Méfiez-vous des blancs

I’ve featured the music of Ravel a lot on this blog (starting here), but the Black Lives Matter movement reminds me to get to know his Chansons madécasses (1925–26).

These three songs to lyrics by Évariste de Parny (1753–1814), with flute, cello, and piano, [1] came soon after the premiere of the enchanted L’enfant et les sortilèges—and just as the Rif war in Morocco was coming to a head.

I’ve broached the themes of exoticism and colonialism in posts on Berlioz and Mahler. For Ravel, Shéhérazade, as well as his taste for jazz, are also relevant.

But the style of the Chansons madécasses is far from Ravel’s customary sensuality. Even the outer movements—the first an ode to a casual sexual encounter, the third a languid dream of the master with his maids—are uncompromising, unsettling.

Aoua

Most disturbing is the second song Méfiez-vous des blancs, with the false promises of the white invaders, their priests who “wanted to give us a God whom we didn’t know”, and carnage. Though the invaders are expelled, after the initial Aoua! screams of alarm, the final cries are subdued.

For the first recording in 1932 the singer was Madeleine Gray, with Ravel apparently supervising rather than playing piano:

Nahandove
Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove! L’’oiseau nocturne a commencé ses cris, la pleine lune brille sur ma tête, et la rosée naissante humecte mes cheveux. Voici l’’heure; qui peut t’’arrête, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Le lit de feuilles est préparée de fleurs et d’’herbes odoriférent; il est digne de tes charmes, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Elle vient. J’’ai reconnu la respiration précipité que donne une marche rapide; j’’entends le froissement de la pagne qui l’’enveloppe; c’’est elle, c’’est Nahandove, la belle Nahandove!

Ô reprends haleine, ma jeune amie; repose-toi sur mes genoux. Que ton regard est enchanteur! Que le mouvement de ton sein est vif et délicieux sous la main qui le presse! Tu souris, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Tes baisers pénètrent jusqu’’à l’’âme; tes caresses brûlent tous mes sens: arrête, ou je vais mourir. Meurt-on de volupté, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Le plaisir passe comme un éclair. Ta douce haleine s’’affaiblit, tes yeux humides se referment, ta tête se penche mollement, et tes transports s’éignent dans la languer. Jamais tu ne fût si belle, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Tu pars, et je vais languir dans les regrets et les désirs. Je languirai jusqu’’au soir. Tu reviendras ce soir, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Méfiez-vous des blancs
Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage. Du temps de nos pères, des blancs descendirent dans cette île. On leur dit: Voilà des terres, que vos femmes les cultivent; soyez justes, soyez bons, et devenez nos frères.

Les blancs promirent, et cependant ils faisoient des retranchemens. Un fort menaçant s’’éleva; le tonnerre fut renfermé dans des bouches d’’airain; leur prêtres voulurent nous donner un Dieu que nous ne connaissons pas; ils parlèrent enfin d’’obéissance et d’’esclavage. Plutôt la mort! Le carnage fut long et terrible; mais malgré la foudre qu’’ils vomissoient et qui ecraisoit des armées entières, ils furent tous exterminés. Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage.

Nous avons vu de nouveaux tyrans, plus forts et plus nombreux, planter leur pavillon sur le rivage. Le ciel a combattu pour nous. Il a fait tomber sur eux les pluis, les tempêtes et les vents empoisonnés. Ils ne sont plus, et nous vivons, et nous vivons libre. Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage.

Il est doux de se coucher
Il est doux de se coucher, durant la chaleur, sous un arbre touffu, et d’’attendre que le vent du soir amène la fraîcheur.

Femmes, approchez. Tandis que je me repose ici sous un arbre touffu, occupez mon oreille par vos accens prolongés. Répétez la chanson de la jeune fille, lorsque ses doigts tressent la natte, or lorsqu’’assise auprès du riz, elle chasse les oiseux avides.

Le chant plaît à mon âme. La danse est pour moi presque aussi douce qu’’un baiser. Que vos pas soient lent; qu’’ils imitent les attitudes du plaisir et l’’abandon de la volupté.

Le vent du soir se lève; la lune commence à briller au travers des arbres de la montagne. Allez, et préparez le repas.

Among more recent renditions, here’s Magdelena Kožená (cf. her incomparable Ich bin der Welt abhanden bekommen):

[1] See e.g. Richard S. James, “Ravel’s ‘Chansons madécasses’: ethnic fantasy or ethnic borrowing?”, Musical quarterly 74.3 (1990), and Roger Nichols, Ravel (2011), pp.271–80.

French organ improvisation!

Olivier Messiaen and Oliver Latry

Marseillaise

Sometimes what you really need is to put on at full blast a rousing number like Back to black, some pizzicaBach with trumpets and drums—or some French organ improvisation

Thanks to Bruno Nettl, my post Unpacking “improvisation” covers a lot of ground. Apart from the Usual Suspects (jazz, Indian raga), improvisation was commonly practised by composer-performers in early WAM (revived by Robert Levin in his incarnation as Mozart!); and Nettl goes on to explore the whole creative continuum from preparation to performance, considering Persian “classical” music, Native American songs, and so on.

Notre Dame

My post Playing with history features Messiaen‘s Messe de la Pentacôte—the written, reified result of his lifelong practice of improvising at the organ of the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris. There you can hear it played by Oliver Latry on the organ of Notre Dame[1]

Indeed, Latry continues the tradition there, as you can hear in many YouTube items. Of course this isn’t just disembodied, “autonomous” music: the videos often remind us that it’s an integral means of serving ritual, at some remove from the secular context of the concert hall. Such a majestic way of “rousing the sacred hall“! Here (under “The reform era”) I also mention the all-encompassing sound of the related sheng mouth-organs in church during the Li family Daoists’ tour of Germany.

While the hectic, dense, monumental fortissimos leave a deep impression, the art requires contrast, with sparse, reflective passages—as in this wonderful improvisation by Oliver Latry in 2011:

Also from 2011, during Sunday Mass—reminding us of the religious context:

and this is VAST:

The B-A-C-H motif is a popular inspiration:

Here Latry improvises on the Marseillaise for a Mass to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks of 13th November 2015:

Another finely-constructed piece for Sunday Mass in 2007:

Indeed, it transpires that they’re all at it, these denizens of the organ loft—as you can see from this substantial website. A niche coterie indeed…

Messiaen’s musical language as performer-composer remains unique. My posts on Messiaen mainly feature the great orchestral works (Turangalîla, Des canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l’au-delà …, and so on), but his grounding/transcendence in the organ makes an essential background. Amongst his numerous organ works, here’s the early Dieu parmi nous, finale of La nativité du Seigneur (1935)—a perennial favourite:

Let’s end with a precious film of Messiaen himself in 1985, aged 76, improvising gloriously on three scenes from Puer natus est at the Saint-Trinité organ—after over half a century there:

Messiaen introduces his meditations in turn:

  • Les bergers dans les champs voient apparaître une troupe d’Anges qui chantent Gloria in excelsis Deo
  • Et les Mages avaient vu l’Etoile du Christ en Orient et se sont mis en route vers Nazareth [or rather, Bethlehem!]
  • Et les Mages offrirent un présent à Marie et à l’Enfant Jésus de l’or comme un Roi, de l’Encens comme un Dieu, et de la myrrhe comme un homme mortel.

 

[1] The Notre Dame organ was spared from the 2019 fire. Click here for an engaging survey of Notre Dame’s whole cultural significance. For the Li family Daoists before the cathedral, see these engaging notes on our 2017 French tour.

Philharmonia: a kitsch-off

Philharmonie

As you may have noticed, I’m a sucker for TV thrillers with subtitles (Scandi noir, Spiral, even Montalbano). But the recent French drama Philharmonia, from the normally dependable Walter Presents on Channel 4, is compelling for different reasons.

Like Stuart Jeffries in this brilliant review (“Acorn Antiques with subtitles”), I love it for all the wrong reasons. His review largely relieves me of the burden of slagging off this piece of posh Eurotrash, but hey.

OK, I am very hard to please when it comes to feature films about WAM—possibly because they’re all rubbish, falling for every single deluded romantic cliché going (or long gone) about Artists. I make an exception for the films of Ken Russell, redeemed by excess.

This flaw applies to films about sport too (Wimbledon, football…). What is it about culture that film-makers get so wrong—why can’t they just stick to the grimy underworld? Sure, career criminals doubtless watch cop dramas with similar disdain—“FFS, no-one’s cut an ear off like that since the 1960s”—but at least we also have conscious spoofs there. I guess people who work in offices felt like this about The office. Not to mention medical soaps…

In the first episode Marie-Sophie Ferdane approaches her role gamely as conductor Hélen Barizet struggling against sexists unreconstructed since about the 1950s zzzzz while she pouts in heels. As Stuart Jeffries wrote, “Imagine a musician as brilliant and scary as Nadia Boulanger, but with a pearl-handled Beretta in her top drawer.”

Sure enough, her fit husband is a composer; naturally, she’s had a 1950 Erard grand put in her hotel room, As You Do; and inevitably, as he plays his latest composition for her (which by hallowed film decree must be in the retro style of Richard Clayderman), she straddles him at the piano. Of course she does. Just excuse me while I throw up. The only upside of her keeping him busy between the sheets and on top of the Erard is that he may never get to finish his piece (cf. Schubert). Oh no—she’s announced that she’s going to premiere it with the orchestra! Later, when he’s suffering from that good ol’ composer’s block, she inspires him to finish it—if she hasn’t committed other crimes, she should be locked up for this, at least. And YAY—there’s a family curse!

With the orchestra she’s a new broom sweeping clean, to the players’ outrage—OK, so far, so realistic, until the melodramatic script hams it up. But she wins them over rather quickly. At least she, like her enigmatic young protégée, really does play the violin, although they both have magic instruments that never need tuning up (cf. the muso’s old excuse “It was in tune when I bought it”). And why do all these films never synchronise the image of the conductor’s beat with the musical sound?

It’s not just her unfaithful cad of a husband—they’re all at it comme des lapins. And so we become voyeurs of this imagined posh, capricious, temperamental world.

The script offers every musical cliché in the book, with sexist clichés liberally thrown in. The gags come as thick and fast as in Airplane—only inadvertently. I couldn’t resist watching the whole series, a divertissement from weightier matters.

However, as the series wears on, I confess that I did find myself becoming more involved in the whodunit of the drama—if you can leave the orchestral flapdoodle out of it, it’s quite involving, my quibbles just making an entertaining diversion. Rather like enjoying Titanic while blanking out the whole ship/sea scenario.

* * *

Appassionata

Philharmonia makes a worthy Gallic companion with Appassionata by Jilly Cooper, “queen of the bonkbuster”—which is at least tongue-in-cheek. Here’s another gleeful review.

The blurb alone is hilarious (particular credit to the names!):

Abigail Rosen, nicknamed Appassionata, was the sexiest, most flamboyant violinist in classical music, but she was also the loneliest and the most exploited girl in the world. When a dramatic suicide attempt destroyed her violin career, she set her sights on the male-dominated heights of the conductor’s rostrum.

Given the chance to take over the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, Abby is ecstatic, not realising the RSO is in hock up to its neck and is composed of the wildest bunch of musicians ever to blow a horn or caress a fiddle. Abby finds it increasingly difficult to control her undisciplined rabble and pretend she is not madly attracted to the fatally glamorous horn player, Viking O’Neill, who claims droit du seigneur over every pretty woman joining the orchestra. And then Rannaldini, arch-fiend and international maestro, rolls up with Machiavellian plans of his own to sabotage the RSO. Effervescent as champagne, Jilly Cooper’s novel brings back old favourites like Rupert and Taggie Campbell-Black, but also ends triumphantly with a rampageous orchestral tour of Spain and the high drama of an international piano competition.

YAY, YAY, and thrice YAY! Gimme Mozart in the jungle any day.

Among many gifted, real, female conductors, see Barbara Hannigan and Oxana Thaili here.

 

Some pupils of Nadia Boulanger—real and alleged

Boulanger with Stravinsky

With Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York“), 1937.

Just in time before it was deleted, I viewed a suggestive wiki page listing well over two hundred distinguished pupils of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979; cf. my post on her sister Lili). The wiki editors may have decided it would be shorter to compile a list of musicians who didn’t study with her.

Sure, one might suspect that some of them just popped in for a pot of tea and a macaroon, à la Alan Bennett. The allure of Paris may have played a certain role in Mademoiselle’s popularity—dare I surmise that her wisdom might not have been in quite such demand had she been based in Scunthorpe.

Prominent in the populous Boulangerie were renowned WAM composers and performers—such as Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Philip Glass (cf. Ned Rorem, “Am I the only living expatriate American composer who never studied with Nadia Boulanger?”); Darius Milhaud, Jean Françaix; Thea Musgrave, Lennox Berkeley; Shanghai composer Ding Shande; [1] Igor Markevitch, Dinu Lipatti, Idil Biret, Joseph Horovitz, Daniel Barenboim, Clifford Curzon, Kenneth Gilbert, John Kirkpatrick, Kathleen Ferrier…

As would be the case later (see here, under “Performance practice”), new composition and early music went hand in hand. Boulanger’s performances of Monteverdi and Bach were legendary—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular. In the later HIP scene, she was a formative influence on performers such as John Eliot Gardiner and Robert Levin.

I like this story from Philip Glass’s memoirs:

After proffering his 20-page manuscript, Mademoiselle (as she was known) placed it on the piano’s music rack and cast her eyes over the densely written pages. At a certain point she paused, drew breath and enquired after his health.

“Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?”

“No, Mlle Boulanger, I am really fine.”

“Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially.”

“No, Mlle Boulanger.”

She wheeled her chair around and screamed “Then how do you explain this?”

She had found “hidden fifths” between an alto and bass part—a heinous crime, if ever there were one. After upbraiding him for his slackness and lack of commitment he was dismissed and the lesson was over.

Boulanger with Piazzolla 1955

With Astor Piazzolla, 1955.

Intriguing too are those names outside the world of WAM, notably jazzers—Donald Byrd, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, Michel Legrand, and so on. Most poignantly, Noor Inayat Khan and her siblings—on whom, do please read this moving post.

Here’s a precious 1977 film by Bruno Monsaingeon (cf. his films on Rozhdestvensky), showing evocative vignettes from her salon:

* * *

Descending into fantasy, I only began to wonder about some of these names when I switched on Football focus to hear Wayne Rooney claiming to be a disciple:

Emm… yeah Gary, me legendary hunger for the ball round the edge of the box—that’s all down to Mademoiselle, like… She taught me everything I know about Renaissance polyphony—[2] mind you, I taught ‘er everything she knows about dribbling, fair dos like. [3]

Perhaps it goes back to the popularity of a CV-writing manual that states “most importantly, always claim to be a pupil of Nadia Boulanger”.

This trend has also influenced historians, such as recent biographers of Genghis Khan (“under her tutelage, he became almost docile”) and Jane Austen—citing a recently-discovered early draft of Pride and Prejudice:

But I was not to be deterred by Mademoiselle’s stern rebukes pertaining to the supposed clumsiness of my chordal voicing on the pianoforte.

(Seriously though folks, do read this interesting article on music and class in Austen’s works).

YAY! Wayne Rooney, Genghis Khan, and Jane Austen—now there’s another great guest-list for a fantasy dinner-party. For some unlikely reviews of my own ouevre, click here.

Left, 1910; right, 1925.

 

[1] Meanwhile, other students were beating a path to the door of Olivier Messiaen, including the great Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

[2] See his little-known thesis: Wayne Mark Rooney, The art of counterpoint in the late Masses of Josquin des Prez, with special reference to penalty-taking, like (PhD, Université Paris-Sorbonne/Birkenhead Polytechnic, nd).
Note also the (real!) Improvisation for Michael Owen on the qin zither.

[3] Cf. the Harry and Paul spoof interview with S-Simon Rattle, introducing a fascinating (and otherwise earnest) post on Conducting from memory.

Noor Inayat Khan

Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.

—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003

Noor 1

To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.

Basu cover

I’ve been reading

  • Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),

which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).

Early life
Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God. [1] Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for more on raga, see here):

In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…

Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.

Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin [2] on 1st January 1914.

But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.

However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.

But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.

Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.

From 1931 she attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger, studying harp with Henriette Renié, as well as piano and composition. Can anyone find her Prelude for harp and Elegy for harp and piano? I’d love to hear them. I wonder if she ever played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the Debussy Trio—or indeed Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death, dedicated to Micheline Kahn, another harp teacher at the École.

sisters

Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.

jatakaFrom 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.

By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.

Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.

For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.

Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.

The SOE: occupied France
As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.

Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.

Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.

Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.

Posterity
Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.

In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.

In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:

In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.

Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.

Noor was particularly close to her remarkable brother Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916–2004; see here, and wiki), who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading Sufi mystic.

Vilayat

As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.

In 1996, at the age of 80, Vilayat commemorated Noor by conducting Bach’s B minor mass at Dachau (film here; see also this portrait, from 45.07).

How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.

* * *

However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.

Still, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unbearably moving.


[1] Indeed, Yusef Lateef introduced Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound of music (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.

[2] Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!

Script to an iconic head-butt

headbutt

Since I mentioned Zidane’s iconic head-butt in the 2006 World Cup Final—one of the supreme sacrifices in the cause of performance art—further footage has come to light enabling us to reconstruct one side of the, um, conversations leading up to it [Yeah right—Ed.].

The angle of the grainy amateur video (filmed on one of those new-fangled contraptions that I believe are known as “smartphones”) only allows us to see Zidane’s own reactions to Materazzi’s foul-mouthed torrents of abuse. I hereby translate them, reconstructed with the help of a dedicated team of lip–readers:

Funny you should say that, Marco baby, but I Think You’ll Find that my mother is in fact somewhat conservative in the range of her social engagements. Please allow me to suggest that you must be mistaking her for someone else—might a trip to Specsaveurs be in order? I do also note that you seem to confuse my legs for the ball.

[…]

And as to my sister (and again, I’m not sure this is strictly relevant to the matter at hand)—well, Sir, I think you will concur with me that it ill behoves us to cast judgement on the explorations of young people as they negotiate the rules of social interaction of this complex world in which we find ourselves. Doubtless you are au fait with the ouevre of my esteemed compatriot Simone de Beauvoir—indeed, I believe your own country has some fine discussion groups on gender issues. Perhaps I might remind you that the behaviour of men might also be subject to such scrutiny—with their own all-too-human foibles, they cannot always be renowned as bastions of moral probity.

Anyway, With All Due Respect, I suppose we really should tear ourselves away for a while, however reluctantly, in order to display our athletic prowess in this Beautiful Game of ours for the benefit of the assembled multitudes. It’s been absolutely super chatting with you, little Marco—I must say how much I enjoy our little tête-a-têtes

BAM*@*@*

 

See also The c-word. For an off-pitch bust-up, and a brilliant headline, click here; for Daoist football, and men moving the goalposts, here. For more on women’s football, see here.

 

 

 

Doubletalk

To complement Flann O’Brien’s multi-lingual All-Purpose Opening Speech, a passage from Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! led me to the even purer form of doubletalk:

Lenny began to rely more and more on what he could do with his voice, hands and facial expressions. […] That discovery was the first step in the direction of abstraction.

The next step was to junk speech in favor of double-talk. Here he was following the lead of Sid Caesar, the greatest double-talk artist in the history of comedy. Sid was a genius with sounds and accents. He couldn’t speak two words of any foreign language, but he would converse for hours in double-talk versions of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Japanese—and even more exotic tongues—with such passions and such a flair for the characteristic sounds of these languages that people would swear he was actually speaking the language.

Now, as Lenny realized eventually from his prolonged study of Sid’s stage act, when you make a character speak in double-talk, you actually abstracted the essence of his vocal mannerisms. Once the words were reduced to gibberish, the whole characterization resided in the inflections and tonal peculiarities of the character’s delivery.

Indeed, beyond mere verbal fluency, hand gestures and facial expressions are important aspects of language learning (for the vocabulary of Italian hand gestures, see e.g. here).

Language Log has erudite coverage of doubletalk, with further links. Here’s the famous Sid Caesar routine, with French, German, Italian, and Japanese:

Meanwhile Dario Fo was exploring Grammelot:

By extension, here’s a classic scene from Bananas:

 

 

The Masque of the Red Death

Poe—Caplet—Corman

 

Caplet

Here’s some seasonal macabre.

The Conte fantastique after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:

The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.

Caplet

Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source here.

Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):

film

Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer:

 

French slang

Spiral

A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.

The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?

As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôle resumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.

Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And

Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).

What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.

anvers

Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of putemerde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is le fist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.

But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is rien sacré?

Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).

Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.

Meanwhile in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is helpfully provided with a glossary… For English word games, see here; for the evolving Chinese language, here. And don’t miss this post on how not to learn Japanese!

Popular culture in early modern Europe

Burke

We often study Chinese culture (both expressive and material) rather in isolation, but many parallels are suggested in

  • Peter Burke, Popular culture in early modern Europe (1978, thoughtfully updated in 2009 edition),

a lucidly-written single-volume work on the period 1500 to 1800. Of course it’s a vast field, but Burke’s broad coverage is enriched by illuminating detail.

Think away television, radio, and cinema, which have standardized the vernaculars of Europe within living memory, not to mention changes which are less obvious but may be more profound. Think away the railways, which probably did even more than conscription and government propaganda to erode the culture peculiar to each province and to turn regions into nations. Think away universal education and literacy, class consciousness and nationalism. Think away the modern confidence (however shaken) in progress, science, and technology, and the secular modes in which hopes and fears are expressed.

Indeed, many in Europe had little access to these features well into the 20th century—and many Chinese still later. So the historical coverage not only makes a useful perspective on popular traditions enduring today (e.g. Italy or east Europe), but is also full of lessons for our studies of popular culture in modern China.

Many (not least in China) tend to visualize Europe as a monolithic, reified, “developed” (and largely secular) modern bourgeois society, whose music (for instance) is represented by the “classical” canon. In the wake of the industrial revolution, change in the popular cultures of Europe was already a complex issue by the early 1900s, when study began to take off in earnest; but in China, for all its own revolution, many of Burke’s perspectives still seem relevant in the late 20th century. So it may be easier to see the parallels here than it would be with a study of modern Europe.

In Chapter 1 he discusses “The discovery of the people” by early-19th-century intellectuals, just as traditional culture seemed threatened—of which he gives some fine examples, long predating 20th-century concerns. Already before the industrial revolution, with the growth of towns, the improvement of roads, and the spread of literacy, the centre was invading the periphery.

Burke adduces early collections of folk-songs from Germany, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, Hungary, and Finland. The intellectuals also discovered popular religion and festivals (cf. Zhao Shiyu‘s work on Chinese temple fairs), along with folk music. Burke discusses aesthetic, intellectual, and political reasons for this interest. Along with the reaction against the Enlightenment, and the growth of nationalism,

the discovery of the people was part of a movement of cultural primitivism in which the ancient, the distant, and the popular were all equated.

In Chinese discourse on folk culture, terms like “simple” and “primitive” were still common in the late 20th century.

At the same time, Burke unpacks problems with studying the subject through the work of early European folklorists: distortion, creative bias, and the notion of “improvement”. Just like the CCP in China,

it is all to easy to continue to see popular culture through the romantic, nationalist spectacles of the intellectuals of the early 19th century.

On “restoration” he observes:

To read the text of a ballad, a folktale, or even a tune in a collection of this period is much like looking at a Gothic church which was “restored” at much the same time. One cannot be sure whether one is looking at what was originally there, at what the restorer thought was originally there, at what he thought ought to have been there, or at what he thought should be there now. Not only texts and buildings were subject to “restoration”, but even festivals.

Burke criticizes the notions of primitivism, communalism, and purism, stressing that “popular culture does have a history”.

In Chapter 2, “Unity and variety in popular culture”, Burke notes pockets where there was still a shared culture on the lines of the (dodgy) model of tribal societies, but observes that the broad picture was not monolithic or homogeneous: social stratification was widespread. He refines the model of interdependent great and little traditions, both urban and rural, that Robert Redfield suggested in the 1930s:

There were two cultural traditions in early modern Europe, but they did not correspond symmetrically to the two main social groups, the elite and the common people. The elite participated in the little traditions, but the common people did not participate in the great tradition. The great tradition was transmitted formally at grammar schools and at universities. It was a closed tradition in the sense that people who had not attended such institutions, which were not open to all, were excluded. […] The little tradition, on the other hand, was transmitted informally. It was open to all, like the church and the market-place, where so many of the performances occurred.

So in the early period the elite, the nobility, local literati, and the clergy had access to and participated in both cultures.

In the Cracow area about 1565, more than 80% of the poor nobles were illiterate. The style of life of some rural nobles and parish priests was not so different from that of the peasants around them.
[…]
But this situation did not remain static throughout the period. The upper classes gradually withdrew from participation in the little tradition in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Following Kodály and Gramsci, Burke also notes that “the people” were not a homogeneous group. As in 20th-century China, the peasants formed 80–90% of the population. But apart from peasants and craftsmen, women, children, shepherds, sailors, beggars, and so on, all had important sub-cultures. The diversity of occupations makes a useful reminder for China, both in imperial and modern times; the peasantry was itself stratified, as the CCP would observe. Burke cites Kodaly again:

Many traditional folksongs are appropriate only for one social group, like the Scandinavian drängvisor, or farm-hands’ song, and the pigvisor, the “complaints” of ill–treated maidservants.

He notes ecological differences:

Leaping dances seem to be associated with mountainous regions, in the Basque country, in Norway, in the highlands of Bavaria, Poland, and Scotland, because this was an old form of dance which did not survive in the plains.

In the countryside farmers, herdsmen, and shepherds also had different cultures, as did blacksmiths, carpenters, woodsmen, miners, and bandits. Similar stratification was notable in the towns: guilds, craftsmen (weavers, tailors, shoemakers, journeymen, apprentices, and so on), and shopkeepers.

Burke notes religion and ethnic minorities as markers of cultural difference—not only Catholics and Protestants, but Jews and Muslims. And he discusses the male category of “wanderers”—soldiers, sailors, beggars, and thieves. He notes variation by gender and region, coexisting with other types of variation. Excluded from most of the categories, “women’s culture is to popular culture what popular culture is to culture as a whole.” Other potential elements in a cultural geography of Europe would include architecture, literacy, and topography. He observes interaction between great and little traditions, finding traffic in both directions, with creative transformations.

In Chapter 3, “An elusive quarry”, Burke interrogates the sources, their literati bias and unreliability:

We want to know about performances, but what have survived are texts; we want to see these performances through the eyes of the craftsmen and peasants themselves, but we are forced to see them through the eyes of literate outsiders.

The attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants

were expressed in activities and performances, but these activities and performances were only documented when the literate upper classes took an interest in them.

And when, as often, festivities were described by foreign visitors, they

are likely to miss all sorts of local or topical allusions and may misunderstand what the festivities mean to the participants.

Or (as in China) popular activities may be recorded simply because the authorities were trying to suppress them. And of course

A text cannot record a performance adequately, whether it is a clown’s or a preacher’s. The tone of voice is missing, so are the facial expressions, the gestures, the acrobatics.

Further, Burke notes that printed texts (including sermons) are likely to vary from the texts performed. Print not only recorded popular culture but undermined it. He lists six kinds of mediator, and explores oblique approaches to popular culture, adducing witch trials and “iconology”. And he notes the useful perspective of rebellion, also fruitful for China.

Discussing folk-songs and epics “collected” in the 20th century, he comments:

Historians whose sources consist of fragmentary texts have a lot to learn from folklorists whose sources are living people, who can be observed at work and even questioned. What I am advocating is a rather more indirect use of the modern material, to criticize or interpret the documentary sources.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me say at once what the regressive method is not. It does not consist of relatively recent situations and cheerfully assuming that they apply equally well to earlier periods.

He notes the potential for historians to learn from anthropologists.

Part Two, “Structures of popular culture”, opens with Chapter 4, “The transmission of popular culture”, focusing on the “active bearers of culture”. While observing that

Shepherds made their own bagpipes as well as playing them. The men of the household made the furniture, and the women made the clothes. […] Anyone who fell ill or had an accident would be treated at home,

he stresses that

Neither the household nor the village was culturally autonomous.

Semi-professional healers, traveling pedlars, and wandering minstrels [a term, I note, encrusted with romantic flapdoodle] were also part of the picture. He unpacks the notion of “popular artist” (one who works mainly for a public of craftsmen and peasants), and the spectrum of professionals and amateurs. I like his list of occupational performers for England:

Ballad-singers, bear-wards, buffoons, charlatans, clowns, comedians, fencers, fools, hocus-pocus men, jugglers, merry-andrews, minstrels, mountebanks, players, puppet-masters, quacks, rope-dancers, showmen, tooth-drawers and tumblers. [1]

(For instances of the evocative use of lists, see Last night’s fun and Accordion crimes.)

But again there were gradations, as with shawm bands in China today. Like tinkers and pedlars, many performing groups were itinerant. The Russian skomorokhi (interestingly seen as antecedents of Pussy Riot here) travelled in bands of up to one hundred men. Burke’s description of “strolling players” in 18th-century England reminds me of Chinese opera troupes today:

Two actors would be sent ahead of the rest to get permission to play in the towns and villages on their route. Their properties and costumes would be secondhand, even dilapidated, and they would perform in inns or barns.

la Tour

Georges La Tour, The hurdy-gurdy man. Cf. the lirniky of modern Ukraine.

Several more features suggest China. Solo bards were also common—as in Spain, France, Serbia, and Russia. Whether solo or in a group, they were often equated with beggars; and many “vagabond-entertainers” were blind. Itinerant preachers were also widespread. Besides human opera, ritual puppet plays may remind us of groups still performing in regions like Fujian and Gansu.

Less well documented were the amateur performers, and semi-professionals (as in China), “part-time specialists who had another occupation but might derive a supplementary income from their singing, playing, or healing.” Performers of plays and other festivities were often organized into guilds. Funeral wailers were hired, as in Britain, Italy, and Russia. Popular healers and diviners are listed for England, Sweden, Poland, Spain.

Burke explores the physical setting, noting that it is easier to document public performances (church, tavern, market-place) than domestic occasions. He outlines the balance of folk tradition and individual innovation, refuting the “collective creation” myth.

Chapter 5, “Traditional forms”, explores genres, discussing the variety of dance and song forms; themes and variations; and the process of composition—all recurring issues in ethnomusicology. He includes preaching and material culture, seeking not only formulas and motifs but structures.

Chapter 6, “Heroes, villains, and fools” goes on to look at stock characters, probing the attitudes and values of craftsmen and peasants. In popular culture the images of rulers, the clergy and saints, the nobility and knights, the middle class and officials, are sometimes ambivalent, but the lower classes seem “conservative”, accepting them and structuring their world through the models provided by the dominant group. Conversely, craftsmen and peasants also saw society in terms not of harmony but of conflict, complaining of poverty and injustice. Here Burke lists five points along a spectrum of responses: fatalist, moralist, traditionalist, radical, and millenarian.

The Chinese peasantry since the 1940s have also clung to such heroic figures from the imperial past, remaining quite resistant to the cultural values of the CCP while absorbing new elements (like the PLA soldier in the medium’s pantheon here).

Under “ordinary people”, Burke notes that craftsmens’ image of the peasant was unflattering. Nor, in the male-dominated sources, do women emerge well:

Most popular heroines were objects, admired not so much for what they did but what they suffered. For women, martyrdom was virtually the only route to sanctity.

More common are images of deceitful and malicious women.

Under “outsiders”, outlaws (another popular theme in China) are usually, though not always, portrayed as heroic, “enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life”. Negative instances are those of the Turk and the Jew (both “scarcely human”), as well as the witch; and the stereotypes of Catholics and Protestants about each other.

Hatred of outsiders was so common as to make one wonder whether most ordinary people of the period were not what psychologists sometimes call “authoritarian personalities”, combining submissiveness to authority with aggressiveness towards people outside their group.

Breughel

Breughel, The combat between Carnival and Lent.

in Chapter 7, “The world of Carnival”, Burke pursues the theme of relieving tensions, putting myths and rituals in the physical context of festivals, both Carnival itself and “carnivalesque” activities. Here he explores ritual—always a prominent theme—in greater detail, and ritual reversal, “the world upside down”. Carnival was both a holiday, a game, and a time of ecstasy and liberation, with food, sex, and violence. He subsumes public executions and mocking ceremonies like the charivari, and explores the tensions between social control and social protest. He cites Victor Turner:

By making the low high and the high low, they reaffirm the hierarchical principle.

But the “safety-valve” of ritual was not always able to contain popular dissent. Riots and rebellions made more direct forms of action. Popular rebellions, of course, are a major theme in Chinese history—studied selectively in the PRC.

The concern of the upper classes that popular festivals might pose a threat to the status quo leads to Chapter 8, “The triumph of Lent: the reform of popular culture”. Always alert to change, Burke describes the attempts of the educated (“the reformers, or the godly”), notably the clergy, to “improve” popular mores, on both theological and moral grounds. Again (as in imperial and modern China) folk religion was a principle target—miracle and mystery plays, popular sermons, and religious festivals such as saints’ days and pilgrimages.

He suggest two main periods, the first until around 1650 led by the clergy, the second in which the laity took the initiative, adding secular arguments. He outlines the “culture of the godly” that they hoped would replace the old pagan ways (more echoes of modern China). Battles were waged not only over rituals but over images and texts. One important weapon was the dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Burke is sensitive to changes in the meaning of words, such as the ever-thorny “superstition”.

One major result of this reformist zeal, unevenly achieved, was the widening of the gulf between great and little traditions, discussed in the final Chapter 9, “Popular culture and social change”. Over the whole period popular culture changed in ways that no-one could have foreseen. Burke lists population growth and urbanization, the rise of “commercial capitalism” with increasing division of labour, and the communications revolution. Though he warns against exaggerating the impact of such changes, by the 18th century the peasantry were coming to own more material objects, and better ones—although east Europe remained relatively poor. A gradual shift was under way “from the more spontaneous and participatory forms of entertainment towards more formally-organised and commercialized spectator sports.” Although he also shows that it was often in the outlying regions that traditional culture was best maintained,

In the larger towns, the process of social change seems to have enriched popular culture. In the countryside, particularly in outlying regions, the same process led to cultural impoverishment.

This topical comment from the Highlands of Scotland comes from the late 18th century:

The noblest virtues have been ruined, or driven into exile, since the love of money has crept in among us; and since deceit and hypocrisy have carried mercenary policy and slavish, sordid avarice into our land.

Under “the uses of literacy” Burke stresses the influence of the printed book, and then the press. He explains methods for assessing literacy rates around Europe, with partial evidence suggesting that “more people could read in 1800 than in 1500, that craftsmen were generally much more literate than peasants, men than women, Protestants than Catholics, and Western European than Eastern Europeans”.

Whereas some secular reformers feared that popular literacy would make the poor discontented with their lot, the godly saw it as a step to salvation. Again Burke unpacks the idea of “access” to books, with some fine examples under physical, economic, and linguistic access. He takes a nuanced approach to how all this affected popular performances, although “the book was both a dangerous competitor and a treacherous ally”.

The spread of literacy and the decline of the epic occurred together in Western Europe, while illiteracy and the epic survived together in Sicily, in Bosnia, in Russia.

I note that even the lowest literacy rates around Europe surpassed those of China in the mid-20th century; and even in the early 1990s I found few books in peasant homes there.

Burke cites the work of a sociologist working on the modern Middle East, where print is among factors said to engender “a high capacity for empathy, a willingness to accept change, to move from one place to another, or to express their own opinions about society; in a word, modernity.” However, in early modern Europe such changes were less spectacular. Old themes did not go out, but new themes did come in: as in modern China, cultural changes were not so much “substitutive” as “additive”.

He moves on to unpack the concepts of secularisation and politicisation:

Hopes and fears which had traditionally been expressed in religious terms now needed another mode of expression and increasingly found it in the political.

Despite the problems in assessing piecemeal material, and always sensitive to differing social strata, he finds an increasing sense of involvement with politics, at least in Western Europe.

Craftsmen and peasants had good reason to be more aware of the state by the end of the 18th century than they had been three hundred years before.

Burke notes the gradual withdrawal of the upper classes from the popular culture that they had previously shared—as in China. But as ever he asks probing questions:

Who withdrew? From what did they withdraw? In what parts of Europe? And why? The clergy, the nobility, and the bourgeoisie had their own reasons for abandoning popular culture.

In many regions the upper classes literally spoke a different language from ordinary people. But—at different times in different parts of Europe—they came to reject their whole culture.

And it was this gap that led to “discovery”: only when folk traditions became “alien” to the elite did they provoke curiosity, leading to the rise of folklore studies.

Looking back over the whole period,

The change in the attitudes of educated men seems truly remarkable. In 1500, they despised the common people, but shared their culture. By 1800 their descendants had ceased to participate spontaneously in popular culture, but they were in the process of rediscovering it as something exotic and therefore interesting. They were even beginning to admire “the people” from whom this alien culture had sprung.

After 1800 factors like urbanization, education, printing, and railway transport were to transform culture still more radically.

* * *

Houshan 1995

Medicine-pouch vendor, Houshan temple fair 1995.

While Burke’s study is based on the period before 1800, and has been amply supplemented since, it offers thoughtful perspectives on the diverse little traditions that still persist today, and were even more widespread alongside the great traditions of Renaissance and baroque. Relevant to our studies of imperial and modern China are not only the many commonalities they share—recurring themes like ritual, reform, and so on—but ways of studying and unpacking the sources. I do recommend the book, not least to Chinese students: here’s a Chinese edition.

Great works missing the crucial element

Munch

The current Munch exhibition at the British Museum includes his 1892 sketch for what soon became The scream(my title: People taking pleasant stroll). This suggests further drôle potential—such as

  • Leonardo’s charming landscape Just got a text from Mona Lisa saying she’s held up in traffic
  • Vermeer’s early sketch Girl not wearing any earrings (“Oops, forget me turban too—What Am I Like?!”)

and of course The last-but-one supper, without the kangaroo:

And then there’s the ouevre of Alphonse Allais (see The world of Alphonse Allais, “translated” by Miles Kington), including a totally white canvas called Anaemic young girls going to their first Communion through a blizzard, and a red composition entitled Apoplectic cardinals harvesting tomatoes by the Red Sea (the latter an early version of the popular Explosion in a tomato factory at sunset). Such experiments were yet more radical than that of Monet’s Rouen cathedral in the morning fog (see also “F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted“).

Further suggestions welcome.

For Chinese poetry, I think of the popular Tang genre “On visiting a hermit and not finding him in“. And on the musical front, there’s a popular series called Music Minus One, providing recordings of the accompaniments to famous pieces of chamber music, jazz, and so on without the solo part, to help soloists practise. Some Wag once gave me a blank CD entitled Music Minus One: the Bach partitas for solo violin.

I still await a response to my requests for versions of Das Lied von der Erde without the mandolin, L’enfant et les sortilèges without the cheese grater, and the finale of Éclairs sur l’au-delà … without the triangle.

On a rather different tack, note the mini-museum for gerbils under quarantine. See also The global art market.

* For some musical screams, see my posts on Sibelius 7 and notably the horrifying sequence in Mahler 10.

Another fine female composer

Jacquet

Today—all day—is another great reason to tune in to BBC Radio 3 for their fantastic selection of female composers, part of their ongoing commitment to the topic. So much fine music to explore… (for my 2017 post, see here).

Yet another coup this week was their broadcast of Céphale et Procris, a tragédie en musique by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729).

The opera was first staged in 1694—just as a Chinese monk was copying a numinous score of the shengguan ritual ensemble repertoire in Beijing. In Paris, Jacquet kept composing despite losing her young son, her husband, and her brother.

After only a few performances, the opera wasn’t heard again until the 1990s. But it sounds wonderful.

Following Lully, her soundworld often anticipates Rameau, including the tragic final sequence, and this aria from Act IV, Funeste mort:

Where have I been? * (And perhaps you—unless you’re more au fait with the niceties of French baroque than me.) I now find that YouTube is awash with Jacquet’s works. For now I’ll cite from her wiki entry:

Her talent and achievements were acknowledged by Titon du Tillet, who accorded her a place on his Mount Parnassus when she was only 26 years old, next to Lalande and Marais and directly below Lully. A quote from Titon du Tillet describes her

marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.

So let’s all explore Jacquet de La Guerre’s ouevre—harpichord pieces, trio sonatas, cantatas!

For leads to some other female baroque composers, see here. For 20th-century French female composers on this blog, see Lili Boulanger and Germaine Tillion. So many names to add to the T-shirt

 

* “Nobody tells me anything”—and there was I thinking I’d discovered an unknown singer called Aretha Franklin

Musicking at the Qing court 2: Pedrini and Amiot

pedrini 2

To return to my fantasy of Bach at the 18th-century Beijing court (see—and hear!—The Feuchtwang variations), the musicking of the European missionaries there makes an intriguing tangent to the varied material on all the diverse forms of musicking at the Qing court (a list to which I’ve now added Manchu shamans).

An authority here is François Picard (list of publications here, including this useful summary—and note his CDs, introduced below).

Jesuit missionaries had established themselves as early as 1589 at the Ming court, and continued to find favour at the Qing courts of Kangxi and Qianlong. As Picard explains:

Their strategy was to convert the Chinese to Christianity, starting from the top. They did this, first of all, by demonstrating their status as experts and thus gaining access to the court; they then aimed to prove the superiority of the West, of Christendom, and therefore—syllogism—of Christianity, in the realms of science, astronomy, cartography, measurement, and music, the study of which belonged to the field of scholarship in both civilizations. Acoustics, instrument-making, notation, and performance were all part of that strategy of integration, competition, and persuasion.

Following Matteo Ricci (1562–1610), Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88), Tomàs Pereira (1645–1708; for a range of studies, see here) is notable for his major compilation for the Kangxi emperor on the theory of Western (art!) music. This was completed by the Lazarist priest Teodorico Pedrini (1671–1746), who, reaching Beijing in 1711 (after an epic eight-year journey that puts the travails of British train commuters in perspective)* was active there along with Florian Bahr (1706–71) and Jean Walter (1708–59). Pereira and Pedrini are further discussed by several scholars, including Joyce Lindorff and Peter Allsop (e.g. here). The Jesuit priest Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–93) arrived in Beijing in 1751.

Even transporting the keyboard instruments was a mind-boggling task for the missionaries. While they were braving such obstacles, Bach’s long-term residency in Leipzig was bearing fruit in a constant stream of creation.

François Picard’s work bears fruit in his collaboration with Jean-Christophe Frisch and his ensemble XVIII-XXI Musique des Lumières, notably an enterprising series of CDs—with contributions from the Fleur de Prunus ensemble and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, and instructive liner notes with further references.

While the missionaries were not mainly concerned with documenting or performing Chinese music, Amiot notated some Chinese melodies, and some canticles were set to Chinese texts.

The Congregation of Musicians of the Northern Church in Beijing, numbering about thirty young musicians, including several Manchu princes, would accompany important celebrations, the most spectacular of which was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

gongche

Liuyejin, in gongche solfeggio with stave transnotation, Amiot 1754.

Some of Amiot’s Divertissements chinois, based on Kunqu melodies, are imaginatively recreated with Chinese instruments on the CD

  • Teodorico Pedrini: concert baroque à la cité interdite (Auvidis, 1996)

Here’s a playlist:

Other CDs in the project include

  • Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793), Messe des jésuites de Pékin (Auvidis, 1998)
  • Chine: jésuites et courtisanes (Buda Records/Musique du monde, 2002)
  • Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine (2004)

In the chamber items with both baroque and Chinese instruments, the timbres blend well—and would do so even better had the latter been set up in 18th-century fashion, with silk or gut strings.

All this makes an intriguing if inconclusive exploration of elements: whereas ornamentation is common to both traditions, it’s more of a challenge to reconcile Chinese heterophony with the harmonic basis of baroque music. Amiot didn’t take the “superiority” of his musical culture for granted—Picard cites a perceptive passage:

Here, there is neither bass, not tenor, nor treble, everything is in unison, but that unison is varied according to the nature and capacity of each instrument [what we now call heterophony! SJ], and the composer’s skill, the beauty of the piece and the whole art of music lies in that variation. […] It would be of no avail to endeavour to prove to the Chinese that they must find pleasure in something in which they really find none at all.

In Picard’s notes for the Chine: jésuites et courtisanes CD he cites some contemporary reports relevant to the “suite-plucking” of the nobility, such as notes by courtier Gao Shiqi:

[The Kangxi emperor] ordered the ladies of the palace to play a melody, hidden behind a folding screen. He then said: “The people of the palace are excellent with string instruments (xiansuo).” He ordered his courtiers to show their art and successively play the hupo, pipa, and sanxianzi string instruments. He then said: “Play the qin piece “On the beach the geese are landing” (Pingsha luoyan) on the four string instruments—hupo, pipa, xianzi, and zheng—together.”

Adding female nobles to our list of performers, the emperor went on:

“The ladies of the palace have played the zheng zither since their childhood, to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep.** After ten years of efforts, they have attained sheer mystery [cf. Shenqi mipu].” He then ordered them to play “The moon is high” in a “changing tonality” (Bianyin yuer gao).

For more excursions in Qing ritual culture, see here.

* * *

To return to my Bach fantasy, European art music performed by European musicians at the Chinese court is a perfectly valid topic. It’s a welcome clue to early Chinese exposure to Western music, which from the late 19th century would become a major and more pervasive theme. And Amiot’s arrangements of Chinese melodies may have been performed by Chinese musicians. But while it’d be nice to think of European missionaries learning Chinese style, whether on Chinese fiddles (tiqin, sihu) or on violin, I can’t see any evidence; their contacts with the broader society, and indeed their tastes, were circumscribed.

Of course, world music “fusion” in China goes back to the Tang dynasty and earlier. But in the Qing, even within the rarefied milieu of the court, and despite the efforts of the missionaries, I find little evidence of more significant interaction, such as Chinese performing European music on Chinese instruments or Europeans taking part in Chinese ensembles.

For the Vêpres à la Vierge CD I took part, implausibly, on baroque violin, erhu and shawm—but I never quite knew whom I was impersonating (an imaginary missionary, either steeped in Chinese style or not? Perhaps even a Chinese Catholic convert keen to bury his musical heritage beneath superior Western learning?!). My ears conditioned by exposure to living Chinese traditions that often go back beyond the Qing, I found our experiments tentative; we were on firmer ground with the purely Western items, which now sound more successful to me. Later in a couple of concerts I began doing some semi-chinoiserie noodling on the two types of fiddles (miantiao? tagliatelle?) that I, at least, found a bit more satisfying; but I still couldn’t work out who I was—me, I guess.

Anyway, I was content to get back to my work with the living folk ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi—where besides indigenous traditions, Christian groups had come to adopt their own local shengguan wind ensembles for ritual observances.

Catholics in rural Shanxi—left: Wenshui, 1933 (see South Gaoluo: the Catholics);
right: Xinzhou, Shanxi, 1992 (see Shanxi, summer 1992).

* * *

For such imaginative cross-cultural time-travelling excursions, one might compare several projects on baroque music in Latin and south America, and the fine project of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI on the routes of slavery:

—in line with their previous work on medieval music, such as their versions of the medieval estampies (better received than ours…)

* * *

In these two posts on the Qing court I’ve given just two instances of the great variety of musicking there. As you know, I don’t go in much for recreations. While such experiments are imaginative, as Taruskin reminds us, the whole social and aesthetic framework in which we experience them—our very ears—are quite different (see e.g. Bach and Daoist ritual); we can only hear them for what they are: our creative response, for our own tastes in our modern societies.

* Since this post entails historical re-enactment, many would doubtless welcome the nomination of Transport Minister Chris “Failing” Grayling to retrace Pedrini’s route.

** I dunno, these teenage kids on their mobiles, Typical!—Ed.

Un homme et une femme

AA

*Guaranteed China-free!*

My posts on film, and the importance of soundtracks (such as Brief encounter, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, La stradaCinema paradiso, The conformist, TampopoTwin peaksWild at heartPerformance, Killing Eve), offer me a pretext to praise Un homme et un femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)—a very different classic on the eve of more radical French experiments.

However did they film the captivating restaurant scene near the opening? I’m mortified that I can’t find it on YouTube—but it’s OK, you can just watch the film! As Jean-Luis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée, both widowed, explore their bond through their respective kids, the camera delights in their blossoming relationship, lingering adoringly on her complex, enchanted, enchanting expressions. This is one of several scenes that suggests the improvisation that Lelouch encouraged.

As ever, the soundtrack, by Francis Lai (who died on 7th November 2018), evokes the ambience perfectly (cf. Michel Legrand). Like the Pearl and Dean tune, the theme makes good practice for additive metres.

Anouk Aimée is also captivating in La dolce vita

Berlioz and the not-so-mystic East

1851

The unflattering views on Chinese music expressed by Berlioz have been much cited. He may have been an iconoclast within his own culture, but it would be asking too much to expect his horizons to transcend the limited aesthetics of his day.

In The Cambridge companion to Ravel, Robert Orledge cites Berlioz’s comments on hearing Chinese musicians at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851—only a few years after the Opium Wars:

The melody, which was altogether grotesque and atrocious, finished on the tonic, like our most undistinguished sentimental songs [!]; it never moved out of the original tonality or mode. […] Nevertheless, the ludicrous melody was quite discernible, and one could have written it down in case of real need [!].

And as Orledge comments, his conclusion, after listening to a wider range of exotic musicians, was that

Chinese and Indian music would be similar to ours if it existed [WTF]; but that, musically speaking, these nations are still plunged in a state of benighted barbarianism and childish ignorance where only a few vague and feeble instincts are dimly discernible; that, moreover, the Orientals call music what we should style cacophony, and that for them, as for Macbeth’s witches, foul is fair.

Another passage has been translated thus:

As for the Chinaman’s voice, I have never heard anything so strange in my life—hideous snorts, and groans, very much like the sounds dogs make, when they wake up, stretch their paws and yawn with an effort.

musos

More sympathetic is this report from the Illustrated London News:

A PLEASING addition has been made to the Chinese Collection, consisting of a Chinese Lady, named Pwan-ye-Koo, with small lotus-feet only 2½ inches in length, a Chinese professor of music, his two children (a boy and a girl), the femme de chambre of the lady, and an interpreter. The children are gay, lively, and intelligent, the lady herself agreeable and interesting, and the gentleman civil and obliging. A Chinese concert forms part of the entertainment: the lady Pwan-ye-Koo singing a Chinese air or two, accompanied by the professor, who likewise treats the public with an exhibition of his vocal powers. The group is one that has much to commend it: it is picturesque and peculiar, and presents an image in high relief of the native manners of a Chinese family. The conduct of the domestic blended the humble and the familiar in a significant manner; and there was an air of freedom, and a sense of mutual obligation manifested in the whole party, calculated to make a favourable impression on the spectator.

They even had an audience with Queen Victoria at her summer retreat of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Still, if we read the full passage, Berlioz did at least make an effort. Further to A French letter, here’s some more language practice [sections between asterisks translated above]:

A propos de cantatrice, j’ai enfin satisfait le désir que j’avais d’entendre la fameuse Chinoise, the small-footed lady (la dame au petit pied), comme l’appelaient les affiches et les réclames anglaises. L’intérêt de cette audition était pour moi dans la question relative aux divisions de la gamme et à la tonalité des Chinois. Je voulais savoir si, comme tant de gens l’on dit et écrit, elles sont différentes des nôtres. Or, d’après l’expérience assez concluante que je viens de faire, selon moi, il n’en est rien. Voici ce que j’ai entendu. La famille chinoise, composée de deux femmes, deux hommes et deux enfans, était assise immobile sur un petit théâtre dans le salon de la Chinese house, à Albert gate. La séance s’est ouverte par une chanson en dix ou douze couplets, chantée par le maître de musique, avec accompagnement d’un petit instrument à quatre cordes de métal, du genre de nos guitares, et dont il jouait avec un bout de cuir ou de bois, remplaçant le bec de plumes dont on se sert en Europe pour attaquer les cordes de la mandoline. Le manche de l’instrument est divisé en compartimens, marqués par des sillets de plus en plus rapprochés au fur et à mesure qu’ils se rapprochent de la caisse sonore, absolument comme le manche de nos guitares. L’un des derniers sillets, par l’inhabileté du facteur, a été mal posé, et donne un son un peu trop haut, toujours comme sur nos guitares quand elles sont mal faites. Mais cette division n’en produit pas moins des résultats entièrement conformes à ceux de notre gamme. Quant à l’union du chant et de l’accompagnement, elle est de telle nature, qu’on en doit conclure que ce Chinois-là du moins n’a pas la plus légère idée de l’harmonie. *L’air (grotesque et abominable de tout point) finit sur la tonique, ainsi que la plus vulgaire de nos romances, et ne module pas, c’est-à-dire (car ce mot est généralement mal compris des personnes qui ne savent pas la musique) ne sort pas de la tonalité ni du mode indiqués dès le commencement.* L’accompagnement consiste en un dessin rhythmique assez vif et toujours le même, exécuté par la mandoline, et qui s’accorde fort peu ou pas du tout avec les notes de la voix. Le plus atroce de la chose, c’est que la jeune femme (la [small-]footed lady), pour accroître le charme de cet étrange concert, et sans tenir compte le moins du monde de ce que fait entendre son savant maître, s’obstine à gratter avec ses ongles les cordes d’un autre instrument de la même nature, mais au manche plus long, sans jouer quoi que ce soit de mélodieux ou d’harmonieux. Elle imite ainsi un enfant qui, placé dans un salon où l’on exécute un morceau de musique, s’amuserait à frapper à tort et à travers sur le clavier d’un piano sans en savoir jouer. C’est, en un mot, une chanson accompagnée d’un petit charivari instrumental. Pour la voix du chanteur, rien d’aussi étrange n’avait encore frappé mon oreille: *figurez-vous des notes nasales, gutturales, gémissantes, hideuses, que je comparerai, sans trop d’exagération, aux sons que laissent échapper les chiens quand, après un long sommeil, ils bâillent avec effort en étendant leurs membres.* Néanmoins, la burlesque mélodie était fort perceptible, et je porterai un jour du papier réglé chez les Chinois pour la noter et en enrichir votre album. Telle était la première partie du concert.

A la seconde, les rôles ont été intervertis ; la jeune femme a chanté, et son maître l’a accompagnée sur la flûte. Cette fois l’accompagnement ne produisait aucune discordance; la flûte suivait la voix à l’unisson tout simplement. Cette flûte, à peu près semblable à la nôtre, n’en diffère que par sa plus grande longueur, par son bout supérieur qui reste ouvert, et par l’embouchure qui se trouve percée à peu près vers le milieu du tube, au lieu d’être située, comme chez nous, vers le haut de l’instrument. Du reste, le son en est assez doux, passablement juste, c’est-à-dire passablement faux, et l’exécutant n’a rien fait entendre qui n’appartînt entièrement au système tonal et à la gamme que nous employons. La jeune femme est douée d’une voix céleste, si on la compare à celle de son maître. C’est un mezzo soprano, assez semblable par le timbre au contralto d’un jeune garçon dont l’âge approche de l’adolescence et dont la voix va muer. Elle chante assez bien, toujours comparativement. On croit entendre une de nos cuisinières de province chantant: «Pierre! mon ami Pierre», en lavant sa vaisselle. Sa mélodie, dont la tonalité est bien déterminée, je le répète, et ne contient ni quarts ni demi-quarts de ton, mais les plus simples de nos successions diatoniques, est un peu moins extravagante que la romance du chanteur. C’est tellement tricornu néanmoins, d’un rhythme si insaisissable par son étrangeté, qu’elle me donnera sans doute beaucoup de peine à la fixer exactement sur le papier pour vous en faire hommage. Mais j’y mettrai le temps, et, en profitant bien des leçons que me donnera le chien d’un boulanger voisin de ma demeure, je veux, à mon retour à Paris, vous régaler d’un concert chinois de premier ordre. Bien entendu que je ne prends point cette exhibition pour un exemple de l’état réel du chant dans l’Empire Céleste, malgré la qualité de la jeune femme, qualité des plus excellentes, à en croire l’orateur directeur de la troupe, parlant passablement l’anglais. Les dames de qualité de Canton ou de Pékin, qui se contentent de chanter chez elles et ne viennent point chez nous se montrer en public pour un shilling, doivent, je le suppose, être supérieures à celle-ci presque autant que Mme la comtesse Rossi est supérieure à nos Esmeralda de carrefours.

D’autant plus que la jeune lady n’est peut-être point si small-footed qu’elle veut bien le faire croire, et que son pied, marque distinctive des femmes des hautes classes, pourrait bien être un pied naturel, très plébéien, à en juger par le soin qu’elle mettait à n’en laisser voir que la pointe.

Mais je penche fort à regarder cette épreuve comme décisive en ce qui concerne la division de la gamme et le sentiment de la tonalité chez les Orientaux. Je croirai, seulement quand je l’aurai entendu, que des êtres humains puissent, sur une gamme divisée par quarts de ton, produire autre chose que des gémissemens dignes des concerts nocturnes des chats amoureux. Les Arabes y sont parvenus, au dire de quelques savans; ils ont pour cet art inqualifiable une théorie complète. Je parie que les savans qui ont écrit ces belles choses ne savent rien de notre musique, ou du moins n’en ont qu’un sentiment confus et peu développé. Que la théorie des Arabes existe, cela est fort possible, mais elle n’ôte rien à l’horreur de ce qu’ils font en la mettant en pratique.

La musique des Indiens de l’Orient doit fort peu différer de celle des Chinois, si l’on en juge par les instrumens envoyés par l’Inde à l’Exposition universelle de Londres. Cette collection se compose, 10 d’un grand nombre de mandolines à quatre et à trois cordes, quelques unes même n’en ont qu’une; leur manche est divisé par des sillets comme chez les Chinois; les unes sont de petite dimension, d’autres ont une longueur démesurée; 2d’une multitude de gros et de petits tambours en forme de tonnelets, et dont le son ressemble à celui qu’on produit en frappant avec les doigts sur la calotte d’un chapeau; 30 d’un instrument à vent à anche double, de l’espèce de nos hautbois; 40 de flûtes traversières exactement semblables à celles du musicien chinois; 50 d’une trompette énorme et grossièrement exécutée sur un patron qui n’offre avec celui des trompettes européennes que d’insignifiantes différences; 60 de plusieurs petits instrumens à archet, dont le son aigre et faible doit rappeler les petits violons de sapin qu’on fait chez nous pour les enfans; 70 d’une espèce de tympanon dont les cordes tendues sur une longue caisse paraissent devoir être frappées par des baguettes; 80 d’une petite harpe à dix ou douze cordes, assez semblables aux harpes thébaines dont les bas-reliefs égyptiens nous ont fait connaître la forme, et enfin d’une grande roue chargée de gongs ou tamtams de petites dimensions, dont le bruit, quand elle est mise en mouvement, a le même charme que celui des gros grelots attachés sur le cou et la tête des chevaux de routiers. Je conclus, pour finir, que *les Chinois et les Indiens auraient une musique semblable à la nôtre, s’ils en avaient une; mais qu’ils sont encore à cet égard plongés dans les ténèbres les plus profondes de la barbarie ou dans une ignorance enfantine où se décèlent à peine quelques vagues et impuissans instincts.*

Hee Sing

Detail: Hee Sing.

Also part of the Great Exhibition was a Chinese junk moored on the Thames—occasion for the curious case of the “fake Chinese mandarin” Hee Sing, who appears in a painting depicting the retinue of the royal family. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre (21st evening, including a variant of the above) he was even more underwhelmed by the soirées musicales et dansantes given onboard by the sailors:

Maintenant écoutez, messieurs, la description des soirées musicales et dansantes que donnent les matelots chinois sur la jonque qu’ils ont amenée dans la Tamise; et croyez-moi si vous le pouvez.

Ici, après le premier mouvement d’horreur dont on ne peut se défendre, l’hilarité vous gagne, et il faut rire, mais rire à se tordre, à en perdre le sens. J’ai vu les dames anglaises finir par tomber pâmées sur le pont du navire céleste ; telle est la force irrésistible de cet art oriental. L’orchestre se compose d’un grand tam-tam, d’un petit tam-tam, d’une paire de cymbales, d’une espèce de calotte de bois ou de grande sébile placée sur un trépied et que l’on frappe avec deux baguettes, d’un instrument à vent assez semblable à une noix de coco, dans lequel on souffle tout simplement, et qui fait : Hou ! hou ! en hurlant ; et enfin d’un violon chinois. Mais quel violon ! C’est un tube de gros bambou long de six pouces, dans lequel est planté une tige de bois très-mince et long d’un pied et demi à peu près, de manière à figurer assez bien un marteau creux dont le manche serait fiché près de la tête du maillet au lieu de l’être au milieu de sa masse. Deux fines cordes de soie sont tendues, n’importe comment, du bout supérieur du manche à la tête du maillet. Entre ces deux cordes, légèrement tordues l’une sur l’autre, passent les crins d’un fabuleux archet qui est ainsi forcé, quand on le pousse ou le tire, de faire vibrer les deux cordes à la fois [sic]. Ces deux cordes sont discordantes entre elles, et le son qui en résulte est affreux. Néanmoins, le Paganini chinois, avec un sérieux digne du succès qu’il obtient, tenant son instrument appuyé sur le genou, emploie les doigts de la main gauche sur le haut de la double corde à en varier les intonations, ainsi que cela se pratique pour jouer du violoncelle, mais sans observer toutefois aucune division relative aux tons, demi-tons, ou à quelque intervalle que ce soit. Il produit ainsi une série continue de grincements, de miaulements faibles, qui donnent l’idée des vagissements de l’enfant nouveau-né d’une goule et d’un vampire.

Dans les tutti, le charivari des tam-tams, des cymbales, du violon et de la noix de coco est plus ou moins furieux, selon que l’homme à la sébile (qui du reste ferait un excellent timbalier), accélère ou ralentit le roulement de ses baguettes sur la calotte de bois. Quelquefois même, à un signe de ce virtuose remplissant à la fois les fonctions de chef d’orchestre, de timbalier et de chanteur, l’orchestre s’arrête un instant, et, après un court silence, frappe bien d’aplomb un seul coup. Le violon seul vagit toujours. Le chant passe successivement du chef d’orchestre à l’un de ses musiciens, en forme de dialogue; ces deux hommes employant la voix de tête, entremêlée de quelques notes de la voix de poitrine ou plutôt de la voix d’estomac, semblent réciter quelque légende célèbre de leur pays. Peut-être chantent-ils un hymne à leur dieu Bouddah, d’ont la statue aux quatorze bras orne l’intérieur de la grand’chambre du navire.

Je n’essaierai pas de vous dépeindre ces cris de chacal, ces râles d’agonisant, ces gloussements de dindon, au milieu lesquels malgré mon extrême attention, il ne m’a été possible de découvrir que quatre notes appréciables (ré, mi, si, sol). Je dirai seulement qu’il faut reconnaître la supériorité de la small-footed Lady et de son maître de musique. Evidemment les chanteurs de la maison chinoise sont des artistes, et ceux de la jonque ne sont que des mauvais amateurs. Quant à la danse de ces hommes étranges, elle est digne de leur musique. Jamais d’aussi hideuses contorsions n’avaient frappé mes regards. On croit voir une troupe de diables se tordant, grimaçant, bondissant, au sifflement de tous les reptiles, au mugissement de tous les monstres, au fracas métallique de tous les tridents et de toutes les chaudières de l’enfer… On me persuadera difficilement que le peuple chinois ne soit pas fou…
[For a fine English version, see Berlioz, translated Barzun, Evenings with the orchestra (Chicago, 1956/1999 edition), pp.246–250.]

Here the Illustrated London News acquits itself no better:

At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing] hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.

The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.

Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.

For a recent French recreation, see here. Indeed, both the family and the junk had already appeared for P.T. Barnum’s Chinese museum: see Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface: creating the Chinese in American popular music and performance, 1850s–1920s (2005), pp.62–6. For another portrait of the family, see here.

Berlioz 1851

Hector’s Napoleon impression always brought the house down.

Among composers, a broader view of musicking worldwide would have to wait for figures such as Bartók. Still, even today views like those of Berlioz remain far from obsolete. So much for music as a universal language.

* * *

Ironically, in reviews by Berlioz’s contemporaries of his own new works he was hoist on his own petard—using rather similar vocabulary, as if taking revenge on behalf of the Chinese. Here are just a few among an embarras de richesse, cited in Slominsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective, pp.57–61:

 

His rare melodies are deprived of meter and rhythm; and his harmony, a bizare assemblage of sounds, not easily blended, does not always merit the name. I believe that what M. Berlioz writes does not belong to the art which I cusomarily regard as music, and I have the complete certainty that he lacks the prerequisites of this art.

Berlioz, musically speaking, is a lunatic; a classical composer only in Paris, the great city of quacks. His music is simply and undisguisedly nonsense.

M. Berlioz is utterly incapable of producing a complete phrase of any kind. When, on rare occasions, some glimpse of a tiune makes its appearance, it is cut off at the edges and twisted about in so unusual and unnatural a fashion as to give one the idea of a mangled and mutilated body, rather than a thing of fair proportions. Moreover, the little tune that seems to exist in M. Berlioz is of so decidely vulgar a character as to exclude the possibility of our supposing him possessed of a shadow of feeling.

I can compare Le Carneval romain by Berlioz to nothing but the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon, over-excited by a dose of alcoholic stimulus.

Dragging the icon to the trash, eh. For some Messiaen reviews that escaped Slonimsky, see here; and for astounding Saint-Saëns on the violon chinois, here.

For Berlioz’s prophetic word-painting of a 1960s’ curry-house menu, cliquez ici; and for his evocation of furniture removal, ici.

And for Mahler’s vision of the mystic East, see here.

The conformist

Conformist 1

The conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970), based on the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, is a most captivating film, visually sumptuous—with the gorgeous Jean-Louis Trintignant, Stefania Sandrelli, and Dominique Sanda bringing out the interplay of political and sexual themes.

For my generation it recalls late-night screenings in art cinemas (along with Parajanov, Seven samurai, Marx brothers marathons, La stradaFive easy pieces and Performance (also 1970), The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972), Céline et Julie (1974), and so on—what an eclectic education; see also here). Revisiting it now, alarmingly, makes a timely reminder: until recently the dangers of fascism may have seemed quite remote.

Conformist 2

As with Bertolucci’s other films like Last tango in Paris, music and dance play a crucial role. The soundtrack (by Georges Delerue) has the ambivalence of Cinema paradiso and Twin peaks. As with all the best film music, just the opening theme transports us instantly into the story’s troubled world. And the female radio band near the opening reminds me of Franco Cerri’s recollections in my post on Chet in Italy.

By way of comparison with the final dance, here’s the equivalent scene in Last Tango:

—just as iconic as Jack Nicholson’s scene in Five easy pieces where he erupts in the diner, and reminiscent of Alexei Sayle’s critique of ballroom.

Bertolucci died in November 2018 (see also here), soon after Nic Roeg (for an assessment of both together, see here). Many more films to revisit, not least The sheltering sky (based, indeed, on the great novel by Paul Bowles, though he was less than keen on the result), The dreamers, and the epic 1900.

Europe: cultures and politics

While the main theme of my blog is the maintenance of local Chinese ritual cultures (before, during, and since Maoism), it’s worth providing a little roundup of recent posts on European cultures and politics—most of which have ramifications for, and links to, China.

And in the sidebar, do use the tags, categories, and search box!

Resistance and collaboration: Les Parisiennes

Fabius

ravensbruck

Ravensbrück, 1945.

Still belatedly educating myself:

After writing at some length about the traumas of Germany during and after World War Two (notably posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and the work of Philippe Sands), and noting the troubled history of tourist sites, I now learn much from

  • Anne Seba, Les Parisiennes (2016).

Relating history through the lives of women has become a major theme, as in Guo Yuhua’s account of Maoism in a Shaanbei village.

With most men absent, Paris was feminized, the burden falling heavily on women, having to negotiate with the male occupiers. They faced agonizing choices, with constant moral ambiguity, shades of resistance and collaboration.

For women, choice often meant more than simply how to live their own lives but how to protect their children and sometimes their elderly parents too.

Was it collaborating to buy food on the black market if your children were thin, ill and vitamin deficient? Was sending your children to a cousin with a farm in the countryside acceptable? Was it collaborating to perform on stage for or to sell fruit and vegetables to Germans? Or to sell jewellery and high fashion to them, when French women at home had nothing? Was it a choice to walk out of a café or a restaurant if German soldiers walked in, or was that deliberately courting danger given that behaving disrespectfully could have fatal consequences? [1]

Yet again, Neil MacGregor’s question arises: “What would we have done?”

* * *

Paris was iconic for the Parisians, the Germans, and everyone. British people suffered grievously too, all over the world, but least they weren’t occupied. It’s disturbing that the closer I get to home, the more easily I can identify with them. All over vast areas further east, populations were brutalized still more thoroughly—and were then further occupied for decades. Yet the traumas of past eras continue to haunt us.

Anti-semitism was as common in France as elsewhere in Europe, and the population was already swollen with refugees from further east as well as Spain. The initial German occupation didn’t seem too bad, as Gitta Sereny, then a teenage nurse, observed (“The German officers with whom I had to negotiate for food, clothes or documents were always courteous and often extremely helpful.”) Museum curators and librarians played a major role in the budding resistance, including those at the Musée de l’Homme—and the great ethnographer Germaine Tillion, whom I have praised in several posts already.

Mass deportations escalated for Jews and resisters. 3,710 “foreign” Jews were arrested on 14th May 1941, and then three months later a further 4,230, both French and foreign. 13,152 Jews were arrested in July 1942, and further roundups continued. They were held in French internment camps before being sent to Auschwitz or Ravensbrück. The latter, subject of Sarah Helm’s brilliant book, features especially.

Perhaps rather at the expenses of documenting ordinary people’s lives, Seba describes all the salons and soirées of high society and fashion; and the compromises made by women in entertainment, like Édith Piaf. But such hedonism makes a suitably hideous contrast with the lives and deaths of those sent to the camps; as Seba observes, by contrast with high-profile stars in the arts,

there has been a prolonged and inequitable silence in France about the role of so many ordinary women who in some way resisted the occupiers—like the young woman who, persuaded by her Catholic priests, cycled around Paris distributing anti-German newsletters, […] an activity for which she could have been imprisoned if caught…

Following the guillotining of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud in 1943, the film Le corbeau, about anonymous denunciations, was controversial—and remained so. Violette Leduc’s 1964 autobiography La Bâtarde shows the struggles of poor women in a patriarchal system. The role of church and family in Vichy France recalls that in Portugal and Spain.

Pétain used such occasions to bolster the moral and political conservatism of his authoritarian regime, glorifying the family as an institution in which the man was head and the woman occupied her place by virtue of being a mother.

Noor 1
Seba introduces the story of the female agents recruited to the French section of the SOE by Vera Atkins—subject of another great book by Sarah Helm. A sense of guilt as well as duty clearly played a role as Atkins sought to discover the fate of her charges (their average life expectancy in the field was six weeks). Among them was Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44)—yet another pupil of Nadia Boulanger, incidentally.

A constant struggle went on between the needs to forget and to remember. Many of us will have met survivors while hardly realizing it. I only belatedly documented the successive flights of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). Now I find that Marie-Claude, whom I sometimes see at my local bridge club, is the daughter of none other than the heroic resistance fighter Odette Fabius (1910–90). Interviewed in the book, asked to reflect on whether it was right for her mother to risk her safety when they travelled together by putting documents and false papers in her case, Marie-Claude replies evenly that “she could never have been different. That was who she was.”

In 1943, when Marie-Claude was 12, Odette left her in a cinema while she went on an urgent mission to try and warn her resistance colleagues they were being watched. But she was caught by the Gestapo, soon to be deported to Ravensbrück.

Long after the film was over, Marie-Claude eventually gave up waiting for her mother and decided to make her way to family friends where her father, in due course, came to look after her.

In Ravensbrück, Odette tried to escape but was brutally punished after being captured. Unlike most inmates, she did somehow survive.

As Sarah Helm also notes, the later French arrivals at Ravensbrück made an incongruous and separate group amidst all the degradation. Seeming pampered, they suffered a double oppression, from both the SS and fellow prisoners; succumbing more quickly to sickness, they had to learn survival techniques swiftly.

* * *

As throughout Europe, the end of the war was far from an end to suffering, as Keith Lowe describes so well in his book Savage continent.

After Paris was liberated, many were shocked by the brutal misogynistic punishments for women accused of collaboration horizontale. This was also related to class. Arletty, star of the classic Les enfants du paradis (first shown in March 1945), though compromised, spending some weeks in the squalor of Drancy, was not punished by head-shaving as were many ordinary women. Others found the épuration sauvage inevitable, a minor suffering compared to all those women tortured and murdered in the camps. But those who returned, sick and emaciated, still found life difficult, receiving scant sympathy; Parisians didn’t want to be reminded of their recent pain by these skeletal figures. Not all the survivors could bear to speak of their tribulations anyway, but there was little audience for those that did feel a need to do so. Oblivion soon reigned.

Still, Lucie Aubrac, delegate in the new parliament,

was keenly aware of the gendered response to Liberation as France enjoyed its new-found freedom, and she was determined that the country should resist falling for the simplistic notion that the women had collaborated while the men had fought. She insisted it was women who had given the resistance its breadth and depth—the women who had been the essential mailboxes because they were at home, the women who had become couriers because they looked less suspect carrying suitcases, as well as the women who had daringly used weapons. Not everyone was prepared to hear her voice—most were preoccupied with trying to resume normal life.

There were further painful complexities:

Half of those deported for resistance activities returned, but only 3 per cent of of the Jews (2,500 out of 76,000 deported), an unwelcome statistic for those in France denying that a genocide had taken place. Yet the attitude which saw resisters as patriots who had been involved in combat entitled to a higher level of compensation than the deported Jews, perceived as victims, persisted until at least the end of the 20th century in some quarters. […] It also fed into the notion that to have been deported as a resister was noble, but to have fallen into German hands as a victim was shameful.

And disparities were shocking: while British, Americans, and rich Parisians resumed a lavish lifestyle, ordinary Parisians were still on the brink of starvation.

On 27th October 1946 the constitution was finally amended “guaranteeing women equal rights to men in all spheres”; despite several magazines urging women to return to a life of innocence and femininity, the mood was changing. But French society was divided.

Meanwhile Barbara Probst was working to publicize the neglect of Spanish anti-fascists, who had played a major part in the liberation of France.

I was intrigued to learn that Anouk Aimée made her first film in 1946, aged 14; in 2003 she starred in the harrowing 2003 film La petite prairie aux bouleaux, as a Jewish woman coming to terms in later life with her time at Birkenau.

* * *

So after all these years of naively relishing the street life and art galleries of Paris, it’s high time for me to seek out memorial sites and plaques, and camps like Drancy and Fresnes.

1971

Odette Fabius awarded Officier de La Legion d’Honneur, with Geneviève de Gaulle, 1971.

Little did I know that in 2015 Ravensbrück survivors Genevieve de Gaulle and Germaine Tillion were posthumously honoured with a ceremony in the Panthéon.

At the very end of the book Seba gives a succinct list of questions to discuss, some of which I’ve mentioned above:

  • Why has it taken so long for the women’s version of events to become known?
  • How different was it for mothers? Some gave away their children to a passeur without knowing where they were being taken; Odette Fabius abandoned her ten-year-old daughter in the cinema. Did mothers have a responsibility to stay with their children? Was it justifiable for some mothers to compromise their children by using them to carry documents for the resistance?
  • Why do you think fashion continued to matter to Parisiennes during the war? Was it vanity or can it be justified as a demonstration of self-respect and pride?
  • To what extent did all women have a choice during and immediately after the Occupation? Do you think Parisiennes behaved understandably after 1945 or do you think the (largely Jewish) political resisters should have been more supportive of the Jewish resisters who returned from concentration camps?
  • After the Liberation, why were so many women punished—often without trial—for collaboration horizontale, while male economic collaborators avoided repercussions? Was head-shaving ever a justified punishment? [SJ: videos like this, with gloating men surrounding helpless women, are hard to watch.]

 

[1] Here I’ve combined text from p.xxxii and the book’s final list of questions.

Rameau

Rameau

Nearly ready to try out using the bow.

We should celebrate the wonderful regional diversity of European folk cultures, notably their musics—Ireland, Romania, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and so on. But styles are just as varied within WAM (Biber, Nielsen, Janáček…).

Even among the great composers born in the 1680s, apart from Bach and Handel, let’s not forget Rameau—an early flowering of the distinctive voice of French music, leading on to Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy, and Messiaen (not to mention Germaine Tailleferre and Lili Boulanger). If we’re conditioned by some notional one-size-fits-all baroque style, it’s most rewarding to immerse oneself in Rameau’s whole sound world—the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodic contours and ornaments, the instrumental timbres…

Perhaps we can hear “Tristes apprêts” from Castor et Pollux as a French companion to the Buxtehude Klaglied or When I am laid in earth—not to mention the hymns of mourning of the Li family Daoists. Among several fine renditions, here’s Sabine Devieilhe, backed by soulful bassoons:

Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,
Jour plus affreux que les ténèbres,
Astres lugubres des tombeaux,
Non, je ne verrai plus que vos clartés funèbres.
Toi, qui vois mon cœur éperdu,
Père du Jour! ô Soleil! ô mon Père!
Je ne veux plus d’un bien que Castor a perdu,
Et je renonce à ta lumière.

Rameau Athens

Rameau in Athens, 1981-ish.

In my early days as a barocker I did some Rameau opera for Lina Lalandi, but alas I began working with John Eliot Gardiner just too late to take part in his ground-breaking performances.

Rameau dance

His 2007 Prom was enchanting (pre-echoes of Ravel?). The very first piece I had heard him conducting live (those funky bassoons again!) was the Entrée pour les Muses of Les Boréades (from 18.09)—further enriched here by magical (suspended!) staging, wonderfully at ease with modernity in HIP performance:

Rameau’s operas alone are a rich canon to explore.

Lili Boulanger

Boulangers

Yet another fine addition to BBC Radio 3’s coverage of female composers: the great Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) (immortalized on the excellent T-shirt)—click here, part of a website well worth exploring.

Dying terribly young, Lili was eclipsed by her equally brilliant older sister Nadia (1887–1979), herself one of the great influences on WAM music-making in modern times (see here). And of course I’ve written many posts on French music in the form of Ravel and Messiaen.

“Not a lot of people know this”, but I recorded Lili’s pieces (or even morceaux) for violin and piano with Susan Tomes on one of those disc thingies around 1974, while we were at Cambridge. Here’s a 1930 recording of the Nocturne with Nadia accompanying Yvonne Astruc:

Even in our Cambridge days, At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, we were all much taken by Du fond de l’abîme:

 

Operetta in extremis

Tillion

Anne Sebba‘s book Les Parisiennes is high on my reading list. Meanwhile, it’s good to hear her on Private passions paying homage to the great ethnologist Germaine Tillion, who somehow composed the operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers while incarcerated in the hell of Ravensbrück (see link in Bearing witness)—a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, an attempt to help prisoners “resist by laughing”. Here’s a revival from 2011:

A salutary link with the Ten Kings of the Underworld?

Enfers

Accordion crimes

Proulx
“Germans invented the accordion,” Beutle explained to Messermacher. “A thousand things they invented, but accordions most of all. Because Germans think, Germans have brains. There was this feller, a musician, a German violinist, he ends up playing in the court orchestra in Russia, not Catherine the Great but around that time, he plays the violin. But because he’s a German, Jesus Christ, he notices things, he notices when he hangs up his bow on a nail back in his room she also makes a nice little tone. From this he invents the nail violin, very beautiful tones, I have heard it. A circle of wood with nails sticking out, you run the bow on the nails and ooo aaa ooo aaa, a beautiful tune. One day this feller gets a strange thing from China, somebody gives it to him because interested in things he is—naturally, he is a German—and he sees a round bowl with some bamboo pipes sticking out, and on the bowl a mouthpiece. He blows on it. It’s a fine sound. This thing the Jesus Christ Chinese put reeds inside the pipes, same as in the accordion, little reeds stuck on one end with wax, the other end can vibrate like this.” He trembled his hand at Messermacher. “The German violin player learns the playing of this instrument, die liebliche Chinesenorgel, and from this he passes to other Germans the idea of the accordion—the free reed. That’s how it begins. Later comes the bellows.” (91–2)

By now readers of my blog will know how vital the sheng mouth-organ is to the ensemble accompanying north Chinese Daoist ritual—and I suppose it was the sheng that obscurely reminded to read Annie Proulx’s miraculous 1996 novel Accordion crimes.

The book has long been popular with ethnomusicologists (e.g. this review), despite being a novel—or rather, near the fiction end of the spectrum from non-fiction to fiction; or near the readable end of the academic—engaging spectrum (cf. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s Sardinian chronicles, another engaging classic). Like ethnomusicologists, Proulx focuses on change and social function. In her Acknowledgements she lists an impressive array of sources, experts on their regional genres—it’s amazing that all her detailed research took only two years.

On an epic scale, in the tradition of the Great American Novel, Accordion crimes has all the rich detail of ethnographic thick description. Indeed, it’s timely that I should get round to reading it now, since it discusses the tribulations of poor, ill-fated immigrants. The human cast includes immigrant Italians, Germans, Poles, Irish (cf. the equally poetic Carson), Mexicans, French, and Norwegians—all against a backdrop of xenophobia, misanthropy, brutality. Their sad, tough, gory, gruesome tales are connected by the history of an old two-row button accordion for over a century, with other roles played by

  • a club style accordion
  • a little one-row button accordion
  • a chromatic accordion
  • a piano accordion
  • a bandoneon
  • a concertina
  • a Chemnitzer.

As I observed about that other ethno classic Lives in jazz, the book gives a perfect combo of music and social detail. Hooked on taxonomy, Proulx can never resist long lists; likely to be tedious in academic hands, hers never fail to enthrall. While poetic, her language is never pompous.

The novel opens with compelling detail from 19th-century Sicily:

It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance at the glancer.

He had cut the grille with a jeweler’s saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had made all the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kid-skin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sewed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. (17)

As the old accordion-maker arrives in New Orleans in search of fame and fortune,

In and out went Caramele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whirling coin. (42–3)

In “Spider, Bite Me”, Abelardo recalls to his son Baby,

“The accordion was so natural, a little friend. Easy and small to carry, easy to play, and loud, and can play bass rhythm and melody. Just the accordion and nothing else and you’ve got a dance. It’s the best instrument for dancing in the world, the best for the human voice.”
[…] On the weekends [Baby] played for dances with Chris, mostly rancheras and polkas; they sang in the classic two-part harmony, primera y segunda. […] The dances were exhausting, the strain of playing and the lights, the sweat and heat and thirst, the noise like pouring rain.
[…] Though so many turned to the big-band sound and the strange hybrid fusion of jazz, rumba and swing, would rather listen to “Marijuana Boogie,” the Los Angeles Latin sound, than “La Barca del Oro”, there was an audience that liked their music, found value in it. These new ones, many of them veterans back from the Korean War, some of them university students, embraced conjunto, and this music was not for dancing but for listening. It had a meaning beyond itself. (173–4)

The changing tastes lead to a heated argument between Baby and his put-upon sister Félida (191–8):

She passed her arms through the huge straps. […] She stared at the ceiling, said, “por Chencho, Tomás, por Papá Abelardo,” then sang the heart-wrenching “Se fue mi amor,” which Carmen y Laura had recorded in the last year of the war.

Her bellows control technique was extraordinary, with dramatic swells and choking, sforzati explosive effects. She scratched and rubbed and struck the keys, ran the back of her nails across the folds of the bellows. The accordion gave the perfect illusion that a bajo sexto and a bass as well as a highly original percussion player supported the accordion, and from it came the melting harmony of the missing sister’s voice to twine and burn with the sweet, smoldering fire of Félida’s sad voice.

“Hitchhiking in a wheelchair” (199–276) is fascinating too, as Dolor makes a pilgrimage to Canada in search of old-time French music:

The music was stunningly brilliant, joyous with life and vigor. The dancers sprang over the floor and now and then they would draw back and give room to a step dancer whose rigid back, erect head and straight-hanging arms accentuated the clattering, tapping, rapping, knocking, flinging feet whose steps stuttered in and out of the music. He wished Wilf could hear the fiddler, the sound like a flock of birds, a flight of arrows striking all around him, from a growling, clenched-teeth mutter on the G and D strings to harmonic shrieks and stair-tumbling runs—Jean something, a taxi-driver from Montréal.

This leads to “Don’t Let a Dead Man Shake You by the Hand” (277–349) , where Proulx expounds on Cajun and zydeco in Louisiana; and “Hit Hard and Gone Down” on the Polish folk scene (351–426):

The Chez family from Pinsk lived across the street; later they changed their name to Chess, the two boys grew up to work in businesses, a junkyard, bars and nightclubs, finally making phonograph records featuring black singers moaning the blues, and by 1960 the good Polish neighborhood had turned black on all sides. (354)

“There’d always be somebody’s polka band—two violins, you know, the bass fiddle and the clarinet, no accordion at all, they’d just play all afternoon and we’d dance. No music pages, they play from their heads, they were geniuses. You know, the dancers used to sing out a line of a song, or not even sing it, just shout it like, and the musicians they had to catch it, know it and play it back in the same key. Oh, they were so good. Well, your grandfather, he sees after a while there is some money starting to come to the polka band players and there was all kinds of places that wanted polka bands—Polish Homes, the Polish Club, not the culture evening but the Saturday night dance, little dance halls all over the place, the union halls, bars and Polka Dot restaurant, the Polish League of War Veterans, a lot of restaurants, Polonia Hall—oh, there was plenty of polka dancing, and a lot of fun, and weddings, weddings, weddings, everybody was getting married and you gotta have polkas.” (371)

Hieronim’s wake was something, the last of its kind in the neighborhood, in the old, old Polish style, and nobody would have known how to do it except Old Man Bulas from the Polish Club… He was the leader of the singing and knew the hymns, scores of them all written down in his śpiewnik, a thick, handsome book wrapped in black cloth. (383)

This is soon followed by a memorable wedding:

He told his wife that it was necessary to balance the solemn death rites of Hieronim with as much of the old wesele style as possible… (385)

But again, tastes are changing (404–14). As promoter Mrs Grab warns Joey:

“We don’t want nothing weird or extreme, you know? There’s rules now, the association’s made rules. […] Only one song in Polish. Most people don’t understand it, but one song gives a nice ethnic flavor. That’s what we want to stress, ethnic flavor. Let me tell you something, Joey. Ethnic music is not that old-time stuff anymore. These days everybody is ethnic, might as well make money on it. […] They don’t want that mournful folk music sound no more or those complicated couple dances going into cricles and weaving around and slapping their asses and crossing into the next lane. No more of that Kozaky na Stepie, Cossacks on the Steppe, stuff. Everything gets mixed up unless you got a Ph.D. in Polish clogging. It’s no fun.”

[…] The spare applause had hardly died down when a big guy jumped up, his thin long hair pasted to his sweating forehead, and began to shout at them.
“This is not Polish polka, not Polish music. I am a Pole from Poland and in Poland they would laugh at you as I do now—Ha! Ha!—for saying this garbage you play is Polish.”

Now the bandoneon and tango make an appearance, as Joey meets a migrant from Buenos Aires, who muses:

“Piazzolla, with his little zips like the plastic zipper of a cheap jacket, his plotted silences, the squealing like rubbing two balloons together. That is a serious, unsmiling, hard music; the faces of the dancers frown furiously; and his tempo, the beat is like climbing cement stairs in a skyscraper with fire behind the doors. And there is that quality of a paper comb that sets the sutures of the skull trembling. Those passionate swellings are musical hives…” (416–18, cf. Alexei Sayle, no less).

“The Colors of Horses”, with Basque and Irish musics as well as Appaloosa horses playing a major role, is another too, er, deaf ‘orse. More fantastical lists:

…descendants of the ice-age horses painted on the cave walls of France, of the fabled horses of Ferghana, between the Syrdarya and the Amudarya rivers on the steppes of Central Asia in Uzbekistan, of Rakush, the spotted horse of the warrior hero Rustam, celebrated in Persian miniatures and in Firdousi’s epic poem the Shah Namah, of the Chinese Celestial Horses from the Extreme West, the Blood-Sweating horses, of the galloping mounts of the Mongol Horde and Attila the Hun, of the Andalusian horses of Spain shipped to Mexico for the conquistadors’ savage forays, of a shipload of spotted horses from the Trieste Lippizan herd landed on Vera Cruz around 1620, of the horses abandoned by the terrified Spaniards after the Pueblo revolt of sixty years later and traded north by an agricultural people more interested in sheep, to the Shoshone, Cayuse, Nez, Percé, Blackfeet, Blood, Arikara, Sioux, Cree, Crow, of the North American steppes known as the Great Plains, had been bred down to dog meat. (443–5)

The evocation of Irish song (483–5) is worthy of Ciaran Carson. Now we return to the original, battered old green accordion:

The silent reed suffered from a grain of rust jammed between the reed tongue and its vent, and this he eased out with a silk thread from his fly-tying box. The steel reeds were coated with islands of rust and he scraped at them with the blade of his knife but was afraid of lodging more fragments under the reed tongues. He cleaned the reeds with his toothbrush, blowing out the dust until he was dizzy.

He could see it needed everything—new bellows, new reed, new springs, reed plates reset, grille replaced, and more. But it had a wonderful voice, sonorous, plangent, shouting in grief to the mountain slope. (486)

The final section, “Back Home with Reattached Arms”, is moving too, with Norwegian immigrants making an appearance:

His own parents had been obsessed with the prescriptions of a book, The Emigrant’s Guide to Preserving Norwegian Culture, written by a homesick settler in Texas, a book that dwelt on the merits of the Norwegian language, twice-daily prayers, Norwegian hymns, clothes, food, and, after the fortune was made, return to the “elskede Nord” country. Daily they had sung “En Udvandrers Sang,” “O Norges Son” and others. His mother wished to live in a Norwegian community where land was owned in common by all. But Gunnar shouted for independence and his own land, purchased a mighty, star-spangled flag… (496)

 ***

That discussion of the sheng, with which I opened, reminds me of the Li family Daoist band’s concerts in German churches in 2013, the two mouth-organs filling the building with a majestic sound just like Bach on a huge organ with all the stops out (my book, p.339).

For a general introduction to the accordion, see here. For yet another wacky illustration of the joys of organology, see the aerophones classified under Sachs-Hornbostel 412.232 here. And to explore these genres in more depth, note The Garland encyclopedia of world music: the United States and Canada (1998), Part 3 Section 2c.

Passages like this draw the reader towards archive recordings:

Abelardo had hundreds of records, his own recordings of the 1930s, a few with Decca, then with Stella, then with Bell, then Stella again. “In those days I sang in Spanish; those men with the record company said to me, ‘we can’t tell what you’re singing, so don’t sing anything dirty.’ So of course I sang all the filthy ones.”
[…] He had old recordings of Lydia Mendoza, of the great accordion players, the records of Bruno Villareal, half blind, a little tin cup wired to the side of his accordion, playing in 1928, “the first recording with the accordion as the star”, Pedro Rocha and Lupe Martínez, Los Hermanos San Miguel, dozens of Santiago Jiménez discs.
[…] He would make them listen to all those old labels: Okeh, Vocalion, Bluebird, Decca, Ideal, Falcon, Azteca, especially the Ideals made in the garage of Armando Marroquín up in Alice. (148–9)

Of course, like all those books about Daoist ritual, it misses a lot by being silent—it cries out for a good playlist. More stimulating than this one is a Songlines list, but one is drawn back to the great 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. We can find further clues among articles in The Rough Guide to world music.

And let’s all explore YouTube—here’s a Polish tango from 1931:

For jazz in Poland, see here.

But if we have to use words to evoke music, Accordion crimes is just the way to convey its messy exhilaration and flawed humanity.

Bulgaria: seeking buried identities

KK cover

After Vesna Goldsworthy‘s book on her upbringing in Yugoslavia and later life in the UK, Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008) makes a worthy follow-up.

I know even less about Bulgaria than about the GDR[1] but such observations strike a chord with my experiences of China. Such works also explore my theme of post-traumatic historical amnesia.

Born in 1973, Kassabova left Bulgaria in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She reflects:

Totalitarian regimes are not interested in personal stories, they are interested in the Party, the People, and the Bright Future. Nor are post-totalitarian democracies. They are too busy staying alive.

Equally, in the West there hangs about a vague idea of collective life behind the Iron Curtain, and life after it, but there are surprisingly few personal stories to go with the idea.

Fair point, though such accounts (even in English) do seem to be growing. Kassabova cites an unnamed Yugoslav child in the 1990s:

I love my country. Because it is small and I feel sorry for it.

With the candour of childhood, she too asks her mother, “Mum, why is everything so ugly?” Still, she cites Walter Benjamin:

When an outsider comes to a new place, he [sic] sees the picturesque and the freakish, whereas the local sees through layers of emotion and memory.
So while a newcomer would have looked at Youth 3 [her housing block] and seen an uninhabitable dystopia of concrete and mud, I learnt to see it for what it really was: my home.
[…] There was also the butcher, the baker, the kindergarten, the grocery store, the Universal store, the bottle store. So what if they were all housed on the ground floor of blocks, or in small, bunker-like concrete buildings we called trafoposts because they were built to house the suburb’s electrical transformers? So what if the butcher only had mixed mince and bloody legs that she wrapped up in coarse brown paper? Or the baker only had two types of bread, white and wholemeal, and the Universal store was universally empty except for, say, a just-arrived pull-out sofa bed? Or the bottle store only sold lemonade and beer? You like lemonade, and you liked meatballs, and you already had a pull-out sofa-bed anyway. It’s not as if you lacked for anything. It’s not as if there was anything more you wanted. After all, you didn’t know there was anything more to want.

One product that might be available in the Universal store was the more accurately-titled Ordinary biscuits. On Bulgarian shops:

They weren’t actually shops, not in the conventional sense of the word. They were unheated ground-floor rooms with shelves on which something may—or may not, depending on the day—be displayed, perhaps even sold, if you could bear to queue up, fight with other citizens, and emerge battered but triumphant, clutching a pair of shoes, a kilogram of Cuban oranges, or a tub or margarine.

Sometimes inadvertently evoking Molvania, it’s a fine line that divides us from the old Commie-bashing trap of sneering at the failure of the socialist experiment—laying bare the privations comes better from people living under such systems than from foreigners or even expats. Whereas a book like Hester Vaizey’s Born in the GDR shows a more varied response from that generation born under socialism, in Bulgaria it seems harder to find people who appreciated anything about life either before or after 1990.

This is hardly comparable, but as a foreigner in China I soon lost the capacity to be shocked, growing used to clambering up unlit concrete stairwells piled with cooking equipment and cardboard boxes to visit families squeezed into tiny bare one-room apartments. This was just how people’s lives were. Even now I don’t bat an eyelid as I walk past stinking pits of litter strewn in village alleys. Whereas on fleeting visits to the GDR before 1989 I merely felt alien and out of my depth, not equipped to pass patronizing pronouncements.

Kassabova’s father went on work trips abroad, and sometimes foreign friends come to visit, laughing companionably with them:

For a moment, you could even think we were equal.
But we knew, and they knew, that we weren’t equal. Behind the laughter and the wine, I sensed my parents’ permanent nervous cringe. They knew the foreign guests saw the ugly panels, the cramped apartments, the mud, the overflowing rubbish bins, the stray dogs, the empty shops, the crappy cars, the idiots in the brown suits, and they were ashamed.

We were living in a banana republic, but minus the bananas.

Young Kapka even feels like a poor cousin in neighbouring Macedonia, and even more so on a trip to East Berlin. When her father gets a six-month fellowship in Delft on, his wife visits him:

It wasn’t the supernaturally clean streets, the tidy bike lanes, the smiley people, but the university toilets that tipped her over from stunned awe into howling despair.

Mind you, I’ve felt a bit like that in Holland myself… On their return, her father puts a brave face on things.

“They’re just normal people. OK, they have more material things than us, but otherwise their lives are not that different.”
“Of course they are,” my mother insisted. “Whether we like it or not, they are different.” They think differently. They take so many things for granted. They have rights, they demand things… They live in another world.”

When her father’s Dutch colleagues come on a visit they too look on the bright side, which leaves the family lost for words.

Kassabova relates another Soviet joke (which actually resembles my granddad’s joke):

A man in the deli section of the supermarket says to the butcher behind the counter: “Can you slice up some salami for me?” The butcher replies, “Sure. Just bring the salami.”

Our parents shared the same world: a world where political jokes and birthday parties were the norm, and you were united by a distrust of the idiots in the brown suits.

Even in her teens she could deconstruct the motto “Let us Construct Socialism with a Human Face”:

a) Socialism with a Human Face did not occur naturally, it had to be constructed like so many blocks of flats; and b) there was also Socialism with an Inhuman Face.

The teenage Kapka watches Brazilian soap operas, The thornbirds, and Star wars; she listens to the Beatles, and the gritty songs of Vladimar Vysotsky. Like Goldsworthy, she attends a lycée, where

The general idea was not to get top grades, but to mix with Sofia’s brightest brats, wear your navy-blue school mantle short at the bottom and unbuttoned at the top, smoke in the toilets, wear blue make-up, and sulk. (p.105)

She immerses herself in hoarse, acerbic French songs (Renaud, Sardou), translating their rage against the capitalist machine:

to our ears, there was only one machine to rage against, and that was Socialism with a Human Face.

Aged 16 when the Wall fell, she moves on to The Scorpions—a most long-lived and prolific band who graduated to heavy metal (as you do; am I the only muggins who had never heard of them? Cf. my mum’s comment on the Beatles). After the collapse of the regime, she basks in their 1990 Wind of change (one of the best-selling singles in the world, over fourteen million copies sold!), and then

The nation’s new year present was the televized execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu by a three-man firing squad. It wasn’t quite as good as having our own Todor Jivkov shot in the head, but it was better than nothing.

After a brief sojourn in Colchester, the family returns to their block in Sofia:

It had turned from the wild East into the wild West, and it was hard to say which was worse. Tiny cafés and shops had mushroomed among the panels. People sold contraband cigarettes and suspect alcohol mixtures straight from their underground cellars. The elder Mechev son was a racketeer.
[…]
One thing was clear: money was king. Education, culture, and the life of the mind were for sissies, and sissies sold pantyhose on the street, walked the streets with a lunatic grin, starved to death, and were run over by speeding black Mercedes.

After moving abroad, Kassabova’s own life remained rootless for many years. For the rest of the book she assumes the role of travel writer, skillfully combining the struggling present and the socialist deprivation of her youth with digestible vignettes of Bulgaria’s complex ethnic history. She visits superficially idyllic scenic spots, quite aware of being an outsider. [2] And she finds a lot of dying villages with left-behind people, like in China.

She notes the meek behavior of passengers as their flight is delayed:

Nobody is complaining. They are used to waiting: in state hospitals, shop queues, immigration offices, visa departments…

Landing at “the world’s worst-named airport” Vrajdebna ( “Hostile”), she returns to visit her rural relatives, enduring literal and metaphorical potholes. They watch a TV documentary about Bulgarians abroad, whose director has “artfully collated people’s homesickness to form a home-affirming narrative.” Yet

Between the small, confused person who sat here anaesthetizing herself with cakes and the impossibly foreign Richard Chamberlain in The thornbirds and the grown-up person lying here with a “foreigner” and two passports, there is no common language. They can’t meet in time, they can’t speak, they can only lie in this bed, very still, without touching.

In another scene that must be familiar to many such migrants, she meets an old school friend, who surmises, “Well, if I’m not happy now, I must have been happy then.”

Kassabova joins in a saccharin song from the Zhivkov era, “an ironic but secretly nostalgic serenade”. She glimpses the provincial innocence of village girls that makes them prone to trafficking—“an innocence that springs from the poisoned village-well of ignorance, conformity, and fear”.

She describes the expulsion of the Turks (“the Revival Process”) in the 1980s, another grim component of a long history of ethnic cleansing over a wide area.

The ethnic Turks were the tobacco-growers, the agricultural workers, the humble workforce that buzzed away in the background, propping up the diseased body of the State. There was no official announcement that the Turkish exodus had dealt a deadly blow to the already decrepit economy, but it soon became obvious. [Hm, sound familiar?] We knew, even in the torpor of our ignorance, that the long holiday of our compatriots was no holiday. It was a purge.

Meeting Turks, she gingerly enquires about their experiences. She also introduces Pirin Macedonia, and the Pomak minority of Rodopi, early Muslim victims of the “voluntary” change of names under Zhivkov. She cites Brecht: “the State was dissolving the people and electing another people”. Yet amidst what seems like an impressively toxic rate of xenophobia, Armenians had found refuge, and Bulgaria’s resistance to the deportation of the Jews was creditable.

Kassabova tells the harrowing tale of the mausoleum of Dimitriov in Sofia, and in Veliko Taronovo she introduces the ill-fated 19th-century satirist Aleko Konstatinov. Zhivkov’s daughter Lyudmila makes cameo appearances—a kind of prototype for Ivanka, only the former’s wacky eastern mysticism made a less perfect fit with the “values” of the leadership than does the crass materialism of the latter (cf. “the values of the Carphone Warehouse”). Just before Lyudmila’s mysterious death in 1981 she led an expedition to Strandja, on the southeast border with Turkey, to seek the tomb of the Egyptian cat-headed goddess Bastet. Still, her esoteric artistic tastes didn’t prevent her designing “the ugliest and most conspicuous monument in Bulgaria”.

As Kassabova notes, more East Germans were killed at the Strandja border than at all other border crossings put together (“the number of dead Bulgarians is unknown because no one has bothered to find out”). On a train she gets talking with a survivor of the labour camps, who segues nonchalantly from a harrowing account of her youth there into an anti-Semitic rant.

Finally she returns to the apartment block of her youth, which belatedly and unexpectedly has become a leafy neighbourhood, if still hardly salubrious. But still she needs to escape again, unable to heal her fractured psyche.

Kassabova expands on these themes in Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017, also reviewed here), broadening the area covered to Greece and Turkey. Again reminding me of China, she writes,

As I set out, I share the collective ignorance about these regions not only with other Europeans further away, but also with the urban elites of the three countries of this border.

* * *

The soundtrack to all this would be enticing: for turbo-folk and traditional music, see here, and for irregular metres, here. On the bus back from Istanbul the driver puts on a tape of gritty chalga, and Kassabova also catches an Ivo Papazov gig. Her tastes since emigrating turned to tango, which she has also evokes in Twelve Minutes of Love: a tango story.

 

[1] This broader overview by Jacob Mikanowski, considering studies of East Europe, is also intriguing.
[2] Unlike Patrick Leigh Fermor, I must say, who unfailingly does that really irritating thing of instantly getting clasped to the bosom of ordinary folk. Nigel Barley debunks this conceit in his classic “harmless idiot” spiel—but that’s not important right now. For Leigh Fermor, see this review from Neil Ascherson.

 

Hidden histories

The current BBC Radio 4 series

hosted by the engaging Clarke Peters, introduces a treasury of recordings illuminating the social history of Europe.

The first series covers the period from 1900 to 1930—notably Black Europe, a richly-documented 44-CD set from Box Family Records.

From the series website:

Received wisdom has it that black popular music arrived in Europe with the Empire Windrush in 1948, but Clarke brings us black sounds recorded in Europe from as far back as 1900.

Programme 1: Focusing on early commercial discs made in the recording studios of London, Paris and Berlin, we hear from dozens of different performers, including African American travelling entertainers, traditional African musicians, black British classical composers and more.

Clarke discovers a huge variety of black music recorded in Europe at the start of the 20th century, including very early examples of blues harmonica, scat singing and stride piano. The programme also includes some of the earliest African music ever recorded, from Senegalese war songs captured at the Paris World Fair in 1900 to the music of a troupe of Congolese pygmies who toured Britain in 1905-07.

Programme 2: Clarke explores the music of black Europe at the time of the First World War. The sounds of what would become jazz start to emerge, including African American banjo bands who entertained London high society, and the military music of Harlem bandleader James Reese Europe which enthralled France. The programme also includes music by captured African Prisoners of War, recorded in camps across Germany.

Programme 3: Clarke explores the sounds of Zonophone records, a pioneering label that recorded a huge amount of early African popular music. Many of these discs were made in London for export to West Africa, including several Nigerian hymns recorded in 1922 by Fela Kuti’s grandfather. The programme also includes the sounds of African American jazz in 1920s Paris, especially the work of Josephine Baker, the world’s first black superstar.

For James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters, see also

and this short Channel 4 feature.

Series 2 and 3 are now available, taking the story through World War Two, the 60s, and the 70s—antecedents of what even then was still not called “world music”. These programmes too are full of gems, such as hot jazz in Weimar Berlin, calypso in Cardiff Bay; underground bands in Hitler’s Germany, black American trumpet stars in occupied Paris, Caribbean swing bands playing through the Blitz in London; and in the post-colonial era, on to Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers, Sterling Bettancourt, Lord Kitchener, and the emergence of the Notting Hill Carnival sound; Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba from Brussels, Algerian chaabi in Paris, Surinamese jazz from Holland, the songs of Cape Verde—and black flamenco. To Name But A Few…

Here’s Sam Wooding’s Orchestra playing Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin:

For Algerian chaabi, here’s Dahmane El Harrachi’s Ya rayah:

And here’s Ronald Snijders live:

All these diverse cultures have made up a major part of European social history over the last century. It’s a really ear-opening series, providing many leads to explore.

Shadow puppets and Satie

Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Among a select group of films on rural life in China, little-known but brilliant is

  • Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (58 minutes, Pan Records, 2007).

Fruit of the collaboration between Frank Kouwenhoven and the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck of the CHIME foundation in Leiden, it evokes the changing lives of itinerant troupes in the poor villages of Huanxian county in east Gansu. Both in the scenes of villagers chatting and in their performances, you can feel the film-makers’ empathy with rural dwellers.

The puppetteers often perform as part of the Crossing the Passes (guoguan) ritual to protect children.  A similar ritual in Shaanbei is shown in my film Notes from the yellow earth (with my book Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, p.37); see also my note for Daoists in Changwu in Shaanxi, not far away.

The sound-world of the puppeteers is remarkable, with gutsy percussion, fiddles, and shawms accompanying passionate vocals. [1] On the Chinese shadows soundtrack, piano music (Howells, Smetana, Janáček, and so on) makes a disorienting contrast with the guttural sounds of the Gansu singers and their earthy instrumental accompaniment. At first I had reservations about this choice, when we have so little opportunity to savour the sounds of village China—but I’ve come round to it as an effective personal reflection of the film-makers.

In similar mood, in Frank’s moving portrait film of Antoinet’s life, a tribute shown at her funeral, he used Satie’s fifth Gnossienne—less well-known than the others:

[1] Featured on the 2-CD set The beauty of Chinese opera, one of an excellent series of historical recordings from Wind Records. For more singing from Gansu, see here; for other ritual groups, here: and for ritual life among the ethnic groups of the region, here. See also under More films on ritual drama.

More French opera

Since I mentioned Messiaen’s extraordinary Saint François, another deeply serious French opera about religious devotion that I’ve only just registered (and am keen to see live) is Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1956), with its chilling final scene where the nuns climb in turn to the guillotine while chanting the Salve regina.

Just in case we forget, China didn’t invent religious persecution… Unlike Messiaen, whose work seems oblivious of the secular world, Poulenc’s work inevitably evokes the more recent agonies of France, and Europe.

Ruin an Irish book in one letter

Following my glowing paean to the Great Man, as a belated tribute to the Flann O’Brien Society’s recent competition —and supplementing my efforts regarding Chinese and orchestral cliché (see also Myles tag)—I hereby submit my weighty ethnomusicological ethnography:

The catechism of Clichy: vocal liturgy in a Parisian suburb.

For further scholarly works that I haven’t really published, see here.

Hector moves furniture

I’ve written about the Symphonie fantastique before—not least the wonderful Rozhdestvensky’s solution to conducting the opening (by not conducting it).

Apart from Berlioz’s prophetic evocation of a 1960s’ curry-house, another respect in which he was well ahead of his time is in his meticulously verité depiction of an irritating upstairs neighbour giving furniture-moving lessons** at 3 o’clock in the morning, just as the drama of the 1st movement is unfolding—an unwelcome interruption to the Rêveries-Passions of its title. You know, one of those disturbances you can’t quite be bothered to get out of bed for to bang your broom on the ceiling.

This touching domestic scene is economically evoked with a random series of little grunts in the double basses (from 12.00 in the recording below) punctuating little wind phrases in the brief lull after the first throbbing climax is interrupted (to evoke Susan McClary):

Berlioz moves furniture

Apart from John Eliot Gardiner’s rapport magnifique with French music, and the venue formidable, site of the première, [Uh-oh, he’s off again—Ed.], I use this 1993 version for the meretricious reason that I played a typically bijou role in it.

The fine Pete Hanson is leading. I can’t find the video on youtube at the moment, but we don’t look quite so young now—interrupted rêveries and passions can take their toll.

For Berlioz on oriental music, see here.

 

**Could Sir Malcolm himself have been among the pupils?

On visual culture

As with my remarks on punk and so on,

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Or to adapt it to the topic in hand,

You think I know Shag Nothing, but I know CHAGALL!

More genteel would be the old “I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like!” (groan from Myles). So, following Myles, I write this in the spirit of The Plain People of Ireland. As often, I’m seeking clues relevant to my own areas of study, making connections that can easily get buried beneath our individual specialities. Perhaps this post might be entitled Renaissance art for Dummies in the Field of Daoist Ritual Studies—not one of their bestsellers, I suspect.

Sassetta: St Francis giving his cloak to a poor soldier.

I first came across

  • Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy: a primer in the social history of pictorial style (1st edition 1972)

while browsing Rod Conway Morris’s library in Venice, along with Horatio E. Brown’s splendidly-titled Some Venetian knockers.

It’s my kind of book, full of the practical detail of materials, technical skill, and patronage, as well as exploring changing perceptions. Quite short, and eminently readable, it gains much from having grown out of a series of lectures that he gave. It addresses issues that I hardly find in discussions of Chinese ritual and music (for any period), so I’d like to explore it at a certain length.

Baxandall opens by encapsulating, in plain and elegant language,** issues that, um, scholars of Daoist ritual (of all periods) should absorb:

A 15th-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship.
On one side there was the painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it, provided funds for him to make it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions—commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social—that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made.

He observes that

The picture trade was a very different thing from that in our own late romantic condition, in which painters paint what they think best and then look round for a buyer.

Exploring the mismatch between our concepts of “public” and “private”, he notes that

Private men’s commissions often had very public roles, often in public places. A more relevant distinction is between commissions controlled by large corporate institutions like the offices of cathedral works and commissions from individual men or small groups of people: collective or communal undertaking on the one hand, personal initiatives on the other. The painter was typically, though not invariably, employed by an individual or small group. […] In this he differed from the sculptor, who often worked for large commercial enterprises. (p.5)

He meshes all this with detailed technical discussion, like the use of ultramarine:

The exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are likely to miss. (p.11)

Thus in the Sassetta painting above, the gown St Francis gives away is an ultramarine gown.

The contracts point to a sophistication about blues, a capacity to discriminate between one and another, with which our own culture does not equip us.

Baxandall notes change over the course of the Quattrocento:

While precious pigments become less prominent, a demand for pictorial skill becomes more so. […] It seems that clients were becoming less anxious to flaunt sheer opulence of material.

But he goes on:

It would be futile to account for this sort of development simply within the history of art. The diminishing role of gold in paintings is part of a general movement in western Europe at this time towards a kind of selective inhibition about display, and this show itself in many other kinds of behaviour too. It was just as conspicuous in the client’s clothes, for instance, which were abandoning gilt fabrics and gaudy hues for the restrained black of Burgundy. This was a fashion with elusive moral overtones.
[…]
The general shift away from gilt splendour must have had very complex and discrete sources indeed—a frightening social mobility with its problem of dissociating itself from the flashy new rich; the acute physical shortage of gold in the fifteenth century; a classical distaste for sensuous licence now seeping out from neo-Ciceronian humanism, reinforcing the more accessible sorts of Christian asceticism; in the case of dress, obscure technical reasons for the best quality of Dutch cloth being black anyway; above all, perhaps, the sheer rhythm of fashionable reaction. (pp.14–15)

To show how skill was becoming the natural alternative to precious pigment, and might now be understood as a conspicuous index of consumption, he returns to “the money of painting”—the costing of painting-materials, and frame, as against labour and skill.

You will no longer be surprised to learn that the Quattrocento division of labour between master and disciples (pp.19–23) reminds me of Daoist ritual specialists.

Baxandall goes on to note the differences in patrons’ demands for panel paintings and frescoes. He attempts to address the issue (even for the time of creation) of public response to painting:

The difficulty is that it is at any time eccentric to set down on paper a verbal response to the complex non-verbal stimulations paintings are designed to provide: the very fact of doing so must make a man untypical. (pp.24–5)

Aesthetic terms expressed in words are contingent, varying from age to age, and anyway elusive. Even with the vocabulary of such accounts, discussing that of a Milanese agent, Baxandall notes:

the problem of virile and sweet and air having different nuances for him than for us, but there is also the difficulty that he saw the pictures differently from us.

He goes on to explore different kinds of viewers’ own exercise of skill in appreciating a painting, with their different backgrounds:

… the equipment that the fifteenth-century painter’s public brought to complex visual stimulations like pictures. One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing classes, one might say. […] The peasants and the urban poor play a very small part in the Renaissance culture that most interests us now, which may be deplorable but is a fact that must be accepted. […] So a certain profession, for instance, leads a man [sic—SJ] to discriminate particularly effectively in identifiable areas. (p.39)

Whatever [the painter’s] own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit. (p.40)

And given that “most 15th-century pictures are religious pictures”, he asks in detail,

What is the religious function of religious pictures?

His answer, in brief, is that they were used “as respectively lucid, vivid and readily accessible stimuli to meditation on the Bible and the lives of Saints.” But he goes on to enquire:

What sort of painting would the religious public for pictures have found lucid, vividly memorable, and emotionally moving?
[…]
The fifteenth-century experience of a painting was not the painting we see now so much as a marriage between the painting and the beholder’s previous visualizing activity on the same matter. (pp.40–45)

Again he makes the crucial point:

15th-century pictorial development happened within fifteenth-century classes of emotional experience.

Alongside colour, he discusses the beholders’ appreciation of gesture and groupings, adducing dance and sacred drama.

It is doubtful if we have the right predispositions to see such refined innuendo at all spontaneously. (p.76)

And apart from their basic level of piety (largely lost to us today), many of the “patronizing classes” would have assessed the work partly through their knowledge of geometry and the harmonic series.

In Part III Baxandall attempts to sketch the “cognitive style” of the time, with the reservation that

A society’s visual practices are, in the nature of things, not all or even mostly represented in verbal records. (p.109)

Finally he reverses his main argument—that “the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances” (and so “noting bits of social convention that may sharpen our perception of the pictures”)—by suggesting that “the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society” (p.151).

An old painting is the record of visual activity. One has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language; both language and pictorial representations are conventional activities. […]

In sum,

Social history and art history are continuous, each offering necessary insights into the other.

Such reflections seem more sophisticated than the “autonomous”, timeless approaches still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual. To be fair, we are quite busy trying to document ritual sequences, hereditary titles, and so on—but the Renaissance scholars have just as much nitty-gritty to deal with too.

* * *

Carpaccio

Carpaccio: Baptism of the Selenites, c1504–7 (detail). San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

(The painting features a shawm band that I’d love to hear! For Venice’s musical contacts with the East, see e.g. here).

Baxandall ends with a caveat:

One will not approach the paintings on the philistine level of the illustrated social history.

I don’t think he quite had in mind

  • Alexander Lee, The ugly renaissance: sex, greed, violence and depravity in an age of beauty (2014),

a less technical, more sociological book with a firm political agenda that some may find more appealing than others (cf. this review of Catherine Fletcher, The beauty and the terror: an alternative history of the Italian Renaissance (2020).

Poking around beneath the glamorous surface image of the Renaissance, seemingly “an age of beauty and brilliance populated by men and women of angelic perfection”, he observes:

If the Renaissance is to be understood, it is necessary to acknowledge not just the awe-inspiring idealism of its cultural artefacts but also the realities which its artists endeavoured to conceal or reconfigure.

Lowe explores the brutal social universe in which artists were immersed. Like Baxandall, he explores the relationship between artist and his assistants and apprentices:

The relationship was naturally based on work, and hence could often be punctuated by squabbles, or even dismissal. Michelangelo continually had trouble with his assistants, and had to sack several for poor workmanship, laziness, or even—in one particular case—because the lad in question was “a stuck-up little turd”.

Given that patrons were as important as artists in shaping the form and direction of Renaissance art,

Rather than being seduced by the splendor of the works they commissioned, it is essential to uncover the world behind the paintings; a world that was populated not by the perfect mastery of colour and harmony that is usually associated with the Renaissance, but by ambition, greed, rape, and murder.

He shows the often dubious motives of patrons. They often valued a commission “for the contribution it could make to reshaping the image of often extremely disreputable men”. Such works “were intended more to conceal the brutality, corruption, and violence on which power and influence were based than to celebrate the culture and learning of art’s greatest consumers”.

Lowe also seriously questions the image of the period as one of “discovery” of the wider world:

In their dealings with Jews, Muslims, black Africans, and the Americas, the people of the Renaissance were not only much less open towards different cultures than has commonly been supposed, but were willing to use fresh experiences and new currents of thought to justify and encourage prejudice, persecution, and exploitation at every level.

I suspect such angles may not go unchallenged, but I find it refreshing. And these unpackings again augment my comments on the “Golden Age nostalgia” of the heritage industry in China.

* * *

jue

China: jue libation vessel, Shang/Zhou dynasty.

Reception history has perhaps become a rather more established feature of visual culture (including the history of art) than for musical culture. The term “visual culture” itself reflects a more mature holistic approach, like that of “soundscape” for ritual music in China, and indeed the whole inclusive brief of ethnomusicology.

As I dip into Marcia Pointon’s History of art; a student’s handbook, she soon observes:

The meanings of the painting will be determined by where, how and by whom it is consumed.
[..]
Art historians are interested not only with objects with but with processes. […They] concern themselves with visual communication whatever its intended audiences or consumers.
[…]
Art historians investigate the origins, the connections between “high” and “low”, and the ways in which imagery such as this contributes to our understanding of a period of historical time, whether in the present or in the far distant past.

On one hand, as with music, we envy earlier viewers/audiences their familiarity with subjects/languages that we can no longer interpret easily, if at all. At the same time we have also lost the shock of the new.

We’re familiar with the idea of restoring old paintings to their original colours—negating their history?—but we can’t perform a similar operation on our eyes and minds. Doubtless there’s a vast scholarly literature on this, but one might be reluctant to remove the patina from Shang bronzes, restoring them to the condition of glossy Italian kitchenware. For patina, see also Richard Taruskin’s comments on Gardiner’s Schumann.

Just as most people who experienced art in 15th-century “Italy” had access mainly to those works on public display in their particular city, so, long before CDs and youtube, Leipzig dwellers heard little music apart from Bach and the pieces by other composers that he selected, mostly within the Leipzig tradition. Some creators themselves might be so lucky as to travel, gaining a certain experience of other styles. And in both art forms, a majority of such work was contemporary—even the instruments that baroque musicians played were mostly modern.

To try and get to grips with what art and music meant at the time doesn’t make us able to experience it as did the “consumers” of the day—we can’t unsee Monet, TV, or skyscrapers any more than we can unhear Mahler and punk. And I hope our teeth are in a better state.

* * *

I also admire

  • Michael Jacobs, Everything is happening: journey into a painting (2015), [1]

on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)—with chapters by his friend Ed Vulliamy added after Jacobs’ untimely death. As Vulliamy observes,

In this half-book, beyond a fragment, we have not only a typically Jacobs-esque narrative of his life with Velázquez—one of chance encounters, aperitifs, musings and restless autobiography—but also this manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting. (p.146)

Jaccobs does that thing that people always do in blurbs:

cutting a picaresque swathe

—and the picaro simile is fitting. Jacobs was constantly deploring the “sunless” world of academia. He documents the shift in art history that was then occurring widely in scholarship:

Many of the younger lecturers and researchers, conscious perhaps of the lingering popular image of their discipline as a precious and elitist pursuit, began adopting what rapidly became the prevailing art-historical methodology—a pseudo-Marxist one. People who might once have become connoisseurs in tweeds reinvented themselves as boiler-suited proselytisers dedicated to exposing in art revealing traces of the social conditions of a period, often resorting in the process to a hermetic prose peppered with terms I had first come across in Foucault, such as “discourses” and “the gaze”. (p.44)

Oh all right then, I’ll go for a hat-trick:

You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FOUCAULT!

(Note on pronunciation: whereas I can only hear “You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FUCK ALL!” in the caricature-Nazi accent of Karl Böhm, the above bon mot clearly belongs on the foam-specked lips of an angry young Alexei Sayle.)

By contrast with the treatments of Baxendall and Lowe (themselves quite different), Jacobs’ approach is based on including “us”, the viewers, as agents in the picture—whatever his reservations, he was inspired by Foucault.

Proust, writing on Rembrandt, had spoken about paintings as being not just beautiful objects but also the thoughts they inspired in their viewers. [Svetlana] Alpers was cited as saying that “looking at a work in a museum and looking at other people looking at a work in a museum is like taking part in the life story of this work and contributing to it.”

Still, Jacobs ploughed his own furrow. As Paul Stirton recalls,

Michael always believed in the wonder of looking. Yes, there may be a profound message in a painting, but Michael didn’t want to dress it up in philosophical trappings. By all means approach a painting in a scholarly manner, but never lose the wonder. (pp.179–80)

In his book about artists’ colonies at the end of the nineteenth century, The good and simple life, he is scathing about how most painters wanting to live that life considered “the downtrodden country folk … as little more than quaint components of the rural scene. Their social conscience was as little stirred by them as by pipe-playing goatherds in the Roman Campagna.” At moments, though he is the antithesis of a “political” art critic, Michael’s writing reads like Walter Benjamin fresh from his Frankfurt School, but with a glass of Sangria in his hand. (p.182)

From both his own experience and Thomas Struth’s photos of the public response to Las Meninas over several days, Jacobs recalls

All the faces of the bored, the transfixed, the distracted, the deeply serious, the adults whose only concern was to get the perfect snap, the school children who were wondering when their ordeal would be over, the others who fooled around or diligently made notes, the few whose lives were being transformed. (pp.69–70)

So (suitably) like Monty Python’s Proust sketch, Jacobs never quite got as far as discussing the painting “itself”—not so much due to his death, as by virtue of his propensity to dwell on personal reminiscences on modern Spanish history and his own relationship with it and the painting.

He remarks wryly on the images of Spain current in his youth, reminding me of images of China, not to mention Away from it all. He recalls a train journey in the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy, when he was reading a book that

gave no hint of Spain’s repressive military regime, but instead referred to the country’s “growing agricultural and industrial prosperity” and to the “happy coexistence of the old and the new”.
The book’s role as a catalyst for my early, life-changing Spanish journeys was due entirely to its black-and-white photos, which neglected this supposedly modern and prosperous country in favour of basket-laden donkeys, adobe-walled farms, palm groves, sun-scorched white alleys and other such images that endowed Spain with a predominantly medieval and African look. Even Madrid, so regularly criticized by past travellers for its brash modernity, was made to seem more exotic and rural than any other western city I had seen. The sole street-scene was one of a large flock of sheep being herded in front of a neo-Baroque, cathedral-like post-office building popularly dubbed “Our Lady of the Post”. (p.60)

He discusses the fortunes of Las Meninas during the civil war, as well as more recent events:

… closed shops wherever you looked, restaurants offering “crisis menus”, daily protests, and graffiti and posters revealing grievances with everyone and everything, from the monarchy, to the banks, to the multinationals, to the European Community, to the politicians who made Spain the country with the the highest number of politicians per capita in Europe. (p.72)

And he describes the painting’s changing frames and settings:

The Sala Velázquez was like a shrine. […] On entering this inner sanctuary, people took off their hats, spoke in low voices, and tiptoed around so as not to destroy the atmosphere of worshipful solemnity. Every so often someone would be observed bursting into tears.
There were of course others visitors who disliked this room’s churchlike theatricality and the sentimentally nationalistic and mindless emotional reactions it inspired. (p.115)

So as it stands, Jacobs’ book is concerned more with reception history than with the society of the time of the creation of Las Meninas (though he explored this elsewhere, and doubtless had voluminous notes on the painting to supplement existing research). Background on the society of Velazquez’s day is provided mainly by Vulliamy’s fine Introduction. Evoking Lowe, he notes that Seville, far from “the great Babylon of Spain, map of all nations”,

was also headquarters of the Inquisition. Indeed, the “Golden Age” which followed the unification of Spain in 1492 was accomplished, writes Michael Jacobs, “in a spirit of brutal fanaticism”, with the expulsion or enforced conversion of Andalucia’s many Moors and Jews. This dogmatism and what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” [here Vulliamy writes with traumatic personal experience in Bosnia] had a major and insidious demographic impact on the city, yet Seville remained characterized by “an architecture … of great contrasts”, wrote Michael, “for alongside the Muslim-inspired love of decorative arts richness is an inherently Spanish love of the austere”.

    * * *

GL Ten Kings

Yama King painting from Ten Kings series, North Gaoluo 1990.

All these books incorporate ethnography and reception history far more than the fusty old reified appreciation of “autonomous” objets d’art. For China,

  • Craig Clunas, Art in China (1st edition 1997)

makes a useful, wide-ranging, and thoughtful introduction, exploring themes like genres, techniques, functions, patrons, markets, producers, class, and gender.

For instance, discussing a wooden sculpture of the female deity Guanyin from Shanxi carved c1200CE, he describes its original multi-coloured decoration:

All this added to the immediacy of the image for worshippers, but it was covered over at some point, probably about 300–400 years later in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was painted gold in imitation of a gilded metal sculpture. Such an aesthetic change must have gone hand in hand with some change in the understanding of what a successful image ought to look like, a change at the level of both popular belief and the attitudes of religious professionals which is as yet hardly understood. (pp.56–7)

Whereas much scholarship remains based on artefacts in museums and galleries, fieldwork reveals a vast further repository of images still used in ritual practice. One thinks of the vast hoard of religious statuettes found in rural Hunan, subject of fine research.

And apart from statues and temple murals, ritual paintings depicting the Ten Kings and the punishments of the underworld—hung out for temple fairs and funerals—suggest comparisons with Christian equivalents in medieval and Renaissance art. And they too must have changed their meanings for audiences over recent centuries. At least, illiterate rural audiences would be affected rather deeply, and modern viewers may be underwhelmed now that they are saturated with horror films and video games. But we learn rather little about this from the scholarship; Daoist culture tends to be reified. Meanwhile, household ritual specialists have continue to perform Ten Kings scriptures for funerals.

It reminds me, challenged as I am in the field of visual culture, that ritual images through the ages also need unpacking—assessing changing meanings there too, including early sources for music iconography.

This has a lot to do with reception history. Such studies of visual culture may feed into our experience of Bach and all kinds of early and folk music. If even scholars of WAM and Renaissance painting feel it germane, then studies of Chinese musical cultures, and of Daoist ritual, shouldn’t lag behind.

* * *

But I’d like to end with some more populist vignettes (“Typical!”) on the meanings of art.

Among the numerous virtues of Alan Bennett is his accessible promotion of painting, found in Untold Stories (pp.453–514) [2] notably a talk he gave for the National Gallery, with the fine title “Going to the pictures”. These essays are also a passionate plea for culture to remain accessible, a rebuke to mercenary philistine governments.

He recalls an inauspicious early lecture he gave at Oxford on Richard II:

At the conclusion of this less than exciting paper I asked if there were any questions. There was an endless silence until finally one timid undergraduate at the back put up his hand.
“Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

 We’ve all been there. But his remarks on painting are priceless:

Somewhere in the National Gallery I’d like there to be a notice saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. When you’re appointed a trustee, the director, Neil MacGregor, takes you round on an introductory tour. Mine was at 9am, when I find it hard to look the milkman in the eye, let alone a Titian.

We were passing through the North Wing, I remember, and Neil was about to take me into one of the rooms when I said, “Oh, I don’t like Dutch pictures”, thereby seeming to dismiss Vermeer, De Hooch and indeed Rembrandt. And I saw a look of brief alarm pass over his face as if to say. “Who is this joker we’ve appointed?”

He cites his play A question of attribution, about (Michael Jacobs’ teacher) Anthony Blunt:

“What am I supposed to feel?” asks the policeman about going into the National Gallery.
“What do you feel?” asks Blunt.
“Baffled,” says Chubb, “and also knackered” … this last remark very much from the heart.
[… Blunt] tries to explain that the history of art shouldn’t be seen as simply a progress towards accurate or realistic reprentatation.
“Do we say Giotto isn’t a patch on Michelangelo because his figures are less lifelike?”
“Michelangelo?” says Chubb. “I don’t think his figures are lifelike frankly. The women aren’t. They’re just like men with tits. And the tits look as if they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. Has nobody pointed that out?”
“Not quite in those terms.”

In a *** passage AB blends hilarity with insight, evoking Baxandall:

In A Question of Attribution the Queen is made to have some doubts about paintings of the Annunciation.
“There are quite a lot of them,” says the Queen. “When we visited Florence we were taken round the art gallery there and well … I won’t say Annunciations were two a penny but they were certainly quite thick on the ground. And not all of them very convincing. My husband remarked that one of them looked to him like the messenger arriving from Littlewoods Pools. And that the Virgin was protesting that she had put a cross for no publicity.”
This last remark, though given to the Duke of Edinburgh, was actually another flag of distress, stemming from my unsuccessful attempts to assimilate and remember an article about the various positions of the Virgin’s hand, which are an elaborate semaphore of her feelings, a semaphore instantly understandable to contemporaries but, short of elaborate exposition, lost on us today. It’s a pretty out-of-the-way corner of art history but it leads me on to another question and another worry.
Floundering through some unreadable work on art history I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these elaborate expositions—gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth—that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasped by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called “over meaning”. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.
When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. I must have seen Citizen Kane when it came round for the first time, but with no thought that, apart from it being more boring, this was a different order of picture from George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, unthinkingly, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, and induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of the cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

Unpacking the complex attributes of two stock characters, he concludes:

The 20th-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

For a similar case, see here.

* * *

Apart from any intrinsic merit this little tour of visual culture may have, for me it also suggests several angles barely explored for Daoist ritual.

OK then, just one last aperçu—this time from Kenneth Clark (thanks, Rod). On the contrast between and reified art and social reception, here’s his typically urbane formulation in Civilization:

At some time in the 9th century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable.

 

On behalf of the splendid Craig ClunasI accept full responsibility for any inanities in this post. If you all play your cards right, I promise not to do this kind of thing too often.
Craig and any other art historians who have managed to read this far might care to exact revenge by writing Specious Flapdoodle
[famous 19th-century Baptist pastor—Ed.] about early music or Daoist ritual… 

 

** Not, may I just say, the kind of moronic homespun language used by one maniacal Führer about another: “smart cookie” or “total nut-job”? Roll over Cicero.

 

[1] Some stimulating reviews may be found herehere, and here.
[2] Online excerpts include http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/i-know-what-i-like-but-im-not-sure-about-art-1620866.html and https://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n07/alan-bennett/alan-bennett-chooses-four-paintings-for-schools.

Bearing witness: If this is a woman

*For sequels, see my posts on Sachsenhausen and A life in secrets*

As this turns into a lengthy review, I ponder why I’ve been trying, in an amateurish way, to educate myself about the traumas of modern Europe—beyond the obvious answer, that we all must.

I guess it’s related to my studies of China, and my engagement with the lives of people like Li Manshan; a feeling of duty to report the sufferings of ordinary people I encounter in China—including not just their ritual life but their tribulations under Maoism, with famine, struggle meetings, and labour camps; and my growing awareness of the sufferings of Europeans over a similar period. I don’t want to spoil your holidays (or mine), but as we relish the cultures and scenery of these countries, we shouldn’t forget the ghosts that haunt the landscape.

Among the innumerable studies of the Nazi concentration camp system, Primo Levi is justly famed—actually, I find the sequel The truce just as disturbing as If this is a man, after the camp is finally liberated yet their Odyssey of suffering continues, homecoming ever receding. But I’ve also been deeply moved by

Helm’s account is based on amazingly thorough research and interviews with both victims and perpetrators—much of which was submerged until the end of the Cold War. Of course a historian’s account will give different, more holistic, perspectives from those of an individual inmate, but in a way I find Helm’s work even more moving than that of Levi. At 823 pages, it’s hideously readable—both balanced (whatever that might mean) and personal, in a way that ideologically-driven accounts such as those of Dikötter (for the degradations of Maoism in China) can’t achieve. Even the excellent index is harrowing.

I suppose I’m not alone in thinking of the whole catastrophe in terms of a few appalling place-names like Auschwitz and Belsen, but along with the focus on Ravensbrück, over the whole six years of its existence, we see how very extensive was the whole network of camps, subcamps, death camps, work camps, transports and marches, scarring the whole landscape.

At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.

The book opens with an arresting and complex image:

“The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,” writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary… She would pray to God to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into the office her face would fill with hatred…

So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, who she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years, and tries to explain her behaviour. (1)

The book goes on to tell the stories of Langefeld, Buber-Neumann (who also had the terrible distinction of already having been incarcerated in a Russian gulag), and a tragic cast of inmates and their tormentors, with chapters focusing on personalities over the years.

Among them were political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials”, “useless mouths”, “idiots”, and (later) children; in this camp only around 10% were Jewish. Its shifting population was international, including Germans, Poles (the largest group), Gypsies, Russians, Czechs, French, Hungarians, Scandinavians, and Dutch, all transported there at various stages.

In April 1944 recent arrivals included evacuees from Majdanek, including more Red Army doctors and nurses, as well as 473 Gypsies transferred from Auschwitz. There were Italian partisans, Slovenians, Greeks, Spaniards, and Danes, as well as three Egyptians and seven Chinese. (419)

They were often in desperate straits even when they arrived.

Ravensbrück guards rowing on the Schwedtsee.

Helm also delves into the lives of guards, doctors, and Blockovas (prisoners—at first often criminals—coopted to carry out the day-to-day work of running the camp). The twice-daily Appell roll-call was an ordeal that regularly led to death, as did stays in the Revier “hospital”.

As she observes, the “asocials”, such as prostitutes (pp.56, 96–108, 417–19, and index), have gone largely undocumented:

Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. […] The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the Communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help “asocial” survivors. (98)

Perhaps the most sickening story (how might one concoct a hierarchy of inhumanity?) concerns the 86 “rabbits” (mostly from a group of 195 women from Lidice near Prague, deported after the 1942 assassination of Heydrich and the punitive razing of the village), objects of unthinkable medical experiments. [1] But it’s also moving for the way in which the whole camp later rallied round to protect them from being murdered so that their terrible story could at least be told—miraculously, 63 of them survived. Again, Holm switches tellingly to the present day:

I found Zofia Kawińska in her tenth-floor flat overlooking the cranes of Gdansk shipyard. She was one of the second group of victims of Himmler’s sulphonamide experiments. A tiny, bent figure, she walks with difficulty, and has done since the war. I ask if she still suffers pain from the experiments. “A little,” she says, as she offers tea and biscuits.

She stoops to show the scars on the sides of her legs. “They put the bacteria in, and glass and bits of wood, and they waited.” She looks up and fixes me with deep brown eyes, as if to see if there is any chance that I understand. “But I didn’t suffer as much as some. Everyone in Poland came home with wounds.” (243–4)

Surviving “rabbits”, 1958.

The smuggled letters of the rabbits were among many acts of defiance.

In similar vein, Nikolaus Wachsmann, in KL: a history of the Nazi concentration camps (perhaps the most authoritative study of the whole system), refines the view of “prisoners as blank and apathetic automatons, drained of all free will”, recognizing the heroism of such agency, “however small and constrained”. But he makes an important caveat:

We must resist the temptation to make our encounter with the concentration camps more bearable by sanctifying the prisoners, imagining them as united, unsullied, and unbowed. For the most part, the prisoners’ story is not an uplifting account of the triumph of the human spirit, but a tale of degradation and despair.

For anthropologists, the most extremely disturbing instance of participant observation is Germaine Tillion (1907–2008), an ethnologist who had done fieldwork in Algeria before being arrested while working for the French resistance. In impossible conditions she comprehensively documented the activities of the camp, somehow managing to hide her notebooks from the guards. After the war she continued her research on “the history of the de-civilisation of Europe”, and returned to her work on Algeria; her distinguished career was recognized by many awards.

Tillion

While in the camp Tillion even composed and staged an operetta Le Verfügbar aux Enfers, a spoof of Orpheus in the underworld, attempting to help prisoners “resist by laughing” (567). It has been revived since 2007—my post Operetta in extremis includes a complete performance from 2011.

As the camp population grew constantly with prisoners evacuated from camps in the path of the Soviet advance, the 959 French prisoners (known as the “vingt-sept mille” after their camp numbers) who joined Tillion from Paris in February 1944, “jeunes filles biens élevées”, were quite unprepared for what awaited them at Ravensbrück, and adapted badly. Quartered in the “slums” of the camp, soon they were more hated than the Poles; their health quickly failed. Another group of women arrived in August from Warsaw, obliterated after the uprising—reporting to their compatriots, “There is no Warsaw. There is nothing left.” Hungarian Jews were deported to Ravensbrück in October. Babies were soon starved to death.

As it becomes clear that the Nazis are in retreat, the final chapters are just as tense. Desperate to conceal their crimes, with order collapsing, their brutality becomes even more extreme and random. The reader wills the inmates to survive.

By the end of March [1945] the camp was “like a mysterious planet”, said Denise Dufournier, “where the macabre, the ridiculous and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.” Karolina Lanckorońska, watching the crematorium flames shooting higher every night, was reminded of the beginning of the Iliad. She was still giving lectures on Charlemagne and Gothic art as children in Block 27 played a game of selecting for the gas chamber. In the Red Army block the women were making red flags to hang out to welcome their liberators, while the painting gang had been sent to redecorate the maternity block, where, according to Zdenka’s lists, 135 more babies were born in March, of which 130 died. (616)

Despite the shocking complicity of the Red Cross in Geneva, the tireless, heroic work of young Norwegian student Wanda Hjort (1921–2017), using her status to visit the camp and establish contacts, at last achieves results as many prisoners scramble to be taken to safety in the White Buses, with the tense diplomatic negotiations of Folke Bernadotte, Swedish representative of the ICRC, with Himmler.

Wanda Hjort.

But while the buses were being bombed by the Allies, for the majority of women who remained in the camp to await rescue by the Soviet troops, “Liberation” was also horrifying, with widespread rapes perpetrated on women of all nationalities.

* * *

And so into the whole post-war period. Many survivors returning home found there was no home to return to. The Hamburg trials of 1946–8 (a sideshow to Nuremberg)

achieved a great deal. Within a short time the court […] established in the clearest terms the simple fact that everything about the camp was designed to kill. (706)

But the trials were soon followed by amnesia on both sides of the Iron Curtain—and ignominy for the valiant women in the USSR (pp.287–313, 710–11) and the GDR (339–58, 711–14) who had somehow survived only to descend into a new nightmare, now suspected of being traitors. And until 1950, camps like Buchenwald were adopted by the NKVD as gulags for their own prisoners, with many (not only former Nazis) dying in squalor (MacGregor, Germany, pp.468–72).

By 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing the Nazis and both the war crimes trials and the process of “de-Nazification”—whereby top Nazi supporters were brought to book and denied top jobs—were shut down. (707)

Wachsmann explores the issue in his fine Prologue:

Survivors … were not stunned into collective silence, as has often been said. On the contrary, a loud, polyphonic voice rose up after liberation. … During the first postwar years, a wave of memoirs hit Europe and beyond, mostly searing testimonies of individual suffering and survival.

But as he notes, popular interest soon waned:

Public memory of the camps was being marginalized by postwar reconstruction and diplomacy. With the front line of the Cold War cutting right through Germany, and turning the two new, opposing German states into strategic allies of the USSR and the United States, talk about Nazi crimes seemed impolitic. … Within ten yearts of liberation, the camps had been sidelined—the result not of survivors unable to speak, but of a wider audience unwilling to listen.

Though popular interest was rekindled to some extent in the 1960s and 70s, more detailed research only took off from the 1990s—with German scholars taking the lead.

By this stage you will be able to decide whether you can face watching this documentary:

* * *

So only now am I beginning to understand the apparent amnesia that took hold all over Europe during my youth—and which still persists in China for the Maoist era (and other more recent events that it’s prudent to bury). Levi explains it well. His If this is a man was published in 1947, but

fell into oblivion for many years: perhaps also because in all of Europe those were difficult times of mourning and reconstruction and the public did not want to return in memory to the painful years of the war that had just ended.

Republished in 1958, it then became exceptionally successful—although even in the 1970s, as Paul Bailey observes in an Afterword, “Primo Levi wasn’t so much forgotten in Britain as totally unknown.”

Not just Neil MacGregor’s “What would we have done?”, but just our capacity for evil, need to be kept at the forefront of our consciousness.  As MacGregor comments,

How did the great humanizing traditions of German history—Dürer, Luther’s Bible, Bach, the Enlightenment, Goethe’s Faust, the Bauhaus, and much, much more—fail to avert this total ethical collapse? (473)

In a Postscript to If this is a man and The truce, Levi gives succinct replies to what have come to be called FAQ, like “Were there prisoners who escaped from the camps? How is it that there were no large-scale revolts?” and “How can the Nazis’ fanatical hatred of the Jews be explained?”.

On “ordinary Germans”, I already noted Hans Fallada’s novel Alone in Berlin (now also the subject of a film). Levi expands wisely on the topic “Did the Germans know what was happening?” Observing the authoritarian control of the media (not only in Germany, and not only then), he comments:

Under these conditions it becomes possible […] to erase great chunks of reality. […] However, it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was part of the aims of Nazism. It was just as well for the people to know that opposing Hitler was extremely dangerous. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Germans were confined in the camps from the very first months of Nazism: Communists, Social Democrats, Liberals, Jews, Protestants, Catholics; the whole country knew it and knew that in the camps people were suffering and dying.

Nonetheless, it is true that the great mass of Germans remained unaware of the most atrocious details of what happened later on in the camps. […]

He goes on to cite Eugene Kogon’s Der SS staat:

Even many Gestapo functionaries did not know what was happening in the camps to which they were sending prisoners. The greater majority of the prisoners themselves had a very imprecise idea of how their camps functioned and of the methods employed there. […]

And yet there wasn’t even one German who did not know of the camps’ existence or who believed they were sanatoriums. There were very few Germans who did not have a relative or an acquaintance in a camp, or who did not know, at least, that such a one or such another had been sent to a camp. All the Germans had been witnesses to the multi-form anti-Semitic barbarity. Millions of them had been present—with indifference or with curiosity, with contempt or with downright malign joy—at the burning of synagogues or humiliation of Jews and Jewesses forced to kneel in the street mud. Many Germans knew from the foreign radio broadcasts, and a number had contact with prisoners who worked outside the camps. A good many Germans had had the experience of encountering miserable lines of prisoners in the streets or at the railroad stations. In a circular dated November 8, 1941, and addressed by the head of the police and the Security Services to all… Police officials and camp commandants, one reads: “In particular, it must be noted that during the transfers on foot, for example from the station to the camp, a considerable number of prisoners collapse along the way, fainting or dying from exhaustion… It is impossible to keep the population from knowing about such happenings.”

Not a single German could have been unaware that the prisons were full to overflowing, and that executions were taking place continually all over the country. Thousands of magistrates and police functionaries, lawyers, priests and social workers knew genetically that the situation was very grave. Many businessmen who dealt with the camp SS men as suppliers, the industrialists who asked the administrative and economic offices of the SS for slave-labourers, the clerks in these offices, all knew perfectly well that many of the big firms were exploiting slave labour. Quite a few workers performed their tasks near concentration camps or actually inside them. Various university professors collaborated with the medical research centres instituted by Himmler, and various State doctors and doctors connected with private institutes collaborated with the professional murderers. A good many members of military aviation had been transferred to SS jurisdiction and must have known what went on there. Many high-ranking army officers knew about the mass murders of Russian prisoners of war in the camps, and even more soldiers and member sof the Military Police must have now exactly what terrifying horrors were being perpetrated in the camps, the ghettos, the cities, and the countryside sof the occupied Eastern territories.

Levi adds:

In spite of the varied possibilities for information, most Germans didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. Because, indeed, they wanted not to know. It is certainly true that State terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.

Turning to memory, Helm notes:

In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors—east from west—and broke the history of the camp in two.

The abomination wasn’t the only part of the story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.

Even in Britain, where we enjoyed the rare privilege of not enduring occupation, with all its risks and moral compromises, my parents’ generation—even if they hadn’t personally experienced appalling suffering in active service, or in POW and concentration camps—were all scarred by bombed-out buildings, separation and loss, maimings, food shortages, and terrible insecurity. So I shouldn’t wonder that they were relieved to live in peace, unwilling to inflict traumatic memories on children like me, unwittingly blessed to have been born after the war. But there were survivors all around us—like Maria Bielicka, whom Holm visited at her Earls Court flat in 2010:

She said she had rarely spoken of the camp before. When she first came to live in England after the war nobody believed what she had to say. “Nobody here even wanted to know about the camps.” Since then she has “got on with life”, working for Barclays Bank. (175)

How very much more understandable was this amnesia in an utterly devastated continental Europe. So bruised parents retreated to their well-tended gardens and shiny consumer goods, while their children complacently explored the counter-culture of the 60s. For those who cared, politics was about current problems, at home and in the third world. Meanwhile the nightmare continued in East Europe (and China, and the Soviet Union), as the past was buried and distorted even more mendaciously. Victims and tormentors had to coexist.

With all the vast documentation of mid-20th-century abominations that has eventually surfaced, it is hard to comprehend Steven Pinker’s detailed thesis in The better angels of our nature that violence has declined over millenia, and that the two world wars were but minor spikes in the grizzly statistics (see also his website, and FAQ). At least, it seems cruelly irrelevant; of course Pinker himself would be the first to encourage memory of modern trauma.

See also my posts on Sachsenhausen and Les Parisiennes; and for the first gulag in Soviet Russia, see here.

 

[1] See e.g. http://ahrp.org/ravensbruck-young-girls-subjected-to-grotesque-medical-atrocities/
http://www.elizabethwein.com/ravensbrueck-rabbits

French taunting

It’s been a while since we’ve had any French drôlerie (try A French letter, and the series on the Tang faqu). So it’s high time to remind ourselves of the classic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Food for thought on the Brexit debate? And for aficionados of Chinese ritual, note the long trumpet near the opening.

For the taunts of cheerleaders at archery festivals in Bhutan, see here.

Real and Zidane

Zidane 2017

After my words of praise for Arsenal and Wenger, the victory of Real Madrid and the gorgeous Zidane in the Champion’s League was even more inspiring.

Sure, we should always remember the artistry of Barcelona and Messi (the latter all the more since he “looks like he works part-time on Saturdays in a video rental shop”).

And Zidane’s headbutt in the final of the 2006 World Cup remains iconic. After all, players like him must be so used to being wound up on the pitch, yet not rising to the bait. With just minutes to go before he could be fêted, canonized, his rash act seems like an even higher form of art, a worthy sacrifice—never mind mundane celebrity, he just had to do it, like in a bullfight. For a fantasy script to the, um, discussions leading up to it, see here.

More drôlerie

Following the succès de scandale of the Li family Daoists’ tour of France, and my inept flirtations with Franglais (consisting mainly of “enchanté”, “apéritif”, and “encore”), here’s a little story:

Sidney the Snail has done well for himself. He shuffles into a luxury car showroom and announces chirpily to the salesman:
“Morning! I’d like to buy an Aston Martin Rapide S, please.”
“Certainly sir,” goes the salesman, “and did you have any additional features in mind?”
“Well actually… Does it happen to come with a big letter S on the boot?”
“Um, no sir—but I’m sure for an extra consideration we could paint one on.”
“Money is no object, my dear fellow.”
“Very well sir. Um… might I make so bold as to enquire just why you wish to have a large letter S on the boot of your new sportscar?”
“Well you see… I’ve always dreamed about surging past all the traffic, and them going,
‘Wow—just look at that S CAR GO!’ ”

Alas, I can’t begin to think how to translate this for Li Manshan.

Landmarks

Reluctant as I am to play into the hands of the fatuous “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”, this local landmark in Bedford Park may seem to suggest that the continent, with its fancy foreign monuments like those of Pisa and indeed Paris, isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

pillarbox

The leaning pillarbox* of Chiswick.

Left-leaning too, you note… Is this the kind of subversion that scares off a certain old friend of mine?!

Did you hear about Karl Marx’s vegetable garden?
It’s a Communist plot.

QMZ pose 1993

Identity parade: the usual suspects.

 

* For younger readers whose grasp of Old English is less than perfect, a “pillarbox” was an ancient device into which were inserted objects called “letters”, written on paper (often with a “pen”) and enclosed in an “envelope” with a “stamp” attached. By a mysterious alchemical process, the addressee would often receive such missives within the space of a mere few days.

Daoists and Confucians

Jpeg

On tour in France, spellbound yet again by the Li family Daoists’ performances under the august aegis of the Confucius Institute, who better to cite than the Grand Maître himself:

子在齊闻韶,三月不知肉味,曰: 不图為樂之至于斯也。
《論語·述而》

After Confucius heard the Shao music in the kingdom of Qi, he didn’t notice the taste of meat for three months.* He said, “I had no idea that music-making could reach such heights!”
Analects §7.14.

My comment, precisely 2,534 years later:

鐘注:小子在巴闻道亦是也!
Jones notes: Lil Ol’ Me feels the same on hearing the Way in Paris! [1]

I feel blessed to have found this subject—fieldwork, inspiration, ritual, laughter. And now to take a rocking sextet on tour, all at ease with each other, great mates.

For more from Confucius, see here.

 

* The Analects doesn’t appear to contain his later comment, “Stuff this for a lark, anyone fancy a burger?”

 

[1] 巴: short for Paris 巴黎, not 巴蜀 Sichuan. Or Bali, for that matter. Note how I replace Shao by Dao.

The whole long dragon 一条龙

To bring this little French tour to fruition has involved a lot of work. A long chain of people has made it possible, from the Cini people in Venice (2012) and Thomas Roetting in Leipzig (2013) to Adeline Herrou and Hélène Bloch at Nanterre, the brilliant Yan Lu of the Nanterre Confucius Institute, Kersten Zhang our able fixer in Beijing, the Clermont-Ferrand CI team, Nicolas Prevot, the Centre Mandapa, and Li Bin in Yanggao.

Indeed, the roots of our tours, and my whole project on the Li family, go right back to Chen Kexiu’s early research and the 1990 trip to Beijing led by Li Qing.

Again, with the Li band we riff on “Without the Communist Party there would be no new China”:

(me:) Without Chen Kexiu there would be no Steve-and-the-Li-band
(Li Bin:) Without Steve  there would be no Li band tours
(me:) Without the Li band there would be no Steve

As I observed (my book, p.339):

The audiences go wild, their faces rapt; I love the feeling of turning on audiences to this music that has enchanted me for so many years. Our hosts always latch onto how very special this tour is.

Yan Lu prepared one of the most detailed schedules I’ve ever had in four decades of orchestral touring. And I love it when we’ve done all possible preparation, and then just naturally come together in haste, improvising to make the little details work, carried along on a wave of enthusiasm.

The Daoists fit into it all and always put on an amazing show night after night, so that we and everyone, dazzled by their brilliance, see that it’s all been worthwhile.

Still, all this is merely an occasional interlude for them: their daily “rice-bowl” remains performing rituals for their local community in the Yanggao countryside.

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 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 Confucian 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, and 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, cigarette cartons, 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 崇洋媚外)!

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.

Nanterre encore

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 on tour 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 stroll 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 quirky 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”? My photo.

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 (playlist #3, with commentary here).

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 can’t possibly tell you that one), I only have to say “Can you sew this up for me?” for Li Bin to burst out laughing. 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 with 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 (playlist #4, commentary here) 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 (for Li Bin’s diary after returning, see here).

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!

After Daoist music in France, try Andean music in Japan

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.

Vignettes 6: Wang Ding

WD 2011

Wang Ding learns the ropes, 2011, flanked by Li Manshan and Golden Noble.

Over our various foreign tours since 2005, apart from the core group, we’ve used various people as the sixth member, and Li Manshan’s pupil Wang Ding (on vocals and gongs) fits in well.

Whereas before Liberation the sons of Daoists began learning from the age of six or seven, since the 1990s they only begin when in their 20s at least, whether they start from scratch or adapt from the background of gujiang shawm bands. Li Manshan laments that what few pupils he now has only take it up for the money—he considers them unreliable, perfunctory, jobsworths. In 2010 he took a pupil, a twenty-six-sui-old man, but by 2011 he wasn’t “coming out much.”

By then Li Manshan had another pupil who had been learning since earlier in 2011: bespectacled Wang Ding (b.1975), from nearby West Shuangzhai. He left school after junior secondary; by 2013 he had two children. Since West Shuangzhai has its own fine group of hereditary Daoists, he started learning with Yuan Lishan there, but he soon began to get more work with Li Manshan, so informally became his pupil.

Wang Ding takes the job quite diligently. He has a serious demeanour—almost too serious, the Daoists felt. I liked him, but at first Li Manshan didn’t rate him much. It’s not just a question of a talent for singing or instrumental music, or simply looking the part when taking one’s place before the coffin. Fitting in socially is also a major criterion—just as in a London orchestra (or any social group), personality counts.

Happily, by 2013 Wang Ding had grown in confidence. As he learned the ropes, Li Manshan wrote out some hymn texts for him, so he mastered the basic vocal repertoire. As of 2015 he had learned most hymns, and sings well, making a useful addition to the vocals; he sometimes plays the drum on procession, directs the kin for Transferring Offerings, and he decorates altars too. And now he is far more relaxed and sociable; Li Manshan has come to value his diligence and sense of humour, so he too has become one of the lads, and is now a regular member.

After all the complexity, intensity, and exuberance of the main programme, in France we giggle over my inspired idea for an encore in Germany four years ago: the dangdang gong player should come onstage all on his own and solemnly play a solo, one note per slow beat, taking a bow at the end. The audience might even buy it as a somber and austere meditation:

大音希声
The Great Music is sparse in sound

This was Wang Ding’s first trip outside China—indeed, outside Shanxi. It was great to have him in France, and I’m proud for him.

Vignettes 5: Erqing

Another essential member of the Li band’s foreign tours is Erqing (formal name Huang Shuangping, b.1978), a son of Li Qing’s oldest daughter, also based in Upper Liangyuan. He dropped out of school at the age of fifteen sui after only one year of junior secondary, and started learning with Li Qing the following year, along with Li Bin.

Physically he reminds me of Li Qing, with his rounded face and occasional wispy whiskers. Apart from singing, he is a fine sheng player, and he’s great on the large bo cymbals in Yellow Dragon. He can play the guanzi well too—he and Wu Mei make a fine team on large and small guanzi on the rare occasions when they use a group of seven Daoists.

Erqing and WM

Wu Mei and Erqing in ritual performance, 2009.

Performing with great dignity, Erqing would be a core member of the ritual band, but since 2004 he has mainly been doing temporary labor outside; his long-term absence is unfortunate.

If Wu Mei has been persuaded to remain, they couldn’t hang on to Erqing. Alone among the group, Erqing is widely travelled within China. He moved to the county-town in 2004, working as a driver. In 2005 he began finding temporary work outside—as labourer, electrician, driver, and so on, usually working in a team of around twenty Yanggao men. He has worked as far afield as Jiangsu and distant Fujian. He bought a flat in Yanggao town in 2010. He did a little time as a Daoist on visits home in 2012–13, but was mostly working outside, with stints in Inner Mongolia, Shaanbei, Ningxia, and Shandong. Thus he can speak passable standard Chinese when necessary.

Such labouring trips each last about a month. All the places are the same to him: they go to work on the building site, sleeping in grotty communal dormitories with around twenty men; at least they eat OK in restaurants. They just go there and do the gig and take the money. That’s life. From 2009 the Daoists’ fees were increasing modestly, but Erqing was already making at least 6,000 kuai a month, well over twice as much as he could make as a Daoist at home. Perhaps as he gets older he will return to the more modest earnings to be made from doing rituals back home.

He’s cool about taking time out, and says his fee for this tour will be a little more than he usually earns, so I don’t feel bad about insisting that he comes on tour.

When I ask Golden Noble and Wang Ding why they don’t go off to do laboring work, they say they lack the appropriate skills.

Now Erqing only keeps his hand in on his brief returns to Yanggao. But he’s still brilliant. I’m glad he’s making a good living, and maybe he will come back to ritual when he’s older. In Paris he was useful on the metro too. Along with Li Bin, he’s a bit of a foodie.

Vignettes 4: Wu Mei

I’ve already written a tribute to Wu Mei’s artistry.

WM Nanterre raincoat

Wu Mei improvises rainwear with a bin bag, Nanterre.

Wu Mei has become a local star, a true musician renowned for his amazing guanzi playing, just as outstanding as that of his seniors. He plays sheng (if he gets a chance) and percussion too, and sings the vocal liturgy.

WM on sheng 2013

Wu Mei on sheng, 2013.

Around 2009 he was often working as a welder in town, having learned the trade from his older brother. For this he received the princely sum of 120 kuai a day, as opposed to 80 kuai for two days working as a Daoist; his monthly earnings as a welder were more than twice what he could make as a Daoist. But during the busy winter season he was still working fifteen to twenty days a month as a Daoist, and seven or eight days a month in the summer. By 2011 he was happy to be working full-time as a Daoist again—not least because as a star attraction he was now able to command an extra half share more than the others.

I’ve described Wu Mei’s constant explorations on the guanzi. I love his new refinements in the exquisite Zouma suite (cf. audio playlist, track 4, from 2013), adding little bits of vibrato on some sultry low passages, like Billie Holiday.

He gets a standing ovation for his trick sequence, and so he should. This year I note a sweet new gesture—yes, it’s an ear trumpet:

WM tricks CF

Tricks, Clermont-Ferrand.

SONY DSC

Nanterre. Photo: Nathalie Béchet.

I’m pleased with myself for thinking of following the exuberance of the tricks with the total contrast of the solemn Invitation ritual, which we first added on our German tour in 2013.

Vignettes 3: Golden Noble

IMG_2253_2

Golden Noble at the soul hall, with conch and flag.

Another indispensable member of Li Manshan’s band is Golden Noble (Jingui, formal name Zhang Shiyu, b.1968).

He is son of Li Qing’s younger sister—so though he is twenty-two years Li Manshan’s junior, they are considered the same generation. Born and raised in Houying village just southwest, he began to learn ritual with Li Qing at the age of twenty-one sui in 1988 after graduating from senior secondary, biking over daily to Upper Liangyuan to study with Li Qing. He has become an outstanding ritual specialist, with a fine voice—his intimate solo recitation of the Invitation verses is so beautiful that Li Manshan always lets him do it. What concert audiences might not realize is that when not required for the vocals, he’s also a fine sheng player. I have come to value him very much.

Li Qing taught both Golden Noble and Li Bin to determine the date, and they decorate coffins too. Wu Mei, being unrelated, wasn’t taught all that solo business.

With his lively interest in ritual, Golden Noble recorded rare vocal items sung by senior Daoist Kang Ren not long before his death in 2010, and he has kept some precious additional notations of Li Qing that he copied.

LMS JG on train

With Li Manshan on the train.

In France he was good-natured as ever. On tour our concert version of the Invitation ritual is highly condensed; for village rituals, of the twenty verses of “Vowing with hearts at one we Invite” he generally chooses around five, and in concert only three. After the rather long first concert I joked with him that he had sung all twenty! I also noted that he sometimes only went up to top do, whereas usually he descends from a high mi—he’s not even aware of this, which shows how focused he is on delivering the text.

CF Invitation

Golden Noble leads the Invitation, Clermont-Ferrand.

Vignettes 2: Li Bin

Li Bin 2011

Li Bin on sheng, 2011.

Li Manshan’s son Li Bin (b.1977) seems like a typical entrepreneur in the religious market, but he’s a master of all five skills of the Daoist. Ian Johnson writes eloquently about him in his The souls of China.

Li Bin is gradually taking over the reins from his father. For our foreign tours he is our main link to get all the complex paperwork done, and I’m in constant contact with him online. He always answers my queries promptly, in between ritual segments.

Li Bin began learning with his grandfather Li Qing in 1993 after graduating from junior secondary. In awe of the wisdom of his elders, I tended to underestimate him; though seemingly rather concerned with the more mundane aspects of the business, he knows a lot, and his keen sense of humour hints at his acumen. He is not only an anchor on the sheng mouth-organ, but sometimes takes a turn on guanzi or drum, apart from the cymbals and vocal liturgy; he determines the date, decorates coffins and altars, and makes paper artefacts.

Since the 1990s the lineage has spread into the county-town as never before. Li Manshan’s younger brother Third Tiger was first to move to town, to take up a state job around 1990. Since 2006 he has been employed in the county anti-corruption unit, where, with his sincere intelligence, he has risen to high rank. He makes a good living, with several sidelines. But he loves the Daoist rituals, and can offer a lot of detail about the old masters. He even tells me he is keen to get back to ritual practice when he retires!

Since the 1990s it has become common among Daoists for the son to run a funeral shop in town while the seniors remain in the old village home. Of Li Peisen’s sons, Li Huan moved to town in the 1980s to determine the date from a base there; more recently his younger brother Li Hua, and his sons, have opened funeral shops in town as a base for their ritual band; in 2016 Li Hou followed suit. Li Bin moved with his family to the county-town in 2007, initially as a stepping-stone for his son to get a better education—seeing it as a route towards betterment, just as his forebears had done under successive regimes. He went on to buy a first-floor flat there, running a funeral shop with his wife on the ground floor. This is where I stay on my rare forays into town to take a shower and see old friends (in that order)—we call it “the five-star hotel,” as it is handsomely furnished. Li Bin has managed to buy urban registration for his son—that’s always the priority.

In 2010 Li Bin bought a little car for the princely sum of 48,000 kuai. On the bumpy village roads, any car will have a tough time. In 2013 he upgraded to a fine Nissan hatchback, and in nine months had already done 13,000 kilometres, almost all on local business. His car has a posh sound system and, for his rare excursions outside the vicinity, satnav. He did a hundred funerals in 2010, not including countless determining the date sessions, decorating about forty coffins, and all his work in the shop making funerary artefacts. In 2012–13 he did 118 funerals, including eight three-day ones; in the winter he had fifty days’ solid ritual work without a single day off. He knows that Li Manshan’s health is fragile and that he should help him work less as he gets older, but they often have to split into two bands, and don’t like to turn work down. For a diary of Li Bin’s ritual activities after returning from our French tour, see here; for his busy schedule even during the Coronavirus scare, here.

Li Bin has a firm grasp of all aspects of the Daoist arts, but developing his business seems uppermost in his mind, all the more so now that he is based in town. In Adam Chau’s phrase, he is a real “household entrepreneur in the religious market”. Though his earnings can’t compete with those for temporary manual labour, he does quite well (or he would do, if he didn’t spend it all). He has become used to a more comfortable life than those still left behind in the villages. Well connected, he enjoys eating out with a wide network of friends, not only gujiang, singers and members of the county opera troupe, but also cadres, teachers, and so on—a far cry from his father’s tranquil home life.

The diplomat of the group, he is the first port of call for visitors like Chinese and foreign journalists seeking soundbites. He can speak standard Chinese when required, and his “bilinguality” is even evident from the two different kinds of name-cards he distributes—one for his local clientele, one for his diplomatic contacts with visiting dignitaries.

The card he uses locally is headed “Ninth generation of yinyang in Upper Liangyuan,” whereas his diplomatic card reads “Hengshan Daoist music band, Shanxi.” He even uses his elegant given name Bin (“civil and martial”) on his local card, but the more colloquial Bing (“soldier”) on his diplomatic one. The local card reads “the whole chain of supplies for funerals,” with a list of services on the back; instead, the back of his diplomatic card lists their Intangible Cultural Heritage status and foreign tours.

Li Manshan and the others haven’t got a name-card. Neither have I. In a typical exchange one day, I ask him:
“You got a name-card, then?”
“Oh yeah!”
“Um… can you give me one?”
“Sure—whose do you want? I’ve got loads of ’em!”

Li Manshan does have to be a shrewd band boss, maintaining the livelihood of his group. He now goes off to work (rituals, determining the date, decorating coffins, and so on) with a smart shoulder bag bought for him by Li Bin, but he makes a less convincing businessman than his son. Whereas Li Manshan tots up the fees on the paper lining of a cigarette pack, Li Bin works them out on a calculator. Of course all this is a common generational contrast. Li Manshan’s demands on the material world are modest, and he remains firmly rooted in old village culture. He wouldn’t contemplate leaving the village or the land—it keeps him healthy and active, and he doesn’t like the bustle of town life. There’s not exactly a connection with being a Daoist (indeed, urban Daoists are more likely to excel, even without land), but it’s part of his personal discipline.

Remarkably, almost alone among all the rural Daoists whom I know, Li Bin has been devout since his youth. Among various Daoist artifacts that he has ordered from Longhushan (distant headquarters in south China of the Orthodox Unity branch of Daoism) for sale in his shop, he keeps a statuette there of Zhang Daoling, ancient founder of the Orthodox Unity branch. Every morning when getting up at home, and every night on his return, he lights incense before the statuette.

He is simply adapting to circumstances, as Daoists have always done throughout history—competition and syncretism with Buddhism, urbanization and the shift of economic power to the south in the medieval era, and so on.

On our foreign tours, whereas the village-based Daoists carefully hoard their fees, Li Bin spends with abandon on gifts for his guanxi network. In Paris, now dangerously armed with a credit card, he spent with abandon on gifts like vin rouge, olive oil, perfume, watches, and leather bags. To me it seems profligate, when he has a family to support—but I dare say such gifts are a calculated investment for him, consolidating his guanxi. By now he has built up a substantial power-base, and people trust him.

But now Li Bin could well be the last generation of Daoists in this fine lineage. And this is perfectly understandable. Would any of us want our sons to do this job? Many elements mitigate against youngsters taking it up—state education, migration, upward mobility, pop culture… Parents (including Daoists) naturally want their children to do well in school, find a secure well-paid job in town, and get urban registration—whereas working as a Daoist is a tough life, with long days in poor demoralized villages for a rather small fee. I’m not going to pontificate about perpetuating the illustrious ancient Chinese heritage, and nor should anyone else. [1]

 

[1] Much of this and related posts is adapted from my book.

Vignettes 1: Li Manshan

Li Manshan is as adorable as ever.

I was determined to get to CDG to meet the band off their Air France flight from Beijing, but it arrived early at 5.30am, so in the end I just had to wait for them at our hotel right by Gare Saint Lazare. We met up there at 7.30, Li Manshan giving me a big grin and a hug.

Now 72 sui, he is gradually giving way to his son Li Bin, only doing nearby rituals. But he still can’t turn down requests to go and determine the date, and he still decorates coffins. This process of handing over must always happen, but no-one ever describes it. Personalities within a ritual group, the transmission from father to son as the latter gradually takes over—all such detail is absent from both historical records and most fieldwork reports. If only we could document it in detail for ancient Daoist masters like Du Guangting.

Li Manshan has new headgear, now a more trendy baseball cap, not as sweet as his old one, but hey. He only takes it off, reluctantly, when we enter Notre Dame. He also has a new mobile, the same old make, but with a new ringtone that sounds like The magic roundabout, so another of my names for him is Zebedee—who would have liked the Daoist Pacing the Void. I miss Li Manshan’s old kitsch ringtone of The little wicker basket.

After his lovely gift to me of the old folding stool he made, I gave him a digested translation of The good soldier Švejk, a copy I must have bought in Beijing in the early 1990s. I inscribe it to him:

踏罡步斗的明星李老君
Old Lord Li, superstar Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper

“Old Lord Li” references one of our favourite ritual couplets pasted up at the gateway of the scripture hall, hard to translate elegantly:

穩如泰山盤腿座
貫定乾坤李老君
Seated in lotus posture firm as Mount Tai,
Old Lord Li thoroughly resolves the male and female elements.

And Stepping the Cosmos and Pacing the Dipper are rituals in the family’s manual collection.

Old Lord Li is immediately hooked on Švejk. I knew it would be just his cuppa tea—the innocent common man muddling his way jovially through an irrational state machinery. He can’t put it down. Later, suitably, I also give him my old spare toothbrush to use, as he hasn’t brought one.

After catching up together and working out our day, I go off with Li Manshan for the first of many meetings with Teacher Wang, now abbreviated to “hold meeting” (kaihui).

How amazing to be on tour again with this brilliant sextet who have been doing rituals together for thirty years, and who are now in the rhythm of touring abroad too. We use our secret language, always laughing.

In the concerts, the others (like Wu Mei for his amazing tricks on the wind instruments, or Golden Noble with his solo recitation) may attract more attention, but Li Manshan is right at the heart of everything, drumming unerringly, singing intensely, subtly directing. Even the twisting route he improvises on the tiny stage as he leads the final Chase round the Five Quarters, unsheathing the “precious sword” to sketch talismans on the ground, is magisterial.

LMS on train to Nanterre

On the train to Nanterre.

Late at night we have our usual sweet chat outside the hotel. It’s been a long day, but they’re troopers.

Li Manshan is always tapping away on his fingers (even while sleeping on the train) or on his chopsticks as we wait for our meal to arrive.

LMS at Hotel Ravel

Clermont-Ferrand: two of my favourite masters.

Following a quick weekend flit to Clermont-Ferrand, after our last gig back in Paris he had a (rare) bath—the concerts are hot work, and they’re all bathed in sweat. He then slept till 1am, watched some TV, slept again, got a call from Pansi village to determine the date after a death, and was up by 4am.

We meet up in the foyer at 5am for fags outside, lovely. I take him to the bar down the road, full of workmen on the early shift, so I can have a café and orange juice as we chat with the Wenzhou people behind the bar. Trump comes on TV—Old Lord Li hasn’t even heard of him, how enviable. Back to my room together to read through a draft article by our wonderful Confucius Institute host Yan Lu that she has just sent me.

Li Manshan calls Pansi again at 6am with more guidance. It’s a village that he likes best, and they most trust him.

After our hectic schedule, we’re all glad to have a final day free for sightseeing and buying gifts. While his son spends a fortune, Li Manshan just wants to find a couple of toys for his young grandson.

LMS and WD

With his pupil Wang Ding.

A quick farewell hug, and they embark on their long journey back to Yanggao to resume their busy ritual routine. Hardly had they got back home when both Li Manshan and Li Bin had to rush off to separate villages to determine the date for more funerals, which is the start of another sequence of tasks for them over the next couple of weeks (for Li Bin’s diary after their return, see here).

Depping with master singers

Just home from Paris after an unforgettable time with the Li family Daoists. It already seems like a dream.

Nanterre encore

Our encore, Centre Mandapa. Photo: Nicolas Prevot.

As an encore [English term—Ed. When in France say bis!] I joined in with the Li band, singing the Mantra to the Three Generations a cappella (audio playlist track 3, cf. 2001 version, track 2: commentary here).

For anyone fortunate enough to do fieldwork on Daoist ritual, I thought this might remind us of the benefits (indeed the very possibility) of participant observation; but it was also an opportunity for me to keep my hand in after a year apart from the Daoists. Having remoulded the proverb “Mr Li wearing Mr Zhang’s hat”, I enjoy refuting another popular one, “The monk from outside knows how to recite the scriptures” (wailaide heshang hui nianjing 外来的和尚会念经).

Long schooled by accompanying Mark Padmore and the Monteverdi Choir on my violin, I now have to set aside my instinct to invest words with meaning, instead trying to latch onto the lugubrious timbre of the voices of Li Manshan and Golden Noble, and Wu Mei’s guanzi. Li Manshan’s bushy eyebrows are a useful image here.

During rituals, when we sing a cappella hymns we stand in two rows of three, facing each other across the altar table. So usually I’m either playing small cymbals over the other side from Wu Mei, or playing gong at the other end. But this time I found myself standing right next to him and Golden Noble for the encore, with Li Bin (also brilliant) on my right, all of them subtly supporting me. I realised Wu Mei is not only one of the greatest wind players in the world and a brilliant player of the bo cymbals, but (like Li Manshan and Golden Noble) a fantastic singer too. Not just his nasal timbre and the projection of his voice, but the taste of his choices—where to inject extra volume and fervour, rise up high, or put in a tiny variation. Listening carefully to each other as always, dovetailing, with subtle “rules” about where to take a breath and where to sustain. There’s much more to their singing than meets the ear—the texts of the a cappella hymns are rendered with great intensity and concentration.

Over fags outside the hotel we had worked out an edited version of the Mantra, segueing smoothly from the end of the 1st verse directly into the coda of the 3rd verse. With a very subtle accelerando, its exuberant repeated final couplet begins from a high do the first time, soaring to an exuberant high mi on the repeat:

Vowing this evening to attend the ritual assembly,
Leading the deceased spirits to ascend upwards towards the Southern Palace!

We noted a nice pun, glossing “ritual assembly” (fahui) as “French concert” (Faguo yinyuehui)—the extra characters to be recited silently (monian), like a secret formula. Li Manshan congratulates me again on my silent recitation—”The only thing you’ve learned properly, Steve!”

In rituals back home they don’t always give their all, but on tour, wanting to put on a good show, they are magnificent. Standing in with the Li band—whether at a Paris concert or at a Yanggao funeral—is one of the great musical experiences of my life, “and I’ve had a few in my time I can tell you” (take your pick—Christmas Oratorio in Weimar, B Minor Mass in the Barbican after a tour of Japan, and so on…).

After all my tedious academic questions, being right in the middle of the action with these master Daoists (not “musicians”!) is overwhelming for me. Li Manshan, Golden Noble, and Wu Mei are right on my case. There are no passengers—Erqing and Wang Ding (Li Manshan’s pupil, a welcome new recruit to our touring band) are great too. Focusing on the vocal ensemble, surrounded by Li Manshan’s sparse and subtle drum patterns, the regular crotchet beat of the gong, and quavers on the bell, I also have to remember where to beat out the occasional syncopated cadences on the small cymbals with Li Manshan’s drum accents.

It reminds me of my occasional depping with them in Yanggao for funeral segments (my book, pp.325–6) when they’re one short—waiting on the substitutes’ bench. It also has a disturbing echo of my orchestral experience—that’s another depressingly familiar phone-call from orchestral fixers,

“Can you come and do a Messiah next Tuesday in Barnsley? I’ve tried everyone, we’re absolutely desperate!”

Thanks a lot…

Our chats turned to the singing of the revered older generation of Li Qing and his colleagues. Li Zengguang was admired as a vocal liturgist; Li Qing’s own voice declined somewhat with age. Some had fine voices but less mastery of the texts; other masters who knew all the texts perfectly were somewhat variable in intonation and vocal ability. Apart from their astounding instrumental ensemble, I doubt if there’s ever been a more brilliant vocal group than the present band under Li Manshan, working together almost daily for thirty years.

The Li family Daoists in France

Paris gig poster

First concert yesterday on our mini-tour of France, our fifth foreign trip since 2005. Not least, we haven’t seen each other for a year, so it’s great for us to catch up.

After a procession leading the audience through the circus ground on campus at Nanterre, the gig was unforgettable—profound and exhilarating. The audience went wild, and I’m proud for them. They’re right up there with Bird and Dizzy’s band; or with a senior string quartet who have been working together for decades, playing the Heilige Dankgesang on long tours, constantly delving deeper into the inner meaning.

Living the reclusive life that I do, this sudden lurch into serving as their minder, roadie, and stage manager is an invigorating shock to the system. They appreciate all my work—but since I always depend on them when I’m in Yanggao, it’s great for me to able to repay them a bit by looking after them for a change.

In my book (p.335) I wrote about our foreign tours:

Once we’re on the road, looking after the Daoists is an infinitely rewarding full-time job for me. Between sorting out daily logistics with our hosts, shepherding the Daoists round airports, stations, hotels, and restaurants, explaining how things work (showers, coffee machines, and so on), interpreting, helping them buy souvenirs, and keeping everyone in good spirits, I manage to find time to ask further questions about their life stories and rituals. Apart from working as their roadie, I enjoy being stage manager too. Li Manshan observes that they all want to do good concerts for my sake, so I won’t “lose face”; but they take pride in the gigs for themselves, irrespective of my pedantic concert professionalism. Elsewhere I note their high standards back home despite the careless attitudes of their village patrons, and here too they really care about adapting to the demands of a concert. We constantly discuss how to refine their stage presentation, and they get more polished at taking their final bows.

If course one of the insights in spending time in the ”natural habitat” of their home environment is to reveal their humanity. But touring, outside the narrow field laboratory, further helps me relate them to the hubbub of the global bazaar.

They’ve brought me a couple of bottles of Fenjiu “white spirit” from Shanxi, so after our gig we all polished them off over a convivial meal. At midnight Li Manshan knocked on my door and we ended up sharing loads more stories, “having a meeting with Teacher Wang”, and fondly recalling Li Qing, reflecting on this whole amazing story since my first visit in 1991.

Back in Paris tomorrow for our last gig at the Centre Mandapa (see Upcoming Events in sidebar)—for anyone at all nearby, not to be missed!!!

Some Portuguese epigrams

For Nick—
i
f the reader finds this post a tad arcane, just wait till you see his WAM anagrams…

Further to my little Lisbon jaunt, I’m always disappointed at my total lack of success when I try to busk it in Spanish by randomly adapting Italian—but it’s even more futile to further modify my crap Spanish into bacalhau (sorry, I mean cod) [1] Portuguese.

I soon dispensed with my old Portuguese phrase book (less entertaining, and less sinister, than Teach yourself Japanese)—its very opening phrase suggests a similar deep anxiety about even setting foot outside our own green and pleasant land:

There’s been an accident.

I flew TAP (Take a Parachute). Indeed, the flight prefix is further abbreviated by omitting the middle letter, so not for the only time, I found myself flying TP (Totally Pissed).

Aboard TAP flights, with impressive urbanity in the vein of Mots d’heures, the airline regales the traveller with a pithy and somewhat obscure epigram evoking the saudade of fado. It seems to recall a sad incident in the colourful past of an early Lisbon femme fatale, perhaps a widow of French patrician stock (even a refugee from the guillotine?):

Colete Salva-Vidas sob a Cadeira [2]

I’ve added capitals for clarity, but in order to preserve the ambiguity of the original I have refrained from supplying what seems to be a missing apostrophe—indeed, could it even be an exhortation?

Either way, it is far more evocative in Portuguese than in its prosaic English rendition

Life jacket under the seat.

Cf. Airplane:

Airplane is packed with little visual detail like that, requiring as much long-term revisiting as the Ring Cycle. Even the opening sequence is a too, er, deaf ‘orse.

And I’m keen to dally with Mme [sic] Salva-Vida’s [just as sic] enticing daughters

Rolagem, Descolagem, and (black sheep of the family) Aterragem,

also commemorated in TAP’s onboard annotations. Again, their names are so much less elegant in English:

Taxi, Takeoff, and Landing.

For a new addition to the family, Proxima Paragem, see here.

Just had one of those wacky dreams:

In Lisbon, invited implausibly to some suspiciously traditional social event with an old friend, we make our tortuous way there by means of a badly bombed Escher staircase. Arriving unscathed, I mingle suavely with the locals. Pleased with myself for managing to utter a grammatically convincing phase, I exclaim “Progresso!” “Si,” my Portuguese friend nods, “Esta Truro.”

How pitilessly my subconscious satirises my naïve aspirations to insider status.

 

[1] Altogether Now: The Piece of Cod Which Passeth All Understanding.

[2] Cadeira: twinned with Madeira.

Li family French tour confirmed!

I’m delighted that the visit to France of the Li family Daoist band is now confirmed, so do please consult the Upcoming events in the sidebar, come along, and do tell all your friends!

The windmills of your mind

Windmills cover

While we’re on the wonderful melody, harmony, and orchestration of Michel Legrand, how about The windmills of your mind (apparently * inspired by the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante!)—here’s Legrand singing it himself in 1969, the rhythms always fluid:

And it loses nothing in English—I continue to be belatedly impressed at the good taste of Dusty Springfield (English lyrics again from the Bergmans):

But though the lurch to the bombastic is only fleeting, I still prefer to maintain the tranquil mood of the original.

Above the shifting harmonies, not only does the melody relish leaps of a 7th, but after the 3rd phrase each new incipit sets forth by falling a 7th from the previous cadence! Cf. the 7ths in Moon river.

For Francis Lai, see here; and for sequences, here.

 

* We commonly read that The windmills of your mind is “borrowed” from the opening two phrases of the Mozart; but I can’t find a comment from Legrand himself recognising a conscious inspiration. Anyway, here it is—just as wonderful: