Learning the lingo

Sedaris

I’ve noted the unlikely connection between Li Manshan and David Sedaris.  Both are fine humorists, but the latter takes language-learning to the cleaners with his essay “Easy, Tiger” in Let’s explore diabetes with owls. As with Daoist ritual or any text expressed through performance, Sedaris’s literary ouevre works best if you read it in his endearingly whiny voice (for more on public speaking, see here, here, and here).

On trips to Japan, rather than adopting the sinister Teach yourself Japanese (which would be right up his street) he makes progress with the aid of the Pimsleur language program [sic]. But

instead of being provided with building blocks that would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left with using the hundreds and thousands of sentences that you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that, or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, “There is a bank in front of the train station,” or “Mrs Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years.”

BTW, the ability to adapt by using building blocks is just what Indian musical training provides. In WAM we don’t even memorize hundreds and thousands of sentences, we depend on reading them out of the score. FFS…

One of the things I like about Tokyo is the constant reinforcement everyone gets for trying. “You are very skilled at Japanese,” everyone keeps telling me. I know people are just being polite, but it spurs me on, just as I hoped to be spurred on in Germany. To this end, I’ve added a second audio program, one by a man named Michael Thomas, who works with a couple of students, male and female. At the start, he explains that German and English are closely related and thus have a lot in common. In one language the verb is “to come”, and in the other it’s “kommen“. English “to give” is German “geben“. Boston’s “That is good” is Berlin’s “Das ist gut“. It’s an excellent way to start and leaves the listener thinking, Hey, ich kann do dis.

My own German vocabulary extends only as far as the Matthew Passion, blut, ellenbogen [Wozzeck], and plötzlich—none of which are very handy when you’re trying to buy toothpaste—but I know it will expand exponentially once I get to grips with Nina Hagen and Ute Lemper. Evoking my own inept flailings, Sedaris comments,

People taught me all sorts of words, but the only ones that stuck were “Kaiserschnitt” which means “ceserean section”, and “Lebenabschnittspartner“. This doesn’t translate to “lover” or “life partner” but rather, to “the person I am with today”, the implication being that things change, and you are keeping your options open.
[…]
There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place. […] It’s a program [still sic] full of odd sentence combinations. “We don’t live here. We want mineral water” implies that if the couple did live in this particular town they’d be getting drunk like everyone else. Another standout is “Der Wein ist zu teuer und Sie sprechen zu schnell” (“The wine is too expensive and you talk too fast”). The response to this would be “”Anything else, Herr Asshole?” But of course they don’t teach you that.

For a trip to China he reaches the “Romance” and “Getting closer” sections of the Lonely planet phrasebook:

A line that might have been written especially for me: “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.”
Oddly, the writers haven’t included “Leave the light on,” a must if you want to actually say any of these things.

Sedaris doesn’t see politeness in foreign languages as much of a problem, recalling the phrasebooks of his youth,

where the Ugly American was still alive and kicking people. “I didn’t order this!” he raged in Greek and Spanish. “Think you can cheat me, do you?” “Go away or I’ll call the police”.

In my own ancient German phrasebook I’m still very taken by the script suggested by the sequence

“The chambermaid never comes when I ring.”
“Are you the chambermaid?”

And while we’re about it, don’t miss the classic “Look!” story.

I also look forward to a phrasebook of Yanggao dialect—for me, better late than never.

* * *

Doubtless I will chortle further over David Sedaris on this blog, but meanwhile (still in Let’s explore diabetes with owls) I note an intriguing parallel with the choristers’ famous kangaroo story (in “Laugh Kookaburra”):

It was around this time that we finally entered the bush. Hugh pointed out the window at a still lump of dirty fur lying beside a fallen tree, and Pat caroled, “Roadkill!” Then she pulled over so we could take a closer look. […] We walked toward the body and saw that it was a… what, exactly? “A teenage kangaroo?”
“A wallaby,” Pat corrected me. […]
“Hugh,” I called, “come here and look at the wallaby.”
It’s his belief that in marveling at a dead animal on the roadside, you may as well have killed it yourself—not accidentally but on purpose, cackling, most likely, as you ran it down. Therefore he stayed in the car.
“It’s your loss,” I called.

 

 

 

 

A selection of recent posts

 

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Indian singing at the BM

Bihag

Ragamala for rag Bihag. Yale University Art Gallery.

After some time immersed in the rich harmonies of Mahler 10, it made a nice contrast for me to bask in the purity of monophonic Hindustani music in the Indian gallery of the British Museum. With the arhat at the other (Chinese) end of the gallery gazing on serenely from afar, Kaushiki Chakraborty sang with the lucidity and intensity characteristic of the style, accompanied by tabla and harmonium (the latter, alas, only intermittently suggestive of the bandoneon—call me old-fashioned, but you still can’t beat the sarangi).

She began with a khayal in the late-evening rag Maru Bihag—whose relation with rag Yaman (and Yaman Kalyan) is a subtlety to be explored by the aficionado. But even for the less attuned ear it’s worth homing in on the basic vocabulary of rag: the pitch relationships, always expounded most clearly in the opening alap.

To simplify absurdly the ascending and descending scales, and the choices of phrases within them (NB upper-case letters denote higher degrees, lower-case their lower degrees; S and P, do and so, are invariable), Ms Chakraborty’s version of the rag featured N and M prominently, using an ascending scale of

N  R  G  M  D  N—

as in many ragas, feeding on the tension with the tonic drone of S. The natural-fourth degree m is introduced as a subsidiary theme (N G m, or S m, and G m G), and later a sustained P also features. Here’s a version she sang in 2017:

Indeed, focusing on the pitch relationships of solfeggio is a good way of listening to Chinese ritual melody—albeit a very different process of composition, with a far more limited tonal palette. Neither of these systems, nor that of WAM, is “superior”: they are all valid means of organizing sound.

Some would date the “decline” of “Western music” from later Miles, or from the Second Viennese School; one might playfully suggest (pace Bach and Mahler!!!) that it began a millenium or so earlier, with the spread of harmony, and even the invention of graphic notation… Comes in jolly handy for Mahler 10, though.

Back to black

For the sixth anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song (with the aid of youtube), no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**

Sifting through different versions of her songs seems more instructive, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe:

Amy was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall:

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) (available here for limited period).

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.

 

**  “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, or Niña de los Peines.

In memory of Natasha

Natasha 2

This week is the fourth anniversary of the loss of my friend Natasha at the age of 34—younger than Mozart, and just less than two years after Amy Winehouse’s death.

Unable to do anything at all for months after, I thought I’d better not cancel my planned stay with Li Manshan in September, and indeed he and the other Daoists were understanding, easing me back to life. The Li family had themselves suffered a family tragedy at just the same time. The funeral rituals they perform are always moving, but now, as the sounds of shengguan blending with the vocal liturgy soared above the kowtowing kin, I felt their grief more personally.

Natasha left barely a trace on the world apart from her wonderful kids. I dearly want to write a book on her, but since I now find I know nothing about her, this tribute will have to suffice.

Natasha smile

“Troubled genius” doesn’t do Natasha justice. She deeply touched all who met her; irresistible, she could be impossible. She was the incarnation of Elena Ferrante’s Lila.

Her wild and prodigious early life was spent in Ternopil in west Ukraine. She made her home in London aged 18. Painter and composer, with her icons and Tarot, electronica, Bach, and Arvo Pärt, earth mother and sophisticated cook, femme fatale with her look of heroin chic, chunky jewelry and slinky outfits, finally holding down a mundane job for the sake of surviving as a single mum after teaching and playing in a rock band, childlike and severe, intoxicating and intoxicated, insatiable and hallucinatory, her thirst for knowledge reflected in her multi-coloured notebooks full of sketches and musings, she was on another planet. Hearing TurangalîlaragaMozart, or Naturträne through her ears, deep in her soul, was overwhelmingly intense.

Natasha painting

Natasha’s paintings were both radiant and troubled—her later works were yet darker. Klimt and Schiele would have lapped her up (and she them). It wasn’t easy for her inhabiting a world of Parajanov:

We were supposed to be going to Mahler 5 at the Proms when she had her first heart attack. This is a perfect version of her song, with Magdalena Kožená and Claudio Abbado:

 

 

 

More Messiaen

Yay! Messiaen was BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the week!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058n84d

With its biographical vignettes, the series is always a good way to explore pieces that may have escaped us. I tend to immerse myself in the works for orchestra, piano, and organ, but how wonderful is his vocal writing—like Harawi, Cinq rechants, or indeed the ravishing Poèmes pour Mi (a fine complement to Berlioz’s Nuits d’été and Ravel’s Shéhérazade). Good to hear Messiaen’s last work too, Concert à quatre.

His Catholic faith was, um, catholic—he made a natural mentor for the budding world music movement. Apart from his beloved birdsong, both his music and teaching were permeated with genres like raga, gamelan, and gagaku. If only I could have introduced him to the Li family Daoist band in Paris!

For yet more Messiaen, see here.

Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up doing a gig at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi (fine website here).

I outline some of the diverse bowed lutes of China here; the erhu is the least traditional of them, but you must hear this astounding playing.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands:

Kamanca playing from Azerbaijan is amazing too. I used to have a clip here of an Azeri party—complete with mobile phones, naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and no fancy fakelore costumes. But it’s disappeared, so we’ll have to settle for the reified official concert version:

For the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar—played here in a more natural setting:

http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQ5NzM2MzY1Mg==.html?from=s1.8-1-1.2#paction

And they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:


Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I’ll leave jazz fiddling to another post…