More Messiaen

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

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!

Three studies of ethnic culture (not)

Three monographs on ethnic religion and culture that I haven’t yet seen—or even written:

  • On campaigns against popular shamans:

Striking a happy medium.

  • On the stagecraft of Japanese drama (Altogether now):

There’s no business like Noh business.

And having added an acronym for British Art Music to the one for Western Art Music, how about the “classical” traditions of the Maghreb?

  • On the well-attested debt of the Western classical tradition (notably British music) to the nuba suites of North Africa, with reference to antiquated sexist ideology perpuated therein:

WAM, BAM, thankyou MAM.


A golden oldie

More graffiti:

Someone comes along and writes up


Someone else crosses out GRILS and writes


Yet another wag comes along and writes underneath


This is ancient and versions are widely cited, but like a haiku it shouldn’t be spelled out too laboriously.

OK then, here’s another haiku:

Wots wrong with us grils
Someone comes along and writes
Oops missed the first line

The beauty of the mouth-organ

Li Qing on sheng, 1991.

This is a tribute not just to the sheng mouth-organ, but to the late great Daoist master Li Qing, and to the whole tradition of wind-playing and liturgy among Daoist bands in north Shanxi.

I have already compared the role of the sheng, accompanying the guanzi oboe in north Chinese ritual bands, to that of the keyboard for 18th-century kapellmeisters. And we’ve met sheng tuners and players in other posts. Meanwhile, for historical studies on the instrument, from ancient times right down to today, you can’t beat the works of Zhang Zhentao 张振涛, my old fieldwork companion. Here I approach it not as historian but as musician and ethnographer.

Apart from its exquisite noble tone, one of the beauties of the sheng  is the way the monophonic notes of the melody are harmonized with fifths and octaves in a kind of organum (unlike the cluster chords of Japanese gagaku—surely “going too far“!).

Only now does it occur to me that the position of the pipes around the bowl, seemingly confusing yet brilliantly designed for practical convenience by some ancient genius, is a prototype (“Typical!“) for the layout of the alphabet on a typewriter or computer.

Sheng invariably have seventeen pipes, but the Zhihua temple in Beijing is one of few traditions where they all have sounding reeds; in most groups they have fourteen, or even eleven. The full complement was useful when they needed to play all four scales of the earlier repertoire, but today, now that they play in only two or three scales, fourteen suffice for most genres.

So the sheng of the Daoist bands in Yanggao, including the Li family, have fourteen sounding reeds. With their distinctive curved mouthpiece, evoking the sheng depicted in temple murals of the Ming dynasty, the instruments are made by the hereditary luthiers of the Gao family in nearby Gaoshantun village, friends of the Li family for many generations. Their sheng have the most exquisite sonorous tone—on our 2013 tour of Germany they filled churches like a huge organ.
sheng diagram
Source: Chen Yu, Jinbei minjian Daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu ch.4.1.

Home base is the various doso (he-che, in gongche solfeggio) pipes at the back, played with the third and fourth fingers of both hands (pipes 15, 14, 13, and 11 in the diagram), giving a nice full chord. The middle fingers of the right hand are hooked inside to give access to the inner holes of pipes 3 and 4 (re and mi). The Li band (and many others in north Shanxi) vary the usual position of the ti and its harmonising  fa ♯ (dafan 大凡 and gou 勾, pipes 5 and 6)—playing this distinctive chord (featured sparingly in melodies, as it’s not part of the pentatonic scale) with the two thumbs stopping adjacent holes right in front of the player’s face. It’s a great feeling.

As the fingers glide effortlessly from pipe to pipe, it’s really tactile to play, and utterly comfortable to listen to and watch. Sheng players are at ease with their instrument—none so much as the late great Li Qing. You can admire the fluent mastery of his disciples in my film too.

Li Bin 2011

Li Qing’s grandson Li Bin on sheng, 2011.

With frequent use the pipes are soon gilded with a patina where the fingers have worn them down.

sheng closeup

The sheng is a bugger to maintain, though. Like a harpsichord, it needs tuning regularly. Most players can do a rough tune whenever necessary. Whenever we return to the scripture hall between ritual visits to the soul hall, while Li Manshan busies himself writing the next set of documents for the upcoming ritual, Li Bin or Golden Noble try out the tuning of the various sheng at their disposal.

After going through the cycle of fifths and octaves, depending on his aural diagnosis Li Bin pulls any errant pipes individually out of the metal wind-chamber (“bowl”) in which they are held. Sounding the pipe by stopping its hole while blowing through the bottom, he then takes a droplet of hot red wax with his soldering iron and applies it carefully to the tiny metal tongue (the “free reed”) to “dot” (dian 點) it, or scrapes off a tiny sliver of wax. He replaces the pipe in the bowl and tries out the fifths and octaves again; then he makes sure the two sheng needed for the next ritual segment are in tune with each other too. It’s a long patient process. Still, at least once a year Li Bin takes all the group’s sheng to Gao Bin in Gaoshantun for a thorough overhaul.

47 wind instruments

The wind instruments, 2003.

The dizi flute has fallen out of use since then. The curved trumpet can be admired in “catching the tiger” in my film.

This kind of insider detail I aspire to here is surpassed by Ciaran Carson in Last night’s fun.

Stamina, mastery, and virtue
For some rituals they may be playing continuously for nearly an hour. Since the sheng sounds while both blowing out and sucking in, the two players can, and must, maintain an uninterrupted wall of sound for the guanzi oboe to bounce off. Even while accompanying the shorter hymns of around 15 minutes, they use the brief percussion interludes between verses to empty the bowl of all their accumulated saliva onto the ground—and to empty their own noses and throats too. Playing the sheng, apparently so effortless, is a feat of stamina—the guanzi still more so. They have to play all day long, often till after midnight—both seated, standing, and on lengthy processions, outdoors through winter cold and sweltering summers; and they’re busy most days. It’s rather like doing seven cantatas and a few motets over a day, interspersed with three or four Mahler symphonies. Every day. All for little pay. No wonder they no longer want their sons to take up the trade.

Among all Li Qing’s disciples the standard of sheng playing is amazing. Li Bin is the anchor; Golden Noble, when he’s not on vocal duties, is dependable; Wu Mei, when he’s not enchanting everyone on the guanzi oboe, is also a fine sheng player; and Erqing, though often busy doing migrant labour outside the area, is fantastic too. Of the deps, Yang Ying (also a fine guanzi player) is great, as is Li Sheng, in his more folksy, restless way; and Daoists from other lineages who regularly dep with the Li band, like Yan Xuewen and Yuan Xuedong, are also accomplished.

But when they recall Li Qing’s style on the sheng, everyone—pupil or not—is in awe of him. Even urban professional musicians concurred: that was why he was selected for the state troupe in the regional city of Datong in 1958. An old colleague of his from their brief years there together recalled, “He was the greatest musician I ever met”. Li Qing played guanzi too, but spent most of his time leading from the drum, singing the vocal liturgy.

You don’t necessarily get to hear Daoists playing for their own satisfaction outside the context of performing ritual, but sitting in Li Qing’s house while he accompanied Liu Zhong’s guanzi on his sheng, I was in the company of true amateurs, master musicians.

informal session

Informal session at Li Qing’s house, 1991. Left to right: Li Qing (sheng), his second son Yushan (yunluo), Liu Zhong (guanzi), Li Zengguang (drum), Kang Ren (sheng), Wu Mei.

And there was another reason why everyone revered him—his gentle benevolent nature. Not all folk artists live up to their obligatory Communist image of selflessly “serving the people”—but Li Qing did. His local reputation was immense. His mastery of ritual complemented his musicianship and his kindly heart.

OK, I’d better say this again:

The Li band may be outstanding instrumentalists, but they’re not “Daoist musicians”! They’re yinyang—household Daoist ritual specialists.

However important the melodic instrumental music may be for the efficacy of their rituals, it’s always subsidiary to vocal liturgy and percussion. And the shengguan players perform those fluently as well: they’re all versatile. Not just the chief vocal liturgists Li Manshan and Golden Noble, but the others sing too. And they all regularly take turns on the various percussion instruments. That’s what it means to be a yinyang; that’s the main thing they know about doing ritual.

A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life.[1]

I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him carefully explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realize where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu, Huang Xiangpeng, Ren Erbei, and Yin Falu were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence.

Having helped him out with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. My initial reason for going was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to play his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting to one side what we might call historical musicology in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD), it reminded me that very few (Chinese or Western) have done any serious analysis of Chinese instrumental music—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analyzing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess— within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use, was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku.[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves”[3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence retained committed to the qin after his initial studies with Zha Fuxi and Xu Yuanbai in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty.

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from Laurence’s chamber music gatherings, another cherished memory is him playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.


And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for the memorial service:

Music from the Tang court: Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the music of the early-8th-century Tang Chinese court. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small changgo drum, a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu, and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese, if not necessarily Tang Chinese…


[1] Just a few partial references:
On film:
[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.
[3] Ibid. p.221.

That is the snake that bit my foot

If you’re thinking of dabbling with Japanese, then as a more practical guide than the sketch “How to learn Japanese in three easy lessons” (freezing cold, constipated, and absent-minded—available on request), I recommend Teach Yourself Japanese, by the egregious Messrs Dunn and Yanada. First published in 1958, it is full of phrases that will stand you in good stead. I will cite the examples faithfully in the precise order that the plot develops; and believe me, these citations are real!

Let’s begin with

There is a hat on your head.

Gosh! Thanks for telling me! It all seems to start off so innocently. A hint of the sinister turn the lessons will be taking comes with

Cats die in water.

Mastery of conjugations for dying is considered essential as early as Lesson 5, and we soon meet

The cat is dead

as well as

Both the man and the dog are dead.

Lest we get bogged down, after a phrase meaning “reading is possible”, we are advised

but it is probably better not to analyse the meaning of expressions such as this.

Just don’t ask no questions and no-one gets hurt, OK? The authors appear to nurse an ambition to write screenplays for Japanese horror films:

The rain is repugnant.

He is an unpleasant child.

More arcane, with echoes of The Third Policeman, is

 Isn’t there a bicycle that isn’t heavy?

It cannot be said that they are not keen to avoid initiating us into the use of multiple negatives. Lesson 9 contains a sentence that will be vital on those visits to the Kyoto police station to take part in identity parades:

That is the snake that bit my foot.

Just imagine all those snakes lined up in identical hats and scarves. Back to the horror film:

There is someone in that room.

This time, some vocabulary for the unfortunate snake, now singled out:

I did not see anybody. I did not meet anybody.

He’s not giving in. More on that story later.

Meanwhile, idiom is the order of the day. The particle Saa

might correspond to “Let me see now”, “That’s a teaser”.

The horror film is never far away:

The window from which the child fell.

Soon after death comes the first hint of alcoholism, beginning with the classic disclaimer

I drank a little beer.

Despite the Japanese reputation for politeness, sometimes there’s just no beating around the bush:

The fact is, his suit is peculiar.

Death is not going to be enough, we have to master suicide by Lesson 13:

Why did he commit suicide?

Not because his suit was peculiar, I hope. To take our minds off it all, how about a vacation?

The thing to do in America is to buy shirts.

Forget the Empire State Building—though hey, we’ve already learnt the verbs for falling and committing suicide, so why not?

Let’s not be pedantic—to explain the sentence

You’ve bought the case we saw yesterday?

we are offered the helpful comment

If the case was in the window of the shop when you saw it with your friend, then, on the next day, it was gone, on meeting your friend again you might presume that he had bought it, and would use a sentence like this to ask if your presumption was correct.

Got that? More visual imagery:

We are laughing at the one the tip of which is shining.

It’s OK, they’ve only drunk a little beer. Also highly suggestive is

He saves time by using machinery.

A chainsaw, maybe? Back to philosophy:

Shall I too die tomorrow?

Look guys, we have to learn this properly: a slightly different formulation

could also be translated in the same way, but would imply the will to die—“Shall I too kill myself tomorrow?”

Ma Yuan

Most elegant scene in the budding screenplay is

I wonder if the man who was standing on the island in the middle of the river was trying to get across.

Eat your heart out, Kurosawa.

Back to our man saving time by using machinery:

Let’s use as thick and heavy a lid as possible.

For a while now we’ve been so busy dismembering people and attempting suicide with correct conjugations that we haven’t had time for another “little” drink, but at last in Lesson 16

I drank a lot of sake yesterday, so my head aches today.

Let’s face it,

In spite of the fact that he promised not to drink sake, he drinks a lot every evening.

Well, with such a peculiar suit, you have to, don’t you? More mystery:

The packet is dry, I wonder why the cigarettes are wet.

And here’s a crap-Haiku version of the Bucharest bread-queue joke (also available on request—Ed.):

How many cakes are left?
There aren’t a lot of cakes left.
There’s not even one cake left.

Back at the Kyoto AA meeting, predictably, eating cakes is thirsty work:

As there was any amount of beer, we drank a lot.

I saw through that cake-eating right from the start. No wonder that

Every week I think I will go to the committee meeting, but I never can.

Just can’t seem to find the time eh? Back at the police station, we overhear the interrogation following the snake identity parade:

Have you at any time been to see a Chinese play?

(“There some kinda law against it?” sneers the snake cockily, chewing his gum.)

Sure enough,

Are you all lined up?

Back to our man with the machinery:

Today’s meat is different from the usual.

Uh-oh. More useful tips:

If we leave aside the brusque imperative used in military circles and when speaking angrily to inferiors…

Meanwhile, back at the horror film:

You had better not open the door.

Oh well, what the hell:

Do you want to drink some beer?

This is getting scary:

I shall go with you, but before that will it be all right if I just phone somebody?

‘Fraid not, kid. Just get in. Useful once you’ve learnt how to say

Follow a person, trail somebody.

More homespun philosophy:

What is there after this?

Hmm, that’s a teaser. Always good to avoid embarrassment:

In the sentence above the children ran away so the teacher could not see them. A similar thought lies behind: “Let us clear this room up before the guest comes”. Here the purpose is to avoid letting the guest see what an untidy state the room is in.

Yup, beer bottles and body parts strewn all over the darn place. Don’t say you haven’t been warned:

It seems that it is dangerous to go along that road at night.

On the same page, we meet

someone who looks like a doctor.

Inevitably, we are soon asked

Is it still alive? I expect it will still be alive tomorrow.

The weather is playing its part splendidly: apart from the constant rain,

I suppose there will be fog again today.


If you go to a place like that once, you probably won’t want to go again.

By now I’m even worried by

May I give you some water?

Machinery man has an accomplice:

Please go and wash this knife.

For our friend who has walked along the dangerous road at night and asked to make a phone call before coming with machinery man, some more vocabulary that may come in handy—if not for long:

If there is a good opportunity I shall run away.

Too bad, just when he was thinking the man who looked like a doctor would be able to save his leg after that snake bit his foot at the Chinese play. Sure don’t look like he’s going to make that committee meeting. And what is it with water? First it’s the cigarettes, now

I only dried that suit this morning and it’s quite wet again!

The peculiar suit? Cats do tend to thrash around a lot when they’re being held down in water. There’s no escape:

They killed even the children.

Hey! Do you want us to come to your country or not?

The quicker the better.

Just when you’d quite like to be learning sentences that’ll help you make friends, learning how to walk into a shop and buy a black kimono that’s not covered in fucking bloodstains, some more handy everyday vocabulary:

He died at the second hour after taking poison.

Still, there’s useful information:

It is only the third bottle from the left which has poison in it.

Oh well, at least

He had his sword taken away by the policeman.

No wonder that

There is a funny smell in this room, isn’t there?

Not just blatant horror, the more subtle ghost story isn’t neglected either:

I feel that I have been here before.

But machinery man is getting careless:

When I looked in through the window, there was a corpse lying on the floor.

More useful vocabulary—though not for machinery man’s victims, I guess:

One’s legs are there in order that one may walk.

Or is he just goading them? They do have to be, like, attached to your body. By Lesson 27, at last we get a clue to that seemingly inconsequential phrase near the beginning:

You must not go into a room with your hat on.

I see! Machinery man just can’t help dismembering people who walk into his room wearing a hat. That early deadpan comment of his “There is a hat on your head” was the beginning of this whole nightmare. Brilliant suspense. The fact is, his suit is peculiar. Soon the psychological details fall into place:

Cats disgust him.

Lesson 30 covers the polite language, but I fear the time has long passed.

And that’s just the Lessons—you should see the Conversations.

The latest news from Japan is that it looks like the snake’s gonna get off the rap. They can’t pin nothing on him – not even a hat, and he has an alibi for the night of the Chinese play. But will it stand up in court?