Well, I didn’t really study any place, Lady… I just sort of… picked it up.”

I still can’t help thinking of the scene whenever I hear that minuet.

This leads nicely to Muso speak: excuses and bravado. For more convincing mastery of the cello, see here; and for Hugh Maguire leading the Allegri quartet in another Boccherini minuet, here. See also Learning the piano.

A music critic


Talking of free-tempo preludes

Many years ago (indeed, “more years ago than I care to remember”—a new entry in Flann O’Brien‘s Catechism of Cliché), we were in a London church, recording some exquisite medieval instrumental pieces called estampies. They are said to have spread through Europe by way of the Crusades, and have been recorded by worthier musicians than me, often with Middle Eastern style in mind. I was on rebec (“What does that even mean?”).

Right in the middle of a take, an irate elderly janitor burst in to subject us to a withering tirade, exclaiming:

“Are you gonna give it a rest? It just goes on and on. I mean, it’s not as if there’s any MERIT in it…”

We decided against inviting him to write the liner notes for the CD.

For other scathing reviews, see here and here.

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

WAGZ score

Hesi prelude and opening of Qi Yan Hui suite: score showing melodic outline in gongche solfeggio, West An’gezhuang village, Xiongxian county, Hebei.

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it al fresco as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002, which he was curating.

As I come to adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

Prelude and Allemande, 6th cello suite, manuscript of Anna Magdalena Bach.

For wise words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis (click here for the CD set). Here he is playing the 5th suite (the Prelude here unambiguously meditative, like both the later Allemande and Sarabande):

For another Bach Allemande that seems to suit an alap-esque style, see here.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp. The 6th suite, of course [sic—Ed.], was written for a five-string cello, but—in the current spirit of austerity—I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan ritual melodies), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take a false exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.


Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban 散板 in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim (see here, and here) and the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term “free-tempo” isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a underlying pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei (see e.g. here, under West An’gezhuang) are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist #8, from Plucking the Winds, CD #14—see commentary; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are also a feature of ritual suites around Xi’an. But they are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.

And don’t miss Aretha’s extraordinary alap to Amazing Grace! And the exquisite expositions of dhrupad!!!

More early music


In Irish music I already cited some fine quotes from Cieran Carson’s Last night’s fun bearing on the mania for soulless competitions, including the tale of the three fiddlers. 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 Daoist priests of the Li family, 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.

Voices and instruments

In my book (p.261) I glibly compared the Li band’s hymns to the arias in the Bach Passions, “where action and drama are suspended while we contemplate the deep meaning of a scene.” In most elite Daoist and Buddhist temples, liturgy is accompanied only by percussion, not melodic instrumental music. Many of the Li band’s hymns are sung thus, a cappella—including those used to Open Scriptures in the morning and afternoon.

Whereas Chinese studies of northern Daoist and Buddhist “music” often focus almost entirely on shengguan melodic instrumental music, in my book (ch.16) I try to put it within the ritual context. But does the shengguan accompaniment (notably the constant variations of the guanzi) express what the vocal text is unable to embody?

As usual, this is not a close parallel, but one thinks of Erbarme Dich:

“Language is not essential to this moment, or even adequate to it. A verbal penitence is expressed by the alto voice, but the violin expresses a more universal distress.” (Gardiner p. 422, citing Naomi Cumming).

But remember, I find nothing akin to word-painting in the Li band’s vocal repertoire (my book p.277):

I can find no matching of melody to textual content. There is nothing akin to word-painting, no illumination of the meaning of the text through music. Vocal liturgy is capable of arousing emotion, as for instance it should do in the Song of the Skeleton (see Yesterday…), but this is achieved through the general style of delivery rather than the specific text-setting. In musical style the Song of the Skeleton is no different from other hymns, and even its desolate text is not comprehensible when sung.

So expression is conveyed mainly through timbre. The more I listen to Li Manshan and Golden Noble, the more impressive I find the mournful nasal quality of their voices; I can sing some hymns, but can’t emulate this. They have utterly absorbed the meaning of the texts into their voices. And when the shengguan accompanies, Wu Mei complements them perfectly on guanzi, managing to combine a deeply mournful tone with an almost playful way of weaving in and out of the melodic line, ducking and diving, sometimes soaring. The singers recognize that a good guanzi player is a great help to them in rendering the text.

Anyway, both the decorations of a Daoist on guanzi and Bach’s oboe lines are spellbinding—an intrinsic part of the realization of the text. So I both demote and stress the shengguan accompaniment.

Beyond the transition of the Passions from liturgical to concert performances, the staged versions of recent years can also be compelling (for us):

And we’re already in tears (along with Peter) from the recitative of the Evangelist that introduces it. The shuowen introits of the Daoist also introduce arias…

Those of a sensitive disposition may wish to avoid reading my Textual scholarship, OMG.


Quaint and not entirely useless fact:

The names of indigenous and ancient Chinese musical instruments usually consist of one single character, like

qin 琴 zither
sheng 笙 mouth-organ
zheng 箏 zither
di 笛 flute,

whereas those imported from outside China (generally Central Asia) tend to have two characters, like

bili 篳篥 oboe (Japanese hichiriki; descendant of the Chinese guan[zi] 管子)
 琵琶 lute
erhu 二胡 fiddle (and indeed huqin 胡琴, tiqin 提琴, and so on)
suona 嗩吶 shawm
yangqin 揚琴 dulcimer.

“Not a lot of people know that”. Perhaps we can think of some exceptions?

By the way, the pipa was held horizontally in medieval times, the angle getting higher over the course of a thousand years until attaining its present vertical position—surely the longest and most gradual erection known to mankind.

Lower row, left: Yang Dajun.

There are still a couple of regions where the older more horizontal position has been maintained:

(left) nanyin in Fujian; (right) Shaanbei bard.

More Irish music

There I was on tour in Ireland, playing Mozart’s first opera Apollo and Hyacinthus, which enjoys the added blessing of being short, so we could go on to sessions in local pubs. One night in the pub after a gig across the border in Armagh, an old codger got chatting to me, and told me of his father Jimmy.

Notionally a shopkeeper, Jimmy gave little thought to the business, instead spending all his time in his back room with his mates playing old tunes and getting pleasantly pissed. They were all pretty rubbish, but had a great time, scraping away ineptly on their fiddles. One day in a break Jimmy switches on the wireless to hear a solemn announcement:

“It is with deep regret that we announce the death of the celebrated concert violinist Mr Jascha Heifetz.”

One of the guys looks at him with a tear in his eye and sighs,

“Bejaysus, Jimmy, there ain’t many of us left.”

I wish I’d been able to tell my teacher Hugh Maguire that one. For more stories about Irish music, see the great Cieran Carson; and for Paul Bowles’s story about Yehudi “Monahan”, click here.

Irish music

Paul Carthy (1911–2006)

Paul Carthy (1911–2006).

In his brilliant Last Night’s Fun, Ciaran Carson devotes a chapter (“The standard”, pp.91–8) to the mania for soulless competitions—a caveat for Chinese pundits too. A few instances:

Deirdre was once asked to adjudicate the fiddle competition in the County — Fleadh. Unfortunately, the event attracted no entrants; but the competition had to happen and a winner be selected. It so happened that a Mr X, generally regarded as the best fiddle-player in the area, might well have gone in for it; however, he couldn’t be got out of the pub, except for the official free high-tea that it was his duty to attend. Deirdre was dispatched to the tea-room above the hall, and managed to inveigle Mr X into playing the requisite reel, jig, and slow air, in between the soup, the salad sandwiches, and the jelly trifle. He was then presented with an enormous trophy, much to his surprise.


I was once present at a singing competition in the town of —, in the province of —. The adjudicators were the well-known singers Mr Y and Mr Z. The venue was the local Temperance Hall. The competition started rather late, as the adjudicators found it difficult to leave the nearby pub. They eventually arrived with a brown paper bag which they discreetly shared under the trestle table. At the finale, everyone was awarded medals. The adjudicators sang a duet. Everyone was happy. Everyone felt well-adjudicated.

Another story, from the 1908 Freeman’s Journal:

“Our country musicians are possessed of the talent of music and have in their minds the beautiful in it, but they cannot reproduce them, for they lach the technical means of doing so.” Applause. “Were they reasonably educated they would produce a race of musicians worthy of our history. Again, we had those who believed that Irish music should be rendered in scales of unusual construction. [SJ: shades of de Selby?!] Many scales existed in ancient times, but, alas, those who could teach us have gone. Because a singer or player, through lack of technical means, sang or played with a total disregard of any correctness of intonation, that did not qualify them to claim that they were using a scale of unusual construction. The majority of them did not adhere to the accepted musical scale, not that they used any other form of scale, but that their ear being totally untrained, they involuntarily produced a music not in any one scale, but in an infinity of scales of impossible construction.” Laughter and applause.

Mr Darley then gave his violin recital of Irish airs.

Most delightful is Carson’s citation of a fine story from Mick Hoy—a caveat to reverse musical snobbery:

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.

For more stories of Irish fiddlers, see here and here. Note also Alexei Sayle’s pithy critique of ballroom dancing.