Love, Deutschmarks, and death

The Germans wanted workers, and they got human beings.

One of the main aims of ethnomusicology is to integrate musical and social insights, as in classics like Enemy Way, Sardinian chronicles, Thinking in jazz, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam. So I was fascinated to watch the documentary

  • Aşk, Mark ve Ölüm (Love, Deutschmarks, and death, Cem Kaya 2022) on Mubi. Here’s a trailer:

See this interview with the director Cem Kaya, and introductions e.g. here and here.

The film vividly evokes the lives of Turkish immigrants to Germany from their early days as Gastarbeiter struggling for jobs and rights as workers (music making a means of expression for those lacking a voice in society), right through to rap/hip-hop, as their descendants assert their rights as citizens.

Ismet TopcuThe Turkish music scene in Germany was far from homogeneous. Cem Kaya elicits some excellent comments from characterful musicians. The film opens and ends strikingly with İsmet Topçu, the Hendrix of the bağlama, putting the story in wacky extra-terrestrial context…

old movie

Among the first wave of Gastarbeiter was the protest singer Âşık Metin Türköz, who found a huge audience among the poor factory workers with his songs reflecting their harsh life:

He became the first Turkish star to sing in German:

Left, Yüksel Özkasap; right, Cavidan Ünal.

We meet the female singers Yüksel Özkasap (“the Nightingale of Cologne”) and Cavidan Ünal, as well as the brilliantly camp Hatay Engin (playlist). Such singers who made their name in Germany become popular in urban and rural Turkey too.

The film shows evocative archive footage of the first waves of Gastarbeiter from 1955. Turkish workers were always at a disadvantage besides their German colleagues, but by the 1970s, as the economy went into recession, they came out together on strike. Paradoxically, the 1980s were a heyday for gazinos (cf. The Club)—more footage of the Türkische Basar in Berlin—and the conspicuous consumption (flashing the cash) of ostentatious weddings, which required musicians to perform in regional styles from all over Turkey. Visiting Turkish stars like İbrahim Tatlıses, Zeki Müren, and Ferdi Tayfur drew huge audiences among their compatriots in Germany.

Like the Black Sea, Germany is a region of Turkey…

The theme of protest continues with the charismatic Türk-rock singer Cem Karaca and his band Die Kanaken. He left Turkey for Germany in 1979, but when the post-1980 coup government issued an arrest warrant for him and other intellectuals, he was unable to return home until 1987. This playlist has 62 tracks—here’s Mein Deutscher Freund:

and Es kamen Menschen an (1984):

Another critical singer was Ozan Ata Canani, here with a variation on the “German friend” theme:

Further listening on the Songs of Gastarbeiter compilations (here and here).

Also impressive are the folk-rock/disko-folk duo Derdiyoklar—here they are performing live for a wedding in 1984:

Perhaps their most successful song was Liebe Gabi—again protesting racism:

As the early Gastarbeiter settled, new German-born generations created their own styles, with arabesk leading to R’n’Besk. We find Derya Yıldırım accompanying her wistful song on bağlama, before she progressed to Anatolian psych-pop with her Grup Şimşek. The film’s third section covers recent years. As anti-immigrant sentiment grew in Germany from the 1980s, increasing after the Fall of the Wall, young hip-hop artists from a “lost generation” born of immigrant parents (multi-ethnic groups like King Size Terror and Microphone Mafia) confronted xenophobia and the rise of the far right. Cem Kaya draws astute comments from popular Turkish-German “oriental” rappers of the day such as the inspirational mentor Boe B. (1970–2000) of Islamic Force (musical wing of the 36 Boys gang):

Also contributing are Kabus Kerim and Erci E. of the short-lived but influential Cartel; Muhabbet, who also gained a wide following; Tachi of Fresh Familee and Volkan T error of Endzeit Industry. Such rappers creatively combined their mother tongues with German in Kiezdeutsch or Kanak sprak (cf. French slang).

To complement the archive footage and interviews, Cem Kaya has really gone to town on the psychedelic captions.

captions

Do also watch the documentary Jazz in Turkey, leading to several posts on the Istanbul jazz scene, as well as an introduction to Alevi ritual in Istanbul that ends with a note on its fortunes in Germany—all part of my extensive series on west and Central Asian cultures.

* * *

Another impressive recent exploration of Turkish-German identity is the stage drama Türkland, realised by Dilşad Budak Sarıoğlu, Ilgıt Uçum, and İrem Aydın.

turkland

Xu Tong: subaltern lives

Filmed around the very regions where I’ve done my long-term fieldwork on ritual life in north China, the documentaries of Xu Tong 徐童 (b.1965) make deeply uncomfortable yet necessary watching. *

His work explores aspects of subaltern people’s lives of which I’ve only been peripherally aware. I’ve never wished to filter them out: unlike most portrayals of religious activity in China, my films show glimpses of itinerant performers, grave-diggers, beggars, pop music, smoking, joking… But my focus has made it hard for me to do these people justice.

As peasants migrate to urban areas in search of labour, choosing urban squalor over rural poverty, the depletion of the villages continues. In Xu Tong’s films, the scenery alone challenges our image of China’s rapid economic progress; the values of the pre-Liberation and Maoist eras (whether traditional, religious, or socialist) are almost entirely absent, yet one catches hints of a different kind of morality. As I observed in my post on Guo Yuhua, under Maoism the Chinese Masses were thoroughly exploited even while they received empty praise as salt-of-the-earth laobaixing, but since the 1980s’ reforms, state media have serially demonised them with the taints of  “low quality” and “low-end population”.

  • Cut out the eyes (Wa yanjing, 挖眼睛, 2014) is a most striking documentary (substantial review in Chinese here), in which Xu Tong follows round an itinerant blind errentai singer in rural Inner Mongolia—just north of my fieldsite in north Shanxi.

ZJYT beggars

Itinerant beggars at funeral, 2018. My photo; see Yet another village funeral.

Small groups performing errentai songs and skits appear regularly at weddings and funerals along the broad northern expanse of Hebei, Shanxi, and Shaanxi. I’ve often come across them—several scenes in Cut out the eyes remind me strongly of fieldwork, such as the funeral beggars (from 16.41), or Blindman the Fifth’s troupe (from 54.38). The shawm bands (known here as gujiang 鼓匠), very much part of this lowly milieu, include errentai in their repertoire (see vignettes in my DVDs Doing things and Notes from the Yellow Earth that come with my 2007 and 2009 books); even household Daoists incorporate such pieces in their popular sequences (see my film Li Manshan, from 42.52). Note also Yanggao personalities; A flawed funeral; Blind shawm players of Yanggao; Women of Yanggao 3; Hequ 1953; An unsung local hero; and Blind musicians in China and elsewhere.

However, the way I’ve delineated my topic has never afforded me time to immerse myself in this world—mercifully, one might say; so Xu Tong’s ethnography of their lives, “warts and all”, is most welcome. It all feels so familiar: gambling, dysfunctional families, pimps, dope-smoking, overturned lorries by the roadside…  And hearing the dialectal expression bulei (“great”) again, which would be bulai in putonghua, is music to my ears.

Here’s the blurb for Cut out the eyes from a recent festival:

At once piercingly observant and intimately complicit in his approach, director Xu Tong trains his mobile, intimacy-generating camera on unique real-life characters in order to explore the ongoing clash of rural traditions with China’s rush to modernity.

In Cut out the eyes, Xu follows Er Housheng, a blind musician who travels Inner Mongolia with his lover/partner Liu Lanlan performing the saucy, sensationally bawdy form of musical duet comedy called errentai. Er Housheng’s female audiences are particularly enthralled with his combination of sensuality, Rabelaisian earthiness, and socially subversive lyrics.

Er Housheng is a charismatic, mesmerising narrative-generating machine, singing of his own incredibly fascinating, violently tumultuous life, and of the (mostly) sex lives of the people who form his community, grass roots down-to-earth folk whose lives haven’t changed much in decades, in rural Chinese Inner Mongolia.

Live performance, in Er Housheng’s hands (and in his and Liu Lanlan’s voices) is something both enthrallingly surreal and earthily commonplace: his audiences hear him boast about his prowess, his courage, his creativity, his trouble with women, not unlike a 1930s American blues singer, or even a 21st-century Chinese rural Kanye West!

The commonplace becomes spectacle, reality shines like magical fables, but there is darkness, danger, and unspeakable violence in Er Housheng’s life, love, and lyrics.

While the film is on one level an enthralling ethnographic showpiece, at its core Cut Out the Eyes is a passionate, frenzied psychodrama of lust, violence, and genius.

At last in a long scene on a visit home, Er Housheng tells how his lover’s husband cut out his eyes when he was 29; later (1.02.13) his graphic retelling of the lurid true crime story in song (and even the sexist denouement) has a painful authenticity which, just as much as his bawdy lyrics, explains his popularity. His songs contrast with much of the music in Xu Tong’s films, where the brash propriety of revolutionary songs and the saccharine pop from recent times express the degradation of people’s lives in a different way.

Here’s the film, with subtitles in Chinese and English:

Guo Youshan, senior master of “east-road” (donglu) errentai, recalls the perils of singing “unhealthy songs” after Liberation.

Wa yanjing 1976

He and cultural pundits may deplore the “unhealthy” downward spiral represented by performers like Er Housheng and Lanlan, but men and women, old and young, gobble it all up (and I suspect that’s a more subtle pun than you’ll find in the songs!).

Cut out the eyes gives an unflinching portrait of grass-roots errentai, utterly remote from the sanitised image of state troupes (cf. my vignette on attending a “concert” in Shaanbei) and the razzmatazz of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unsettling as it is, this film should be compulsory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese society and its expressive culture.

* * *

Xu Tong trilogy

The sense of voyeurism in viewing such harrowing scenes is accentuated when watching the “Vagabonds trilogy” (Youmin sanbuqu 游民三部曲) with which Xu Tong made his name—films on subaltern lives around Beijing that are also most revealing:

  • Wheat harvest (Maishou 麦收, 2008).
    The protagonist Hongmiao is a sex worker at a brothel in Fengtai district of south Beijing. Her home village is in Dingxing county, where I found ritual groups through the 1990s (see under Local ritual, notably The Houshan Daoists), very near Gaoluo. This world of migrants drawn to Beijing—construction jobs, rudimentary health care, brothel workers and clients, seedy karaoke bars—is one that I only glimpsed. The benefits of modernization look most elusive; contrary to Partyspeak, there’s nothing noble about the plight of “the masses”. But the characters consider “culture”, “moral quality”, and “respect”.

You can watch the film complete in three parts, which should follow on from here; or, on YouTube, here’s the first 68’ (missing the last 31′) (this and the following videos with Chinese subtitles only):

  • Fortune teller (Suanming 算命, 2009; see here, wiki, and this critical review on the “Screening China” site).
    Caring for a mentally and physically handicapped partner, the disabled Li Baicheng moves round Hebei province offering his services as a fortune teller (his story far from those of the prestigious hereditary Daoist lineage of Li Manshan in Shanxi). The stories his clients tell him are distressing too—sexual violence, self-harm, prison, begging. Here it is, punctuated by Xu Tong’s instructive commentary:

One of Li Baichang’s clients in Fortune teller became the protagonist of

  • Shattered (Lao Tangtou 老唐头, 2011; see e.g. here and here), uploaded in three parts, which should follow on from here.
    After her release from prison, the tough brothel owner Tang Caifeng returns home to visit her family in rural Heilongjiang in northeast China. Her father Old Man Tang recalls how he joined the Party in 1948 but withdrew in 1958, disgusted by the farcical, and tragic, steel campaign; still, like many veterans, he deplores the decline since the 1980s’ reforms. Dysfunctional family dynamics are paraded on camera again. Caifeng is impressed by Brother Wu, owner of an illegal coal mine (cf. Platform); in the final scene, captions reveal that she has hired thugs to beat up the man who reported the mine to get it closed down.

Around this time she changed her name to Tang Xiaoyan, and began working with Xu Tong on his projects (Cut out the eyes was among the films on which she helped him—see e.g. here); in 2023 they married.

Again, the “Screening China” site has valid criticisms:

Xu must be aware how these scenes will look to his audience—who like him are mainly urban, educated and relatively well off compared to the people on screen. By constantly homing in on aspects of rural life that he knows will likely make this audience squirm, I feel like Xu is—perhaps unconsciously—pandering to the disparaging view of rural life commonly held by Chinese urbanites. […]

I always end up feeling uncomfortable with Xu’s films because I feel like he looks at his subjects with the detached ethnographic gaze of an educated, middle class urbanite fascinated with the “primitive” life of China’s poor—a perspective that can’t help but end up being condescending towards his subjects.

Even if the results may sometimes seem invasive rather than empathetic, with some scenes extended gratuitously, I still admire not just Xu Tong’s choice of subaltern subjects, but the way he masters the considerable challenge of filming them unobtrusively. And his attention to the accounts of older people recalling the Maoist era adds a valuable historical dimension.

All these films are seriously challenging to watch. My focus on ritual performance has to a large extent insulated me from confronting many of these issues; and it reminds me how equivocal my Chinese colleagues must have been when they realised my enthusiasm to get to grips with grass-roots life. Yet the desperation of people cast adrift, the utter inadequacy of the state’s response, and the clash of values, need to be revealed.

* * *

For Jiang Nengjie’s unflinching documentaries on rural Hunan, click here. For Chinese movies, see Chinese film classics of the early reform era (including Life on a string, more magical than realist); Platform, The street players, One Second, So long, my son, and Rock it, mom.

On the written page, I value exposés of subaltern China such as Liu Hongqing’s harrowing book on blind bards and their families, Kang Zhengguo’s Confessions, and Liao Yiwu’s vignettes (here and here). And for the “dark underbelly” of Lhasa society before the Chinese occupation, click here.


* Since I began working on this post, this and other links to yimovi.com have become temporarily unavailable, but do check back, as it’s a useful site!

So long, my son

So long 1

Like Jia Zhangke, Wang Xiaoshuai 王小帅 (b.1966) is part of the “sixth generation” of Chinese film-makers, for whom a fraught relationship with the censors is par for the course.

His film So long, my son (Dijiu tianchang 地久天长, 2019) is deeply moving, “negotiating an ocean of sadness”, deflecting melodrama (reviews e.g. here and here, as well as this interview).

Destroyed by grief at the loss of their son Xingxing, Yaojun and Liyun (the brilliant Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei) relocate to coastal Fujian, their pain compounded when their relationship with the boy they have adopted breaks down. Common themes of the early reform years—falling foul of the 1983 Anti Spiritual Pollution campaign, and a degrading scene illustrating the one-child policy—follow on from the depiction of Maoist-era family dramas such as To live and The blue kite (a particular favourite of mine) (see Chinese film classics of the early reform era). But just as startling is the bewildering pace of more recent change since the reforms began to bite, with factory workers laid off and dramatic changes in the physical and moral landscape—alongside “the terrible burden of grief, rage and guilt, and the greater burden of forgiveness”. The final sequence makes a harrowing yet compassionate denouement.

So long 4

Here’s the film (also currently on BBC iPlayer):

Now I’m keen to see Wang’s earlier films such as Beijing bicycle (Shiqisuide danche 十七岁的单车, 2001), Drifters (Erdi 二弟, 2003), Shanghai dreams (Qinghong 青红, 2005), and Red amnesia (Chuangruzhe 闯入者, 2014).

For comments on other recent movies from China (my “entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture”), see One second, and Return to dust, as well as the TV series Rock it, Mom.

Sara Gómez films the revolution

Gomez
Photo: ICAIC.

In her all-too-brief life, the film-maker Sara Gómez (1942–74) applied a critical ethnographic eye in documenting everyday lives in Cuba after the 1959 revolution.

One of only two black film-makers in ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos), and the institute’s first (in her lifetime, Cuba’s only) woman director, she was “concerned with representing the Afro-Cuban community, women’s issues, and the treatment of the marginalized sectors of society” (black people and women, the poor, religious, and young)—highlighting social injustice, as well as racial and gender discrimination. *

Cierta
From De cierta maniera.

Most of her oeuvre consists of short films, such as her debut Iré a Santiago (1964)—visually innovative despite some almost touristy images, its voiceover as yet unchallenging but eschewing the clichéd travelogue style later parodied by Monty Python—note the funeral from 4.07, and Carnival from 11.53:

The social agenda (both the regime’s and her own) develops in Una isla para Miguel (1968):

In her final, full-length, masterpiece De cierta maniera (One way or another, 1974) Gómez incorporates a fictional love story within a documentary style to shed light on tensions in the revolution, using real people playing themselves alongside professional actors. While the style of the criticism session that opens the film may recall China under Maoism, her message is far more probing than in Chinese films of that era. Here it is:

As Alonso Aguilar comments,

Melodramatic outbursts of emotion are followed by an erratic camera flowing freely inside crumbling edifices. Sociological musings fade in favour of heartfelt musical renditions.  Transitions are rarely seamless, clashing with every canon possible (even the revolutionary ones), but precisely because of such frontal disregard, Goméz’s cinema feels liberated. Only answering to the concerns of the souls framed on screen, every moment is used to challenge official narratives and position the urgency of the work still to be done.

Note also the vignette on the Abakuá religious fraternity (14.35–18.23)—here Gómez’s analysis concurs with socialist orthodoxy:

This cultural manifestation epitomises the social aspirations, norms, and values of male chauvinism in Cuban society. We believe that its traditional, secret, exclusive nature sets it against progress and prevents it from assimilating the values of modern life. Therefore, in the present stage it generates marginality, promoting a code of parallel social relations that is the antithesis of social integration.

Discuss—for a range of more nuanced approaches to ritual, refer to Catherine Bell

With Gómez’s black middle-class background (see her 1966 short Guanabacoa: crónica de mi familia), her musical training was classical—but she was animated by the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the streets, lovingly documented in the fine Y… tenemos sabor (1967): **

The procession from 22.27 even features a shawm! ***

Here’s the illuminating documentary Sara Gomez, an Afro-Cuban filmmaker (Alessandra Müller, 2004):

* * *

More recently, note the films on Cuba in the Growing into music series. Akin to Goméz’s stress on marginalized groups, for the Maoist decades in China Guo Yuhua documents “the sufferers”—ironically, the peasant majority, again including women. For musicians’ “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”, click here. ****

Gomez 1
Sara Goméz dancing the cha-cha-chá, from Agnes Varda’s Salut les Cubains (1963).


* Making Gómez a fully-paid-up member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati—and quite right too.

** More piffling linguistic pedantry: the three dots should indeed follow the opening word Y, although many citations put them before it. No less pedantically, I note that the 2004 documentary seems to lack the accent on Gómez’s surname. Yes, I should get a life.

*** On YouTube the coda appears to be a promo for Nicolás Guillén Landrián‘s 1963 short En un barrio viejo, another intriguing film.

**** This isn’t the place for an analysis of suitable venues for a revolution (cf. Bill Bryson), but I recall a tour of France with an early music group playing worthy recreations of Qing-dynasty court music, where we ended up in the same hotel as a young early music group from Cuba, playing recreations of early Cuban music in the same festival. While our group were all buried in our arid, ponderous early music conservatoire shtick, the Cubans exuded sensuous physicality from every pore, laughing, grooving, alive. With All Due Respect, I realised I was doing the wrong gig—like the musos’ recurring dream. For the denial of the body, cf. Madonna and McClary.

Endeavour: recreation

Movie directors still seem undaunted by the perils of trying to evoke orchestral life. The movie Tár has prompted a range of reactions, while recognising Cate Blanchett’s outstanding characterisation. [1]

Putting weightier matters to one side, while Inspector Morse was very fine (I always giggle at Alan Partridge’s suave dictum: “Think about it—no-one had heard of Oxford before Inspector Morse”). The prequel Endeavour (written by Russell Lewis), now on its ninth series, has been received with just as much enthusiasm. 

In the first episode of the latest series, Prelude, evoking orchestral life in 1972, after the principal violinist’s rosin is doctored with nuts, prompting a fatal anaphylactic reaction, a murky world of intrigue is revealed. Now, contretemps were not unknown within our orchestral world, but I’m not aware of anyone doctoring our rosin with nuts, or indeed our nuts with rosin (someone else, perhaps inspired by Nicolas Magriel’s work on the sarangi, might do a cross-cultural study of rosin for fiddle bows).

To follow his review of Philharmonia, Stuart Heritage welcomes the new episode; as he observes,

everybody, not just the violinists, is highly strung, has a silly name, and expresses themselves with rococo hubris or self-contempt.

The musical clichés are well-worn—like the ill-fated leader flaunting her superiority over the blokey men and frumpy women of the rank-and-file, and the supercilious, domineering conductor, complete with beard and cravat:

“Must I remind you, the lives of such as we are defined by sacrifice?”
Glam protégée soloist: “Other girls had friends, parties, fun—I had a rehearsal room.”

For all my musical cavils, the script and the acting are Jolly Good.  Just as Early Music gets later all the time, Endeavour is part of a rich seam of period pieces evoking life only a few decades ago. It’s not just about clothes, of course—cars, kitchens, you name it. Cf. Molvania:

Molvania 3

The episode is based on the City of Oxford Orchestra, founded in 1965. This was just the kind of milieu that I grew up in, taking part in amateur and semi-professional orchestras. But while I have a few images of what we Chinese students at Cambridge were wearing in the early 1970s, and of course there are plenty of photos for London professional orchestras (in both performance and rehearsal), it made me realise that even in 1972 Cambridge, I have only a hazy idea of what we musos actually looked like. How many of us even had a camera? Even for us nerds, taking photos was still rather nerdy. Besides, it was a bit of a faff: it might take months to use up a whole roll of film, and then you had to take it down to the chemists to be developed…

So I have no photos of my amateur youth orchestral life in the 60s. On the National Youth Orchestra website we can find an occasional image of a concert or rehearsal, but there’s a dearth of less formal photos of our summer courses, or the visits with Boulez to the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms (cf. this article, and The shock of the new)—a far cry from the embarras de richesse on social media today.

St Austell
Before a concert at the St Austell festival, Cornwall, c1973.
Me (FWIW) in middle row, 7th from right.

As a reminder that not everyone was dressing like Jimi Hendrix (we weren’t such an exotic 60s’ tribe), Endeavour lovingly recreates the range of sartorial choices at the time—Posh People, poseurs, hippies, jobsworths, and so on.

Good exchange between Morse and PC Plod:

Plod: “So, how was the West then matey? All pasties and scrumpy?”
Morse [studiously]: “I was mostly following in Hardy’s footsteps.”
Plod [confidently]: “Were you? There’s another fine mess eh!”

For more period crime drama from post-war Britain, I enjoyed Grantchester, both the TV series and the novels—again gently probing the tensions within a changing society, of which I was largely unaware at the time…

For more orchestral cliches, click here; cf. clichés of Chinese music.


[1] E.g.
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/sep/01/tar-review-cate-blanchett-is-colossal-as-a-conductor-in-crisis
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2023/jan/11/tar-review-cate-blanchett-is-perfect-lead-in-delirious-sensual-drama
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/movies/tar-review.html
https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/tar-conductor-marin-alsop-slams-film-anti-woman-1234797612/
https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/jan/16/thank-you-cate-blanchett-for-taking-up-the-baton-for-female-conductors
https://theconversation.com/tar-an-exploration-of-the-flawed-musicians-behind-decadent-music-197714
https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-limits-of-control-lines-of-power-in-todd-field-s-tar?twclid=28sry1zxixpvjct4pxpula7ma

Satirising Chinese war movies through divine intervention

If the heroic war movie is no longer so ubiquitous on British TV, in mainland China the War of Resistance against Japan and the early strivings of the Communist Party remain perennial, unavoidable themes of big-budget TV series.

The “Anti-Japanese oratorio” (kangri shenju 看日神剧, subject of an interesting article on Chinese Free Wikishenju literally meaning “holy drama”) is a satirical internet term for wartime dramas that incorporate tropes from imperial culture such as martial arts, romance, and miracle tales. Instances from the wiki entry include using a rifle to shoot down a plane, tearing the enemy in half with one’s bare hands, and kicking away incoming grenades. Such tropes recall the supposed invulnerability of the righteous—as in the 1900 Boxer uprising, another popular topic in Chinese film. An early instance of the genre was the 1989 movie Rennai mochao 人奶魔巢 (watch here). CCP ideologues have criticised such dramas as vulgar.

Recently on Twitter Yang Han relayed a short scene from WeChat, showing the divine intervention of Thunder Lord and Lightning Mother (leigong dianmu 雷公电母) from the clouds on behalf of the heroic Communist troops—a deus ex machina device, we might say. But Yang’s comment “I don’t know how this anti-Japanese drama passed the political censors? Communist Party members are clearly atheists” was premature. It transpires to be an ingenious spoof, * part of a mini-genre, with clips such as this.

And in this one it’s none other than the Buddha who intervenes—rebuking the Japanese for their barbarity as they sought to create a Buddhist empire. Indeed, villagers prayed to their temple gods for protection from the Japanese, as in north Shanxi; there too, household Daoist Li Qing recalled:

Our ritual business didn’t suffer during the occupation—the troops, themselves devout, even made donations when they came across us doing Thanking the Earth rituals! 

Similarly, in Gaoluo south of Beijing,

Japanese troops entered the village on 3rd moon 15th just as the ritual association was leading the annual ritual for the goddess Houtu in the ritual tent. But the invaders merely entered the tent respectfully and kowtowed before the ritual paintings (my Plucking the Winds, p.92).

What Party ideologues oppose in those spoof clips is not the vulgarisation of religion but the offence to wartime Communist heroes. Still, the regime’s relation with religion has never been simple. When pressure from central ideology has allowed, grassroots cadres have long showed a certain laissez-faire. Despite periodic campaigns, ritual life persisted through the 1950s (see e.g. my work on Gaoluo, the Li family Daoists, and under Local ritual).

Left, Houtu painting, N. Qiaotou, Hebei; right, detail of pantheon, Wutai county, Shanxi.

And stories of divine intervention during times of war are common in the local folk cultures where the PLA recruited its cannon-fodder. In Hebei we heard accounts of how the female deity Houtu rescued a Chinese brigade during the Korean War; and in a Shanxi village, spirit mediums showed us a handsome ritual pantheon featuring a deified PLA soldier. Indeed, if those online clips came from real movies, they might speak to audiences who have heard such tales from their grandparents. Temples often have images venerating Mao and other national leaders (e.g. in Gansu).

But more often, religious groups mobilised to resist the social disruption of CCP campaigns. Throughout the high tide of Maoism in the 1950s and 60s, local sects rose up “under the cloak of religion” (as Party propaganda has it) in protest against coercive collectivisation, seeking divine protection just as they had done during the Japanese occupation. In Tibet too, as the Cultural Revolution caused extreme social and psychological breakdown, a divinely-inspired revolt against the Party broke out in Nyemo, with warrior-heroes again rashly claiming immunity from bullets. In Tibet since the 1980s’ reforms, the monasteries have been a focus for resistance to Chinese policies (see e.g. Eat the Buddha). And scholars have noted the irony of the atheist CCP claiming authority over the reincarnation of high Lamas.

Whether or not it’s reflected in Chinese media, the religious fabric is an enduring theme of social life (see e.g. C.K. Yang, Adam Yuet Chau, and Ian Johnson).


* After all, no-one would believe you if you told them Boris Johnson was a real politician.

Sentimentality in music

Assessing sentimentality in music seems to be rather subjective (more on wiki here and here). I offer these random jottings largely as a reflection of my personal tastes.

It’s hard to police taste. In our times the term “sentimental” has come to have pejorative connotations—as wiki suggests, “a reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason”; meretricious (and a Happy New Year), trite, even false. Other items on the word-cloud of sentimentality include maudlin, mawkish, tear-jerking, schmaltzy, manipulative, heart-on-sleeve, and self-indulgent—restraint being a virtue fraudulently claimed by the elite. Apparently emotions, and the declaration of sentiment, have to be earned (Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it”).

Gender is a major element in the discussion, with the often-unpacked trope of rational/repressed men and emotional/communicative women. The “sentimental novel” (indeed, empathy itself) is often associated with the rise of female authors, although Dickens is a notable suspect, as well as some poetry of Wordsworth. In daily life, while objects of “sentimental value” seem exempt from censure, much-noted contexts include family, cute pets (the main content of social media, grr), teddy bears for Princess Diana, nature (the sentimental/pathetic fallacy; think sunsets), and Christmas cards. For a brilliant antidote, do listen to Bill Bailey’s Love song!

I note that my own playlist of songs is heavily weighted in favour of women singers, who seem most capable of emotional expression. By contrast with bubblegum/wallpaper music, at last the songs I’m considering are intense. Apart from the lyrics (even assuming we know or care what they mean!), much depends on the framing, the dramatic context. Irrespective of genre, one would suppose it difficult to “earn” the declaration of sentiment within the limits of a song lasting only a few minutes; but it’s perfectly legitimate to plunge right into a mood, as do many WAM songs. Performance is also crucial, the establishment of rapport: the vocal quality of the singer, the arrangement, harmonies, instrumentation (smoochy strings being a giveaway), and tempo. Some may find “the same song” sentimental (or not) according to such variables.

I’m not entirely fascinated by philosophical discussions, such as this from Charles Nussbaum (I’m somewhat thrown by his idea that “passion excludes sentimentality”—really?). He distinguishes sentimental music from the musical portrayal of sentimentality, which is OK, apparently. While critics defend such music by detecting layers of irony, detachment, and distance, isn’t it just those qualities that expose a song as false, a device for feigning passion? Surely we want sincerity; there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ironic detachment. It seems that a song can be both denigrated and excused for being fake.

I’m wary of Posh People claiming the cerebral high ground of lofty moral sentiments, trying to belittle the experience of the Plebs, moving the goalposts; as if their own emotions were noble, but those of the lower classes unworthy of expression. Corduroyed Oxbridge professors (and perhaps even the “tofu-eating wokerati”) pretend to more legitimacy in channelling feelings than a hairdresser from Scunthorpe, but if there was ever a time when this mattered, then fortunately it has receded. Responses to music can’t be policed (cf. What is serious music?!).

So the term is often used as a simple dismissal of a nuanced spectrum. WAM is a broad church, within which pundits make distinctions. Some more austere ideologues, still hooked on “autonomous music” (debunked by Small et al.), might claim to relegate emotion entirely, but WAM is full of it. Puccini is a classic case who appears to need defending (see e.g. here, and here), such as O mio babbino caro:

Predating anxieties over sentimentality, while I refrain from considering the courtly love of medieval ballads, we might now find sentimental some elements in the music of Bach (“O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild!”)—set within a religious frame. In WAM (as in Sufism) the portrayal of divine love can be controversial; some critics shrink from the sumptuous string harmonies that are part of Messiaen‘s unique musical lexicon. Baroque arias such as Handel‘s Lascia ch’io pianga, or Purcell’s When I am laid in earth, are never rebuked for sentimentality. Mozart arias too are presumably “rescued” by dramatic irony—such as La ci darem la mano (cf. Holding Don Giovanni accountable), the Terzetto from Così, or the Countess’s aria:

But many audiences, even “high-brow”, are presumably moved by such arias irrespective of the dramatic context.

Mahler 5 tune

Moving on to the Romantic era (generally considered OK, you gather), the OTT pathos of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is clearly “earned”. For Mahler, the kitsch of popular folk music made an essential and utterly moving counterpoint to his more metaphysical strivings. But he weaves layers of “sentiment”, such as the slow melody that contrasts with the monumental opening of the 5th symphony (above). The Adagietto, of course, is easily co-opted to what we might consider sentimental ends—a not uncommon fate, like Rachmaninoff in Brief encounter. Again, a lot rests on interpretation: conductors are often praised for toning down the sentimentality in Mahler’s music—WAM pundits are dead keen on restraint (cf. Susan McClary on the denial of the body). Returning to gender, this article by Carolyn Sampson on performing Schumann songs may also be relevant.

Modern times
Modern times (1936).

Just as in opera, music manipulates us strongly in film (e.g. “weepies”), such as The way we were or Cinema paradiso. Again, our dour WAM pundits tend to disdain the art of film composers such as Korngold.

Turning to popular musics, I revisit my (not to be missed!) playlist of songs. Again, in such pieces a certain dramatic distance seems to help. Charlie Chaplin’s Smile is a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived. The nuanced ballads of the Beatles seem sacrosanct—besides Yesterday and Michelle, She’s leaving home is a masterpiece of empathy. I’ve sung the praises of Dream a little dream (again, “elevated” by Mama Cass’s delivery, by contrast with that of Kate Smith). Am I “allowed” to relish Michel Legrand’s You must believe in spring? “Am I bothered?” Country music is more anguished than saccharine (indeed, the lyrics of the Countess’s aria could be from a Country song!)—I like the tone of this post. In jazz, the ballad was blown away by bebop, but survived despite recastings in a more edgy manner, like Coltrane‘s My favorite things. But while the modern reaction to sentimentality has been quite widespread, I can’t help wondering that it’s a handy slur used by the elite to denigrate popular culture.

While such concepts change over time, they clearly vary by region too. If WAM and popular musics share a considerable affinity in conceptual and musical language, the context broadens out widely with folk musicking around the world, where sentimentality doesn’t seem to be A Thing, confounding our narrow Western concepts. In the Noh drama of Japan, a transcendental message and austere sound-world pervade the common recognition scenes at the scenic site of an ancient tragedy. Conversely, the cante jondo of flamenco, its “brazen, overwrought, tortured, histrionic” style expressing “self-pity, posturing machismo, and hypersensitive adolescent egos”, doesn’t quite fit within the norms of sentimentality; nor does the heartache widely expressed in the anguished nostalgia of saudade and sevda. As in WAM or the sentimental pop song, the performance is exorcistic, cathartic.

So for some reason I seem to be requesting permission to be moved by certain songs—Pah! By contrast with some WAM-lite singers like Katherine Jenkins, Billie Holiday had a unique gift for singing sentimental lyrics without ever sounding remotely sentimental—such as Lover man, or You’re my thrill (“Here’s my heart on a silver platter”):

What knots we tie ourselves up in! In both WAM and popular genres, it’s worth positing all kinds of fine distinctions, and interrogating them; but pace the self-styled arbiters of taste, there’s little consensus on what is “legitimately” moving, and I’m reluctant to exclude any music along the spectrum of mood. Hmm, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”…

Li Manshan: another film screening

film image

Among the numerous topics that have since amplified my blog, it’s always worth bearing in mind that its original raison d’être was to advertise my film Li Manshan: portrait of a folk Daoist (watch here!!!). It complements my book on the Li family, and numerous vignettes and updates on the blog (roundup here).

An initial round of screenings was followed by a lull during Covid, so I was happy to introduce it the other day for the Music Department of Bristol University, at the enterprising initiative of Michael Ellison, a composer with a strong focus on transcultural performance, in particular Turkish music (see e.g. here).

It was good to watch my film in company again. In my intro I observe that this kind of subject can’t be addressed only by reading old books in libraries: books are silent and immobile—fieldwork is the key! As I like to say, it’s not only about Daoism, it’s an everyday story of country folk—a bit like The Archers. So this isn’t some obscure academic subject, or some exotic remnant of ancient oriental wisdom—it evokes the basic concerns of local communities, and how they handle life and death.

Audiences will approach the film from different backgrounds: Daoist ritual (often with an emphasis on “salvage“), ethnomusicology, sinology, modern China, and so on. In my book (and on this blog) I try to show that all these strands have to be integrated. Students studying ethnomusicology (rather than “music”) will find it easier to grasp my comment that the film can’t be neatly pigeonholed under music; conversely, for students of Daoism (and even Daoist ritual) I stress that sound is the vehicle through which ritual texts are conveyed and animated; it should go without saying that soundscape must always be a major element in our study of ritual.

Watching the film again at a certain distance from my initial flurry of work, I worry that it may be somewhat tough going (Like, Hello?). For those eagerly awaiting the “red and fiery” bustle of ritual (Chau, Chapter 3), the opening sequence that sets the scene before we get to the funeral makes quite a lengthy prelude, and once the ritual begins the opening hymns (even abbreviated) are slow and a tad arcane for the uninitiated.

The pace gathers as we follow the sequence of funeral segments; the scenes with pop music, and the afternoon clowning, make suitable interludes; and viewers are reminded of the human personalities who have maintained the tradition through thick and thin, with vignettes on the great Li Qing (including his 1991 Pardon ritual) and the reminiscences of his widow being particularly moving. Li Manshan’s own voiceover is illuminating. So I still feel this is the way the film has to be…

Zhaoqing screenshot

Again, watching it at a certain remove, I recall with a certain amazement all the work involved in providing the translations for the vocal liturgy (with original texts shown on screen), and karaoke-style captions for the mnemonics illuminating the percussion patterns—culminating in the exhilarating Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms Its Body, coda to the Transferring Offerings ritual (from 1.07.55). And I constantly admire Michele Banal’s fine editing.

While I point out that compared to some such groups in the south, the ritual practice of groups like the Li family band is quite simple, I still find it remarkable that they still do so much, even if it’s still a pale reflection of what they did 80 or even 20 years ago. Audiences tend to be interested in the future of the tradition, which I address in The life of the household Daoist. Other relevant posts from my roundup include

Anyway, DO watch the film (including the excellent joke after the end of the credits!), and spread the word!

Trailer for a thriller

TA thriller

Usually I shrug off airline safety videos like everyone else, but for some reason I’m mesmerised by the Turkish Airlines creation, which indeed transpires to be a classic of the genre:

Accustomed as we are In This Day and Age to searching for suggestive clues in tiny scenes, I can’t help regarding it as the trailer for a thriller [*Spoiler Alert*].

The opening—apparently taunting us real, frazzled passengers after we have finally managed to jostle our way on board, searching desperately for a space where we can cram our unwieldy luggage—shows a typically contented nuclear family (man, woman, and young boy) boarding what appears to be a private jet, with no queue at all.

At least, we assume the boy is theirs. The way the woman pushes him “playfully” towards his seat may suggest some kind of coercion; the man, typically, is relieved of tedious “parental” chores by craftily choosing a seat behind them.

They all have the most enormous eyes and pupils—a genetic trait amazingly also found in the flight attendant. In an editorial sleight-of-hand that may confuse, two tantalising scenes (0.31, and 2.31) show cameos of a different mother, with a toddler; and her eyes are suspiciously concealed from the viewer—could she perhaps be free of the outsized-eye syndrome? But is she another member of the international child-trafficking gang?

At 1.00, frustrated by his new domestic routine (even if it’s only a front), the vacuous man, in a vain attempt to flirt with the flight attendant (the frustrated middle-aged husband’s classic cry for attention), attempts a comedy juggling routine with his mobile (cf. Mark Heap, at the end of this clip). When it goes wrong, the attendant ignores his request with a polished, patronising smile; she seems to be a ventriloquist, though we’re not provided with subtitles (“Serves you right, you posh vacuous tosser. Have a nice day!”).

At 1.42 we at last get a glimpse of the only other two passengers on board. One, a shifty spectacled guy in a suit and tie, perhaps a CIA operative, looks round nervously to keep tabs on the cunningly-disguised family.

Besides being suspiciously skinny, the “family” are all blissed out, suggesting massive drug intake—even the captive boy conveys a jovial air, whether he’s been pumped full of heroin or because they’ve threatened him into keeping up the facade.

Even when there’s a SUDDEN LOSS OF CABIN PRESSURE OMG they remain eerily calm. “Oh cool, we’re all gonna plunge to a watery grave trapped in this burning coffin!” (cf. When you are engulfed in flames). The man is clearly delighted to have an excuse to inhale more drugs via the mask. The only thing that does seem to alarm him at first is that he can’t take his cabin luggage full of high heels, sharp objects, and smuggled diamonds with him—but the drugs are kicking in, and he soon regains his composure. If it’s realism you want, try Airplane (“Assume the crash position”):

Or did they know about the fake crash-landing all along—is it an ingenious attempt to escape the clutches of the CIA? I wonder if the elusive Woman with Normal Eyes, with her decoy toddler, will play a crucial role as the plot develops after they are rescued by a lurking mafia gunboat.

Apart from the captive passengers and my own deranged fantasies, one wonders about the psychology of the 1.8 million people who have watched the video on YouTube so far (Roll Over Godard), and the many who comment on it (“What am I doing watching this at 3am in my nan’s house? I don’t even have a passport!”).

I was less impressed by the soothing music, sadly not a taksim on the kanun or a rousing dance for davulzurna—but there I go again, orientalising…

It was less of a challenge to interpret the phrases in Teach yourself Japanese as the plot of a horror movie.

TA’s earlier flight of fantasy is also most creative:

And here’s a cute safety demo from Pegasus:

Rock it, Mom

Rock it mom 2

In an entirely futile effort to keep my finger on the pulse of Chinese popular culture, I’ve been watching the current TV hit series Rock it, mom (Yaogun kuanghua 摇滚狂花, directed by Li Jun 李骏 and Jing Lipeng 荆丽鹏). It’s well contextualised in a China Project article (cf. this review).

Rock It, Mom tells the story of Peng Lai [played by Yao Chen 姚晨], an over-the-hill, middle-aged rock singer. A run of disappointing relationships caused her to move to the US, where her music career never took off, leading her to return to China. As she tries to put her troubled life back together in her home country, she reconnects with her long-lost teenage daughter Baitian [Zhuang Dafei 庄达菲], whose passion for rock music inspires her to restart her career.

Rock it mom 4

The mother-daughter dynamic, competing in their destructiveness, makes a refreshing study in alienation. Once again I am reminded of Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic riposte to Cui Jian’s Nothing to my name:

What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?

You can watch all twelve episodes as a YouTube playlist, currently without English subtitles:

To help keep roughly on track, the first two episodes with woefully impressionistic subtitles are here:
https://www.iq.com/play/rock-it-mom-episode-1-l6o2m3oxv8?lang=en_us
https://www.iq.com/play/rock-it-mom-episode-2-m2ta0571zk?lang=en_us

It does make me miss Beijing—skyscrapers, underpasses and all (cf. Beijing yogurt).

Rock it mom 3

See also Platform, New musics in Beijing, and Liu Sola, voice of alternative China.

Molly Drake

Cate DID

Desert Island Discs constantly reveals the personal meanings of music in our lives. Cate Blanchett’s thoughtful recent selection included Mahler 5, featured in her new movie Tár, in which she plays a conductor—despite rave reviews (see under Endeavour), I look forward to watching it with a certain trepidation, since Western Art Music seldom comes off lightly at the hands of directors (cf. Philharmonia). Anyway, her choice of the second movement (with Abbado, to boot!) was most discerning.

I have to admit that I’ve never warmed to the voice of Kathleen Ferrier, although I’m a devoted fan of Janet Baker. The series generally suggests Christopher Small’s plea to recognise the value of all kinds of musicking, not merely the “prestigious” (cf. What is serious music?!), and guests often include a track of amateur, domestic musicking that evokes intense memories or associations.

Molly Drake

Cate introduces Molly Drake (1915–93; playlist), observing: “So private, she was making music inside her home, for herself really… she gives me quiet courage.” Her choice is The little weaver bird:

Pundits have made a link between Molly’s “melancholy meditations on the fragility of happiness” and those of her son Nick.

Cate Blanchett’s final disc was Count Basie’s mantric, hypnotic rendition of Neil Hefti’s Lil Darlin’ (another gift from Tár):

Right at the end Basie slips in a little quote from In my solitude.

I’m even more infatuated by this version by the wonderful Sant Andreu jazz band (cf. here, and sequel):

Those hieratic wind chords remind me (and probably only me) of Messiaen.

Tibet: The Cup

Cup 1
New refugees prostrate before the abbot.

Having watched The Cup (Phörpa) (Khyentse Norbu, 1999) when it first came out, I’ve enjoyed it just as much on a recent viewing. “Inspired by true events”, it’s a most endearing film, against the spectre of Chinese repression of Buddhism within occupied Tibet (wiki; reviewed e.g. here). This glossy trailer largely fails to convey its charm!

Director Khyentse Norbu is none other than the lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who worked as consultant to Bertolucci for Little Buddha. Set in a Tibetan monastery in Indian exile during the 1998 World Cup, the film was shot in Himachal Pradesh, with amateur actors (including the abbot and monks) playing themselves, resulting in what Roger Ebert calls a “cheerful truce between the sacred and the mundane”.

Cup 2Orgyen displays his “shrine”.

The plot is driven by the football-obsessed young monk Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), and his encounters with the abbot, (longing to return to the homeland), his assistant (more tolerant than he seems), and the oracle (belittled by the younger monks).

Charged with looking after two new arrivals have just escaped from Tibet, when Orgyen leads them in sneaking out of the monastery to watch a match after dark in the nearby village, one of the new refugees struggles to climb through the fence, prompting him to come out with one of my favourite lines:

How did you manage to escape the Chinese?

Another review observes the irony of the abbot’s bemusement at “countries fighting over a ball” while the Tibetans are deprived of their own homeland. Also subtly portrayed are Orgyen’s patronising attitude towards the new arrivals from China, the monks’ lament “When will this country ever develop?”, and their distance from the local Indian community.

Cup 3
Mischief during monastic ritual.

The aspect of ritual as chore—dozing off, fooling around—makes a refreshing change from the much-touted Wisdom of the Mystic East shtick. But beyond mere drôlerie, a message of benevolent wisdom shines through, and after the dénouement of the final between France and Brazil (glimpses of a youthful Zidane!), the final homilies are as gentle as the rest of the film.

Cf. Echoes of Dharamsala and other posts under my Tibet roundup.

Cunk on Earth

Cunk 1

I’m delighted to find a new BBC TV series from Philomena Cunk (aka Diane Morgan), the “Landmark Documentary Presenter”, with her distinctive style of forensic investigation:

  • Cunk on Earth (available here for the next year).

Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.

In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:

One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.

Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.

The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.

And another invention:

Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.

On Pompeii,

Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.

In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.

What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.

She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.

Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.

And she asks

Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?

In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:

It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).

The historic present has always Got my Goat too.

Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.

This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…

On the Mona Lisa:

Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?

Cunk 2

Turning to the New World,

After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.

Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.

Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:

Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…

Introducing Manifest Destiny, she helpfully explains:

Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
[…]
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.

Following the Civil War,

Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.

Turning to recording,

Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.

Cunk 3

She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;

Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.

Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas

was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]

A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.

Cunk 4

As to 1950s’ America,

Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.

On the birth of popular culture:

Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.

For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.

Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was

the world’s first inherently smug computer.

And

smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.

But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.

* * *

Cunk interview

Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.

To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:

You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.

The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:

cuckoo?
ukulele?
omnishambles?
mixtape?
sushi?
titwank?

This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as

Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].

Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.

The films of Yilmaz Güney

Yol

Kurdish actor and film-maker Yilmaz Güney (1937–84) was prolific, despite being constantly in conflict with the Turkish regime as a result of his leftist sympathies for the subaltern poor and his highlighting of Kurdish issues (see e.g. wiki, and this review of his ouevre, both providing useful references).

Having admired his film Law of the border (1966—see Early Turkish verismo), I’ve been exploring his work a bit further. Hope (1970) was regarded as a Turkish equivalent of Bicycle thieves.

The theme of rural Kurdish blood-feuds continues in The herd (1978), but as Güney extended his sympathies to the plight of the urban poor, I’m struck by Zavallılar (“The fall”, 1974; literally “The poor”), the stories of three men fallen on hard times, driven to destitution by cruel fate. Here it is, alas without subtitles:

But most impressive of all is Yol (The road, 1982) directed by his assistant Şerif Gören while Güney was in prison. Jailed in 1972, soon after his release in 1974 he was sentenced again for shooting a judge to death. He managed to keep working on projects from prison, and after escaping in 1981 he took the negatives of Yol to Switzerland, editing it in Paris. The film was banned in Turkey until 1999.

His periods in captivity partly inspired the screenplay, which portrays the stories of five prisoners given a week’s home leave in the aftermath of the 1980 Turkish coup, travelling back to their troubled lives in rural south Anatolia to perform traumatic family duties. As this NYT review comments, the film portrays Turkey as one large prison, oppressed not only by political tyranny but also by superstition and bigotry. You can watch it without subtitles here, but it’s well worth buying the DVD: *

Güney’s final film Duvar (The wall, 1983)—recreating a Turkish prison in Paris (interview here)—again uses the metaphor of incarceration. It becomes progressively more involving, with a remarkable manifesto for Kurdistan in the riot near the end. This version is again without subtitles:

For more on Kurdish culture, see under my roundup of posts on west/central Asia.


* The effective soundtrack to Yol is by Zülfü Livaneli, who himself spent periods in jail before going into exile in 1984 (see e.g. his novel Serenade). His song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for Greek–Turkish coexistence, is heard at the climax of the TV series The Club.

China: One Second

One second poster

I’m probably not alone in harking back to the early films of Zhang Yimou, rather neglecting his ouevre since then. While he later turned to glossy big-budget blockbusters, he still made more affecting films like Not one less (1999), The road home (1999), and Coming home (2014).

I admired his recent film

Set in the sand dunes of the barren northwest during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, it was filmed in Dunhuang (for Li Ruijun’s movies set in Gansu, see Fly with the crane and Return to dust, the latter post suggesting further links on life there).

One second scene

Described as Zhang’s “personal love-letter to cinema”, One second has thus been likened to Cinema paradiso, but while both are set against the backdrop of a repressive regime, Zhang’s film is more permeated by pain. The main character is a fugitive from a state labour camp, desperate to catch a tiny glimpse of his long-lost daughter in a newsreel. His quest is hindered and helped by a young orphan urchin girl and “Mr Movie”, the projectionist responsible for the mobile cinema touring the desert towns; after the rather farcical mood of the opening sequence, their changing relationships become quite affecting. Most poetic are scenes of the villagers mobilised to clean and restore the damaged celluloid—a metaphor both for individual striving and for the herculean yet largely futile mass projects of Maoism.

Like Return to dust, the film has also fallen foul of the censors, despite international acclaim. Sensitivities perhaps concerned the Uyghur issue, as well as renewed caution about exposing the indignities of the Cultural Revolution. However the film has been re-edited, it looks to navigate political anxieties rather cleverly—the ending, as hope dawns with the collapse of Maoism, is almost saccharine. But as Cath Clarke observes in her review,

With all the tinkering and tweaks, what censors haven’t been able to expunge is the torment and suffering on the face of Zhang Yi’s political prisoner; this is a deeply felt film, grief and pain go to the bone.

I got to watch it on Mubi. Here’s a trailer:

The kiosk in Turkey and Europe

kosk

The other day a further excursion around Kuzguncuk inspired me to reflect on the changing lives of its dwellers and the diffusion of the kiosk.

More grandiose than our humble kiosk, the Turkish köşk (a word itself borrowed from Persian kūshk) may denote a pavilion, gazebo, summer-house, pleasure palace, villa, or indeed belvedere (Chinese guan 觀, as in my own fantasy address “Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity”).

Among several examples in the Topkapi Palace are the Tiled Kiosk and Baghdad Kiosk; many more köşks can be admired elsewhere in Istanbul; and such structures are dotted around the former Ottoman empire.

On the Asian side of Istanbul near Kuzguncuk are several fine köşks from the late Ottoman era, set in sylvan groves overlooking the Bosphorus. Two of them lead me to stories that encompass the Ottoman ancien régime, a household embodying the changing status of women under the Republic, and post-war Black Sea migrants in shanty settlements.

The Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (wiki; more detail here) was gifted to the Prince by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1895. Abdülmecid (1868–1944), “the last Ottoman caliph”, was also a student of Western Art Music and a gifted painter—he depicted salon life at his köşk in the painting Beethoven in the harem (1915):

salon 1915

Abdülmecid (right, in pasha uniform) listens to his Circassian wife Şehsuvar Kadınefendi playing violin, Hatça Kadın (Ofelia) on piano, and his son Ömer Faruk on cello.
One of the other two women may be his third wife Mehisti.

Abdülmecid went into exile in 1924, living in France. His mansion is currently open to the public for the Biennale, hosting an imaginative art exhibition.

The Cemil Molla Mansion (see here, and here) lies just above the main coast road towards the bridge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. It was redesigned around 1895 by the Italian–Armenian architect Alberti at the behest of Cemil Molla (1864–1941), minister and cultured confidant of Sultan Abdülhamid. It was even connected to the Beylerbeyi palace by a tunnel.

Cemil Molla mansion

Lavishly furnished, the mansion was equipped with electricity, central heating, and a telephone—at a time when such luxuries were the exclusive preserve of the Yıldız Palace. The new köşk made an elegant retreat for the pastimes of Cemil Molla with his wife and children, and their English and French governesses. The children not only studied the Qur’an (Cemil Molla sometimes served as imam at the Üryanizade Mosque) but also learned solfeggio; dignitaries and philosophers assembled for elegant soirées, as the air filled with piano and oud, Baudelaire and gazals—just the type of gathering that musicians like Tamburi Cemil might have frequented.

Left: Cemil Molla köşk, interior; right, from The shining.

Upon the founding of the Republic in 1923, Cemil Molla went into retirement. After his death in 1941 the mansion was confiscated by the State Security Department. [1] It was soon thought to be haunted, * with his ghost wandering in the gardens—“disconsolately” being the obligatory adverb here. Later buyers have felt unable to occupy the mansion, with the Nakkaştepe cemetery nearby. The story cries out (spookily) for a movie screenplay, like a Turkish version of The shining—with an eery soundtrack of taksim on kanun, and Ravel’s La valse, echoing through gilded salons adorned with sepia family photos… This brief introduction to the mansion has some of the ingredients:

* * *

To augment the story, with the encyclopedic Kadir Filiz we accompanied his neighbour, the sprightly Fatma Hanim (“Lady Fatma”), [2] to revisit the slopes where she had made her home. Her account takes us on to the migrations of the post-war period.

Fatma H and Am for blog
Fatma Hanım with Augusta.

Fatma Hanım, now in her mid-80s, is one of those delightful grannies whom one dreams of meeting—we only had to mention a single keyword and she came out with a whole stream of reminiscences.

She comes from the Black Sea town of Boyabat in the hills south of Sinop, just east of Kastamonu. After her husband Ilyas was sent to Istanbul on military service around 1959, he managed to stay on there; soon after he paid a visit back to Boyabat, they returned to Istanbul with their first baby—the first of four.

Their new home was a gecekondu shanty-settlement just behind the Cemil Molla mansion. The land was owned by a Greek boss, who ran a pig farm and slaughterhouse as well as a gazhane factory producing gas. (His son Emil became a great friend of the popular gay singer Zeki Müren.) Fatma recalls life on the estate, in the heart of nature, as paradise—though she was shocked by the informality of the Greeks, with the men wearing shorts… She pointed out the trees she had planted herself.

Ilyas was a gardener on the estate, while Fatma worked as housekeeper for a lady who lived in a relatively modest yalı house on the coast just along from the Cemil Molla Mansion. In a most intriguing digression from the köşk, Fatma’s employer was none other than Sare Hanım (Sare Mocan, Sara Okçu, 1914–2000). This leads us to a complex family history that I can’t even begin to get my head around…

From a distinguished Ottoman family, Sare had been abducted on horseback at the age of 15 by Sefket Mocan, grandson of Sefket Pasha, and was later married to him. Her (much) older sister Celile (1880–1956), a painter, was the mother of the left-wing poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63; see also under Sabiha Sertel), and over his long years in prison Sare often visited her beloved nephew there.

Left: Sare Hanım in the 1930s, “the first woman to wear a bikini and trousers”
under the Republic. Source.
Right: Nâzım Hikmet with fellow inmates, Bursa Prison. Source.

Sare went on to become a modern cosmopolitan belle; she even flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood movie star. After divorcing Sefket she moved back into her family’s Bosphorus yalı; she remarried, and divorced again. Cemil Molla’s family also had a yalı below their köşk, so they were near neighbours.

Sharing the house with Sare was her niece Münevver Andaç (1917–97). Münevver had fallen in love with Nâzım Hikmet in 1949 while he was nearing the end of a long imprisonment, giving birth to a son and marrying him after his release in 1951—but he soon had to go into exile in Moscow. Prevented from accompanying him, she moved in with Sare; under surveillance, Münevver left for Warsaw in 1961 with her two children before making her home in Paris. Sare’s niece Leyla had also married, but moved back to the house after separating from her husband.

Left: Sare in old age, surrounded by her mementos
Right: the green yalı on the Bosphorus.

So the female household where our eloquent guide Fatma Hanım worked for over thirty years sounds like a microcosm of women’s changing status under the Republic (for more, see Midnight at the Pera Palace).

Returning to Fatma Hanım’s own story, in 1992, after the notorious campaign of Istanbul mayor Bedrettin Dalan to destroy the gecekondu shantytowns, thanks to Ilyas’s honest reputation he was able to buy an apartment in the Kuzguncuk mahalle itself for a good price, where he and Fatma have lived ever since.

* * *

Turkey being Umlaut Heaven, ** when diacritically-challenged infidels adopted the word köşk they didn’t quite know what to do with the vowel (for my wacky fantasy on diacritics, click here). Somehow our borrowing in English isn’t quite how I’d expect the vowel to behave (says he, sipping coffee in his pyjamas while plucking the lute), although I don’t know how we could have done better—”kosk” wouldn’t have worked, anyway. ***

In 18th-century Britain, Ottoman architecture enjoyed a vogue thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see under Hidden heritage).

Fast Show
Another British homage to Ottoman culture.

Our modern kiosk is far less grand. It might serve as a bandstand, or more often a little stall selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks, and so on. We don’t seem so good at them in Britain—the garden shed, immortalised by Jessy on The fast show (cf. Rowley Birkin QC), is quite a comedown.

But I do enjoy a good French kiosque or Italian (um) edicola, and I recall some fine examples around pre-1990 central and east Europe—where the vogue had begun with King Stanislaus I (1677–1766) of Poland; for me, the kiosks of East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest were part of the Iron Curtain mystique, with the buzz of street life.

Thrd Man kiosk

With All Due Respect to Ottoman architecture, perhaps the most iconic kiosk is the one in the middle of an eerily desolate Viennese square in The third man, accompanied by Anton Karas’s zither.


[1] By 1942, with the grossly discriminatory Wealth Tax (evoked in the Turkish TV series The Club), the brunt of the burden was to fall on Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. For Istanbul during World War Two, see Midnight at the Pera Palace.

[2] In the more personal honorific style of Turkish relationships, Kadir and Augusta address her as Fatma Abla (“Elder Sister”) or Fatma Teyze (“Auntie”).

* The Cemil Molla Mansion is listed among the Top Five Haunted Buildings of Istanbul!

** Funny how “umlaut” doesn’t have an umlaut, eh. It seems that Turkish hardly needs a term to specify the ubiquitous dots, üzerine çift nokta koymak (“put a double dot on it”) being a tad over-generous. BTW, I’m very fond of the Hibernian umlaut, which I finally mastered on a tour of the States with a Scottish cellist, whose frequent refrain was “Shall we go and get some füd?”

*** This rather reminds me of my sample sentence of English borrowings from the Venetian language:

if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over an arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequinned pantaloons to a regatta…

Godard and the Nouvelle Vague

with a further note on Last tango in Paris

Godard Karina

In 1970s’ England, while my musical tastes were already imbued with Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez [Weirdo—Ed.], continental cinema offered an exotic escape from the drab insularity of our lives. French and Italian movies made a particularly important education for us.

The films of Jean-Luc Godard, who died last week (obits e.g. here and here), were iconic. It’s of no great consequence that his ouevre never quite appealed to me, but I’m just trying to work out why. It’s not that I balk at abstraction—I love Rivette’s Céline and Julie go boating, for instance (although you may say that its surreal fantasy is underpinned by the plot of a conventional mystery thriller).

Godard’s images and framing are strikingly original:

But for all the visual attraction of such posing, I suppose I was wary of poseurs. In Bertolucci’s Last tango in Paris (whose main theme is not sex but pain; see under The conformist) the character of Tom is a parody—perhaps more of Truffaut than of Godard, but anyway a satire on the whole pretentiousness of the Nouvelle Vague. To cite this review,

Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.

Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema…

Similarly, this article comments:

Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.

Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility, and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism.

The Nouvelle Vague was based on an aloof, impersonal ethos—for which I blame the alienated male auteurs, who were in charge, with women making decorative pawns. Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I still want a bit of plot, personality, communication. In many (perhaps all?!) films, such as La strada or The conformist, it’s the women who provide humanity while the men are swanning around being pompous and fucked-up. The women may be fucked-up too, but largely through being abused by all the fucked-up men. Revealingly, Godard showed his contempt for The conformist—as Bertolucci commented, recalling their meeting 37 years after the event:

He doesn’t say anything to me. He just gives me a note and then he leaves. I take the note and there was a Chairman Mao portrait on it and with Jean-Luc’s writing that we know from the handwriting on his films. The note says: “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” That was his reaction to my movie. I was so enraged that I crumpled it up and threw it under my feet. I’m so sorry I did that because I would love to have it now, to keep it as a relic. […]

Here are some trailers for Godard’s early films:

  • À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg:

  • Disprezzo coverLe mépris (Contempt, 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, is so overladen by Godard’s already signature style that it hardly seeks to do justice to the “humiliation and sexual frustration” of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (English translation titled A ghost at noon):

Of Godard’s successive muses, Anna Karina (wiki; obituary) was the most captivating. Their first movie together was Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960, released in 1963), followed by

  • Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961):

  • Vivre sa vie (My life to live, 1962):

as well as Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965). Their last film before they broke up was

  • Pierrot le fou (1965):

—which reminds me rather of Betty blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986) (in the words of Peep show, “great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”).

Godard’s originality emerged not only through his visual sense, but in musicMichel Legrand, known for working on less avant-garde movies, provided the soundtrack for Vivre sa vie:

Legrand also composed the soundtrack for Bande à part—this dance scene is actually endearing:

It’s as if all a male film director had to do was find a gamine muse (see under Moon river, and Ute Lemper), and success was guaranteed, no matter how minimal and inscrutable the plot-line.

I don’t mean to react merely with a surly Gallic shrug—each of Godard’s films was a tour de force (“too, er, deaf ‘orse”: Cheval trop sourd, unreleased?), and I quite see how epoch-making they were. Perhaps I should say not that his ouevre never appealed to me, but that it didn’t move me. But I guess that’s just the kind of bourgeois conceit that he was exposing; as Bertolucci continued in his recollection,

I had finished the period in which to be able to communicate would be considered a mortal sin. He had not.

Still, Godard’s stance against communication seems to dilute his radical political mission.

To end with an affectionate British parody, here’s a 1997 vignette from the Fast show:

Everyday life in a Syrian village

 

Syrian village 1

I’ve been watching

  • Everyday life in a Syrian village (Omar Amiralay, 1974, with Saadallah Wannus),

“the first documentary to present an unabashed critique of the impact of the Syrian government’s agricultural and land reforms” (source), in the wake of the Ba’ath party coup of 8th March 1963.

Omar Amiralay (1944–2011) studied in Paris from 1966 before returning to Syria in 1970 (see also this interview). Following his short and uncritical Film essay on the Euphrates dam (1970), Everyday life in a Syrian village is set in al-Muwaylih, a “stronghold of tribal power” near the city of Deir ez-Zor in east Syria.

Syrian village 3The film revolves around the harsh life of peasants working the land. Interviews with villagers, teachers, health workers, officials, and policemen, lamenting the peasants’ “lack of awareness”, reveal the problems of introducing modern education and healthcare to the poor countryside—issues that remind me of rural China (see e.g. Guo Yuhua). Indeed, the brief IMDb summary proclaims that Muwaylih is “a place plagued with tribalism, ignorance, and evil”.

The filming is brilliant, with haunting images. On the soundtrack, besides the howling wind, traditional flute music is used to accompany scenes of manual labour, contrasting with the noises of basic mechanisation.

From 47.18, the villagers gather for ritual chanting with frame-drums—in his 1973 film about Kurdish dervishes on the Iran–Iraq border, André Singer suggests that one role of such rituals is to inculcate subservience to the sheikh’s feudal power. From 51.40, in a startling juxtaposition favoured by film-makers (again underlined by the soundtrack), the bemused villagers are assembled by the visiting town Cultural Unit to gawp at an utterly alien documentary on the blessings of progress.

By contrast, Everyday life in a Syrian village remains banned in Syria—here it is:

Amiralay’s third film The chickens (1978), also beautifully filmed (watch here), is a critique of the declining livelihoods of farmers and artisans in the Orthodox village of Sadad to the west—and is also banned in Syria. Having played a leading role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, he revisited the Euphrates region in 2003 to make A flood in Ba’ath country (working title Fifteen reasons why I hate the Ba’ath Party).

Besides R. Shaleah Taleghani’s chapter “Docu-ironies and visions of dissent in the films of Omar Amiralay” in a collection that she edited with Alexa Firat, Generations of dissent: intellectuals, cultural production, and the state in the Middle East and North Africa (2020), all this makes me keen to read studies such as Sulyman Khalaf, Social change in Syria: family, village, and political party (PhD, 1981, published 2021; foreword), and the work of scholars who pay tribute to the book here.

Further up the Euphrates to the northwest lies Raqqa, capital of the Islamic State from 2014 to 2017; for tribal manoeuvring in Deir ez-Zor since 2011 under Assad and IS regimes, see this report. The recent devastation of Aleppo is shown in the outstanding documentary For Sama; see also Aleppo: music and trauma. See also the early Turkish feature films Law of the border and Dry summer.

With thanks as always to Kadir.

Shaanxi in fiction: Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa

The Chinese novelist Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 (贾平娃, b.1952) maintains his reputation despite often falling foul of the censors—a pattern all too familiar to other artists such as film-makers.

Brought up in southeast Shaanxi in a village in the Shangluo region, Jia Pingwa studied at the provincial capital Xi’an from 1971. His novels exemplify “native-place fiction” and the blending of traditional story-telling and modern verismo. For useful introductions to his work, click here and here.

I’m particularly keen to read

  • Feidu 废都 (“Ruined city” or “Abandoned capital”, 1993; translation by Howard Goldblatt, 2016), and
  • Qinqiang 秦腔, 2005; (forthcoming translation “The Shaanxi opera” by Dylan Levi King and Nicky Harman—see here, and here).

King introduces both novels in an evocative account of a trip on which he and Harman followed Jia back to his home village, now converted into a theme park…

“Native-place” writing has a clear affinity with the movies of Jia Zhangke (no relation!). Indeed, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and the female writer Liang Hong are the subjects of Jia’s 2019 documentary Yizhi dao haishui bianlan 一直游到海水变蓝 (“Swimming out till the sea turns blue”)—characterised by Liu Qing, in her critical review from a gender perspective, as “fixated on the self-mythologising of ordinary men”. Here’s a trailer:

For the use of local dialect in ethnography and fiction, see Guo Yuhua, under “Language”, and n.7 there. See also Chinese film classics of the early reform era, and Liu Sola; for Shaanxi under Maoism, cf. the memoirs of Kang Zhengguo. One might even venture into Shaanbei-ology and the traditional story-tellers of the region…

Early Turkish verismo

Some depictions of rural life in Turkish cinema of the 1950s and 60s.

Law of the border poster

In my post on the Zaza Kurds I mentioned Yilmaz Güney. One of his first movies in a substantial ouevre (more here) was

which he wrote, also taking the leading role of Hidir. It’s set around a village near Urfa in the Kurdish region on the border of Turkey and Syria, “where lack of education, joblessness and general hopelessness have left the population little choice but to become outlaws in order to survive”.

The forces that push Hidir and his fellow villagers to smuggle and a telling of the plight of the poor and alienated group of people struggling to survive the only way they ever knew, from father to son.

Law of the border

It’s a constant contention between risk and reward —for the smugglers, the herders and the landowners—and the conjoined result is a provincial portrait of constricted desperation on all sides.

Amidst a violent patriarchal society, the film hints at the importance of education, as the teacher Ayşe (the film’s only female character) attempts to persuade Hidir to allow his son Yusuf to attend school.

Yet in the end reality crashes in while duty, survival, and emotions take over nobility, and people revert to what they know, be it teacher, commander, smuggler, or profiteer.

The only copy that survived the 1980 Turkish coup was rescued and restored in 2011 by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. It’s been described as “a Turkish Western”. Here it is:

* * *

  • Susuz yaz (Dry summer) (Metin Erksan, 1964; reviewed e.g. here) had already enjoyed huge international success, although it was banned in Turkey for fear of broadcasting negative images of society.

Dry summer poster

Showing power struggles over access to water in a poor village, as peasants resist the brutish agha Osman’s determination to deprive them of the “blood of the earth”. Jealous of his brother Hasan’s relationship with his young bride Bahar, Osman contrives to have him sent to prison for a crime that he himself committed, leaving him free to molest Bahar. In scenes of rare sexual voyeurism, the story exposes the subordination of women (for Erksan’s feminism, see here). It was filmed in Urla district of Izmir on the Aegean coast—and at a time when Turkish film used the standard language, most of the actors speak in Aegean accents. * The soundtrack effectively uses both traditional bağlama and remarkably avant-garde styles.

Watch here.

Dry summer

For a review of these two films, click here

* * *

Over a decade earlier, in 1952 Metin Erksan had made the biopic

about the renowned blind Alevi bard Aşik Veysel (see here; cf. Kurdish bards, and blind bards of Ukraine and China; see also here).

Asik film poster

Shot in Aşik Veysel’s native village in Sivas, again the film was censored for depicting the harshness of rural life.

Asik Veysel still

Sorry, no subtitles, and with some breaks in sound:

With the Turkish film scene already dominated by urbane commercialism, such films controversially depicted rural deprivation and conflict. Cf. Omar Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday life in a Syrian village.


Hulya* Dry Summer was the debut role of Hülya Koçyiğit (b.1947)—click here for her experience of making the film. I note with typical superfluity that she was brought up in Kuzguncuk—as she recalls in this interview for the Turkish Agricultural and Forestry Magazine, that indispensable cultural organ (cf. The Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide).

The street players

Gushu yiren promo

Another addition to our list of Chinese film classics of the early reform era:

Between The horse thief (1986) and The blue kite (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang‘s movie Gushu yiren 鼓书艺人 (“The drum singers” or “The street players”) was released in 1987. It’s adapted from the last novel of Lao She—written in New York in 1948–49 before he made the fateful decision to return to serve the Chinese revolution (for Mr Ma and son, click here).

Gushu yiren still

The movie is set during the War of Resistance against Japan in the urban metropolis of Chongqing, where the Beijing drum-singer Fang Baoqing has sought refuge from the invaders with his family and opens a thriving tea-house with Tang Shaoye, another refugee story-teller. When Baoqing’s dream of setting up a school to ameliorate the lowly status of performers is shattered by a Japanese bombing raid, he sets up a little tea-house in the suburbs. There, as he makes friends with the progressive writer Mengliang, Baoqing and his daughter Xiulian soon do well from performing Anti-Japanese stories.

Gushu yiren still 1

But devastated by the loss of his “older brother”, Baoqing wants to give up his project. Mengliang encourages him to send Xiulian to school, but with her lowly background she is driven out by her well-to-do schoolmates. Xiulian, abused, abducted, and then abandoned by a ruffian entrusted to look after her, returns pregnant. As victory over the Japanese is declared, the film ends with the distressed family setting sail to an uncertain future (as did Lao She).

Here’s the film—sorry, no subtitles:

By comparison with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s other work (in particular The blue kite [1993], a most outstanding film) and that of other members of the “fifth generation” (cf. composers), I find The street players somewhat conventional and melodramatic. Under my post on Chinese film classics, far more creative and realistic is To live (Zhang Yimou, 1994), which sets forth from the travails of a shadow-puppet troupe in Beijing during the civil war; and for a (more magical than realist) movie on a rural bard, see Life on a string. For narrative-singing in Beijing and Tianjin, click here and here.

In search of the sacred in modern India

Nine lives

Moving on from the early travels of William Dalrymple, I’ve been re-reading his splendid seventh book,

  • Nine lives: in search of the sacred in modern India (2009)
    (reviewed e.g. by Colin Thubron, and here).

By now Dalrymple had long been based in India. In the Introduction (click here for a variant) he traces the book’s origins back to the summer of 1993, when on a trek in the Himalayas he met an ash-smeared, naked itinerant sadhu of about his own age—who turned out to be a dropout from the world of commerce.

Living in India over the last few years, I have seen the country change at a rate that was impossible to imagine when I first moved there in the late 80s.

So extraordinary was the pace of development that

It was easy to overlook the fragility and unevenness of the boom. […]

Within twenty minutes of leaving the headquarters of Microsoft or Google Asia, cars and trucks are beginning to give way to camel and bullock carts, suits, denim, and baseball hats to dusty cotton dhotis and turbans. This is a very different India indeed, and it is here, in the spaces suspended between modernity and tradition, that most of the stories in this book are set. […]

While the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India’s religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices, and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.

So

I set out to write an Indian equivalent of my book on the monks and monasteries of the Middle East, From the holy mountain. But the people I met were so extraordinary, and their own stories and voices so strong, that in the end I decided to write Nine lives in a quite different form. Twenty years ago, when my first book, In Xanadu, was published at the height of the 80s, travel writing tended to highlight the narrator; his [sic] adventures were the subject, the people he [sic] met were sometimes reduced to objects in the background. With Nine lives I have tried to invert this, and keep the narrator firmly in the shadows, so bringing the lives of the people I have met to the fore and placing their stories firmly centre stage.

Indeed, this has been a growing tendency in anthropology and ethnomusicology; see e.g. Helen Rees’s introduction to Lives in Chinese music (2009). This trend is reflected in my own work on Gaoluo, and the Li family Daoists.

Besides all the scholarly research on living Indian religious traditions in change, a popular book like this is most valuable. Many of these topics have been covered by other authors, and Dalrymple provides a succinct reading list by chapter. This might have taken the form of a rather more detailed annotated section (as Barbara Demick does in Eat the Buddha, for instance); he might even have included some audio-visual documentation, as I attempt selectively below.

So Nine lives focuses on ascetics and ritual specialists (the latter chiming with my own work on China). And as in China, women play a major role. Dalrymple’s work is no simple paean to the Wisdom of the Mystic East; despite all the evocative descriptions, he is concerned to reflect the ravages of modern change.

A great many of the lives of the searchers and renouncers I talked to were marked by suffering, exile, and frequently, great pain; a large number turned out to be escaping personal, familial, or political tragedies. […]

Nor (I note) does religion always provide an escape; often it compounds exploitation. Dalrymple again:

I have made a conscious effort to try [and] avoid imposing myself on the stories told by my nine characters, and so hope to have escaped many of the clichés about “Mystic India” that blight so much Western writing on Indian religion.

Amidst a widespread tendency towards standardisation, the stories highlight

the deeply embedded heterodox, syncretic, and pluralist religious and philosophical folk traditions which continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

As he notes,

The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, and there are many traditions which I have completely left out: there are, for example, no Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, or Jews in this book, though all have long histories in the soil of South Asia.

Nine lives map

The chapters follow a trusty formulaic sequence: some evocative scene-setting (often worthy of Stella Gibbons’ *** purple passages in Cold comfort farm); a vignette on his first meeting with the guru in question; some early history; “I will tell you my story”; and worries about the future.

* * *

The first chapter is The nun’s tale, in which Dalrymple meets the young Jain devotee Mataji on the pilgrimage to Sravanabegabola in Karnataka. Jainism, little known outside India (where it now has “only” four million followers), is rather more ancient than Buddhism, and more extreme in its asceticism.

Mataji had chosen the discipline gladly in her mid-teens. Despite the principle of non-attachment, she was still devastated by the loss of her constant companion, who completed the sallekhana fast to the death after contracting TB; and she herself has already embarked on the same path.

The dancer of Kannur introduces a theyyam troupe of ritual dancers and drummers in Kerala, with a typical opening Stella-esque*** paragraph:

In the midnight shadows of a forest clearing, bounded on one side by a small stream and a moonlit paddy field, and on the other by the darkness of a rubber plantation and a green canopy of coconut palms, lit only by a bonfire and a carpet of flickering camphor lights, a large crowd has gathered, silhouetted against the flames. Most have walked many miles through the darkness to get here. They are waiting and watching for the moment when, once a year, the gods come down to earth, and dance.

Dalrymple’s subject is Hari Das, a dance medium possessed by Lord Vishnu. For nine months of the year he works as a manual labourer building wells, and at weekends as a jail warder—other members of the troupe work as waiters, bus conductors, and so on. The theyyam season lasts from December to February; it now provides a much better living than labouring, and than it did in previous generations. While work in the prison is dangerous, performing theyyam is physically exhausting—dancers have a very low life expectancy—and mentally demanding.

Dalrymple notes that while Kerala appears idyllic, it has always been one of the most conservative, socially oppressive, and rigidly hierarchical societies in India. The theyyam, performed by Dalit outcastes, and free from Brahmin control, is “a conscious and ritualised inversion of the usual structures of Keralan life”.

After another typical transition (“We sat drinking chai on the veranda as the sun set, and he began to tell his story”), Hari Das describes how his father taught him the complex arts of thottam story-songs, mudra hand gestures, nadana steps, facial expressions, make-up, and headgear. He notes a certain recent increase in prestige for theyyam.

Here’s a YouTube playlist with 61 short clips:

Note also the research of Rolf Killius, also featured in my post on Shawm and percussion bands of south Asia.

The daughters of Yellamma tells the distressing story of the devadasi (for a version of this chapter in The New Yorker, click here). Dalrymple travels to Saundatti in north Karnataka to meet Rani, sketching the long history of the devadasi. Dedicated as children (by their family) to the goddess Yellama, they originally came from cultured families, serving as courtesans, dancers, and temple attendants; only in later centuries were they explicitly sexualized. From the 19th century, well-meaning Hindu reformers broke their links with the temples; in Karnataka further prohibitions were decreed in 1982, but only further demeaned and criminalised the practice, driving the devadasis underground; “several thousand girls, usually aged between six and nine years old, continue to be dedicated to the goddess annually.” As a government sign warns:

DEDICATING YOUR DAUGHTER IS UNCIVILISED BEHAVIOUR.

Today the women are low-caste Dalits directly involved in sex work. Their life expectancy is even lower than that of the theyyam dancers. Rani’s two daughters had died of AIDS, and she too is HIV-positive. Yet they still pride themselves on having a more exalted status than ordinary sex workers, being blessed by the goddess.

For Guardian coverage, see here and here. Here’s the BBC documentary Sex, death, and the gods (Beeban Kidron, 2010):

And two more films within a controversial representational field:

In The singer of epics Dalrymple returns north to Rajasthan with Mohan Bhopa, a hereditary bard and shaman. He had first encountered the genre twenty years earlier on a visit to Laxmi Chundawat in Jaipur, who had documented the epic in the 1970s; she even arranged for Mohan to perform for him. Introducing the work of Parry and Lord on Yugoslavian epics, Dalrymple marvels at the “Rajasthani Homers” who still perform in another epic tradition.

He had already written about Mohan for The New Yorker in 2006, inviting him to perform at several urban festivals; but now he travels with him and his wife to their home environment.

The bhopa are performers of epics, of which the most popular is The Epic of Pabuji. It is not merely entertainment, but a religious ritual. As with “precious scrolls” in China, the epic is rarely performed complete today, which would five nights from dusk to dawn. Punctuated by bhajan hymns and Hindi film songs, it is performed before a phad, a long religious painting on cloth (see e.g. here, here, and here), which also serves as a portable temple. Victor Mair’s 1989 book Painting and performance introduced such traditions around China and south Asia, including the Tibetan lami mani with their thangka.

bhopa 1989

Parbū Bhopo of Mārwāṛ Junction and his wife Rukmā Devī performing the epic of Pābūjī for a small audience in their own village in 1989. Parbū is using the bow of his fiddle to point to a narrative detail on the paṛ while he chants the equivalent section of the epic story.
Caption and photo: John D. Smith.

Again like the precious scrolls, the phad is treated with reverence; the bhopa themselves earn respect through their knowledge despite their low caste. Dalrymple learns that the motives of the rural audience “were less to hear the poetry than to use him as a sort of supernatural veterinary service”; the bhopa also protects children from djinns. Again, these are among the functions of rural Chinese bards.

The bhopa are illiterate—which stimulates their prodigious memory. They accompany their songs on dholak drum and ravanhatta (not a zither but a bowed lute)—a reminder of the rich instrumentarium of Indian folk cultures, another striking instance of which I showed in Gujurat.

The epic is performed by husband and wife in duet; Mohan was fortunate that his wife Batasi had become a fine singer too. But when Mohan died—all too soon after the visit to the rural home—their son (who had been unable to continue the vocation since his own wife turned out to be tone deaf) began performing the epic with his mother.

John D. Smith, working with the eminent Rajasthani folklorist Komal Kothari (for whose own work see e.g. here), wrote his PhD on the bhopa in the 1970s—you can find an updated edition of The epic of Pābūjī here, along with instructive images and audio/video examples.

When Smith returned to Rajasthan some twenty years later he found the art much impoverished by the drift to the cities and the popularity of cable TV and DVDs. FWIW, Dalrymple is not quite so gloomy about the future of the tradition.

The bhopa have been the subject of a succession of documentaries. Here’s Pabuji ki phad (Shammi Nanda, 2005):

See also e.g. here. The lost music of Rajasthan (BBC, 2011), a tour of various traditions., includes a brief scene with a bhopa from 25.45. Note also Daniel Neuman, Shubha Chaudhuri, with Komal Kothari, Bards, ballads and boundaries: an ethnographic atlas of music traditions in west Rajasthan (2007).

The red fairy takes us into Pakistan, to the Sufi shrines of rural Sindh, a centre of Hindu–Muslim syncretism. There Dalrymple visits Lal Peri, devotee of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif. He witnesses the ecstatic dhammal devotional dance, with its massed kettle drums.

Lal Peri was the sort of deeply eccentric ascetic that both the Eastern Christians and Sufis have traditionally celebrated as Holy Fools. She was an illiterate, simple, and trusting woman, who saw the divine and miraculous everywhere. It was also clear that she had lived an unusually traumatic life, which had left her emotionally raw. She was in fact a triple refugee: first as a Muslim driven out of India into East Pakistan after Hindu–Muslim riots in the late 1960s; then as a Bihari driven out of East Pakistan at the creation of Bangladesh in 1971; and finally as a single woman taking refuge in the shrines of Sindh while struggling to live the life of a Sufi in the male-dominated and increasingly Talibanized society of Pakistan. […]

The longer I explored Sehwan Sharif, the more it became clear that, more even than most other Sufi shrines, this was a place where for once you saw religion acting to bring people together, not to divide them. Sufism here was not just something mystical and ethereal, but a force that demonstrably acted as a balm on India’s festering religious wounds. The shrine provided its often damaged and vulnerable devotees shelter and a refuge from the divisions and horrors of the world outside.

The Qalander dervishes

have chosen a life of wandering and calculated impropriety, seeking God on the road and in Sufi shrines through a regime of self-punishment and celibacy, while trying to generate a sense of religious ecstasy with the aid of music and dance and hallucinogens.

Lal Peri is fearful of the advance of Wahhabism.

As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans were on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals, and the devotional superstitions of saints’ shrines. As in Reformation Europe, they looked to the text alone for authority, and recuirted the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, who looked down on what they saw as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Several shrines had already been attacked. Dalrymple goes to meet the director of a new madrasa, who while cordial is severe in his views (“Musical instruments lead men astray and are sinful. They are forbidden, and these musicians are wrongdoers. With education we hope they will change their ways.”). He regards it as his duty to destroy all the mazars and dargahs.

Lal Peri takes Dalrymple to meet her pir at his desert retreat, who believes in the resilience of the Sufi tradition against the jihad of the mullahs. But in 2017 a suicide bombing inside the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar killed 90 and wounded over 300.

This clip gives a flavour of the festival:

In The monk’s tale Dalrymple visits Dharamsala to consult an elderly Tibetan monk from Kham who had reluctantly taken up arms in resistance to the Chinese invasion. He recalls his early monastic training, and the arrival of the Chinese forces in 1950. As repression escalated, Kham was the heartland of the Tibetan struggle. He joined the “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” resistance force (for links, see the work of Jamyang Norbu).

Though we acquired some old guns, we were outnumbered and knew nothing of fighting. All we knew was how to pray, not how to kill. As soon as we came across Chinese troops they put us to flight. It was a total fiasco.

After making his way to Lhasa to warn people of the imminent catastrophe, he describes the tension there that led to the escape to India of the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as escort and then as decoy while the Chinese went in pursuit.

After fleeing Tibet, from 1962 he spent many years in a secret CIA-trained Tibetan unit in the Indian army—but he finds himself fighting in the war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Always vexed at having abandoned the monastic precepts, not until 1986 could he retire to Dharamsala. In atonement for the violence he had committed as a soldier, he began to make printed prayer-flags, and in 1995 he renewed his monastic vows. In his old people’s home there, thirty of the 150 occupants had been engaged in a similar struggle against the Chinese.

Again, the exodus from Tibet of the Dalai Lama, and the resistance to Chinese occupation, are much-studied topics (see my roundup of posts on Tibet), with many biographical accounts. As a suitable illustration on film, do click here to watch the footage of the Dalai Lama’s “graduation” rituals in 1958–59!

In The maker of idols we return to the south, to Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu. Dalrymple meets Srikanda, a ritual artisan who comes from a long line of hereditary casters of bronze images for temple worship, dating back to the Chola empire.

There was a growing market for what he called “show pieces” for tourists and collectors, but the family’s main work was idols created in exactly the same manner as laid down by the ancient Hindu religious texts, the Shilpa Shastras, and specifically designed for temple worship.

Dalrymple reflects:

It seemed to me that Srikanda had mentioned three quite different ways in which an inanimate statue could become a god: by the channelling of divinity via the heart and hands of the sculptor; a ceremony of invocation when the eyes were chipped open [cf. “opening to the light” in China]; and through the faith of the devotee. I pointed this out to Srikanda, but he saw no contradiction; all that mattered was that at a certain point a miracle took place and the statue he had made became divine.

He attends a temple festival when the god statue is paraded on a chariot. He waxes lyrical about the sensual bronze statues of the Chola dynasty, and admires the complex discipline of Srikanda with his team in his workshop, where ritual also plays a role. He meets a singer of thevaram devotional songs before the gods. Typically, after the lineage’s 700 years of transmission, Srikanda’s son wants to become a computer engineer.

For ritual artisans in China, see Ritual artisans in 1950s’ Beijing, Ritual paintings of Li Peisen, and the makers of masks for Nuo ritual drama.

The Lady Twilight takes us to a cremation ground in Bengal—dwelling place of Tantric sadhus, devotees of the goddess Tara, who celebrate the power of skulls and fresh blood.

Again, Dalrymple’s guide Manisha hints at a painful past: she was beaten by her husband, rejected by her mother-in-law, and had lost her home and her three daughters. For her Tara was a saviour, not a fearsome ogre. Although the ruling Communist Party in Bengal sometimes sent out Anti-Superstition Committees to persuade people to embrace more mainstream forms of Hinduism, for the inhabitants of the cremation ground is a place of illumination, despite its ghoulish reputation. And Dalrymple finds an

oddly villagey and almost cosy feel. There is a palpable sense of community. Among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom.

Dalrymple surveys the history of Tantrism and early Tantric sex—

an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantra cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houllebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality, and extreme egotism”.

But as with the Sufis, behind modern Tantrism lies “the idea of reaching God through opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos”.

Manisha confides,

I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them […].

But now my attention is more directed on Ma Tara herself, and increasingly I believe that the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love.

Meanwhile Manisha’s partner Tapan Sadhu, himself deeply committed to the life of renunciation, punctuates their conversation with updates from the radio on the latest Test score:

“England are 270 for four!”, he shouted excitedly.

Still in Bengal, The song of the blind minstrel introduces the bauls, itinerant minstrels who practice their own form of renunciation.

Dalrymple attends a major festival at Kenduli where several thousand bauls gather each year. He talks with the blindman Kanai, who finds the lifestyle one of great freedom. His companion Debdas explains:

“He taught me everything, how to reject the outer garb of religion and to dive deep into the ocean of the heart.”

The ecstatic singing of the bauls is another popular topic, appearing early on the world music scene (see e.g. the introduction in The Rough Guide to world music, under “Bangladesh”). Here’s a short film:

Deben Bhattacharya was very much on the case of the bauls. His CD Bauls of Bengal: mystic songs from India was issued in 2001—here it is as a playlist:

Charles Capwell’s 1973 LP Indian street music: the Bauls of Bengal (again, playlist):

A track from the more reflective CD Shahjahan Miah: chants mystiques bâuls du Bangladesh (Inedit, 1992):

And Radha Bhava, from the female singer Parvathy Baul (as playlist):

* * *

The fluency with which Dalrymple’s characters appear to tell their life stories is presumably an authorial device, a concession to the demands of the genre. No-one has ever given me such a fluent account—many peasants just shrug and say “I ain’t never done nothing much… um, I’ve just tilled the fields and gone out to do ritual, like”, and my many biographical sketches have been pieced together over several years, as my mentors open up and I gradually think of more promising angles. And Dalrymple’s subjects seem to have a remarkable ability to explain things in a fashion that neatly resembles our own conceptualisations.

In some chapters he notes how his visits punctuate invitations at his behest to appear at urban festivals; yet despite his worthy cause of highlighting their own lives, more scholarly (and perhaps less readable) accounts flag the gulf between the status of fieldworkers and that of their subjects, and the complications that such relations involve. In this short clip Dalrymple introduces some of the ritual performers on stage:

Such urban performances are a compromise in a worthy cause, part of the continuum of festivals. I too have found it most instructive to take the Li family Daoists on tour in Europe (see e.g. here; cf. the Hua family shawm band at the 2002 Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road).

Anyway, Dalrymple does well to remind us of the riches of folk cultures by following the performers back to their local environments. Full of vividly-told stories, Nine lives makes an admirable book, extending the audience for Indian religious traditions way beyond the arcane realms of ethnography.

Cf. my extensive series on the very different spiritual milieu of north Indian raga, and under the Indian tag in the sidebar.

From the holy mountain


The ancient fortress, monastery of St Anthony, Egypt.

Travel writing takes many forms, from Evliyâ Çelebi to Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron, and Bruce Chatwin (for a wise survey of the genre through changing times, see this article by Barnaby Rogerson). Female authors like Dervla Murphy and Sarah Wheeler are in a minority. With added focus, generally sacrificing a certain readability, travel writing may shade into anthropology.

William Dalrymple (website; wiki) may seem like a natural successor to his travel-writing guru Patrick Leigh Fermor (see e.g. his tribute to Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese). But whereas I find Leigh Fermor’s confident purple prose irksome, as he zigags “between sleeping on peasants’ mud floors and bursting into consular drawing-rooms or baronial halls with his letter of introduction: ‘Oh, good, there you are, just in time for the brandy’ ” (I concur with Neil Ascherson, who cites Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book Inventing Ruritania), Dalrymple’s own work is more endearing. Before going on to write distinguished scholarly tomes on Indian art and history, he hit on a winning formula with several popular travel books—including

Xanadu

His first book

soon became a bestseller. It describes his four-month journey along the Silk Road over the summer of 1986, before his final year as a Cambridge undergraduate—just as I was returning from my first stay in China.

In his own words,

In Xanadu records the impressions, prejudices, and enthusiasms of a very young, naïve and deeply Anglocentric undergraduate. Indeed my 21 year old self—bumptious, cocky, and self-confident, quick to judge and embarrassingly slow to hesitate before stereotyping entire nations—is a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can’t quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to, or at least cutting down to size, for his own good.

Indeed, “gazing at flowers from horseback” can produce trite generalisations (“Dogubayazit was full of sinister, swarthy Turks”), but his jovial tone makes for good reading.

His journey makes a cultured latter-day variant of the hippy trail that had borne fruit in leading Veronica Doubleday and John Baily to Afghanistan, where they made a base in Herat on the eve of the Russian invasion. With Dalrymple’s historical bent he reads up on early travellers’ accounts rather than on modern ethnography.

He begins at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where, having noted the sectarian divide, he takes some holy oil (which, as he notes wryly, he pours not into a goatskin flask but into a plastic phial from the Body Shop) to deliver to the site of Xanadu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan, just as Marco Polo had done in the 13th century. Following in Polo’s footsteps, * he embarks on an ambitious trek east, with two intrepid female companions in relay.

At my primary school we knew all about Marco Polo. He wore a turban, a stripy robe a bit like a dressing gown, and he rode a camel with only one hump. The Ladybird book which had this picture on the cover was the most heavily thumbed book on the school bookshelf. One day, my friends and I put some biscuits in a handkerchief, tied the handkerchief to a stick, and set off to China. It was an exhausting walk as there were no camels in Scotland, and by teatime we had eaten all our biscuits. There was also the problem that we were not absolutely sure where China was. It was beyond England, of that we were certain, but then we were not absolutely sure where England was either. Nonetheless we strode off manfully towards Haddington where there was a shop. We could ask there, we said. But when it began to get dark we turned around and went home for supper. After consultation we decided to put the plan on the shelf for a while. China could wait.

The trip, long unfeasible, at last looked more promising with the opening of the Karakorum Highway in 1986. In Jerusalem

the streets were filled with elderly Saga pensioners on pilgrimage from Preston; in the Via Dolorosa weeping Evangelicals sung “Kum-ba-ya” against the background of wailing muezzin. There were a few miserable-looking Presbyterians, some rotund Eastern European widows, and an Ethiopian cleric in his flowing cassock of grey serge.Pallid, short-sighted Orthodox Jews shuffled past clutching Uzi sub-machine guns. The Arabs—wearing pin-stripe for practicality, and keffiyeh to attract the tourists—had taken up station outside their shops: Rainbow Bazaar, The Omar Khayyam Souvenir Museum, Magic Coffee House, The Al-Haj Carpentry Store.

But as he notes,

This pantomime of subservience had gone on day after day for centuries. Jerusalem has always been a tourist town. The pilgrims have changed, religions have come and gone and empires with them; only the knickknack sellers remain.

Travelling through Israel by bus, he notes

the shoddy sprawl of supermarkets, warehouses, drive-in cinemas, factories, and military installations—all imposed over the old Palestinian villages, bulldozed after their inhabitants were evicted in 1948.

In Syria they go in search of traces of the Assassins, a militant wing of the heterodox Isma’ili sect in medieval times. In Aleppo he tuts at child slavery in a shoe factory, visits a nightclub (Django Reinhardt songs played by an Armenian band), and admires the architecture, commenting on the city’s long history of massacres and sieges.

They move on to Turkey, travelling northeast from Ayas to Sivas and Erzurum. His companion Laura tempers his romanticism:

“We could be the first people to see this view for hundreds of years,” I said, moved to unusual lyricism.

“Balls,” said Laura. “People come up here all the time.”

Gok medresse

In Sivas he contrasts the styles of the Ulu Cami mosque and (above) the nearby Gök medresse. With the medieval Armenian connection looming large, they also get a lesson on the 1915 genocide.

Laura chador

As they near the border with revolutionary Iran, logistical challenges become ever more daunting, with Laura now equipped with a full-length black chador and headscarf. They are underwhelmed by Tabriz:

The atmosphere of Tabriz on our arrival exactly paralleled that at the time of Polo. The oil wealth of the 60s and early 70s had financed a population explosion in the town, and if the town had ever had an old-fashioned, Russian flavour [as their guidebook claimed] it had certainly lost it by the time we visited. Like any other rapidly developing town in the Third World, Tabriz was surrounded by miles of ugly urban sprawl.

They get another lesson on politics from an Armenian priest. At Sultaniya and Saveh they ponder the story of the Three Wise Men and Zoroastrianism.

Unable to attempt the northern route through Afghanistan, they keep moving southeast, cadging lifts with groups of devout Afghans until they reach Baluchi Pakistan, a welcome relief. They move on to Quetta, where Dalrymple’s great-aunt had lived as the wife of the Commander of the Western Command, India.

They recover from the ordeal of the train to Lahore by enjoying the luxurious hospitality of a Pakistani friend from Cambridge—air conditioning, baths, clean clothes, a swimming pool, and Mozart, all making a well-deserved interlude between their travails (cf. Nigel Barley on the veranda). As he bids farewell to his brisk companion Laura—a cross between Boudicea and Joyce Grenfell—his fragrant accomplice Louisa arrives for the latter leg of the journey, “dressed as if for the King’s Road”. His love for Lahore has remained a major theme of his ouevre.

Having faced more Kafkaesque bureaucracy to gain permits to enter China, they set off again. With an interlude on Alexander the Great, they cross the border into Xinjiang, rejoining the trail of Marco Polo at Tashkurgan, yet another drab border town. More ingenuity is required in order to keep moving north towards Kashgar.

There they stay at Chini Bagh, residence of George Macartney for twenty-eight years around the turn of the 20th century as the Great Game was being waged, now converted into a dowdy hotel—offering yet another illustration of decline. Kashgar in the 1980s might now seem an unspoilt paradise, but it was already the object of modernisation with Chinese characteristics, its old city walls being demolished over a long period, like those of Chinese cities such as Beijing. Still, as yet there were no cars, and few bicycles; no police surveillance on every corner or labour camps. Venturing behind the façade, they are shown the sights by Mick, a genuine 60s’ hippy who has moved on from Kabul and Goa. They find a world of bazaars and craftsmen, and admire the Id Kah mosque; they even glean further clues to the Nestorians.

Uyghur kids KeriyaUyghur children, Keriya.

In retrospect this seems like a happy period for the Uyghurs, when despite the scars of the Cultural Revolution, cultural and religious traditions were reviving on a large scale. Along with local scholars, Sabine Trebinjac and Jean During were just starting to document the riches of Uyghur musical life.

Sabine KashgarWedding band, Kashgar 1988,
from booklet with 2-CD set Turkestan chinois/Xinjiang: musiques Ouïghoures.

Having spent ten days in Kashgar they negotiate a series of lifts to skirt the desert by the southern route via Khotan and Keriya. In Keriya they gatecrash a drunken banquet for German geologists hosted by effusive Chinese apparatchiks—which unexpectedly eases their onward progress in the company of a busload of stoned Uyghurs (hash “is to the Sinkiang People’s Autobus Company what McEwan’s Export is to British Rail”). In Charchan, exhausted, they are finally apprehended by the Public Security Bureau, who deport them by sending them by train all the way to Beijing, away from what they realise is the Lop Nor nuclear testing ground peopled by mutants.

By way of the Gansu corridor and Shaanxi, the train to Beijing takes six days, so they’re happy to graduate from Hard Seat to the luxury of Soft Sleeper.

I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelled like a morgue, never again to use a squatter that belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. If something needed to be proved it was proved. From now it would be a holiday cottage by the seaside, a rocking chair and some new, relaxing hobby, perhaps knitting or crochet.

After exploring Beijing by bike, and eating fourteen chocolate eclairs in three hours, they set off on one last mission north to the site of Kublai Khan’s summer capital Shangdu (Xanadu), on the steppe of what is now Inner Mongolia. Taking the train as far north as Chengde, summer palace of the Qing Manchu emperors, they again dodge the Public Security Bureau to take the bus to Duolun. Although the cops catch up with them, they finally reach their goal, where Dalrymple pours the oil from the Holy Sepulchre into the earth.

Then, rather as in the dénouement of Teddy bears’ picnic, they have to hurry back to take the plane home for the start of term.

WD and Lou
Back at Cambridge with Louisa, “looking smug”.

* * *

While In Xanadu makes some telling observations on the societies he travels through, the people whom Dalrymple encounters often seem merely a drôle backdrop.

Far from dropping out, his youthful Long March was the start of an illustrious career. Following City of Djinns (1994), I’ve been re-reading his third book,

It’s already in a different league. By now his blend of early history and contemporary observation is more assured and thoughtful. He’s no longer a backpacking student but an accredited journalist and author, and his budget is less constrained. The people he gets to meet are more informed, and at 454 pages the book is considerably longer than In Xanadu, allowing for more detail.

Holy mountain map

Dalrymple follows the path of the 6th-century monk John Moschos, guided by his book The spiritual meadow, a diary of his travels around the Eastern Byzantine world. He embarks on a six-month journey in search of the modern descendants of the Christian Levant—different political exigencies often making a dangerous trek.

In the popular imagination, the Levant passes from a classical past to an Islamic present with hardly a break.

Yet for over three hundred years before the rise of Islam in the 7th century the Eastern Mediterranean was almost entirely Christian. The spiritual meadow

could be read less as a dead history book than as the prologue to an unfolding tragedy whose final chapter is still being written. […]

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity. Only when you travel in Christianity’s Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked. For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity’s modern Western incarnation.

Moreover,

In the Middle East, the reality of continuity has always been masked by a surface impression of cataclysm.

Dalrymple had already mastered the art of the short suggestive opening sentence with In Xanadu:

It was still dark when I left Sheikh Jarrah.

And the following chapter opens:

Latakia is a filthy hole. I had forgotten how bad it was.

He opens From the holy mountain at the Orthodox monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos—with another winning opening sentence:

My cell is bare and austere. **

Moving on to Istanbul, his vignette of the Pera Palace Hotel makes an extreme contrast with Athos. He reflects on the multi-ethnic Byzantine history of Constantinople, and the gradual erosion of tolerance since the late Ottoman era. Greek and Armenian priests give him a gloomy picture of the severely reduced current circumstances of their flocks. He visits the nearby Princes’ Islands, where Greeks were in a majority until the early 20th century.

But his quest is only just beginning.

As the physical world fell into decay, thousands left their families, intent […] on becoming monks and hermits in the desert.

He moves on to Antakya (Antioch) in southeast Anatolia, going in search of clues to the early stylites. From Moschos he gathers that

visiting these pillar saints was a popular afternoon’s outing for the pious ladies of Antioch’s more fashionable suburbs. […]

It was strange: a ragged illiterate hermit being fawned over by the rich and highly educated Greco-Roman aristocracy; yet odder still was the idea of a hermit famed for his ascetic simplicity punishing himself in the finest setting money could buy. It was like holding a hunger strike in the Ritz. […]

They were men who were thought to have crossed the boundary of reality and gained direct access to the divine. It is easy to dismiss the eccentricities of Byzantine hermits as little more than bizarre circus acts, but to do so is to miss the point that man’s deepest hopes and convictions are often quite inexplicable in narrow terms of logic or reason. At the base of a stylite’s pillar one is confronted with the awkward truth that what has most moved past generations can today only sometimes be only tentatively glimpsed with the eye of faith, while remaining quite inexplicable and absurd when seen under the harsh distorting microscope of sceptical Western rationality.

Next he visits the frontier town of Urfa, site of ancient Edessa, another crucible of diverse faiths (including Manicheans, Zoroastrians, and Nestorians), where

Orthodoxy was only one among a considerable number of options available to the inquiring believer. […] Doctrine was still in a state of continual flux, and no one interpretation of the Christian message and no single set of gospels had yet achieved dominance over any others.

In modern times, after waves of incidents, the whole region had been purged of Armenians in 1915 (though for a detailed recent ethnography, note Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation). He learns of the ongoing neglect of Armenian monuments, and the political constraints on archaeology.

Holy mountain 2
Suriani woman at the fortress church of Ein Wardo.

Diyarbakir, Dalrymple’s next stop, was now the centre of the Turkish army’s struggle with the PKK (cf. Some Kurdish bards). Braving a succession of checkpoints, Dalrymple manages to reach the ancient Suriani Orthodox monastery of Mar Gabriel, now much reduced but still functioning, as well as the fortified village of Ein Wardo, stronghold of Suriani defence against the Ottoman and Kurdish troops in 1915—an Assyrian genocide was under way at the same time as that of the Armenians.

Holy mountain 1

In search of clues to living Nestorianism, he is told:

“I believe there is a very large Nestorian community in … is there somewhere in London called Ealing?”

Ealing?”

“Yes, I think that’s right,” said George. “It was in Ealing that the current Nestorian Patriarch was crowned. There should be far more Nestorians in London than here. Ealing has the largest Nestorian community in Europe.”

Such are the humiliations of the travel writer in the late 20th century: go in search for the most exotic heretics in the world, and you find that they have cornered the kebab business at the end of your street in London.

After another fraught journey into Syria, then a relatively safe haven for Christians, he reaches Aleppo, with notes on another faded grand hotel that appealed to a former generation of English travellers:

The inexplicably horrible food, the decaying neo-Gothic architecture, the deep baths and the uncomfortable beds: no wonder Lawrence and his contemporaries felt so much at home here—the Baron is a perfect replica of some particularly Spartan English public school strangely displaced to the deserts of the Middle East.

Exploring the countryside, he notes the role of monks and holy men in quelling evil spirits, a tradition that still continues. He visits the convent of Seidnaya (previously visited by Colin Thubron), with Muslims praying together with Christians.

Back in Aleppo, he finds a church where the monks still sing Urfalee chant, “apparently the most ancient form of Christian music still being sung anywhere in the world” (cf. Chant and beyond). As Dalrymple fishes for a simple, exotic soundbite on the style, the Italian scholar Gianmaria Malacrida offers careful caveats—which I admire as much as I admire Dalrymple for citing them.

Click here for his update on the cultural damage in the early days of the Syrian civil war.

En route to Lebanon, he is struck by the surreal roadside artwork:

Perhaps strangest of all were the unlikely lines of hoardings that rose above the forbidding ruins lining the highway:a smiling Claudia Schiffer stretched out leopard-like in Salvatore Ferragamo next to a yellow sandstone French colonial villa so riddled with great round shrapnel-holes it resembled an outsize slice of Emmental; the Marlboro cowboy with his ten-gallon hat and herd of steers beaming out over an apocalyptic wasteland of shattered tower blocks; a metal tube of Bodymist—un beau corps sans effort—set against a carbon-black skeleton of twisted metal that had once been a filling station. […]

It was like a morality tale, spiralling downwards through one of the world’s greatest monuments to human frailty, a huge vortex of greed and envy, resentment and intolerance, hatred and materialism, a five-mile-long slalom of shellholes and designer labels, heavy artillery and glossy boutiques.

In Beirut he gains insights from the historian Kemal Salibi, who directs him to Leila Badr, an archaeologist who gives him leads to Byzantine remnants around the city. And he consults the journalist Robert Fisk, “a chronic war junkie” who gives him some valuable, if dodgy, contacts. He learns more of the Maronites, Christian supremacists who emerged from the civil war “with their reputation for ruthlessness, barbarity, and political incompetence enormously enhanced”. The trail leads him to the Maronite town of Bsharri, once famed for its saints, now for its warlords. It was soon to become a scenic tourist destination, not least as the birthplace of Khalil Gibran—whose bequest of the royalties from The prophet had led to a bitter war between rival Maronite clans. Back in Beirut, Dalrymple visits a camp for Christian refugees from Palestine.

Continuing south by a tortuous route into Israel, he gives a succinct introduction to the modern history of the occupation of the West Bank. He delves further into the Armenian history of Jerusalem, and (as in Turkey) learns more about the highly politicised world of archaeology in Israel. He expounds the history of St George, on whom the English have no monopoly.

As the various Christian populations of the Middle East seek sanctuary abroad, without them

the most important shrines in the Christian world will be left as museum pieces, preserved only for the curiosity of tourists. Christianity will no longer exist in the Holy Land as a living faith; a vast vacuum will exist in the very heart of Christendom. As the Archbishop of Canterbury recently warned, the area, “once centre of a strong Christian presence,” risks becoming “a theme park”, devoid of Christians “within fifteen years”.

Holy mountain 3
The monastery of Mar Saba.

Dalrymple enters the desert of the West Bank—once a rather densely populated terrain of monks and monasteries. Staying at Mar Saba, the only living monastery there, he admires their austere regime, but is less impressed by the inedible food. Again recalling Mount Athos, his descriptions of monastic rituals are always evocative (see below).

Ever the historian, he visits the chapel of St John Damascene, whose refutation of heresies The Fount of knowledge makes a critique of Islam—as a new, if heretical, form of Christianity:

What Damascene wrote in this cave was largely responsible for saving Byzantium from the ban against sacred art that has always been part of Islam and Judaism. Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.

And he draws our attention to the prayer niche, “another of those features of the early Christian world which has been lost to modern Western Christianity, yet which is still preserved in Islam”.

His explorations of Egypt start in Alexandria, long deserted by its Greek, Jewish, and Armenian entrepreneurs. Dalrymple visits an abandoned synagogue, and finds the gathering place of the city’s last Greeks.

He offers a vignette on the 1895 discovery of ancient papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus by the British archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt, remarkable not just for their classical texts but for their rich archive of Byzantine correspondence and administrative documents, revealing the lives of ordinary people.

In the desert southeast of Cairo he reaches the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St Anthony, still flourishing. Again, the 3rd-century hermit monk was pursued by a fan club of fashionable intelligentsia. By the early 5th century some seven hundred monasteries filled the desert between Jerusalem and the southern border of the Byzantine Empire.

In contrast to medieval Western monks, the Egyptian desert fathers also tended to reject the concept of learning, the worship of knowledge for its own sake. St Anthony was particularly scathing about books, proclaiming that “in the person whose mind is sound there is no need for letters”. […] Many of St Anthony’s Coptic followers emulated his example, preferring a life of hard manual labour and long hours of prayer to one of study.

Indeed, Plato had already lamented the discovery of writing!

Unlike the other monasteries on Dalrymple’s journey, St Anthony’s continues to attract young monks—literate, often university graduates, and keen students of arid farming techniques. Dalyrymple finds them “kind, gentle men, much more modest and reasonable than the bristling Greek brigands of Mar Saba or their sometimes fanatical brethren on Mount Athos”. He gives another vivid depiction of vespers:

Now, as if from nowhere, at least sixty monks had materialised in the nave and all were chanting loudly in a deep, rumbling plainchant quite different from the elusive, bitterwseet melodies of Gregorian chant or the angular, quickfire vespers of the Greeks. Individually the gentlest of men, the Copts at prayer made a massive, dense, booming sound, each stanza sung by the monastic cantor echoed by a thundering barrage of massed male voices. The wall of sound reverberated around the church, bouncing off the squinches of the dome, crashing onto the mud-brick roof then down again like a lead weight into the nave. Yet despite its heaviness, there was nothing harsh or brutal about the Coptic chant, the swelling notes of the refrain resolving to give the whole threnody a tragic, desolate air, as if all the distilled deprivations of generations of monks were being enunciated and offered up, at once an agonised atonement for the sins of mankind and exorcism foretelling the terrors of the night to come. […]

There was a moment of silence as the monks marched from the middle of the nave, through the swirling incense, to a long lectern near the sanctuary where a line of ancient bound vellum lectionaries lay open. There the brethren split into groups. Quietly at first, those on the north began singing a verse of the psalm of the day, those to the south answering them, the volume gradually rising, the stiff, illuminated pages of the service books all turning together as the chant thundered on into the late evening, accompanied now by an occasional clash of cymbals or an ecstatic ringing of triangles. As the service progressed and the tempo of the singing rose, novices swung their thuribles and the great cumulus clouds of frankincense coagulated into a thick white fog in the body of the nave…

I’d love to find videos of such rituals.

After five days in the seclusion of St Anthony’s, he is horrified by the mundane chaos of Cairo, and soon moves on in search of more desert monasteries. He eventually gains permission to visit the province of Asyut, centre of Egypt’s Coptic population, but closed to foreigners since the Islamist insurgency. The prospects seem gloomy, with Copts migrating, first to the anonymity of the cities, and then abroad. With an armed guard he reaches the fortified Coptic Abbey of Deir al-Muharraq, which had recently been attacked. As the convoy moves on to Kharga, an even more remote area, he reflects on the different problems confronting Christians around the Middle East:

In southeast Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here it was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians; they were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution of Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did, en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, and even there such violent fundamentalism was strictly limited to specific Cairo suburbs and a number of towns and villages in Upper Egypt, even if some degree of discrimination was evident across the country.

* * *

Dalrymple’s work exemplifies why many foreigners are attracted to the Mystic East, in search of grand architecture and the vestiges of ancient civilisations. Sometimes his work reads like a more dependable modern rebranding of Gurdjeff and the Truth Seekers; but his highly readable blending of early history, spiritual quest, and current affairs is really most impressive. 

FWIW, all this reminds me why I really don’t like travelling. It’s not really that I have any sense of “belonging” in London; but I’m averse to being a stranger, an ignorant foreigner unable to communicate. If I’m going to go somewhere, I want to stay there a bit, and get to know at least the basics of what makes the society tick. In China, “hit-and-run” missions can be useful, such as Yang Yinliu’s Hunan survey in 1956, or our reccies of south Fujian (1986/1990), north Shanxi (1992), and the plain south of Beijing; but I’ve relished making a base in one village, and with one family. Indeed, Dalrymple perhaps reached a similar conclusion, having made his home in Delhi since 1989, producing erudite (and always accessible) studies on the art and history of the Indian subcontinent.

* * *

Dalrymple has also written and presented several TV series. In From the holy mountain he himself exposed the long history of bitter conflict in the region (Moschos makes clear “the horrifying, almost apocalyptic nature of the destruction he witnessed around him”), exacerbated in a polarised modern world; so while he might have chosen to join the media in focusing on the gloomy outlook, with all the irreconcilable schisms, instead he prefers to preach a contrasting gospel—the shared roots, diversity, and historical tolerance of Christianity and Islam.

His pacifist credo is clear from the documentary Sufi soul: the mystic music of Islam that he presented for Channel 4 in 2005, directed by Simon Broughton (cf. the 2-CD set The Rough Guide to Sufi music). Filmed in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco, the programme offers a broad survey of Sufi musical traditions:

The exigencies of commercial TV suggest that I shouldn’t mark them down too much for including some of the Usual Suspects like the Whirling Dervishes (cf. Bektashi–Alevi ritual, 1). But hey, I continue to churn out armchair vignettes of world music—so “I can’t talk”…


* Later, Frances Wood‘s doubts that Marco Polo even reached China have not been well received.

** Perhaps someone can give me a more accurate version of the spoof on the classic opening for a crime novel that goes something like this:

Dead.

That’s what the portly middle-aged man lying in a crumpled heap with blood seeping over the bare warehouse floor from a gaping wound in his skull was.

Gansu: Return to Dust

Li Ruijun

Though I’ve never ventured as far as Gansu, I’m always keen to include it in our picture of the culture of northwest China. *

Among the talented younger generation of Chinese film-makers is Li Ruijun 李睿珺 (b.1983). A native of Gaotai county of Zhangye prefecture in Gansu, his style is based on the challenges faced by the dwindling populations of his poor rural home.

I included his Fly with the crane (2012) in my list of documentaries and verismo movies on rural life in China. Inspired by films such as Bicycle thieves, Li (like recent Iranian directors) adheres to the splendid tradition of using amateur actors, judiciously training professionals to immerse themselves in the local lifestyle—as in his latest movie Return to dust (Yinru chenyan 隐入尘烟, 2022), premiered recently at the Berlin International Film Festival (interview; reviewed e.g. here). Here’s a trailer:

and an excerpt:

By September, playing safe before the Party Congress, the film was removed from streaming sites, and online discussion censored. Zhang Yimou’s film One second had to endure similar scrutiny.

For more northwestern verismo, Jia Zhangke continues to bear the torch for rural Shanxi; and for Shaanbei, I’m still enamoured with The story of Qiu Ju, among the movies featured in Chinese film classics of the early reform era. Further south in rural Hunan, note the documentaries of Jiang Nengjie. Given the ongoing repression of the cultural scene, young directors are showing remarkable creativity in negotiating the shifting sands of censorship. Cf. the “native-place fiction” of Jia Pingwa and others.


* On Gansu, I’ve introduced

Ethos: one of a kind

Ethos 1

After The Club, I’ve been hooked on Ethos, another fine Turkish TV series on Netflix (Berkun Oya, 2020), again popular both in Turkey and abroad. Among many reviews [1] is this perceptive critique by Haziran Düzkan on the feminist site 5Harfliler, from which I borrow below.

Here’s a trailer:

The Turkish title Bir başkadır (“One of a kind”) alludes to Ayten Alpman’s 1972 song Memleketim (“My homeland”). Set in Istanbul, the story exposes the faultlines within Turkish society. It’s centred around the mesmerising character of Meryem, played by Öykü Karayel. At once naïve and astute, Meryem is a part-time cleaner who lives on the outskirts of Istanbul with her ill-tempered brother Yasin and his traumatised wife Ruhiye. After experiencing fainting spells, Meryem consults the uptight psychiatrist Peri, whose culture is quite different: educated, affluent, and secular, she is prejudiced against openly religious people.

Ethos 2

Peri herself sees the therapist Gülbin, to whom she complains about the growing conservatism in Turkish society. Gülbin, from a Kurdish family, has a fraught relationship with her headscarved sister, a supporter of the ruling AKP Party; and she is having a desultory affair with the feckless playboy Sinan—as is the soap-opera star Melisa, who has some wise words to offer Peri when they meet socially. Meryem is under the influence of the benign hodja of the local mosque—whose daughter Hayrünnisa is a gay electronica fan.

Gradually the paths of this disparate group of urban, working, lonely women intersect; their attempts to seek meaningful relationships with men only exacerbate their sense of alienation.

The first episode ends—somewhat obscurely for outsiders like me—with footage from a concert by Ferdi Özbeğen, evoking a nostalgia for “old Turkey”—as Haziran Düzkan explains, as the gay son of an Armenian mother and a migrant father born in Crete, Özbeğen too carried a social burden on his shoulders. Düzkan also notes that while the finale offers a certain redemption, the (female) characters’ triumphs are petty, suggesting that the real “triumph” is that of the (male) director, “for showing us how much we missed talking about the society rather than getting sick and tired of talking about those in power”.

The filming is distinctive, with evocative scenes of the Istanbul landscape, and static portraits of the characters facing the camera framed against a sumptuous colour palette.

And there can be no better incentive to learn Turkish than to relish the nuance of Meryem’s speech in the exquisite dialogues with her therapist and with her suitor Hilmi.

Ethos 3


[1] E.g.
https://ewn.co.za/2021/01/05/turkey-s-latest-netflix-series-ethos-interrogates-the-country-s-social-divides

https://www.duvarenglish.com/ethos-has-put-us-all-in-the-therapists-office-and-asked-us-to-speak-article-55126

https://www.trtworld.com/life/netflix-s-ethos-takes-turkey-by-storm-41790

https://dmtalkies.com/ethos-tv-series-analysis/

https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/do-not-burn-coffee-beans.

Rom, Dom, Lom

kids

Do watch the fine documentary Buçuk [“The Half”] (Elmas Arus and Haluk Arus, 2010) on vimeo, an all-too-brief portrayal of the lives of three minority groups in Turkey: Rom around the Aegean, Thrace, and the Black Sea; Lom in the Armenian regions of Sivas, Erzincan, and Erzurum; and Dom in southeast Anatolia. *

Rom map

Elmas Arus is deeply involved in the campaign for Roma equality, with her campaign Zero Discrimination. Perhaps unavoidably, some of the filming looks exotic, contrasting with the articulate comments of locals and scholars on poverty, social issues, and discrimination. It deserves to be revamped with a more comprehensible version of the subtitles.

Among scenes are the work of a hereditary family of circumcisers and dentists; Lom basket weaving; blacksmiths; waste recycling; training dancing bears.

kemence

The soundtrack is effective throughout. From 6.57 an exhilarating sequence of musicking among the Dom people segues from Gaziantep to Mardin—reminding me yet again of how much we lose in “refined” society” by shackling music acquisition to the classroom (cf. the Growing into music project, and flamenco).

From 22.15 another musical sequence shows a Rom municipal wind band in Bergama north of Izmir; the only instance I know of folk violin played with a mute; and a female wedding group (cf. Afghanistan). Music makes a crucial income:

If we did not have this job, we would have died of hunger—no farm, no land, no income.

Urban demolition, as in the Sulukele quarter of Istanbul, is ironically followed by Erdoğan expressing support for the Roma in 2010. The film goes on to sketch weddings; the transition from nomadic to settled lives; the hıdırellez festival and the annual pilgrimage to Hacıbektaş. All the themes deserve more lengthy treatment.

In her excellent book Bury me standing, Isabel Fonseca only touches on Turkey in her chapter on the Bulgarian Roma, but it makes a fine introduction to the wider context around east central Europe.

This is the latest in my series on culture in Turkey.


* See e.g. here. Relevant wiki articles include

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_Turkey

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom_people

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdal_of_Turkey

South American getaway

Butch

At Cambridge in the early 1970s, as a counterpart to my studies of Chinese culture (here, and here) and WAM, movies also made an important part of my education. At some remove from the arthouse European films that were all the rage was the outlaw movie

  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) (wiki; see also e.g. here).

Despite mixed reviews, the film soon became a huge hit. Besides Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles, Katherine Ross appears as Etta Place, following her part in The graduate. She went on to star in the sequel Wanted: the Sundance woman (1976). And Hill used the Newman–Redford partnership again with The sting (1973), with a Scott Joplin soundtrack.

The soundtrack for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid (playlist) is by Burt Bacharach, whom I revere eternally for I say a little prayer. Robert Redford was not impressed by Raindrops keep falling on my head, sung by B.J. Thomas (“What the hell is that song doing in this film?”)—despite its wonderful major 7th leap:

A scene that undermines the pomposity of soundtracks in traditional Westerns is South American getaway, with the Ron Hicklin singers in fine form:

The disembodied audio is here, so as to focus on the musical artistry of the alternating zany and nostalgic passages, and that major 7th leap again (0.28, 3.18). They might have come up with more imaginative instrumental bridges, but hey. And this is clearly not the time for ethnographic study of musicking in Bolivia

Another scene that remains with me is “Can I move?”:

which somehow for me evoked Kyūzō in Seven samurai (rather than anything in the remake The magnificent seven), and now even reminds me of the importance of context in folk musicking

La voix humaine

BH LVH

Back home from Istanbul, my ears still buzzing with Bektashi–Alevi ritual and the call to prayer, I went along to the Barbican to be astounded yet again at the innovative genius of Barbara Hannigan with the LSO (programme notes here).

They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.

After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.

This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:

Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.

Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.

Duval Voix

Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):

Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.

This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:


* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:

Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”

The Club

Club actors

Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).

Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.

Club mother daughter

Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.

With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.

Club Selim

This YouTube playlist includes, in Ladino, the exquisite Yo era ninya (cf. this popular version):

and Adio kerida, sung by Yasmin Levy:

Here Salih Bademci (as the dreamy Selim) performs Masal (Fairy tale), by iconic Turkish singer Sezen Aksu—though the song is later, it’s another astute choice, given her link to progressive causes:

The directors’ pluralistic agenda is further underlined in their recruiting of pianist-composer-arranger Fazil Say; charged with blasphemy in 2012, he went on to compose a series of pieces reflecting on the suppression of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And the final débacle of The Club is accompanied by alternating Greek and Turkish versions of Zülfü Livaneli‘s 1979–80 song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for coexistence:

 * * *

1955 pogrom

Photo: Ara Güler (I think).

In Istanbul today the dwindling Jewish community remains under threat. As this Al Jazeera review observes,

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity”, Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this”.

If that sounds rather enlightened, the review goes on:

But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.

In fiction the sensitive topic has been broached before in works such as Mrs Salkim’s diamonds (1990 novel; 1999 film), but The Club is now giving it a far wider audience. Not only is the unfolding of the drama compelling in itself (with regular Doof Doof moments), but it’s educating viewers within Turkey—and, I hope, further afield.

A recent scholarly panel offers a critique of the series:

See also Ethos: one of a kind.

Bambi reconsidered

Bambi

I boldly suggested that my film on the Li family Daoists might make more stimulating Christmas viewing than watching Bambi for the umpteenth time—but now it transpires that the original story of the latter has been gravely diluted and sugar-coated, as shown in

The original novel Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was written in 1923 by Felix Salten, an author and critic in Vienna. Far from being a cute children’s story, the new translation shows that Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and precarious life of Jews and other minorities as fascism loomed. In 1935 the book was banned by the Nazis, who burned it as Jewish propaganda.

Meanwhile the original English translation, published in 1928, “toned down Salten’s anthropomorphism and changed its focus so that it was more likely to be understood as a simple conservation story about animals living in a forest”.

In 1933 Salten sold the film rights to MGM producer Sidney Franklin for a paltry $1,000; Franklin then sold them on to Walt Disney, who read the 1928 translation, and loved animal stories. Hence the saccharine 1942 animated movie about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. While there is much to admire about Disney, from his movies to his koanesque aperçu (n. here, and under Daoist non-action), Salten himself never earned a penny from the movie.

Bambi cover

A new translation by Jack Zipes reasserts the book’s original message warning of the persecution and dangers faced by Jews in Europe. It soon becomes apparent that the forest animals are living out their lives in fear and that puts the reader constantly “on edge”. As Zipes comments, “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill”. Without being didactic, Salten could encourage the reader to feel more empathy towards oppressed groups—and Bambi could openly question the cruelty of their oppressors. “Many other writers, like George Orwell, chose animals too because you’re freer to tackle problems that might make your readers bristle. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: this is a tragedy.”

When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Salten managed to flee to Switzerland. Stripped of his Austrian citizenship by the Nazis, he spent his final years “lonely and in despair” in Zurich and died in 1945—like Bambi, with no safe place to call home.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

Jumping belatedly on a bandwagon long driven by Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, I’m moved by the plangent voice of Karen Dalton (1937–93)—a worthy addition to my essential Playlist of songs!

For some reason I can warm to Country, but I seem to have a blind (deaf) spot about Anglo-American folk. Apart from being a tad allergic to guitar songs, it’s quite unfair of me to reduce it to a wholesome image of apple pie and right-on social activism. But Karen Dalton crashes right through all that.

She may not have approved of Dylan likening her voice to that of Billie Holiday, but it’s inevitable. Billie only rarely sang the blues—though she saved her greatest ever blues for her 1957 TV appearance.

Dalton, Dylan, Neill

Bob Dylan, Karen Dalton, and Fred Neil, early 60s.

There’s more artifice, and variety, in Billie’s voice, and in her opulent backings. Karen emerged from the Greenwich village folk scene, but there’s a rare depth of anguish in her sound, accompanying herself on twelve-string guitar or banjo. “Not interested in playing the music industry’s games in an era when musicians had little other choice”, she managed to self-destruct without going through the usual stages of celebrity and tabloid exposure. So despite her admirers, her music remained a niche taste until quite recently (see e.g. here).

Here’s a playlist for her 1969 album It’s so hard to tell who’s going to love you the best:

Though she only sang covers, she transformed them. It hurts me too had long been a popular blues standard—here’s Elmore James (1957):

and Junior Wells (1965):

But Karen’s version has a plaintive, personal quality:

While I prefer the very basic production values of It’s so hard to tell…, here’s her 1971 album In my own time, opening with Something on your mind—another Yesterday song:

Here’s Katie cruel:

This playlist has more:

Here’s a short documentary from 2009:

And a trailer for a recent documentary:

How little I know of all the cross-fertilisations of blues, Country, soul, pop, and onwards… Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the 60s were remarkable—Coltrane, Miles; soul; Beatles, Stones… Meanwhile in the rarefied echelons of WAM, the Mahler craze was growing, and the early music movement was getting going.

Karen Dalton 2

Art Pepper

Pepper meets cover

In my post on Frank Morgan I mentioned how he managed to keep active on sax while in San Quentin by playing along with fellow inmates.

That post set forth from LA detective Harry Bosch’s good taste in jazz, and again Michael Connelly’s novels have some pertinent comments on Art Pepper (1925–82), who was one of Morgan’s jazz colleagues in jail.

Pepper 1966

Pepper was no angel either. Like Chet Baker, he was a white West-coast junkie. In Connelly’s A darkness more than night (2000) he evokes the classic 1957 album Art Pepper meets the rhythm section:

He went into the house and got two more beers out of the refrigerator. This time McCaleb was standing in the living room when he came back from the kitchen. He handed Bosch his empty bottle and Bosch wondered for a moment if he had finished it or poured the beer over the side of the deck. He took the empty into the kitchen and when he came back McCaleb was standing at the stereo studying a CD case.
“This what’s playing?” he asked. Art Pepper meets the rhythm section?”
Bosch stepped over.
“Yeah. Art Pepper and Miles’s side men. Red Garland on piano, Pau Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums. Recorded here in LA, January 19, 1957. One day. The cork in the neck of Pepper’s sax was supposedly cracked but it didn’t matter. He had one shot with those guys. He made the most of it. One day, one shot, one classic. That’s the way to do it.”
“These guys were in Miles Davis’s band?”
“At the time.”
McCaleb nodded. Bosch leaned close to look at the CD cover in McCaleb’s hands.
“Yeah, Art Pepper,” he said. “When I was growing up I never knew who my father was. My mother, she used to have a lot of this guy’s records. She hung out at some of the jazz clubs where he’d play. Handsome devil, Art was. For a hype. Just look at that picture. Too cool to fool. I made up this whole story about how he was my old man and he wasn’t around ’cause he was always on the road and making records. Almost got to the point I believed it. Later on—I mean years later—I read a book about him. It said he was junk sick when they took that picture. He puked as soon as it was over and went back to bed.”
McCaleb studied the photograph on the CD. A handsome man leaning against a tree, his sax cradled in his right arm.
“Well, he could play,” McCaleb said.
“Yeah, he could,” Bosch agreed. “Genius with a needle in his arm.”
Bosch stepped over and turned the volume up slightly. The song was Straight life, Pepper’s signature composition.
“Do you believe that?” McCaleb asked.
“What, that he was a genius? Yeah, he was with the sax.”
“No, I mean do you think that every genius—musician, artist, even a detective—has a fatal flaw like that? The needle in the arm.”
“I think everybody’s got a fatal flaw, whether they’re a genius or not.”

The full album seems to have disappeared from YouTube, so here’s Straight life:

The song Patricia features in The black box (2012):

Bosch had begun making his way through the Art Pepper recordings his daughter had given him for his birthday. He was on volume 3 and listening to a stunning version of Patricia recorded three decades earlier at a club in Croydon, England. It was during Pepper’s comeback period after the years of drug addiction and incarceration. On this night in 1981 he had everything working. On this one song, Bosch believed he was proving that no-one would ever play better. Harry wasn’t exactly sure what the word ethereal meant, but it was the word that came to mind. The song was perfect, the saxophone was perfect, the interplay and communication between Pepper and his three band mates was as perfect and orchestrated as the movement of four fingers on a hand. There were a lot of words used to describe jazz music. Bosch had read them over the years in the magazines and in the liner notes of records. He didn’t always understand them. He just knew what he liked, and this was it. Powerful and relentless, and sometimes sad.
He found it hard to concentrate on the computer screen as the song played, the band going on almost twenty minutes with it. He had Patricia on other records and CDs. It was one of Pepper’s signatures. But he had never heard it played with such sinewy passion. He looked at his daughter, who was lying on the couch reading a book. Another school assignment. This one was called The fault in our stars.
“This is about his daughter,” he said
Maddie looked over the book at him.
“What do you mean?”
“This song. Patricia. He wrote it for his daughter. He was away from her for long periods in her life, but he loved her and he missed her. You can hear that in it, right?”
She thought a moment and then nodded.
“I think. It almost sounds like the saxophone is crying.”

Like Frank Morgan, Art Pepper rebuilt his career after being freed from prison in 1965. Here’s a 1978 recording of Patricia:

Don McGlynn’s documentary Art Pepper: notes from a jazz survivor, filmed in 1982, his last year, also features his third wife Laurie (with Patricia discussed from 24.00):

In the LRB Terry Castle riffs brilliantly on Pepper’s 1979 autobiography Straight life.

Aside from “the music itself” (sic), while accounts of jazzers’ lives are vivid (e.g. Miles, Mingus, Chet…), it’s possible to tire of them: self-destruction is one thing, but the misogyny is hard to take. As with WAM composers, we may learn from their stories and the society in which they lived, but admiring the music doesn’t have to entail endorsing its creators. Men behaving badly yet again… (cf. Deviating from behavioural norms).

Jonny spielt auf

Jonny promo

Getty Images: Ullstein Bild.

In my post on Erich Korngold, I mentioned Richard Taruskin’s 1994 essay “The golden age of kitsch”, where he reviews CDs of Korngold’s Das wunder der Heliane and Ernst Krenek’s 1937 “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf [Jonny goes to town, or Jonny strikes up]. So here I’ll introduce the latter.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, Chapter 6 “City of nets: Berlin in the 20s”) provides background.

For a little while in the late 20s, Krenek acquired certifiable, almost Gershwin-like celebrity. […] Like so many young Austrians and Germans, he yearned to break out of the hothouse of Romantic and Expressionist art, to join the milling throngs in the new democratic street.

Taruskin’s typically polemical essay is worth citing at some length.

The Nazi concept of artistic degeneracy was incoherent and opportunistic, and so is Decca/London’s marketing strategy. It took very little to run afoul of the Nazis then, and it costs very little to deplore them now. Their opposition, especially when it was passively incurred, conferred no distinction, unless their approval is thought to confer distinction on the likes of Beethoven or Wagner. There are no lessons to be learned from studying the Nazi index of banned musical works, which, like the Nazi canon, contained masterpieces, ephemerae, kitsch, and trash, covering a wide stylistic and ideological range. […]

So just this once let’s forget the Nazis. They had nothing to do with Krenek’s opera or Korngold’s opera. They didn’t even ban them. They didn’t have to ban them, for both works had fallen out of the repertory by 1933. […]

What makes these first [CD] releases fascinating is not what they have to say about the Nazis but what they have to say about the artistic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which had a thriving operatic economy—the last truly thriving, that is, consumption-driven, economy in the history of opera. Composers wrote for a market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes exceed it, so they sought out new works. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the interest of the press.

Was this a degenerative ecology? Did it lead to exploitative “populist” formulas, or to weak imitation? No, it was synergistic; it led to experimentation and to emulation, with the aim of surpassing previous standards of novelty and distinction.

He goes on to note the great success of operas like Berg’s Wozzeck (for Lulu, see here). But even more popular was Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. Still, Taruskin describes what strikes me as a common trait of WAM until the late 19th century:

Sudden eclipse was part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way.

He attributes the waning of this nurturing operatic ecology to the talkies:

The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late 20th century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire and a specialised audience of aficionados, rather than a a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped. […]

Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. […]

But wait, isn’t there another difference, a bigger one? Opera, however, popular, remains an art, while movies, or at least Hollywood movies, are a mass-produced and mass-reproduced medium and amount only to kitsch. Or so we are told. I am not so sure.

The operatic world from which Korngold and Krenek emerged, like the wider world of art in the period following the Great War, was a bitterly divided world. The division was not simply between stylistic radicalism and conservatism, or between a liberating iconoclasm and a hidebound tradition, though that is how a stubbornly Whiggish historiography continues to represent it. Nor was it primarily a division between a senile romanticism and a new classicism, as so many artists of the time liked to say. It was, rather, a difference in the way that art was viewed in relation to the world.

Citing the early Soviet critic Boris Asafyev:

An authentic modern music would have to be “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion”,

Taruskin goes on to contrast the operas of Korngold and Krenek:

Though they are being marketed now under a crude common rubric, they embodied antithetical values.

Jonny poster

Unlike Korngold, “the master of musical sacroporn” (an epithet that Taruskin also applies to Turangalîla!), Krenek embodied the new genre of Zeitoper, “now-opera”:

“Now-opera” was not simply a matter of contemporary action, of references to current events and American pop-genres (shimmies, tangos, blues, Negro-spiritualen) and pop-timbres (sax, banjo), though these were the grounds for Jonny’s immediate audience appeal and its subsequent (misleading) reputation as a “jazz opera”. Its main novelty was irony: the clash between the ephemeral content and the “classical” form. And this implied another, more fundamental clash: in place of the music of timeless inner feeling, its unabating fluidity of tempo dissolving chronometric reality, there was now to be a music that proceeded just as unabatingly through through busy ostinatos at what Krenek at one point labelled “schnelles Grammophon-tempo”, emphasising uniformity of physical and physiological motion and banshing psychology. It was a music of corporeal elation and spiritual nihilism, a tonic for the tired and the disillusioned, for people who felt betrayed by the lie of transcendence. It was, in short, the music not of America but of “Americanism”. And so the now-opera was not really sachlich after all but still märchenhaft, embodying not a new reality but a new fairy tale, a new allegory and, yes, a new kitsch.

In Jonny spielt auf, the first now-opera, the allegory is overt and sledge-hammer-subtle. The protagonist is not the title character—a negro band-leader vaguely modeled, it seems, on Sam Wooding, whose Chocolate Kiddies Revue swept Germany in 1925–26—but Max, a Central European composer of traditional transcendental bent.

As the glacier-like Max pursues banjo-playing operatic diva Anita (an evocation of Anna Mahler, to whom Krenek was briefly married), Jonny attempts to steal the enchanted Amati violin of Daniello, a slick, matinee-idol classical virtuoso.

A tiny leitmotif, just a descent through the interval of a fourth to a downbeat, pervades everything. (Anyone who has heard Ravel’s “jazz”-tinged L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925 will recall this very distinctive idea as the “Maman!” motif. Did Krenek?).

Finally Max, his glacier persona melting, sets off with Anita for America, whither Krenek followed in 1938.

Here’s a playlist of excerpts:

Actually, the opera is far from the accessible populism of The threepenny opera (1928), and jazz plays a very minor role—not least because when Krenek “conceived his libretto, he had never met a Negro or an American”. What he set out to provide was “a hope-inspiring Pied Piper, or a latter-day Papageno, as alluringly Other as possible”.

The everyday, the ephemeral, and the phenomenal […] could function convincingly within the world of opera only as an exotic import. By its very presence, it was exceptional, numinous, and threatening. So now-opera was stil, opera. It could only be a special case, a subgenre; and it could not escape the fate of the genre as a whole.

Taruskin finds the opera dubious politically too:

The freedom celebrated at the end of Jonny spielt auf is only the freedom to seek new masters, to submit to a new hypnosis.

He notes the tendency to forgive both the operas of both Korngold and Krenek their cynicism.

The indulgence, it seems pretty clear, is purchased courtesy of the Nazis. Take away their seal of disapproval, and we are left not with easily dismissed “degeneracy” but with decadence, which is more real, more disquieting, and much harder to get a grip on.

This was the downside of the thriving consumer culture that, in our day, with opera a walking corpse, seems at first so enviable. But this was a culture of frisson and titillation posing as a culture of liberation and uplift.

Going rather far in imputing a moral purpose for “serious music” (“The danger of Taruskin”?!), he suggests:

However it may tickle our sense of irony to contemplate it, and even if we choose to excuse its practitioners on grounds of naïveté or sincere bad taste, it entailed a lack of moral purpose that rendered the “serious” arts defenceless against totalitarian rhetoric, and passively complicit in its triumph.

Given Krenek’s hazy acquaintance with the world he was evoking, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Real Thing (more leads under Clarke Peters’ radio series on black music in Europe): here’s the Sam Wooding band with Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin (leading us nicely to Shanghai jazz):

and the Chocolate Kiddies in 1933:

Note also the post about Jonny spielt auf on the stimulating site Black Central Europe.


* Ross also cites Slonimsky’s fine summary of Max Brand’s Machinist Hopkins (1929) (evoking Stella Gibbons’ spoof synopsis of a Britten opera):

A cuckolding libertine pushes the husband of his mistress to his death in the cogs of a monstrous machine and strangles her when he finds out she has become a promiscuous prostitute, whereupon the foreman, Machinist Hopkins, dismisses him from his job, ostensibly for inefficiency.

Frank Morgan

Morgan

A youthful Frank Morgan. Source.

In the compelling crime thrillers of Michael Connelly, I’ve already admired LA detective Harry Bosch’s good taste in jazz with my post on Tomasz Stańko.

The music of sax-player Frank Morgan (1933–­2007) features in several of Connelly’s novels. I’m reminded to pursue his work as I re-read The burning room (2014).

Morgan was yet another devotee of Charlie Parker—following whose death in 1955, and the release of his own first album (below), he too self-destructed, spending much of the next thirty years in prison; in San Quentin he managed to keep playing in the company of fellow-inmates like Art Pepper. [1] But Morgan thrived again after he was freed in 1985.

Sound of redemption

Connelly sings Morgan’s praises in a corner of his website, introducing the documentary The sound of redemption (N.C. Heikin, 2015), “from drug addict, conman, and convict to beloved elder statesman of jazz”. Here’s a trailer:

As Connelly recalls,

At the time I was putting together a character for a book I was writing. The character was a detective who was a loner and liked to listen to and draw inspiration from jazz. The character—I would name him Harry Bosch—had a particular affinity for the saxophone. Its mournful sound, like a human crying out in the night, was what he was drawn to. The detective saw the worst of humanity every day on the job. He found solace every night in the sound of the saxophone. […]

It was a perfect set up because Harry Bosch did more than simply listen to the music. He identified with the musicians. I wanted him to listen to musicians who had overcome the odds to make their music because Harry had overcome great odds himself.

Here’s Morgan’s 1955 album:

Bosch’s anthem, its minimalism reminiscent of Blue in green and Naima, is Lullaby, with pianist George Cables:

Georgia on my mind (see under Bernard Lortat-Jacob at 80):

Connelly’s The overlook (2007) opens thus:

The call came in at midnight. Harry Bosch was awake and sitting in his living room in the dark. He liked to think that he was doing this because it allowed him to hear the saxophone better. By masking one the senses he accentuated another.
But deep down he knew the truth. He was waiting.
The call was from Larry Gandle, his supervisor in Homicide Special. It was Bosch’s first call-out in the new job. And it was what he had been waiting for.
“Harry, you up?”
“I’m up.”
“Who’s that you got playing?”
Frank Morgan, live at the Jazz Standard in New York.That’s George Cables you’re hearing now on piano.”
“Sounds like All Blues.”
“You nailed it.”
“Good stuff. I hate to take you away from it.”
Bosch used the remote to turn the music off.
“What’s the call, Lieutenant?”

Here Morgan accompanies readings from the book:

From The Burning room:

On the way back to the PAB he stopped by the Blue Whale to see who was playing and who was coming later in the month, and he was pleasantly surprised to see Grace Kelly on the stage with a four-piece band. Grace was a young saxophonist with a powerful sound. She also sang. Bosch had some of her music on his phone and at times thought she was channelling the late, great Frank Morgan, one of his favourite sax men. But he had never seen her perform live, so he paid the cover, ordered another beer, and sat at the back of the room, his briefcase on the floor between his feet.

He enjoyed the set, particularly the interplay between Grace and her rhythm section. But she closed with a solo and it stabbed deeply into Bosch’s heart. The song was “Somewhere over the rainbow”, and she produced a sound from the horn that no human voice could ever touch. It was plaintive and sad but it came with an undeniable wave of underlying hope. It made Bosch think that there was still a chance for him, that he could still find what he was looking for, no matter how short his time was.

Indeed, here’s the prodigious Kelly, then 15, with Morgan in his final months:

More tracks on this playlist:

 


[1] The list of jazzers who did time in prison is long: see e.g. here, here. For San Quentin, see here; cf. the Lexington Narcotics Farm, and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!. Cf. the fieldwork of the Lomaxes and Bruce Jackson in southern prisons.

Korngold at the Proms

 

Korngold and Walter 1928

A rejected casting for the mirror scene in Duck soup. Allegedly.

Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).

After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.

* * * 

The second half of the Prom featured the Symphony in F sharp (1952) * of Erich Korngold (1897–1957) (note the excellent Michael Haas, on his “Forbidden music” site ; see also websites, here and here; and wiki).

Korngold cartoon

As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,

he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.

Korngold films

It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955. 

So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).

But Korngold’s reputation has grown in recent years. As Alex Ross comments,

“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.

Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.

Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).

Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…

As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);

The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”? 

So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:

For audience tastes since the 1970s (again based on Taruskin), see also The right kind of spirituality?.


*  Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania. 

China: memory, music, society

GLF

The Great Leap. Source: China Daily!

This year’s CHIME conference (details here), with the broad theme of “Chinese music and memory”, is to be held remotely from Prague in two instalments on 1st–3rd and 8th–10th September.

Among the contributors—from both within and outside China—some will address notation (generally an over-subscribed topic) and early history (a rather safe theme, although currently being subjected to the ideology of the PRC). Also featured are folk-song, the qin zither (another niche scene rarely considered in the light of the social traumas of Maoism), the music of the Cultural Revolution, and the inescapable Intangible Cultural Heritage. More promising are Zhu Chuyi’s “ ‘Mother, I am sorry I was born a girl’: sonic, somatic, and traumatic memories in Tujia bridal laments”, and Liu Chang’s “Dakou cassettes, scar literature, and the memory of a traumatic past” (the latter proposal no longer appearing).

Here I’d like to broaden the topic in ways that may appear to be outside the remit of the conference, gathering together several of my blog posts. But we might start with a reminder of aperçus by two weighty pundits:

Music! Music! Is it nothing but the sound of bells and drums?—Confucius

There is no such thing as art that is detached from or independent of politics—Mao Zedong

Soundscape is never autonomous: it’s a window on society (see posts under Society and soundscape). Yet by comparison with countries where regime change has enabled necessary commemoration of painful episodes (see e.g. Sachsenhausen), within China acknowledgement and public scrutiny of the crimes of Maoism are notably absent. For references to some fine work, see Cultural Revolutions, including Jing Jun’s The temple of memories and Erik Mueggler’s The age of wild ghosts; among much discussion (at least outside China), two works on remembering and forgetting the traumatic past are reviewed here. For the dissimulation and duplicity inculcated in the USSR, see e.g. The whisperers.

grave

Hilltop burial, Shaanbei 1999. My photo.

A major theme in people’s lives is suffering—as highlighted by Guo Yuhua in her fine ethnography of a poor Shaanbei hill village Shoukurende jiangshu 受苦人的講述 [Narratives of the sufferers], where she managed to elicit the peasants’ own painful memories of the whole Maoist era.

Particularly harrowing cases are the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap Backward, and the concurrent famines. The horrors of the Jiabiangou labour camp in Gansu have been exposed in long documentaries, Wang Bing’s Dead Souls and Ai Xiaoming’s Jiabiangou elegy.

My film Notes from the yellow earth (DVD with Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei) contains a lengthy sequence (§B) from a similar funeral—filmed in a village with its own traumatic memories. One might hear the playing of such shawm bands as merely “mournful”—indeed, that’s why younger urban dwellers are reluctant to hear them, associating the sound with death. And of course the style and repertoire of these bands took shape long before Maoism, based on earlier historical suffering. But we can only hear “early music” with our own modern ears.

Within the context of Dead souls the bleakness of the soundscape really hits home, suggesting how very visceral is the way that the style evokes the trauma of ruined lives and painful memory—slow, with wailing timbre and the “blue” scale of jiadiao, the two shawms in stark unison occasionally splintering into octave heterophony. Wang Bing’s scene should be compulsory viewing for anyone still struggling (despite my best efforts) to comprehend the relevance of shawm bands. Similarly, since I often note the importance of Daoist ritual in Gansu, its labour camps might form one aspect of our accounts of ritual life there.

The people shown in these documentaries are just those who anyone doing research in China will encounter—whether working on social or cultural life. This is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

Like the German and Russian “soul”, suffering in China isn’t timeless: it is embodied in the lives and deaths of real people in real time. People dying since I began fieldwork in the 1980s all had traumatic histories; at the grave their memories, and those of their families, are covered over merely in dry earth, ritual specialists only performing a token exorcism that doesn’t obviate the need for a deeper accommodation with the past.

Unfolding along with the Anti-Rightist campaign and the Great Leap was the great famine; under the famine tag, I’ve grouped the main posts here, noting Wu Wenguang’s remarkable Memory Project, as well as Ukraine and Kazakhstan (see also under Life behind the Iron Curtain).

Ritual studies too are often perceived as a society-free zone, retreating into early history without reference to modern tribulations. As I showed in my post Ritual studies mildly censored, anxiety over documenting the Maoist past continues. As we submitted a translation of Appendix 1 of my Daoist priests of the Li family to a Chinese publisher, one sentence proved tricky:

… religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue.

Precisely by modifying it they proved my point—by feeling it’d be rash to admit that it was a sensitive issue, they revealingly confirmed that it was!

Gaoluo 1989

New Year’s rituals, Gaoluo 1989.

Thus south of Beijing in the ritual association of Gaoluo village by the 1990s, it was easy to air publicly the vocal liturgy and instrumental melodies that young recruits like Cai An had learned on the eve of the Great Leap, and during the brief revival between the famine and the Four Cleanups; but traumatic memories of the campaigns themselves remained unvoiced.

Cui JianEven for the period since the 1980s’ reforms there is plenty of folk memory for the Party-State to repress (see e.g. Tiananmen: bullets and opium). Long March veteran Wang Zhen’s classic retort to Cui Jian was inadvertently drôle: “What do you mean, you’ve got nothing to your name? You’ve got the Communist Party haven’t you?” The nuances of the indie scene are explored by Jeroen de Kloet. And in my series on Coronavirus in China, a song by a blind bard made a medium to express support for whistleblower Li Wenliang (cf. the satirical songs of Zhang Gasong).

Left: Tibetan monks laying down their arms, 1959.
Right: Rahilä Dawut.

Tibet makes another flagrant case of coercive amnesia; in this roundup of posts, note e.g. Forbidden memory, Conflicting memories, Eat the Buddha, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet. Song often helps articulate the sense of loss and grievance. In 2009 the popular Amdo singer Tashi Dondhup was sentenced to fifteen months’ imprisonment after distributing songs critical of the occupation—notably 1958–2008, evoking two terrifying periods:

And documenting the past and present of Xinjiang is ever more severely out of bounds (from the Uyghur tag, see e.g. Uyghur culture in crisis, and Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam).

Arguments for maintaining the stability of the state, avoiding “chaos”, are paltry compared to the duty to commemorate, to learn from history—for Europe, UK, the USA, all around the world. Elsewhere too we find belated recognition of the sufferings of Indigenous peoples around the world, and the legacy of colonialism and genocide.

All this may remind us how important it is to seek beyond sanitised representations of “Chinese music”, or indeed of Daoist ritual, both in China and abroad. However distressing, the stories of suffering—though ever more out of bounds within the PRC—need to be told. Cf. Aleppo: music and trauma.

Anyway, FWIW, these are the kinds of thorny issues that come to my mind as I consult the CHIME conference website—do consider taking part!

The handmaid’s tale

I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.

HT cover

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:

In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]

Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. 

So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.

I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.

Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:

What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.

Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.

The TV series
Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.

The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.

Bible

How to Bible.

The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash, [1] intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.

Handmaid protest

While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):

At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.

As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.

Race
Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.

Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.

The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.

And Catherine Morse observes:

Gilead isn’t a society built on the oppression of women—it’s one built on white supremacy.

Or rather, might one say, the oppression of women is one of the major corollaries of white supremacy.

This review finds that the first series is

more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.

As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:

The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.

The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.

Episodes
The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.

The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.

As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.

HT trio

Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.

The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.

In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.

From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?

With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.

The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).

In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.

By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.

* * *

In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.

Testaments

Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.

The whole story reminds me of Neil McGregor’s question about Nazi Germany: “What would we have done?”

The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.

For Season 5, click here.


[1] On wiki, see e.g.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_Domesticity
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_Going_Their_Own_Way
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_conservatism_in_the_United_States

The ethereal theremin

Theremin 1927

Theremin demonstrating his instrument, 1927.

By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.

Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:

Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.

Theremin and Clara

With Clara Rockmore.

Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.

With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.

In 1962 Clara took her husband for a holiday visit to her homeland, and on their visit to Moscow they managed to arrange a clandestine meeting with Theremin at his flat in Moscow. But outside Russia no-one knew if he was still alive until 1967, when Harold Schonberg published an article in the NYT about visiting him at the Conservatoire. This exposure brought his work to the attention of the Director, who declared that “electricity is not good for music; electricity is to be used for electrocution“; his instruments were thrown out, and he was dismissed.

When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.

* * *

For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…

For the American episode, Michaels musters an all-star cast, including Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Joseph Schillinger, the Marx brothers, Glenn Miller, Nicolas Slonimsky, and George Gershwin. He captures the magic of Clara’s presence:

You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.

You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.

With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.

* * *

Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.

Clara

Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:

Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:

And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:

A current star of the theremin is Carolina Eyck. Her YouTube channel includes Moon river:

For Bach, see also under The Feuchtwang Variations (Grégoire Blancwebsite and YouTube channel), and Strings and voices (Gladys Hulot (aka hYrtis), website and YouTube channel; here she also plays Only you). Suitably, both players double on the musical saw—here Blanc plays them together:

Messiaen was much taken by the ondes martenot, but some of his works adapt well to the theremin too:

And the cello movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps works wonderfully with the winning combo of theremin and accordion:

Now I’m imagining the theremin in dhrupad or Tibetan opera

Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin!!!

Tintin lamas

Despite our best intentions, Hergé’s Tintin books and TV animations remain compelling, both in the West and in the cultures in which he dabbled from afar (see also wiki). The sonorous declamation “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!!!” in the 1950s’ cartoons is still highly nostalgic for early generations of naïve youth like me—who would have been unaware how we were being indoctrinated by “racial stereotypes, animal cruelty, colonialism, violence, and even fascist leanings, including ethnocentric, caricatured portrayals of non-Europeans”.

Hergé developed the series as illustrator at Le vingtième siècle, “a staunchly Roman Catholic, conservative Belgian newspaper based in Brussels, describing itself as a “Catholic Newspaper for Doctrine and Information” and disseminating a far-right, fascist viewpoint.

His first story Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929–30) was followed by Tintin in the Congo, written “in a paternalistic style that depicted the Congolese as childlike idiots”. His fictional creation of Syldavia long predates Molvania. After the war Hergé somewhat distanced himself from such racist, paternalistic messages. The first English translations appeared in 1951, and the TV cartoons became popular.

By 2007, the UK Commission for Racial Equality called for Tintin in the Congo to be pulled from shelves, stating: “It beggars belief that in this day and age that any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display [it]” (cf. this Channel 4 report). Still, in Belgium the Centre for Equal Opportunities warned against “over-reaction and hyper political correctness”; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, stated that “Tintin was the comic strip that was the most respectful of world cultures”—admittedly a low bar. A thriving discipline of Tintinology emerged, as well as parodies.

* * *

Tintin: So you see, my dear Chang, that’s how many Europeans see China!
Chang: Oh! How funny the people of your country are!

Shanghai Tintin

The Blue Lotus (1934–35; see also wiki), set in Shanghai, was inspired by Hergé’s friendship with the Chinese artist Zhang Chongren, then a student in Brussels.

with Zhang

In the story Zhang appears in the form of Chang Chong-chen, who relieves Tintin of his preconceptions.

Tintin China images

In China, pocket editions of the Tintin books were pirated from the 1980s, giving him the pleasingly economical name of Dingding 丁丁. A recent Sixth Tone article explores the reputation of The Blue Lotus there. As Alex Colville comments there, “without Zhang’s humanising influence, it is easy to imagine The Blue Lotus simply becoming a tale of Tintin foiling a group of pigtailed Chinese opium dealers.” The story scored points for its anti-Japanese stance; and moving away from imperialist stereotypes, Tintin defends the Chinese not only from Japanese aggressors but bullying Western businessmen.

Zhang Chongren returned to China in 1936. Rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, he met up again with Hergé in 1981 in France, where he ended his days.

Here’s a 1992 animation of The Blue Lotus:

* * *

Tintin Tibet coverThe character of Chang also features in Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) (wiki; note also Séagh Kehoe here). By this time Hergé was doing more research; the story was based on his readings of works such as Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven years in Tibet, Tsewang Pemba’s Tibet my homeland, discredited author Lobsang Rampa’s The third eye, and the books of Alexandra David-Néel.

For Hergé, Tibet might seem a Can of Worms, yet another potential candidate for the Duke of Edinburgh Gaffe of the Year award—but instead in 2006 the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth award on the book. A Chinese edition under the sneaky title Tintin in Chinese Tibet had already been retracted in 2001 after protests by the publishers and the Hergé Foundation. YAY!

Tintin lama

Sidestepping politics, there are no baddies here; it’s been seen as a story of friendship, a spiritual quest. Here’s the 1992 animation:

For all their flaws, these works may have enticed many young minds like mine to China and Tibet. Apart from innocent childish pursuits, the whole series must have inspired more anthropologists than crypto-fascists.

Undreamed shores

Undreamed shores cover

I much admired

  • Frances Larson, Undreamed shores: the hidden heroines of British anthropology (2021).

It’s just as engaging as Charles King’s book on the Boas circle in the USA, bringing to life the struggles of the unsung early generations of enterprising women intrepidly setting forth from Oxford in the early 20th century.

Writing from her own self-confessed armchair there, Larson opens by noting that by our time anthropology has no longer been limited to the study of distant shores:

One of my contemporaries decided to study local church bell-ringers; another explored the world of online video-gaming communities from the comfort of the college computer room; and I travelled into the past.

That given, she shows a remarkable empathy for the five female explorers who are the subject of her book.

Oxford was far ahead of Cambridge or the LSE in training female anthropologists. Yet before World War One, women at the university

were almost entirely invisible, frequently disdained, and usually inconsequential to the men they studied alongside. […]

Fieldwork offered these women a temporary relief from the strictures of English society, or at least it offered a new context—a new place, a new culture—in which to negotiate their own identity. […]

Larson 134

They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again. Instead, on their return, they fought for recognition in a university system ruled by men, and their professional aspirations strained their personal relationships.

Larson highlights the gender imbalance in funding; by contrast with the hoops through which the women seeking support had to jump, their male counterparts

were simply given a cheque and sent off on their travels in eager anticipation of the treasures they would undoubtedly find. They enjoyed a far freer rein and did not have to concern themselves with any references, résumés, or research plans.

And unlike the women, the men could confidently look forward to a permanent university position as reward for their explorations in the field. For all that, Larson gives due credit to the male patrons who encouraged their students—just as the movement for female suffrage was taking hold.

Katherine Routledge and the Kikuyu
Larson begins with Katherine Routledge (1866–1935) and her 1906 journey to British East Africa. It was already a bold step for her to escape the “dreary domesticity” of an affluent provincial life in Darlington by applying to read History at Oxford university in her mid-twenties.

Educating women was considered radical, subversive, even dangerous, by the many in middle-class England who thought that it risked undermining women’s true calling as wives and mothers. An education, it was argued, would render them either unwilling or unfit for their domestic duties. It might damage their feminine constitutions, which were too frail and too too irrational for the rigours of academic study. […]

To get around these prejudices, the first women’s colleges at Oxford were presented as harmless finishing schools.

After university Routledge spent a few unhappy years teaching at Darlington Training College before moving to London, where she became involved with the South African Colonisation Society. In 1905, after a trip to South Africa, she met William Scoresby, a “colonial drifter”, in London. In British East Africa, at the frontier outpost of Nyeri (a six-day trek from Nairobi), he had already begun to document the Kikuyu people—who “matched the anthropologist’s ideal of a ‘primitive culture’ perfectly”. After marrying in 1906 they resolved to make their home there. Though they were untrained, it was still unusual for anthropologists to spend a year in the field.

But by the time they returned to London in 1908, their relationship was suffering. Their book on the Kikuyu was published in 1910, with their individual contributions carefully noted. As she observed, “there is work which, if it is to be done properly, must be done by a woman”. And in a similar vein to her counterparts in the USA, she “revelled in the opportunity to disrupt British middle-class assumptions” about gender relationships.

This led to an invitation for Katherine to enrol for Oxford’s recently-established diploma in anthropology, headed by Robert Marett. She was among four women and nine men who took the course in 1911. Women were less likely than men to be concerned about their future earning potential, and anthropology was an “intrinsically egalitarian subject”.

Maria Czaplicka
Among the new students was Maria Czaplicka (1884–1921). From a poor background, with Warsaw dominated by Russian culture, in order to gain a Polish education she had attended the Flying University, an illegal underground organisation. By 1910, in her late twenties, she won a scholarship from the Mianowski Fund to come to England.

She first attended seminars at the LSE, where Bronislaw Malinowski was her fellow student. With no family outside Poland, Czaplicka soon took to Oxford life, despite the considerable effort that went into making women invisible there: after the more relaxed social life of London, she found the “sex apartheid” strange. Vera Brittain, who arrived at Somerville in 1914, wrote that Oxford was “deeply attached to its standards of scholarship and totally indifferent to ugliness and dowdiness” (and do read her Testament of youth).

As well as taking tutorials with Marett, the new intake attended lectures by Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and Arthur Thompson, professor of human anatomy.

Barbara Freire-Marreco and New Mexico
In 1911, for the first time, a woman gave a series of lectures for the anthropology students. Barbara Freire-Marreco (1879–1967) came from an affluent background in Woking; after studying Classics, she had taken the anthropology diploma in 1908. As she observed, there was a dangerous division of labour between “literary anthropologists” and amateur observers abroad: half the people had no first-hand experience and the other half had no training.

In 1910 Freire-Marreco had already spent eight months doing fieldwork in New Mexico, joining a camp run by the American School of Archaeology near the Rio Grande. At first she struggled

to find a suitably “savage” people to study: some were not savage enough, others were too savage, and none were particularly willing to talk.

As she learned the Tewa language, she made a base at the pueblo of Santa Clara. But

they were not about to open their hearts to an Englishwoman simply because she asked politely.

These settlements had long suffered from colonial intrusion, beset by the usurpation of their land, disease, the influx of settlers, the railroad, and assimilationist policies (see under Native American cultures).

Even as Native American culture was under assault, some settlers were engaging in a nostalgic search for the “old New Mexico”. The brief of team leader Edgar Hewett illustrated the irony:

His genuine academic interest and his desire to share information about pueblo culture also threatened to debase it. Pueblo people knew, from long and painful experience, that the only way to protect their beliefs was to keep them secret.

In leafy Woking, Freire-Marreco’s family had employed a cook, a parlourmaid, and a housemaid; in Santa Clara she now learned the pleasures of fending for herself. Still, she

did not expect her work to be so slow, or so circuitous, and she quickly experienced the fear that every anthropologists feels in the field: that she would have nothing to show for her time abroad. All the lofty theories that she had read at Oxford, about collective psychology and comparative religion and the history of political institutions, seemed reduced to nothing in this world of housework and preserving fruit. But she knew that doing things with people, and sharing their everyday lives, although slow as a research technique, was more reliable than simply asking people to describe themselves.

Larson 48

Noting the role of the paid “informant”, Larson describes the ambivalent help that Freire-Marreco received from Santiago Narenjo, a prominent local activist. He kept hidden from her the rituals that had gone underground under long-term Christian missionising; but then her casual mention of a green parrot to one of the villagers opened up a seam of enquiry. Parrot feathers were essential to the religious dances of Santa Clara, but in short supply. Freire-Marreco now sent a flurry of letters to her contacts in the USA and England requesting parrot feathers.

Describing English life to her hosts, she found herself the object of anthropological enquiry:

She knew that the limited understanding her new friends had of fox hunting, from her inadequate explanations and their unfamiliar reference points, was hardly more reliable than her understanding of their complex cultural traditions.

Much as she enjoyed the whole experience, it gave her a suitable diffidence.

Maria Czaplicka in Siberia
Larson now turns to Maria Czaplicka’s extraordinary Siberian expedition in 1914–15. Having written unsuccessfully to the Smithsonian for a job there, she was engaged by Marett on a project to work on the ethnography of Siberia, with financial help from Emily Penrose at Somerville. First, Czaplicka could interpret the plentiful Russian research on the topic; having published a preparatory survey of this literature, she was ready to gain first-hand experience.

After the usual lengthy search for further funding, she now chose to live among the nomadic reindeer herders of north-central Siberia, working with the American Henry Hall, who had also studied at the LSE; on the first leg of the journey they were also accompanied by ornithologist Maud Haviland and illustrator Dora Curtis. Via Moscow, they took a five-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway (completed in 1904) to Krasnoyarsk, and then embarked on a three-week voyage by steamboat north on the Yenisei river.

Larson 67

Travelling by sledge between chum family tents in this desolate landscape, they faced daunting hardships. The indigenous Evenks found Czaplicka most perplexing:

She carried so much paper around with her and yet she seemed to know so little about the workings of the world: she could not even get the marrow out of a reindeer bone to eat. Why did she ask so many questions and why did she travel in such dreadful weather, when all sensible people stayed safe inside their chum?

Again, she found herself the object of the locals’ anthropological enquiries.

In letters that reached them after several months, they learned of the imminent outbreak of war. Czaplicka was particularly anxious for her family in Poland. As she described in her book My Siberian year (1916), along the way she also met political exiles from Russia and Poland, including both professionals and “gamblers, drunkards, thieves, and degenerates”. She joked about her own “voluntary exile”. But

Siberia had a strange levelling effect on its population: gentlemen, savants, and criminals all became “peasants”.

By June 1915 they were back in the “relative metropolis” of Krasnoyarsk, collecting artefacts in the surrounding region. In July they set off for England by way of Moscow.

Katherine Routledge on Easter Island
Meanwhile Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby had embarked on a voyage to Easter Island in 1913; arriving more than a year later, they stayed until 1915. Routledge’s time there was far from the liberation that Czaplicka had experienced. The claustrophobic year-long voyage put their marriage under further strain; and they soon found that Easter Island (annexed by Chile in 1888) was no tropical paradise.

Greeted by Percy Edmunds, the English manager of the only farm Mataveri, they soon learned of the island’s troubled past: shipwrecks, persecution, uprisings, and disease.

The history of the island’s extraordinary giant stone statues had already been the subject of speculation. Routledge and Scoresby undertook a survey of the architectural heritage—while following in the tradition of plundering it. Routledge worked closely with Juan Tepano, a foreman at Mataveri, exploring oral accounts of the island’s culture.

Larson 100

But the population was still troubled, and discontent was brewing. As the female prophet Angata instigated raids on the farm, violence threatened to escalate. The explorers pinned their hopes on the arrival of the Chilean navy; but when they eventually reached the island, rather than punishing the locals they mollified them.

The crisis somehow averted, Katherine continued her survey over the following months—still wishing that the natives would be “better behaved” (cf. this comment on a young “living Buddha” in Qinghai). Leaving the island in August 1915, she reached Liverpool in February 1916.

Back in Oxford, Larson describes the city during the war. Somerville had now become a military hospital. With most able-bodied men having joined the military, women were running the city in unprecedented numbers, in shops, schools, banks, businesses, factories, agriculture, and relief work.

After her return from Siberia, Maria Czaplicka was given a full-time position as lecturer at the University Museum. She found time to provide for the War Trade Intelligence Department, and with Poland occupied by the Russians, she lectured in support of Polish nationalism. She took gladly to farm work.

Winifred Blackman and Egypt
Another woman who took the Oxford diploma was Winifred Blackman (1872–1950). Without formal education, and already in her forties, she studied while volunteering at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her older brother was an Egyptologist, and she too gravitated towards the region.

Only in 1920, aged 48, did she take the opportunity to visit the country, but thereafter she spent at least six months living there every year for the next twenty years. Her interests soon evolved from archaeology to ethnography. As her Arabic improved, her informant Hideyb Abd el-Shafy began introducing her to the local customs of Upper Egypt, though in 1923 he was murdered by “young roughs” in a mysterious incident.

Larson 147

Egypt was volatile, with anti-British feeling running high, and blood-feuds common. But Winifred found herself in demand as a healer, and she felt more valued there than in England. Again, funding was a constant concern.

It was a far cry from sewing cushions for the church bazaar or attending lectures at the museum.

With All Due Respect, even now I find it hard to imagine an uneducated 48-year-old, female or male, embarking on a career as ethnographer of a remote society.

Larson now returns to Barbara Freire-Marreco, with her marriage at Woking in 1920—part of her gradual withdrawal from academic life. In 1912, declining an offer to do fieldwork on the Navajo, already a popular topic, she had preferred to deepen her studies of the Tewa, staying for four months with the Hano people on the plateau of the High Mesa in Arizona. Their culture varied in interesting ways from that of the people of Santa Clara whom she had studied in 1910. Again she found it hard to gain their trust, and again her relationship with her informant Leslie Agoyo prompted resentment. She paid a brief return visit to Santa Clara.

With the pull of her English family ties, she now declined an offer of a post at the American School of Archaeology for the third time. Her war work then put such thoughts aside. Another job offer from the USA came in 1919, but her marriage in 1920 spelled an end to her academic career.

The sad end of Maria Czaplicka
Maria Czaplicka had followed up her research on Siberia with a book on the Turks of Central Asia (1918). But after the war, funding was no longer available for her to keep her post at Oxford; she wrote unsuccessfully to Franz Boas at Columbia in search of work there. As she sought funding to make a return trip to Siberia, she made a three-month lecture tour of the States in 1919–20. Then, after a visit home to troubled Warsaw, she took up a post as lecturer at Bristol University. Though sad to leave Oxford, she seemed “cheerful and gay”. But in 1921, learning that her fieldwork application had been rejected, she committed suicide, still only 36 years old.

The following year her fellow-student Malinowski published his seminal (sicArgonauts of the Western Pacific.

There are poignant parallels in the lives of Czaplicka and Malinowski. Both Polish, they arrived in England in the same year to study anthropology at the LSE, and both went on to spend the war working in the field. While Czaplicka was strapping herself into a sledge in the Arctic in late 1914, Malinowski was pitching his tent on a tropical island in the Pacific. After the war, as her research gradually faded from memory, Malinowski not only became synonymous with Pacific anthropology, he put Pacific anthropology at the very heart of the discipline.

As Larson observes, Malinowski was not alone in his study of the Pacific; Gerald Wheeler, Diamond Jenness, Gunnar Landtmann, and Arthur Hocart had all done substantial work there. By this time a trend was emerging in anthropology for accounts of a single location; and ethnography was gaining ground over the mere collection of artefacts for museums.

Beatrice Blackwood and New Guinea
Beatrice Blackwood (1889–1975) had studied English at Somerville before the war, and became a student of Maria Czaplicka, whose Siberian field notes she helped organise. After the war she continued to work in Oxford, and in 1924 she spent a period doing fieldwork in the States.

In 1929, aged 40, en route for the Solomon Islands, she stopped off in Sydney to meet the lively young anthropologists who were then in town, including Margaret Mead (whom she found arrogant and patronising), Reo Fortune, and Raymond Firth—all watched over by the senior Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown.

Reaching Rabaul in New Guinea, Blackwood consulted the government anthropologist Ernest Chinnery, who guided her search for a suitably safe field-site.

First she visited the American anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker in Lesu, a village of neighbouring New Ireland. She then moved on to Chinnery’s choice of Buka in the Solomon Islands.

Blackwood felt huge pressure to succeed in Melanesia, and often doubted herself. “Did he ever darn his stockings?” she once asked in good-humoured exasperation while pondering Malinowski’s masterpiece. Needles and thread did not make it into academic monographs, and neither did feelings of depression and inadequacy, or government officials and missionaries, or the myriad ways in which anthropologists, and the people they studied, depended on the colonial infrastructure. There was no truly untouched community where an anthropologist could safely work, nor was there a completely coherent, self-contained story to be told that revealed the timeless essence of a society.

Of course, such insights would later become an essential aspect of anthropology—among much discussion, see e.g. Barz and Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field. And since the publication of Malinowski’s diary, his own methods have been much scrutinised.

Like Routledge on Easter Island, Blackwood soon saw through the idyllic appearance of the coral islet of Petats. The Methodist mission there seemed to have effectively destroyed local traditions. After two months there, resenting Chinnery’s choice, she moved on to the village of Kurtachi on Bouganville Island. There the Catholic mission teacher seemed “harmless”, and the locals were more forthcoming.

Chinnery was acting on deep-seated fears about women working alone in New Guinea, which were largely unfounded. The indigenous population was seen as innately inferior, and the menfolk were assumed to present a sexual threat to expatriate women. But Blackwood gave short shrift to such paranoia.

She began the long journey home in October 1930. Expressing another common sentiment of the fieldworker, she wrote to Arthur Thompson in Oxford,

You will ask my lots of questions I can’t answer and I shall wish I could go back again and find out.

After publishing her book Both sides of Buka passage in 1935, Blackwood returned to New Guinea the following year. Again overruling Chinnery’s counsel, she made a base among the Anga people in the mountainous jungle of the interior. They had indeed attacked several colonists in recent years, and inter-tribal warfare was common. The site she eventually settled on was something of a compromise. On reaching the village of Manki she was disappointed by the government and missionary presence: it seemed less “primitive” than she had hoped—yet another reminder that “it’s always too late”. Blackwood’s work

would always be limited by an insurmountable and eternally frustrating problem: forbidden from living in the uncontrolled areas, beyond the reach of the government administration, she was forced to work with people whose culture had been affected by contact with colonial settlers.

Of course, such acculturation was later to be a given, even a stimulus for research.

Larson 249

Blackwood found it hard to gain access to the deeper levels of their cultural life. In October she wrote

Nothing especially interesting has happened during the three months that I have been here.

A kitten called Sally, a gift at the aerodrome on her way to Manki, made a useful go-between.

In December she moved to Andarora, which more closely resembled the “Stone Age culture” she was seeking. But her presence caused tensions.

Anga aggression was the only aspect of their culture that outsiders experienced. They became known as violent, without anyone properly understanding the way violence was valued in their communities or how it shaped individuals’ identities.

They never fought while she was there, perhaps out of fear of government reprisals.

Blackwood left New Guinea in August 1937, returning to New Britain to collect artefacts for Balfour in Oxford. Though her enquiring spirit was undimmed, her constant struggles to gain permission to stay in forbidden areas sapped her energy.

She reached home early in 1938. Apart from the large collection of artefacts that she had dutifully collected for the museum, she also brought back reels of 16mm cine film. Some of this silent footage is here:

and here’s Part One of a 2011 documentary by Alison Kahn:

By 1938 Blackwood was almost fifty years old. The artefacts of the Pitt Rivers Museum where she resumed her work were in ever greater need of cataloguing. Having worked there through the war, many of her seniors died over the following years; but she re-established contact with Barbara Freire-Marecco, who was still engaged with anthropological news despite her comfortable domestic life in Hampshire. Blackwood’s work was recognised; she still dreamed of returning to New Guinea. Even after retiring in 1959, having already worked at the museum for four decades, she continued to come in there until shortly before her death in 1975.

The fate of Katherine Routledge
After returning from Easter Island to considerable acclaim in 1916, Katherine Routledge and William Scoresby took some time writing up their notes for a book. With the origins of the island’s culture still enigmatic, they were keen to visit other islands in the region for further clues. In 1920 they set off again, reaching Mangareva in the Gambler Islands in 1921, where they stayed for fourteen months.

In 1924, back in London, Katherine bought a large mansion in Hyde Park Gardens with her inherited wealth. Always abrasive, she became ever more unpredictable and delusional. In 1927 she threw her husband out of the house and changed the locks. They now became locked in a squalid battle over the house, and over her mental health.

Katherine dismissed her servants, boarded up the ground-floor windows and locked herself inside. She gave lucid interviews to journalists, bemoaning the disadvantaged legal status of women. In January 1929 she was taken away to Ticehurst House Hospital in Sussex, a private mental institution for the wealthy. Though relatively comfortable, it was a prison for her. She died there of a cerebral thrombosis in 1935.

The last days of Winifred Blackman
Winifred Blackman had continued scraping funds together for her annual stays in Upper Egypt. But after her 1927 book she only published two short papers. Even when funding finally dried up she managed to keep living in Cairo until the outbreak of World War Two. In 1940–41, in her late sixties, she endured the Liverpool Blitz. With the family home destroyed, along with the collections of Egyptian artefacts that she and her brother had collected, they moved to north Wales. But in 1950, soon after losing her sister Elsie, Winifred, suffering from dementia, was taken to the Denbigh Asylum, where she died in December.

* * *

In the final chapter Larson reminds us of the culture shock these women experienced on returning to the placid life of England. While fieldwork was extremely challenging, for the men it was more of an intellectual investment in a secure future; for the women, it offered elusive hopes of liberation from the constraints of their lives in England. 

To become anthropologists, they had to resist powerful social forces that pressed domesticity on them at every turn; the parents who wished they would stay at home or marry; the friends who quietly disapproved of women earning their own living; the professionals who objected to female anthropologists because, as one senior colleague put it, “there are things a woman ought not to know”.

Freire-Marecco observed that her time in Santa Clara had given her “scope to live and be a real person”—part of which had to be abandoned on her return.

All this enterprise took its toll. Their mental health suffered. Czaplicka killed herself at the age of 36; Routledge and Blackman ended their lives in mental hospitals. Czaplicka, Blackman, and Blackwood never married; the price of Freire-Marreco’s genteel English life after marriage was to abandon her career.

And their pioneering work remained uncelebrated; as the multidisciplinary ethos of the early 20th century became outmoded, they were largely overlooked by the later generation of anthropologists. [1]

In her vivid narration of the stories of these admirable women, Frances Larson has a great gift for encapsulating many of the major issues in anthropology and gender.

 


[1] Among much discussion of various points about fieldwork highlighted here, Nigel Barley drôlely expresses the conflict between theory and field experience; the benefits of our own flounderings in the field for interpreting the reports of others; and he outlines “veranda anthropology” under the fine heading Honi soit qui Malinowski.

On a jocular note, among my roundup of posts on The English, home and abroad is Roni Ancona‘s wry take on intrepid female explorers.

Franca Rame: The same old story

Rame cover

In 1982 I was fortunate to hear the great Franca Rame (1929–­2013) in London performing her Female parts: one-woman plays (1977, co-written with Dario Fo).

Waking up
A woman alone
The same old story
Medea

The stories, satirising the chains of Church, State, and machismo, are based on her Tutto casa, letto e chiesa; here’s the first part of her virtuosic 1977 live performance in Milan—using the clichéd image of femininity to further confuse her Italian audience:

And here she performs Waking up (Il risveglio) for TV that year:

The same old story, with its foul-mouthed dolly (translated by Ed Emery here; and in Stuart Hood’s booklet for the 1982 London performances), is particularly fine. She may be a tough act to follow, but here’s Jennifer Long performing the concluding doll story in English:

So anyway, once upon a time there was a lovely little girl who had a lovely little dolly. Well, actually, the dolly wasn’t lovely at all… she was all dirty and tatty and made of rags, and she used to say terrible swear words, which the little girl learned and went round repeating.

One day her mummy asked her: “But who on earth taught you those horrible swear words?” “My dolly,” said the little girl. “Ooh, you liar! You’ve been hanging round with those horrible boys.”

“No, mummy, really, it’s my dolly. Come on, dolly, say a few swear words for mummy!”

And the dolly, who always did everything the little girl asked her to do, because she loved her so much, came out with a whole string of terrible words: “Porca puttana! Stronzo! Mi piaci un casino! Culo!” [She chants, like a slogan] “Cu-lo, cu-lo, cu-lo!” […]

“Excuse me, gnomey,” she said, “have you seen a big ginger cat with a rag dolly in his mouth, who swears all the time?”

“Er, there he is, there,” says the gnome, waving with his willy, and splosh, he squirts out a big stream of widdle, which lands right on the ginger cat, which promptly falls down dead. Because, as we know, gnomes’ widdle is terribly poisonous for cats! […]

The dénouement makes the message clear:

And the grown-up little girl takes her dolly and hugs her closely closely to her, and gradually, gradually, the little dolly disappears, right into her heart.

And now the grown-up little girl is out there all on her own, on a long, long road… She walks and walks, and she comes to a big tree. And underneath that tree there are lots of other grown-up little girls just like herself, and they make her ever so welcome, and they say: “Sit down here… with us… We’re all telling our own stories. Why don’t you start…” they say to a fair-haired girl sitting there. And the girl begins: “When I was a little girl I had a rag doll who used to say terrible swear-words…”

“Me too!”
“Me too!”
“Me too!”

And all the girls burst out laughing. And one of them says: “Well, who would ever have imagined it: Your story… my story… We’ve all got the same story…!”

You can admire more of Franca Rame’s own performances on her YouTube channel, such as her version of Mistero buffo, debunking Catholicism (Dario Fo’s full version is here, with English translation here; cf. Patricia Lockwood).

The course of feminism is not always smooth.

Carlos Kleiber

Kleiber

The conducting of Carlos Kleiber (1930–2004) was, and is, revered. The film of his astounding Brahms 2 (1991) is tucked away in my post Conducting from memory, where I have hardly managed to expand the global audience it so deserves.  The YouTube link comes and goes, but you can find it

*here!*

Be spellbound by the coda of the 1st movement (from 12.52), with the horn solo introducing the violins playing high on the G string… and then the slow movement!!!

* * *

In Norman Lebrecht’s The maestro myth, Carlos Kleiber and his father Erich appear in the chapter “The mavericks”, along with Horenstein, Celibidache, and Tennstedt. See also e.g. Declan Kennedy on “the Kleiber myth”, referring to Carolyn Watson’s thesis, and Tom Service’s tribute.

Reclusive and mercurial, Kleiber shunned the press, and was averse to recording. Even in the rather few concerts that he took on, he often seemed to be more presiding than conducting—trusting in the musicians.

Kleiber parts

Kleiber’s use of free bowing for his 1991 Brahms 2 was unusual; generally he carefully prepared the orchestral parts in advance. From film I am lost to the world (see below), from 34.42.

However, whereas Rozhdestvensky was minimalist both in both gesture and rehearsal, I was bemused to learn that Kleiber’s apparent spontaneity on the platform was the result of fastidious preparation (see viola part above) and an inordinate amount of rehearsal. Even with continental orchestras already used to far more rehearsals than their British counterparts, he demanded up to five times more than other maestros—and for a repertoire that the musicians already knew well, to boot; [1] you’d think the band would be able to perform from memory too (cf. my note on Celibidache). Anyway, this rather explains Kleiber’s economy of gesture on stage; his micro-management in rehearsal gave him freedom in performance. As he declared,

With a good technique, you can forget technique.

Indeed, Kleiber claimed to dislike conducting. “I only conduct when I am hungry”; “I want to grow in a garden, sit in the sun, eat, drink, sleep, make love, and that’s it.” Still, he could play the prima donna.

We’re fortunate to have several films of his performances; all the petty detail of rehearsal is forgiven when we see him in concert.

Tristan at Bayreuth, c1974–76:

While Kleiber’s main projects were in the opera house (La Traviata, Rosenkavalier, Wozzeckand so on), his orchestral concerts were also sensational.

Temporarily absent from YouTube is his 1991 performance of Mozart’s Linz symphony with the Vienna Phil (this is definitely no time for me to go all Early Music on you; and for the orchestra’s resistance to gender equality, see note here).

Beethoven 7 [2] with the Concertgebouw (1983):

Just as gorgeous as Kleiber’s Brahms 2 is his Brahms 4, which he recorded several times. Here’s a live performance with the Bayerische Staatsorchester in 1996—a rare occasion when he had a score in front of him, but don’t worry, it’s merely ornamental. Currently it appears on YouTube in instalments—here’s the opening:

(3.33 milking mice again!)—a crafty link: Die Fledermaus overture (a piece not to be sniffed at) from 1970, in rehearsal and (from 36.15) performance:

And here, split-screen shows how Kleiber conducted performances of the overture in 1986 and 1989—his different gestures deriving largely from the greater familiarity of the Vienna orchestra (on the right) with the piece:

From Johann to Richard Strauss—an audio recording of a live 1993 performance of Ein Heldenleben with the Vienna Phil: [3]

Finally, two impressive documentaries: Traces to nowhere (Erich Schulz, 2010; watch here), and I am lost to the world (Georg Wübbolt, 2011—the title referring to Mahler’s song).

See also The art of conducting: a roundup.

 


[1] I guess someone must have researched the history of rehearsal in WAM; certainly Bach’s musicians were used to performing unfamiliar music every week with a minimum of preparation, but it’d be interesting to learn the timeline for expanding rehearsal times, and budgets, over the 20th century (and how British orchestras rarely afforded them).

[2] Wagner’s description of the symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance” is irritatingly famous, his authority presumably resting on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene; for a different kind of transcendence, try Moroccan ahouach, or Northern soul (cf. What is serious music?!).

[3] Strauss completed Ein Heldenleben in 1898—between Mahler’s 3rd and 4th symphonies. Dedicated to Willem Mengelberg (whose own 1928 recording is here; we can even hear Strauss himself conducting it in 1944), it continues to divide opinion. Perhaps Strauss rather shot himself in the foot by providing such an explicit programme: had he merely presented the work as an abstract symphonic poem with the usual contrasts of yin and yang (actually not value-free, as Susan McClary stresses!), it might have been free of the taint of master-race ideology—if not of this kind of criticism (another of the scurrilous reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky):

The composer indulges in self-glorification of the most barefaced kind… The Hero’s antagonists are described by him with the utmost scorn as a lot of pygmies and snarling, yelping, bowwowing nincompoops… The climax of everything that is ugly, cacophonous, blatant, and erratic, the most perverse music I ever heard in all my life, is reached in the chapter “The Hero’s Battlefield”. The man who wrote this outrageously hideous music, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy. (Otto Floersheim, Musical Courier 1899).

Later pundits—if not musicians and audiences—have generally concurred: Norman Lebrecht considers Heldenleben “tacky in every way, a blob of sensationalist Nietschean philosophy bound together with orchestral virtuosity and no nutritional substance”. No pleasing some people… Don’t let all this quibbling deafen you to the transcendent final movement! See also under Melody: the major 7th leap.
For more on Richard Strauss, see Metamorphosen.

Clair de lune

Debussy salon

Like many classic “lollipops” (such as the “Air on the G string“), Debussy’s Clair de lune (1905, from the Suite bergamesque) is such an ubiquitous media soundbite that I’ve always tended to switch off after the first phrase—like meeting a beautiful person with the word “CLICHÉ” scrawled in lipstick on their forehead. Nor is it helped by the sentimental renditions of glossy superstars. But at long last, overcoming my reluctance, I am properly immersing myself in its magic.

It was inspired by the poem of Paul Verlaine:

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Here’s the first of Debussy’s two vocal settings, from 1882:

As to the piano piece (composed with the sonority of his Bechstein upright in mind), we have a precious 1913 piano roll. Debussy did make rolls of his Children’s corner suite (see here); this one too is widely attributed to him on YouTube and elsewhere, but appears to be by Suzanne Godenne (see here, leading us to the detailed scholarship of Roy Howat). Anyway, I love the tempo (Andante!), and the rubato. While the reliability of piano rolls as sources has been much discussed, perhaps this gives an impression of the performance style of the day:

And typically, I’m a great fan of Hélène Grimaud’s rendition (on her 2018 Memory album)—again with plentiful rubato:

Some may say that Debussy already builds rubato into the notation, subverting the 9/8 metre with tuplets and syncopation, thus making further rhythmic latitude superfluous, even harmful, except in the passage where he actually specifies rubato (from 0.54 in the 1913 recording, bar 15); but I’m all for these more fluid interpretations.

CDL rubato

The piece also suits the harp, such as this (very slow!) version:

I wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it…

It was orchestrated by the splendid André Caplet:

and arranged by Leopold Stokowski for a scene from Fantasia, later deleted:

Here’s David Oistrakh with Frida Bauer in 1962:

For a rendition on the ethereal theremin, see here.

It has inspired jazzers too, such as Kamasi Washington (2015):

On a lighter note, here’s Slim Gaillard, again in 1962:

Clair de lune is the subject of a programme in the BBC series Soul music, with salient comments by Philippe Cassard.

CDL score

For Mahler’s piano rolls (also from 1905), see here. See also under Reception history. Note Debussy’s Trio for flute, viola, and harp; and do explore Ravel too (starting here)!

You say tomato

penne

The apparent ambiguity of the Englischgruss (see under Mahler 4, and for Brahms, in The Annunciation in art and music) reminds me of Antonio Cesti’s spectacular opera Il pomo d’oro (1668). *

You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).

Pomodoro cover

The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering

  • David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),

whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.

The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.

In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:

And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.

Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.

Cesti titleCesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:

The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].

An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.

The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.

Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.

In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following

a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.

Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.

Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.

Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601.
Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.

In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.

Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:

Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.

Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.

As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.

Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.

Pom 54

Recipe, 1705.

Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.

Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.

By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.

Pom 61

Recipes, 1773.

We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **

Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.

An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.

Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.

Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples. 

Pom 73

By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.

Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:

We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.

By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.

The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.

So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.

The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.

Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:

Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.

The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.

Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”

Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).

In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).

Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s;
right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.

Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:

Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.

Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.

In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.

Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.

As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.

The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and

the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.

An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):

The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.

The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.

By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.

Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.

The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]

It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.

Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.

The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.

Pom 144

Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.

Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.

Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.

While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.

After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.

Pom 182

For Faccetta nera, see here.

Pom 166

On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.

Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.

Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):

and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):

The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.

The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):

Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.

In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:

and in prison:

Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):

Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.

By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.

In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,

Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.

EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).

Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.

This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.

* * *

All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.

We might follow this up with Gentilcore’s 2012 book Italy and the potato, 1550–2000 (on a rather different tack, see Music and the potato). See also In the kitchen, and this sequel on risotto, with yet more links—as well as an alternative interpretation of the famous song You say potato. Note also Robert Orsi’s historical ethnography of religious and social life in Italian East Harlem, New York.


* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.

** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch:
Cleese: “How about Cheddar?”
Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.”
Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!”
Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.

Some notes on Deutschland 89

Deutschland 89

Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).

The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.

Stasi office

Pic: Stasi office. Source here.

The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.

There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:

“A what?”
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”

This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.

And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:

This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.

Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!

Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:

The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all

—the irony underlined by the telling final sequence (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).

The liberation of US culture

By coincidence, I began composing this blog in late 2016—just as the poor ol’ USA was descending into a deep abyss, “waters deep, fires raging”. So it’s a great relief to be able to write free of that dark shadow, as sanity makes a welcome come-back gig after a four-year vacation, and grown-up-sounding comments re-emerge from the White House. Anyway, here I break the champagne over the bows of a new USA tag in the sidebar (these tags are useful, BTW, however rough and ready! Do consult them!).

It seems suitable to start with the series that I wrote on

Among numerous posts under the jazz tag (to which I’ve only awarded the USA tag sparingly), which I’ve rounded up here, see e.g.

Bearing in mind the scars of genocide and slavery, conflict has never been absent; but many such posts pay homage to boundless creativity and energy. Some more examples:

On film,

On music, musicology, and fieldwork:

Note also

Other posts take the story on, such as

Considering daily language, some usages are charming:

So while one always wants to rejoice in all this, somehow such posts were always blemished by the Putrid Tang emanating from the White House; but now, with the renaissance following these traumatic four years, it finally seems suitable to celebrate again—even if the battle for social justice continues.

Phonophobia and s-s-s-syncopation

Porky

Further to my discussion of Covid and plosives (a recent addition to my stammering tag), a couple more articles catch my attention.

writes in a lyrical style reminscent of French philosophy, with examples of historical discussion from Galen and Francis Bacon to Freud. Some readers may be more amenable than I am to this kind of thing:

The voice is the vehicle and the arena of this agon between dissipation and replenishment. Our celebrations of the voice are too monotonously pitched in the register of fullness, richness, clarity and penetrativeness, the privilege is too regularly accorded to the energetic out-loud and the “haute voix”. The autumnal, deciduous voice, which is heard in illness, fatigue, ague and age, is not epically shredded by passion, but rather silted with lilting circumstance.

I would love to hear a group of stammerers, or indeed anyone, trying to get their tongues around “paradoxical polyphiloprogenitiveness”.

Call me superficial (You’re superficial—Ed.), but With All Due Respect to Ancient and Modern Sages, I’m intrigued by some of the asides. Connor notes Marc Shell’s observation that when animals were given human speech in animated film, they often, like Donald Duck, or Porky Pig, suffered from speech impediments. I see that Porky shared his stutter with the voice actor who originally played him; but because he couldn’t control his stutter, recording sessions took hours and production costs became too high (cf. my own attempts at voiceover). Here’s a helpful roundup:

which features the “That’s all folks!” sign-off:

There’s even a ten-hour version (WTF). But scholars don’t seem to agree that the word “Hottentot” is an onomatopoeic mockery of stuttering that early Dutch colonists in South Africa thought they heard in the speech of the local people.  I’m keen to read Robert Arthur’s 1964 story The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (cf. the truth-speaking parrot of Tibetan opera).

* * *

Less fantastical is this study, supplementing my More stammering songs:

Stammering’s material culture of the past lends itself to historical analysis and therefore allows us to gauge how medical and social attitudes toward the impediment have changed.

She notes:

The impediment not only provided (pseudo) medical actors with a lucrative market for various curative objects and practices, but also propelled the (sheet-) music business. Stammerers themselves appear in this story of materialisation and market as both agents and objects. The cheap self-cures, medical manuals, sheet music and (later) recordings that were produced not only for, but also by, them, show how easily the impediment was aligned with the modern consumer’s identity and how the persona of the stammerer was, ultimately, lodged in the Western collective memory in very material ways.

Writing of the “collusion between consumerism and stammering” in the late 19th century, she observes:

The cures targeted a middle-class audience that would presumably care most about speech impediments (they were in a profession requiring fluent speech), but—more importantly—would also have the means to afford a cure. Self-help manuals seem to have targeted a similar audience: they were relatively cheaply produced, but a book on stammering would necessarily have been a “luxury” item, requiring its owner to be literate. This image of the consumer of self-help manuals dovetailed conveniently with the image of what most scientists considered to be the typical stammerer: a white middle-class man, the victim of the modern “strenuous” life, but also autonomous and capable of curing himself.

It was often claimed that stammerers were typically found in the professional classes and characterized by an extraordinary intelligence. Hoegaerts cites an 1896 paper:

“Children of weak intellect rarely stutter because their thoughts are slow, and their speech always keeps pace with their thoughts.”

And she observes:

That the stammerer was “civilised” was shown by the fluent speech of “savages”. Travelers were called upon to show that no one had ever encountered speech impediments in the uncivilised world. “All travellers, who have long resided among uncultivated nations, maintain that they never met with any savages labouring under an impediment of speech”. This was because, according to scientists like Hunt, its inhabitants were not subjected to the stress and strain of civilisation: their fluent speech was owed to “their freedom from mental anxieties and nervous debility, the usual concomitants of refinement and civilization.” Likewise, the lower classes did not appear to seek the help of therapists and were considered to be relatively free of the impediment. […]

Women, on the other hand, were not so much thought of as uncivilised, but rather as more suited to civilisation and its rhythms of speech than men. Individual cases of female stammerers occasionally surfaced, but they were thought to represent a very small percentage of stammerers. According to Richard Faulkner, women expended less energy on speaking. “We have compared subsequently the energy developed in conversing by the voice of a man and that of a woman, and have found that women are fatigued, in talking, four times less than a man”. Others had already suggested that women were naturally good at speech. What made women’s speech so fluent, these theories surmised, was that most of it was idle chatter anyway.

So

Whereas “savages” could not speak of anything beyond the concrete and women did not move beyond the trivial, the (male, middle-class) stammerer’s laborious speech betrayed his intelligence.

Hoegaerts goes on,

That a woman could appear at her most attractive and intelligent by not talking at all would easily have been accepted by therapists and gentlemen-scientists of the period.

Women came to acquire the authority in the field of speech therapy—although I note that many of the most famous therapists have been men, while women comprise a majority of the work force—Typical!

The sound of stammering
Stammering became a popular theme for Tin Pan Alley songs, further popularised by sheet music. Yet

The popular representation of stammerers in songs, at the turn of the century and up until the 20s, seems very far removed from this image of the privileged, highly intelligent modern individual.

Composers treated stammering as a poetic and commercial opportunity, rather than as an impediment. It is no coincidence that almost all stammering songs were romantic and/or humorous in their content. The impediment was, in that sense, not the subject of the song, but merely a rhythmic device, the means to emotionally engage the audience, or the set-up for a joke. Sometimes, it was all three.

Of course, the rhythmic syncopation of stammering is an extrapolation by composers: the real sound is unpredictably non-metrical, aleatoric.

Following The stuttering coon (1898),

The connection of stammering to race allowed for rhythmic license. More specifically, the halting sound of stammering allowed composers to ride on the lucrative wave of ragtime music. Most explicit in the “use” of the sound of stammering was the 1913 song Stammering Sam, in which a young black boy’s stammer is presented as the “origin” of ragtime:

Then Stammering Sam sang,
and the company sang “babababa! Babababe!”
Singing his stuttering song with glee
and that was the very first ragtime melody.

Like the stammering girls, these stammering “coons” defied scientific knowledge: their ethnicity as well as their social class should have protected them from speech impediments. Yet there they are, imaginary creatures proudly claiming syncopated speech in order to entertain.

Of course, in many ways the “stammering coons” are images of manifold oppression: their almost clownish representation derided their ethnicity, the connection arguably degraded ragtime music as it refused to take it seriously as a style, and the depiction of their accented, lower-class speech placed them firmly at the bottom of the social ladder. Being put on show, after all, also meant being subjected to the harsh gaze of the audience, to become an object of consumption. Significantly, the songs would most likely be performed by non-stammerers for other non-stammerers (although those who did stammer could, of course, hear them as well). The stammerers in the songs were mere figments of their writer’s imagination, specifically created to be “performed”, “bought”, and “used” to serve the purposes of entertainment and consumption. Whereas stammerers were approached as agents on the market in therapeutic manuals, popular music banked on the characteristic sound of stammering in order to “sell” stammerers, rather than selling something to them. […]

In an ironic reversal of the therapeutic logic, [the stammering song] turned fluent speakers into stammerers (thus perhaps proving that speech could indeed be manipulated to a great extent). […]

The culture that emerged from this “modern” consumerist world was shaped by women, down-at-heel sailors, and young black boys as well. […] One could wonder if the worlds of the privileged stammerer and the imaginary one in songs coincided at all.

It’s good to see the factors of race, gender, and class featuring in the analysis of disfluency.

Caruso: the song

I’m grateful to Sophia Loren, well, for everything—but right now, for introducing me to Lucio Dalla’s song Caruso (1986), her own favourite among her excellent Desert island discs recently.

Over a slow pulse, the text is delivered in an urgent parlando-rubato style, the intensity of the melody highlighted by a vertiginously high register, suggesting flamenco deep song:

Lucio Dalla (who actually came from Bologna) was staying at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel in Sorrento, coincidentally in the very same room where many years earlier Enrico Caruso had stayed shortly before his death. As the owners told him about Caruso’s last days and his turbulent love life, Dalla was inspired to compose the song—the melody and lyrics of whose refrain are based on the 1930 Neapolitan song Dicitencello Vuie. (As a foil to the male gaze, the background of Naples is a fine pretext to remind ourselves of the brilliant novels of Elena Ferrante.)

While in both its theme and its style Caruso clearly invites versions by tenors like Pavarotti and Bocelli, it makes a good instance of how such music is better heard without polished artifice (here Dalla sings it with Pavarotti).

Qui dove il mare luccica,
E tira forte il vento
Su una vecchia terrazza
Davanti al golfo di Surriento
Un uomo abbraccia una ragazza,
Dopo che aveva pianto
Poi si schiarisce la voce,
E ricomincia il canto.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai.

Vide le luci in mezzo al mare,
Pensò alle notti là in America
Ma erano solo le lampare
Nella bianca scia di un’elica
Sentì il dolore nella musica,
Si alzò dal pianoforte
Ma quando vide la luna uscire da una nuvola
Gli sembrò più dolce anche la morte
Guardò negli occhi la ragazza,
Quelli occhi verdi come il mare
Poi all’improvviso uscì una lacrima,
E lui credette di affogare.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai

Potenza della lirica,
Dove ogni dramma è un falso
Che con un po’ di trucco e con la mimica
Puoi diventare un altro
Ma due occhi che ti guardano
Così vicini e veri
Ti fan scordare le parole,
Confondono i pensieri
Così diventa tutto piccolo,
Anche le notti là in America
Ti volti e vedi la tua vita
Come la scia di un’elica
Ma sì, è la vita che finisce,
Ma lui non ci pensò poi tanto
Anzi si sentiva già felice,
E ricominciò il suo canto.

Te voglio bene assaje,
Ma tanto tanto bene sai
è una catena ormai,
Che scioglie il sangue dint’ ‘e ‘vvene sai

Here Dalla sings it live, for an audience who are clearly just as enraptured as Sophia Loren:

* * *

Two women

Source here.

So returning to Sophia Loren, in her Desert Island discs she discusses her most recent project working with her son Edoardo Ponti on The life ahead. And she recalls her illustrious early career, such as the filming of Two women (La Ciociara, Vittorio de Sica, 1960)—a story about the horrors of war, based on the book by Alberto Moravia (cf. The conformist). Here’s a trailer:

In her account of working with Charlie Chaplin on A countess from Hong Kong (1967), she is more discreet than her co-star Marlon Brando about the experience. Chaplin’s inspiration for the story was his encounters with down-at-heel Russian emigré aristocrats in 1930s’ Shanghai (for his 1936 visit, and his enthusiasm for Peking opera, see here); his own theme tune (cf. Smile) later made a hit song for Petula Clark.

The film ends with Loren and Brando dancing a tango—in the words of this review:

Chaplin was a sexual revolutionary long before the sexual revolution, and here, at the age of 77, he foresaw—even unto the film’s concluding tango, half a decade before Bertolucci’s—a world in which sex would break down the doors and come out of the closets.

Though the film wasn’t a great critical success, at least it was admired by John Betjeman and Jack Nicholson—more unlikely bedfellows

Back with Desert island discs, how delightful is Sophia Loren’s final greeting—making us staid Radio 4 listeners feel even more grey and reserved:

Ciao 💋💋💋💋💋 Baci baci baci!!! Ciao tesoro ciao!!!

* * *

For Italian song, try also Crêuza de mä (featured towards the end of Italy: folk musicking), the great Enza Pagliara, and Songs of Sicily. See also Italian cinema: a golden age; and Italy tag.

Can’t get you out of my head

Curtis title

Do watch the brilliant BBC TV series

Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You

The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…

While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.

Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.

I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.

As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:

It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.

Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):

Themes
In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.

In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.

In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.

Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.

Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.

Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.

With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were

invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.

Part 5 ends with a particularly disturbing montage, as How beautiful they are, the lordly ones accompanies images of Isis and Morris dancing.

What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.

This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.

Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.

China dolls

In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.

And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.

Characters
Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.

Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:

In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.

Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.

Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account. 

Anyway, it’s an immensely stimulating series, whether “dazzling”, “terrifying”, or “incoherent”; perhaps Hugo Rifkind’s comment is apposite:

I feel I learnt a lot. I’m just not sure what it was—

which indeed encapsulates the very confusion that Curtis evokes.