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).

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:

 

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!

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 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 won’t try and cover the various bowed lutes of China here, and I only mention the erhu (least traditional among them) to remind you of this astounding playing.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

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

And Transylvanian bands:

Some amazing kamanca playing from Azerbaijan:

(BTW, just in case there are any romantic purists who are even holier-than-thou than me, I do like the filming and the scene—without fancy fakelore costumes, but with naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and the mobile phones. All good authentic visual anthropology…)

In related vein, for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar:

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…

Rag Kafi Zila

kafi

From the late 60s, at a time when it was hardly possible to be amazed by the riches of Chinese traditional music, I was devoted to Indian music (which then meant mainly the solo traditions, as it mainly still does in the popular image).

If Heart of Glass reminded me fleetingly, impertinently, of Rag Marwa and Nikhil Banerjee, I still treasure his lyrical rendition of Rag Kafi Zila, which appeared magically on Radio 3 in the 1970s.

It’s an entrancing raga, for the second quarter of the night. Within its basic minor scale with flat 3rd and 7th, it sometimes features the major 3rd degree.

The suave BBC announcer’s introduction (citing Alain Daniélou) remains etched in my heart:

Of shining whiteness,
Kafi, who inspires lust,
tenderly sits on the lap of her playmate in the royal palace.
Fond of parrots,
she is dressed in blue
and decked with jewels.
She is the image of sensuousness.
In the Lotus of my heart
I cherish her,
lovelier than Lakshmi
the goddess of Fortune.

Of course, as with Bach, I’m just reporting my own infatuation, which is merely a product of a particular place, social milieu, and time—far from the responses of indigenous audiences of various types.

Here’s one of several exquisite versions by Banerjee:

Training in Indian sargam solfeggio is a basic grounding in monophonic musics—far from a mere conceptual exercise, it draws us towards the heart of the music.

Heart of glass, and Rag Marwa

Heart of glass is yet another masterpiece from the late 70s—just after Naturträne.

Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.

That harmonic shift reminds me of Rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on la over the do drone. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the rag, worked through over a long period, but hey. Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

The iceberg

For Chinese culture (ritual, music) I always use the image of the iceberg—

to contrast the tiny little chunk that protrudes above the water (the conservatoire concert solos, and so on) with the vast unseen mass of popular culture below the surface—like temple fairs, shawm bands, household Daoists, spirit mediums

Of course it applies widely to world cultures. Even under the umbrella of WAM, there’s a fluid canon changing over time, with many outer rings; socially too, it’s not just the professional symphony orchestras. And Indian music is far more than sitar solos.

As to Daoism, it’s far more than the Daoist Canon and the White Cloud Temple; and far more than wise southeastern Daoists doing their mystical sublimation in the course of a jiao Offering. And Daoist ritual—over China, north China, Shanxi, north Shanxi, and even in the north-eastern central area of Yanggao county, is far more than the Li band!