Sgt Pepper

For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution. It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.

One pioneer of taking pop music seriously was Wilfrid Mellers, with his 1973 book Twilight of the gods. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do. although for them the Beatles may make a more palatable example than some genres. Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music.

Sgt Pepper was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.

The songs work as one long suite, with themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, anxiety. But individually too they are gems. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.

Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.

Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting, but these studio albums took our admiration to a new level. Of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyze” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But such studies show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.

The Li band in France: notes

It’s worth rounding off these vignettes of the Li family on tour with some of my daily notes, as a little contribution to the ethnography of one, um, caravanserai on the global bazaar—and also as a further illustration that Daoists are Real People, not mere Faceless Paragons of Ancient Wisdom.

18th May
After a long journey from Yanggao via Beijing, the Daoists reach our hotel at 7.30am. Alas, despite my blandishments at the desk, they have to wait all morning for their rooms to become available, but I catch up with them as they rest on sofas in the foyer, letting Li Manshan sleep in my little room.

I take Li Bin, Golden Noble, Erqing, and Wang Ding round the corner to Rue de Rome, helping spendthrift Li Bin buy a preliminary round of gifts for his guanxi network back home: he asks me to help him choose four bottles of olive oil and ten bottles of vin rouge. Confessing my ignorance, I try to muster a little bon goût. He wants to splash out on more posh bottles, but I choose vin pretty ordinaire, trying vainly to control his reckless spending.

A friend of Erqing has even asked him to buy him a particular vintage of Château Lafite. I tell him to forget it. Still, imagine—twenty years ago the average annual income for a Yanggao peasant was still only around £100.

We do splash out on an adapter, though. This has become a touring ritual, since they never bring the ones we have bought on previous trips. They keep it very busy with recharging their mobiles and i-pods.

At midday we go round the corner to Rue Budapest for Sichuan noodles. They drink Erguotou liquor. We chuckle over our hosts’ quirky arrangement over expenses: 20 kuai each per meal for them, a mere 15 kuai for me. This causes much mirth: do I get less because I’m too fat?! After lunch, after a meeting with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui), their rooms are available—three doubles (sociable types that they are, they wouldn’t even want singles).

It’s so great to be on tour with a brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. Li Manshan is a wise laissez-faire (wuwei?!) leader, Li Bin an able fixer, Golden Noble and Wu Mei best mates, and Erqing and Wang Ding are cool too. We slot into our secret language, always laughing, dusting off old stories, devising new takes.

At 6pm our hosts Adeline Herrou and Yan Lu, with her assistant Alessandra, come to our hotel to guide us to the conference banquet. Arriving a bit late in a downpour, we are fortunately siphoned off to another quieter restaurant nearby so we can get to know our hosts in peace. Yan Lu is géniale, petite, full of joi de vivre. We give her our favourite ritual couplet written by Li Manshan, and local dried apricots from Yanggao. It’s been a long first day (and their travel from Yanggao itself took nearly 24 hours before that), but after taking the metro home, Li Manshan and I have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel.

19th May
We have a good breakfast; they eat plenty of everything, with lashings of coffee. I no longer have to help—they’re even experts with the egg-boiling contraption.

I end up in Golden Noble and Wu Mei’s room, where we have a nice chat. I mention the Wang family Daoists of Shuozhou just southwest of Yanggao. Wu Mei knows Wang Junxi’s guanzi-playing and likes it, having seen his videos online; he has appeared in a secular show with them, but there was nothing much for them to talk about!

Now that my film and book are out, we can relax without my constant pedantic questions. But I’m always in fieldwork mode—I just can’t help taking notes. Li Manshan tells me more about the Temple of the God Palace in the southeast of his village—site of the original settlement Dazhaizhai 大寨寨.

53 GN and WM amused cropped

Relaxing in the scripture hall between rituals, Golden Noble and Wu Mei amused by my notebook, 2011.

The Daoists busy themselves preparing for our first gig at the Nanterre conference: while Li Bin packs all the stuff to take, Golden Noble checks their sheng mouth-organs, Wu Mei works on his reeds. Their rooms are scattered with the debris of touring: shavers, battery chargers, mobiles, i-pods, cymbals, a solder (to tune their sheng), fags, pot noodles just in case, gifts of dried apricots…

We take the train to Nanterre, and after a canteen lunch the splendid Hélène Bloch takes us on a reccy of our pre-concert route to and through La ferme du bonheur circus on campus—it’s just like being back in Yanggao, as it really is a farm, with sheep, a peacock, and lovely laidback warm people. I dream of running away to join the circus; there’s a new release of La strada just out. The peacock displays for Li Manshan but not for me, a typical show of xenophilia (chongyang meiwai)!

edf

La ferme du bonheur. Photo: Hélène Bloch.

After my film screening, the Daoists are waiting outside to lead the audience through the campus to the farm, where we all take a tea-break, and then to the concert hall.

The hall is small, but the gig is amazing, as always. Our encore of the Mantra to the Three Generations, with me joining in, goes well.

As Ian Johnson observes in his book The souls of China (pp.37–40), the progression of the Li band to minor international celebrity has been a gradual process, from Chen Kexiu’s research to the 1990 Beijing festival, through to our foreign tours (cf. my book, ch.18).

For what it’s worth, such northern ritual styles do perhaps lend themselves better to the concert format than many southern Daoist groups, the entrancing wind ensemble supplementing the vocal liturgy and percussion.

We take the train back to our hotel, then go for supper. Li Manshan has given me two bottles of lethal Fenjiu white spirit from Shanxi, which we (all except him—he’s not a drinker) polish off with our meal. I’m TP again. I stagger back to my room to take stock, then around midnight Li Manshan knocks on my door for another “meeting” outside. First we gravitate to my bathroom for me to explain how the taps work, and he tells me his story about a Chinese guy who brought back the hotel soap as a present, and his mate says “Uurgh, this foreign white chocolate tastes disgusting!”.

We adjourn outside for more jokes, and fond reminiscences of Li Qing. As always, our most intimate moments are late at night, tranquil, alone together. These tours just get better and better. Yan Lu and all our hosts love this, and so do we.

My two rules for when the time has come to leave China:
1) when I begin to enjoy drinking baijiu white spirit;
2) when I begin to like Chinese pop.

In the old days such tours were inevitably accompanied by a gaggle of superfluous apparatchiks on a freebie trip abroad. Now the Daoists have their own private passports, and I look after them on my own.

It’s also amazing how much Chinese food abroad has improved over the last couple of decades. “Long gone are the days when” we have to endure sweet-and-sour pork—though even that has a certain nostalgia for me. With a busy schedule, and several good Chinese restaurants on our doorstep, I feel no great need to educate the Daoists in the richesses of French cuisine.

20th May Saturday
By 5am I’m chatting with Li Manshan again outside the hotel over a fag. After a quick breakfast we all take the new line 14 to Gare de Lyon. Streetwise Erqing is useful on the metro, noticing our route, watching out for signs—I no longer need to marshall them so closely, but the spectre of losing a national treasure in New York in 2009 still haunts me.

SanskritWe’re in plenty of time for the 8.59 to Clermont-Ferrand—whose Chinese name Kelaimeng Feilang, preceded by Aofoni (Auvergne) reminds me of one of the Li band’s pseudo-Sanskrit codas, such as the one at the end of the hymn Diverse and Nameless!

I go off with Li Bin to buy lunch for the band to eat on the train.

The lunch-pack of Notre Dame

(How could I resist? Just in case you’re not familiar with this one, it’s the answer to “What’s wrapped in cellophane and goes DONG?”)

Wu Mei and Li Manshan soon nod off, the latter tapping out drum rhythms even in his sleep. Later as I try to photo him chatting with Golden Noble, he tries to mess up my photo with his smelly sock.

They get excited seeing a field. To me it’s just a field. Wisely, they’ve long given up asking me technical questions about European agriculture. Golden Noble and Wu Mei have a beautiful chat—relaxed, thoughtful.

Our train is late, but hey. Valérie Bey-Smith and Wu Yunfeng, our keen Confucian hosts, meet us on the platform. Clermont-Ferrand feels pleasantly remote and eccentric—a bit like one of those Hunan mountain towns (where I’ve never been, BTW). We make hasty preparations for the gig in the conservatoire. After intros from the Confucius Institute and the Chinese consul in Lyon, my talk goes fine, with Valérie translating for me. I’m getting better at this. The gig is great—the audience goes wild.

The concerts only last an hour, but the Daoists are soaked in sweat. Still, it’s no big deal compared to their long rituals in Yanggao. The two sheng players, little trumpeted, have to work especially hard. In the trick sequence, even the way Erqing stays still for Wu Mei to slot the bell of his curved trumpet onto the pipe and then at once starts twirling it, playing all the while, is virtuosic. Wu Mei sometimes gets in a bit of trouble balancing the cymbal on his head, or the false eyes (walnut shells) coming loose, which all adds to the excitement—I observe to him that such little hitches should be a deliberate part of his routine, so as to show the audience how difficult it is, and keep them on edge.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

CF congratulations

Congratulations from the Chinese Consulate General in Lyon.

I get the usual erroneous compliments from the Chinese about me “discovering” them, and about the Chinese not knowing their own culture. OK, urban educated Chinese may not (I’m no great authority on Morris dancing either), but there has long been a wealth of research from native scholars, which is ongoing; and The Plain People of Yanggao have always been perfectly clear about their local Daoist culture.

CF group

After a nice meal with our hosts and innocent young students, they take us for a little tour of town, but we’re all completely knackered, and soon retire to our quaint hotel—next to the Hotel Ravel, I note.

Valérie, like our other hosts, is understandably ému (not Emu, or Rod Hull).

21st May Sunday
Up again by 5, I take a little walk near our hotel with the band, admiring the market, and the murals on the wall next door.

murals CF.jpg

In a nearby square we find five little posts, correctly arranged for a bonsai Hoisting the Pennant ritual (my film, from 44.21) on a future fantasy visit of Li Manshan’s 5-year-old grandson and his schoolmates.

CF posts

Doing daily travel with a gig is tough—but like my former orchestral life, it incites camaraderie. Our previous tours have been less frantic, but this one is pleasantly condensed.

Jpeg

The touring life. Photo: Wu Yunfeng.

Valérie and Teacher Wu take us to the station, with thoughtful gifts of Gitanes (!) and food for the train. We were also happy to receive Clermont-Ferrand Confucius Institute umbrellas.

Jpeg

Valérie sees us off on the train.

The train ride is fun again. It’s much faster today, so we arrive early at midday, and take the metro to find the Centre Mandapa, a splendid venue for world music since 1978, led by the splendid Milena Salvini.

With Mandapa technician Milou we try out my film for a most successful screening; my intro goes well, and at the end Li Manshan and I take a bow. The Daoists love watching our film too.

It’s a lovely little area, so we have plenty of time to relax. They find the amazing antique emporium over the road. A succession of beggars ask us for fags, which they give gladly. Intriguingly, the Centre Mandapa is also right opposite the 1913 church of the Antoinist cult:

Deviation

The state stance on “heterodox cults”? Photo: Stephen Jones.

We set up the stage during a tea-break for the audience, then the Daoists do yet another amazing gig. Though it’s a small room, my fears that the concert will be deafening turn out to be unjustified—it’s a great acoustic. I join them again for the encore.

It’s always good to see friends at our concerts. Several Shanxi people introduce themselves, excited to find the band performing in France; and today fine scholars like Jacques Pimpaneau, Robin Ruizendaal, François Picard, and Nicolas Prevot come along too.

One cultural difference: after a gig, sure we all want to get away, but the Daoists only drink with food, not before or after (usually), whereas we WAM musos make a beeline for the pub as soon as we have taken our final bow.

Our secret language (“black talk” heihua) is as arcane as ever, with all our inside jokes. Recalling a filthy joke that Guicheng told at a hotel party in Leipzig, I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing (I can’t possibly tell you that one). We giggle again at Tian Qing’s “Eat a young monk” joke.

22nd May
We have a free day at last before the Daoists’ evening flight home. Last night Old Lord Li had a bath, slept till 1am, watched TV, slept again, and got a call from a family in Pansi village to determine the date for a funeral, so he was up before 4. Meeting up at 5 yet again, I take him to the bar down the road, where Tweety McTangerine comes on TV—Li Manshan hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable! Back to my room together to read Yan Lu’s draft article on the Nanterre events.

Li Manshan calls the Pansi family again at 6am. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him. Then we have a good breakfast.

We stroll down together past the Opéra to the amazing Chinese department of Galeries Lafayette, brilliantly rendered as Laofoye (“Old Buddha Elder”). Li Bin and Erqing buy loads of perfume (“Hey guys, how many lovers have you got?!”)

Laofoye

Later Li Manshan and I buy toys for his young grandson: a trumpet and maracas, to go with the, um, Ming-dynasty instruments I bought him before.

We store our luggage and go for lunch, washed down by Leffe. Old Lord Li is drumming on his chopsticks again. Delightful mood over lunch, as always—everyone chipping in with stories, jokes, reflections. Over delicious Yuxiang qiezi, I ask Li Manshan if he has an aubergine tree. Often the subject turns to their hymns, as well as the Zouma suite and funky Yellow Dragon percussion piece, and the whole calibration of the trick sequence—how to improve them, tempi, and so on.

They rest on sofas at the hotel, and I film Li Manshan telling another sh-sh-sh-shikuaiqian joke.

Notre Dame

Later we take line 14 to Châtelet, and wander round the little islands. I choose different flavours of Bertillon ice-cream on Île de la Cité for them. After a little guided tour of Notre Dame, we return home for a quick supper of  noodles and beer before Adeline and Yan Lu arrive, Lu thoughtfully giving them posh French chocolates. I have to go off to catch the last train back to London, but their taxi for the airport arrives early, so I can wave them off after all, but it’s a hasty parting.

If it’s a quick hop back home to London for me, their journey was not so simple:

22nd: 23.20 flight from CDG to Beijing,
23rd landing at 15.20, 21.40 train from Beijing station,
24th arriving in Yanggao at 03.44! But both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off almost immediately to attend to village clients.

I’ve been out of love with Paris for a while; the romantic image is hard to square with its gritty realities (rather like China, perhaps?). But this trip with the Li band naturally made me fall in love with it again. In this supposedly homogenised age—as with other cities like Leipzig, VeniceSeville, or Lisbon—we must delight in Parisian culture too!

As I write these notes up, Haitink conducting Mahler 9 comes on Radio 3, live from the Barbican; and then next evening, another live broadcast of Turangalîla! Perfect. I hear echoes of the Li family rituals in both: all the contrasts of monumental tutti and intimate chamber styles that we find in a Daoist ritual. But that’s just me… If only Messaien were still around to hear the Li family in Paris!

Posted at 5am to commemorate daily sessions with Old Lord Li.

Jottings from Lisbon

Just home from Lisbon, where I screened my film for a select and rather posh CHIME conference. How good to have a few days to enjoy cobbled streets, tiles, and little wood-lined trams—authentically scattered, as everywhere, among decrepit building sites.

Back in the 1990s, annual working holidays in Lisbon (as well as Parma, Ludwigsburg, Amsterdam, Paris, and London—happy days) were a regular gig while we were doing Mozart operas with John Eliot Gardiner.

On the same principle as seeking out flamenco in Seville after the Matthew Passion, it was always good to go in search of fado in Lisbon after our concerts there. Fado can be great, as long as we don’t expect it to be flamenco—this is a bit like relationships altogether (tutti, bemused: “This is a bit like relationships”.)

The old-style fado bars, holes in the wall, have become ever more elusive, long outnumbered by glossy tourist restaurants. As ever, a good sign is the lack of a sign.

fado

Fado singing, 1993. My photo.

We found a good little fado dive this time too, rather by chance. And then on our last night our fine hosts kindly took us to the Boteco da Fa in the Alfama, a classy joint that nonetheless has a great atmosphere—it’s just a little room that can pack in around fifty aficionados. We heard Sandra Correia

and Augusto Ramos:

The quintessential saudade (“missingness”!), a first cousin of the duende of cante jondo in flamenco (and see several other nice intercultural equivalents under the saudade link), was much in evidence.

Both singers are well known performers in “concert”, and in a club like this the atmosphere is quite formal (the rather good food can only be a brief diversion between—not even during!—sets), but Augusto also doubles as a waiter there, and they’re pouring their hearts out just a few feet away from you.

Focusing as I was on the intensity of the singing, it took me a while to realise how great the two pluckers were too— Luis Guerreiro, the leading guitarra player, totally at ease, always exploring patterns and harmonies, his riffs even featuring the occasional soupçon of  Django.

pluckers

Brilliant fado pluckers. Photo: Xiao Mei.

Being in Lisbon, we were able to express our appreciation with warm applause—I read that

According to tradition, to applaud fado in Lisbon you clap your hands, while in Coimbra one coughs as if clearing one’s throat.

Could Coimbra have been a British colony?!

Our group from the conference included the brilliant Xiao Mei and two young Chinese conservatoire performers. I relish this recent rapport, this new sense of equality. Xiao Mei, most enlightened among Chinese musicologists, is always in fieldwork mode, lapping it all up, as were the younger musos, recording on their posh smartphones and chatting in breaks with the musos. A wonderful evening— Chinese Twitter will be abuzz with it, and that’s just so inspiring…

fado group

Sandra Correia, Xiao Mei, and Enio Souza, dynamic conference organizer.

In a small way, all this reminds us all why it’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music, if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be such a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg (cf. this post too).

Nor would any visit to Lisbon be complete without a serious overdose of nata:

Whereas the English custard pie is only good for slapstick. Typical

***

Meanwhile at our conference on Chinese music, it’s always good to hear Xiao Mei introducing her work on shamans and trance, with her amazing videos of rituals among the ethnic minorities within the PRC.

Since the conference was held at the Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, the music of Macau was one theme. With typical impertinence I suggested that studies of music-making in Macau might be inspired by Ruth Finnegan’s seminal book The hidden musicians, exploring all the diverse kinds of musical activity in Milton Keynes, whose population is less than half of that of the Chinese metropolis. Macau’s cultural life outside official institutions remains to be explored—for instance, no-one has yet made the connection with the household and temple Daoists there. [1]

***

Back in May 1993, we were doing a series of performances of Le nozze di Figaro:

That’s a live concert recording at the Queen Elizabeth Hall after we returned to London. Soon after that I returned to Hebei for my second visit to Gaoluo and further survey of village ritual associations.

On a free day between Figaro shows, I visited the resort of Cascais, a pleasant excursion just west along the coast. On the street I came across a blind busker called Rosa, then 36, from Almada just across the river. She accompanied her songs on the triangle, occasionally checking the lyrics in Braille.

Cascais singer

Rosa, 1993. My photo.

I assumed she was just another blind beggar who never comes much to anyone’s attention, unless you count me. So imagine my surprise, today, when none other than Xiao Mei saw my photo and told me that Rosa (now “Dona Rosa“, with a backing band) had come to give concerts in China! And sure enough, she’s now become a star on the world music circuit, having been “discovered” (not by me—I kept her to myself) but since 1999 and more widely since 2004.

How was I to know?! Can I indeed claim to have discovered her, like Yang Yinliu discovered Abing?! Hardly, since I’ve sat on the fruits of my casual fieldwork for 24 years. I am reminded of the occasional blind bard from Shaanbei who materialises, bemused, on Chinese TV extravaganzas.

Here’s one of several youtube clips of Dona Rosa:

As usual, the exigencies of the world music big band distract from the atmosphere of her solo singing. Try this instead—from a concert at New Year 2008 in the Concertgebouw, no less:

Still, from a BTL comment by fjcnunes I also learn:

It’s sad and lamentable that this great lady is still begging on the street of Rua Augusta, Lisbon. This was the case in June 2014, when I saw her there and took a picture with her. In her words, she gets paid “next to nothing” to play in Portugal and is forced to play on the streets to make a living. Probably the promoters and organizers get the lion’s share of the revenues from her concerts. I wonder if the same would have been allowed to happen to Cesária Évora? If you happen to travel to Lisbon, Portugal, please pass by Rua Augusta and purchase one of her CDs, directly from her. At least you’ll know where the money’s going.

***

Anyway, that chance find in Cascais was typical of the kind of superficial yet rewarding little jaunts one can fit in as a touring muso—like dance houses in Budapest, Tralallero choirs in Genova, and so on.

The Alentejo, just across the river (a kind of poor man’s Pudong?!) is famed for its folk choral singing. I haven’t caught it live yet, but it’s evidently a rich tradition.

In Cascais I also enjoyed the parade for voluntary fireman’s day.

firemen

Parade for voluntary fireman’s day, May 1993. My photo.

All this belongs to my recurring theme of delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse. In the present climate, we must relish our cultural diversity all the more. And yes, that does include Mexican migrants and Syrian refugees. All those Brits who find themselves (not) with an extra 350 million squid a year to spend might lavish a bit of it on educating themselves about the traditions of their newly-alien neighbours.

[1] See e.g. http://www.macaotaoist.org/澳門道教科儀音樂/http://www.baike.com/wiki/澳门道教科仪音乐http://www.chinataoism.org/showtopic.php?id=1005; for a major community ritual for the 2003 SARS epidemic, see http://www.cciv.cityu.edu.hk/macau/3/2.php.

Corpsing: Inuit culture and Haydn

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

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

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

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

Now I’d like to seek ethnographies of changing life in Inuit communities since the 1920s—preferably not containing the words “traditional way of life” or “vanishing culture” (“But that’s not important right now.”)

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

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

***

Corpsing is one of the pleasures of musical life in WAM too—we’ve all done gigs like that. I can’t suggest here the numerous ways in which fiddle players try to corpse their desk partners by a tiny little gesture of resignation at the repeat of a minuet, or a fake sforzando attack on a pianissimo entry. Generally “the show must go on”, but once, the Allegri string quartet were performing the intimate, intense slow movement of a Haydn quartet when the viola player let out an extended and voluble fart. The leader giggled sotto voce, and as the mirth spread (even to the miscreant, who’s generally the first to keep a straight bat) all four of them were soon so helpless with laughter that they just couldn’t keep going, and had to leave the stage to compose themselves.

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

Lives under the GDR

The experiences of Eastern European countries under “socialism”, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different.

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on trips to East Berlin and Dresden in 1979 (playing Elektra with Welsh National Opera), and to Halle and Leipzig in the 80s (playing Bach with John Eliot Gardiner). My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,

and

Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this talking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analyzing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analyzing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognizes the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab.

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

And after my citing an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)

And

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken these things for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

***

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too either tend towards magical realism or over-dramatizing.