The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
Like Bach’s Air, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, Jesu, joy of man’s desiringis another of those pieces to which we may have become somewhat inured by media recyclings—but here it’s magically transformed on a mile-long hand-carved xylophone in an empty Japanese forest:
The video, made in the unlikely service of a 2011 advertisement for the “Touch Wood” phone of a telecom company (see e.g. here), enjoys an occasional vogue on social media, but I’ve only just clocked it.
The installation, directed by Morihiro Harano, was created by a team led by carpenter Mitsuo Tsuda and sound engineer Kenjiro Matsuo in the Daisetsu Mori-no garden, Hokkaido.
What makes it even more exquisite is the rubato caused by little imperfections in the design. I’d also like to hear more of the tremolo effect (from 1.04), another feat of engineering.
Large queues formed for the National Gallery concerts. Source.
For senior British generations, the piano arrangement by Myra Hess remains deeply meaningful, epitomising Londoners’ spirit in maintaining morale during World War Two, with the remarkable daily weekday lunchtime concerts which she organised at the National Gallery throughout the whole war (instructive material here).
The series featured many of the leading musicians of the day, such as the Griller quartet and Dennis Brain, in a variety of repertoire that included Bach’s great keyboard works and the Brandenburg concertos; the complete chamber works of Beethoven and Brahms; Hess played the twenty-one Mozart piano concertos, and Beethoven sonatas.
That much of this “great music” was German in origin says much about the ethos of the concerts and their organiser—who came herself from Jewish stock.
As Kenneth Clark, Director of the Gallery, recalled:
What sort of people were these who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches? All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.
Hess’s renditions of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring may seem a minor aspect of the repertoire, but as we listen it’s worth imagining the effect it must have had on Londoners, anxiously awaiting letters from loved ones at the front while bombs were reducing their city to rubble:
So Hess’s performances of the piece have become part of modern British mythology; but as tastes changed the style was largely submerged beneath pop music (see Desert Island Discs).
While for the wartime British Jesu, joy of man’s desiring made a microcosm of civilised values and the valiant resistance to fascism, in postwar Japan it took time for Takemitsu to overcome his alienation from musical traditions there, associating them (not incorrectly) with militaristic nationalism. Such a sub-text may be intriguing, but it’s hardly legible in the forest xylophone…
* * *
Bach made various settings of the 1661 Lutheran chorale Jesu, meiner SeelenWonne, such as in the Matthew Passion. The pastoral triplets familiar today are from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, part of his magnificent first cycle of cantatas upon becoming Kantor at Leipzig in 1723; stanzas of the chorale conclude both parts of the cantata.
Just as Western Art Music was losing prestige, in post-war western Europe the niche of the early music movement brought a new aesthetic to Bach (see e.g. Taruskin, Butt, and Gardiner)—here’s the final movement directed by Ton Koopman:
Closing stanza of Part 1:
Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe, o wie feste halt ich ihn, daß er mir mein Herze labe, wenn ich krank und traurig bin. Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet Und sich mir zu eigen gibet; Ach drum laß ich Jesum nicht, Wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.
Happy am I, to have my Jesus, oh how firmly I hold on to him so that he may refresh my heart when I am sick and sorrowful. I have Jesus, who loves me and gives himself to me. Ah therefore I shall not abandon Jesus even if my heart breaks.
Closing stanza of Part 2:
Jesus bleibet meine Freude, Meines Herzens Trost und Saft, Jesus wehret allem Leide, Er ist meines Lebens Kraft, Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne, Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne; Darum laß ich Jesum nicht Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.
Jesus remains my joy, my heart’s consolation and sap, Jesus protects me from all suffering, he is the strength of my life, the delight and sun of my eyes, the treasure and bliss of my soul; therefore I do not abandon Jesus from my heart and face.
The whole cantata is glorious. Here’s John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, nearing the end of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000:
Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…
As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:
So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…
Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation
V.S.—or try sink, Iga!
It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!
* * *
Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in
Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.
Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.
* * *
Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:
There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.
Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”
And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:
To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!
Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.
Like WAM, the recordings and tours of the great jazzers have long had a devoted following in Japan. But as American culture became in demand in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat in World War Two, many fine musicians moved from mimicry to creating their own sound. For us, knowing where they come from (or even “are coming from”…), it may be tempting to seek a Japanese aesthetic in the music, such as the concept of ma “space” (see under Takemitsu) in Noh drama, or the inevitable Zen vibe. Irrespective of all that, my little playlist below has some impressive sounds—and there’s more to explore via the J Jazz reissues.
Toshiko Akiyoshi (b.1929) is the grande-dame of Japanese jazz pianists, still going strong in her 90s. “Discovered” in 1952 by Oscar Peterson, from 1973, now based in the States, she went on to form a big band with her husband Lew Tabackin. Click here for many playlists. Here’s Kyo-shu (Nostalgia), from The Toshiko trio, 1956:
Children in the temple ground, from the album Long yellow road (1974):
Kogun, from Road time (1976):
On sax, Koichi Matsukaze: At the room 427 (live, 1975—including an imaginative version of Lover man):
See also Hiromi—among my roundup of posts on Japanese culture. My jazz medley includes not only the Golden Age (Billie, Miles, Trane, and so on) and more recent figures, but also some great jazz from Poland (whose own vibrant post-war scene reminds me of Japan), Turkey, and Ethiopia, as well as notes on Istanbul and Shanghai.
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
Michael Church, Musics lost and found: song collectors and the life and death of folk tradition (2021)
makes an engaging diachronic introduction to fieldworkers, and the musics they documented, in societies around the world—a sequel to his 2015 book The other classical musics (favourably reviewed here). Of course, our labels of “classical” and folk” are flawed (see e.g. What is serious music?!): the two volumes overlap.
In his astute Introduction, Michael notes the role of “colonial curiosity, sometimes tinged with guilt”, as well as patriotism and the distortion of local traditions under nationalistic movements and then state socialism (cf. the observations of Milan Kundera and Yang Yinliu). He comments:
Some collecting has been a response to horrifying circumstances. The most heroic collector of Nazi death-camp songs was the Polish singer-songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who survived three years in Sachsenhausen and devoted the rest of his life to performing the songs he had memorised from Jewish fellow-prisoners. There was a clandestine Jewish choir in Sachsenhausen whose members told him that, if he survived, he should preserve their memory by singing their songs to the rest of the world. That became his mission; his 3,000-page typescript of death-camp songs—many collected from survivors of other camps whom he sought out after the war—is now lodged in the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Even in less extreme conditions, under authoritarian regimes such as the USSR the work of collecting was dangerous. Now I think too of Rahilä Dawut, distinguished anthropologist doing fine work on Uyghur culture until she was “disappeared” in 2017.
While Michael recognises that his selection is to some extent arbitrary, beyond the Usual Suspects (Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, the Lomaxes), the chapters tell fascinating stories, digesting a vast amount of material—focusing on pioneering fieldworkers before the 1970s but also showing the ongoing work of more recent scholars.
As to the thorny issues of “loss”,
Most of the work songs which Alan Lomax collected in Spain and Italy in the 1950s are sung no more. The same applies to the work songs which Komitas found in rural Armenia, and which Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger collected in England a century ago. These songs are gone, because the reasons for their existence—the trades they accompanied—are gone. And after the death of the village comes the death of the songs marking its calendrical and life-cycle events; there comes, in short, the death of local music. This rule holds for all villages, everywhere.
Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process—community and kinship networks and the aforesaid shared religion or ideology—no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.
But Michael does well to observe that
The old idea of an immutable musical corpus is giving way to the idea of an endlessly mutable art; the primacy of collecting is being replaced among scholars by the primacy of interpretation.
And indeed he concedes that the prospect is not one of unrelieved gloom. “Migrants carry their music in their baggage”, and
New work inspires new songs: baggage-handlers for Amazon in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels.
Michael contrasts fusions that are the spontaneous result of social shifts with those that are arbitrarily willed by producers. He ends his Introduction with thoughtful reflections on the role of Covid.
* * *
The chapters are loosely grouped in four sections. “Why it all began” begins with a prelude on the various motives for collecting song in 18th century Europe—political, colonial, and economic—introducing Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of Volkslied. Chapters follow on the 17th-century broadside ballads and Francis James Child; Orientalists from France (Jesuit priests in Beijing and Salvador-Daniel in Algiers); and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), documenting Ottoman music in Constantinople after being taken hostage. Here’s a sample of Jordi Savall’s project on Cantemir with Hesperion XXI:
Michael moves on to the work of Komitas (1869–1935) studying Armenian song on the eve of the 1915 genocide; and the British folk-song revival with the “contentious” Cecil Sharp, followed by Percy Grainger.
In “Carrying the torch: collectors in Northern and Eastern Europe” (a misleading rubric, since the chapters range far more widely), after an Introduction (featuring collectors such as Pyotr Kireyevsky (1808–56) in Russia, Karel Erben (1811–70) and Leos Janáček for Bohemia and Moravia, Vasil Stoin (1880–1938) for Bulgaria, Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861–1938) for Iceland), Michael offers a fine chapter on Béla Bartók, with his extraordinary fieldtrips before World War One collecting songs in Transylvania, Slovakia, Romania, Ruthenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Algeria—and much later, Egypt (1932) and Turkey (1936). Michael ponders Bartók’s prescriptive agenda, seeking the “purity” of “ancient” songs, disdaining “Gypsy” and “sacred” melodies. But he was always in search of connections:
In 1912, I discovered among the Maramures Romanians a certain kind of highly ornamented, Orientally-coloured and improvisation-like melody. In 1913, in a village of Central Algeria bordering the Sahara desert, I heard a similar melodic style. […] Who would have thought that the distance between the two phenomena—more than 2,000 kilometres—could be bridged by a causal relationship?
This leads to a chapter on John Lomax and his son Alan, subsuming not only their work among (mainly African-) American folk-singers (cf. Bruce Jackson) but Alan’s work in the Bahamas, Haiti, Britain, Spain, and notably Italy, working with Diego Carpitella. Note the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.
I am recording the sunset of an age that will never return—every act that I see is being performed for the last time, and the men who are with me have no successors. When they die, they will take all their knowledge to the grave with them—except that part which I have recorded. Hence I am writing down everything in full detail, so as to give the clearest picture of an age and of a culture that no one else but I have been privileged to witness.
In Chapter 12 Michael introduces the Western fascination with gamelan, from the 1889 Exposition Universelle to Jaap Kunst and Colin McPhee. The site Bali1928.net has a wealth of (silent, alas) film clips.
The work of Paul Bowles in Morocco makes another vivid topic. Turning to Greece, Michael introduces the mission of Domna Samiou to document folk traditions there. John Blacking’s work on the Venda is a classic inspiration for ethnomusicologists. He goes on to explore the importance of record companies, introducing Moses Asch, Folkways, Nonesuch, Ocora, PAN, and Topic Records—before the label “world music” became a bland catch-all.
The final section, “Musical snapshots: the importance of sound archives” is introduced with notes on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, East European archives, the British Library Sound Archive and the Golha Project on Persian music.
Chapter 17 explores the traditions of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Xinjiang—and further afield, Tuva. Despite the spectre of Soviet prescriptive innovations, collectors did some fine work, such as Viktor Uspensky and Viktor Belyayev, followed by foreign researchers like Jean During and Theodore Levin, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative. This leads to Afghanistan, introducing local musician-collectors, and the work of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday.
Chapters follow on Russia and Georgia—as a change from the polished stage presentation of many groups, here’s a Georgian group singing informally:
Musics lost and found continues with Pygmy polyphony in central Africa, with Colin Turnbull, Simha Arom, Suzanne Fürniss; and the radif of Persian art music.
Yang Yinliu, 1950.
Chapter 23 discusses China: the great Yang Yinliu, and my own humble fieldwork with the Gaoluo ritual association, the Li family Daoists, and shawm bands—all themes amply covered on this blog. Korean traditions (see my posts on Dang and Bowed zithers, 1) are introduced through the art of p’ansori; and Japan through taiko drumming—having left the more venerable traditions of gagaku, Noh, and kabuki to The other classical musics.
In the two final chapters Michael discusses the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme and its pitfalls, ending with a thoughtful overview of the book’s knotty issues. Besides the bibliography, each chapter ends with a basic reading list.
More digestible than the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, sections in the two New Grove Ethnomusicology volumes, or even The Rough Guide to world music, this book leads audiences to a wealth of traditions. While scholars were poring over musty tomes in libraries, and composers busy composing, these intrepid collectors were busy in the field, seeking to make sense of the cultural life of grassroots communities.
While Musics lost and found covers an impressive amount of ground, there’s scope for a further volume. The story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording the “Homeric” epics of bards in 1930s’ Yugoslavia (archive here) would be grist to Michael’s mill. Bruno Nettl is one of the crucial figures in ethnomusicology, not only for his studies of Native American cultures but for his work in Iran. Also valuable are Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s explorations of the Mediterranean. The chapter on the Lomaxes hints at the vibrant field of Italy, but one might also adduce the work of Roberto Leydi, Tullia Magrini, and so on. Though the work of Richard Widdess in Nepal gets a mention in the Introduction, south Asia deserves a lengthier treatment, to include the likes of Arnold Bake and Nicolas Magriel. And so on…
* * *
Tom Service introduced the book with Michael on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters (here, from 17.01). The programme introduces English folk-song; migration and “climate change in music”; singing in Albania and Genoa; and (from 28.42) Veronica Doubleday discusses her outstanding work in 1970s’ Afghanistan and the current crisis—a clear instance of a culture that is very much under threat, of course.
It’s true that village communities have changed decisively. But we need a new model for the ecosphere of folk tradition. Such genres are not timeless; even Bach’s cantatas soon fell from favour, and whether or not they find new audiences is not something that I worry about, although recordings and documentation are clearly valuable.
In China I often feel as if I’m responsible for the dwindling of the folk traditions that I document; or to put it another way, the very forces that bring us to these sites are those which lead to change. The role of the fieldworker has come under increasing scrutiny, as in such works as Shadows in the field (see e.g. William Noll on blind minstrels of Ukraine). Further to Nigel Barley’s portrayal of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot”, I sometimes feel like a harmful idiot.
Tom Service opens with a soundbite much favoured by pundits: “folk music cultures are in danger of extinction all over the world”. I’m none too enamoured with the concept of “endangered traditions”: since the beginnings of anthropology, fieldworkers have always supposed they were witnessing the last vestiges of a tradition. It tends to suggest a nostalgia for the halcyon days of child chimney-sweeps (cf. Edible, intangible, dodgy). Cultural loss is a thorny issue. As Michael indeed suggests, the book’s leitmotif—the fear that the music of collectors’ chosen field might evaporate before they managed to fully document it—may not be so well-founded. It’s always too late, and never.
* * *
The book was sonorously launched with an event at the Wigmore Hall, making a fitting tribute to live musicking after a long silence, as well as a reminder of the rich traditions maintained among UK diasporas. In an exquisite programme, it was wonderful to hear Veronica Doubleday again, followed by a cappella songs from the Georgian Maspindzeli choir, Persian classical music performed by Mehdi Namdar (ney) and Fariborz Kiani (goblet drum), and the Anatolian folk songs of Çiğdem Aslan accompanied by Erdal Yapici on baglama.
Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.
On Franz Boas(1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is
Charles King, The reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air [“Discuss”!]. Reviewed e.g. here, here, and here.
Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.
Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.
Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.
Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston.  As Francis Gooding comments,
It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.
The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.
More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.
the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […] In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.
Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where
some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.
King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.
The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.
* * *
Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.
The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.
During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:
Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.
While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.
Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.
In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.
The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.
The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).
Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:
Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.
Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.
While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […] The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.
With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)
Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.
The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…
Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.
Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.
Boas was coming to perceive that
What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.
Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.
The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.
As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.
In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.
Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:
Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)
Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.
In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.
There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.
Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.
Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:
Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […] Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.
And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:
Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”
His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.
Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,
The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.
* * *
So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.
Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.
In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.
The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.
As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.
In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.
A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.
On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.
Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:
Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.
In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.
Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.
Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.
Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).
Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”
Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.
Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as
the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.
Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:
Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.
Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.
Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,
What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.
Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.
the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.
She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.
Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:
I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.
King goes on,
You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…
Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.
Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.
By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria
a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.
I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.
Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,
provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.
When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.
Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.
Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.
In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).
Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation.  Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.
Yet the price of such methods
was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.
* * *
The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet
volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.
Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here).  Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:
Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.
Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.
After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.
Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.
Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.
From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:
And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.
* * *
The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,
None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.
Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.
Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:
With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.
While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:
Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:
* * *
King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.
Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence
that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.
If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.
Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.
 Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,
Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.
 Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).
 This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.
Making an elegant bridge between the enchanted worlds of Aretha and ancient gagaku, here’s Hideki Togi playing Amazing Grace on hichiriki—aptly uploaded to YouTube on Inauguration day:
Do click on those links above—the first to Aretha’s overwhelming 1972 sessions, the second to the great Toru Takemitsu’s captivating explorations of Japanese traditional soundscapes—notably gagaku.
I find myself more amenable to this arrangement than to the “world music fusion” that I churlishly characterised as “throat-singing gala with Dame Kiri and Ry Cooder—Afro-Cuban grooves, Balkan brass, kora, and didjeridu…” (cf. Bach, um, marches to the world!).
The recent additions to my series on Messiaen (here and here) remind me that he was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu (1930–96). Here I’ll just feature some of his works directly inspired by the traditional Japanese soundscape—though of course there’s much more to explore in his ouevre (wiki; see also e.g. Tom Service’s succinct general introduction).
Having spent his early years until 1938 with his family in Dalian in occupied northeast China, where his father worked as a businessman, military conscription in 1944 further alienated him from Japanese militarism and nationalism; coming to associate these—not incorrectly—with the musical traditions of Japan (see e.g. this article on gagaku), he was drawn instead to new Western Art Music. He extended his initial aversion to Japanese music to other traditional forms:
There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception). [Hah! Discuss!]
So it was only from the early 1960s, partly through John Cage—another important inspiration for him—that Takemitsu came to value the Japanese concept of ma 間 “empty space” (exemplified by Noh drama) and began consciously to borrow from Japanese music. As he recalled:
One day I chanced to see a performance of the Bunraku puppet theatre and was very surprised by it. It was in the tone quality, the timbre, of the futozao shamisen, the wide-necked shamisen used in Bunraku, that I first recognized the splendour of traditional Japanese music. I was very moved by it and I wondered why my attention had never been captured before by this Japanese music.
Here’s the second story, “Woman of the snow”, from the soundtrack for Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964):
Best known among his Japanese-inspired works is November steps (1967), for shakuhachi, biwa, and orchestra, commissioned by the New York Phil at the behest of Bernstein, premiered under Seiji Ozawa:
For the same combination is Autumn: into the fall after a little while (1973):
Traditional Japanese music, notably the courtly tradition of gagaku, deriving from Tang China, had long inspired Japanese and Western composers. Henry Eichheim‘s visits to east and southeast Asia (for his trips to China, see here) led to works such as Oriental impressions (1919–22), including the gagaku-derived E[n]tenraku (cf. Japanese nocturne); in 1931 Hidemaro Konoye (who the previous year conducted the very first recording of Mahler 4!) made a more faithful orchestral arrangement of Etenraku. Both works were soon taken up by Leopold Stokowski in his programmes with the Philadelphia orchestra.
The Reigakusha ensemble (site, largely in Japanese).
But now some composers actually began writing for the gagaku ensemble itself, as innovation became a significant subsidiary theme in the gagaku world. Takemitsu wrote Shūteiga for the gagaku ensemble of the Imperial Household (hichiriki oboe, shō mouth-organ, ryūteki flute, biwa lute, gakusō zither, and percussion), later incorporating it into In an autumn garden (1973), one of the most enthralling essays in the genre. Besides the Imperial Household’s own version, the sonorities of this recording, by the Reigakusha ensemble that grew out of it, are even more mesmerising (cf. this live performance):
Garden rain (1974), for brass ensemble, evokes the cluster-chords of the shō mouth-organ (so very different from the anhemitonic pentatonic organum of its Chinese ancestor the sheng!):
See also this interview with the enterprising shō performer Mayumi Miyata.
Just in case you suppose all these to be avant-garde creations far distant from their model, here’s some “traditional” gagaku:
Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.
The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).
Messiaenmay be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. 
While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):
I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.
Noh drums, 1992. My photo.
After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Septhaïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:
The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.
The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.
Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
Miyajima et le torii dans le mer
Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:
Besides world music Olivier Messiaen Enjoyed his birdsong
Meanwhile in Cambridge,
Wise Laurence Picken Finding gagaku too slow Relished birdsong too
 See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).
Mahler 4, whose premiere the composer conducted in 1901, may seem like a less weighty, almost “classical” interlude in between the monumental 2nd and 3rd symphonies and the angst of the 5th and 6th. But different as it is, it’s substantial—a continuation of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn theme, with typical layers of irony (wiki; and here’s an essay by the authoritative Henry-Louis de La Grange).
In the words of Norman Lebrecht (Why Mahler?), “death is never very far from the children who play in its meadows”. At the very opening of the first movement, he finds the sleigh-bells “dangerous as a runaway car on a mountain pass, driving conductor and orchestra to near-chaos”. Still, there are intimations of a transcendent world (from 4.26 in the Abbado performance below, and again from 14.31—see The major 7th leap), as well as an ominous premonition of the opening of the 5th symphony (from 9.54).
The Scherzo is a Totentanz, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, with the solo violin tuned up a whole tone. Mahler’s idea contrasts with that of earlier composers “dressing up gypsy music for family consumption”—Lebrecht goes a bit far:
He confronts civic society with its greatest fear, the untamed classes outside the law, and he exacerbates the threat by treating gypsy music not as a primitive sound to be colonised by an educated composer but as an art with a vitality and integrity all its own. […] The Scherzo is arguably the first multicultural work in western music and certainly the first before Bela Bartók to treat indigenous music with respect and admiration as an equal form of art.
Even here Mahler incorporates an elysian vision, with strings in full Mantovani mood making a counterpoint to the folk dance style of the wind instruments (Abbado from 22.55):
The tranquil variations of the gorgeousslow movement are offset by a more clouded section in the minor—klagend, leidenschaftlich, leading to a gorgeous sequence:
After the return of the opening Ruhevoll mood, *** Santa’s speeding sleigh (from 41.52) hurtles headlong into a deep snowdrift (hmm, I don’t really feel music in metaphors like this: I blame writing about music—cf. my programme for Mahler 10). This turns out to be another pathway to paradise, adorned by horns and then more sumptuous strings à la Mantovani:
It’s interrupted by a blazing vision (from 44.25) modulating abruptly to the heavenly key of E major, combining a foretaste of the melody of the finale with the motif on timpani and plucked basses taken from the ruhevoll opening. This leads to the concluding pianissimo, “sehr zart und innig“—whose suspensions develop the string chords before the vision, now with Mahler’s ultimate Sublime Mystery harmonies:
A clarinet emerging out of the silence introduces the final Das himmlische Leben, an innocent yet unnerving vision of heaven, marked “with a childlike, cheerful expression, without parody”. Hard as it is to find an ideal singer, it’s unrealistic to assess versions of the symphony purely on the singing, overriding overall timbre and choice of tempi. Early-music chastity, without sounding coy, may seem more suitable, but it still hasn’t quite replaced fruity warbling; while boy trebles have been tried, we await a version by a choirgirl.
Punctuated by manic reminiscences of the opening sleigh-bells, the poem (far from untrammelled—not suitable for vegetarians) also belongs with Mahler’s farewells:
Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden, D’rum tun wir das Irdische meiden. Kein weltlich’ Getümmel Hört man nicht im Himmel! Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh’. Wir führen ein englisches* Leben, Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben; Wir tanzen und springen, Wir hüpfen und singen, Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.
Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset, Der Metzger Herodes d’rauf passet. Wir führen ein geduldig’s, Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s, Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod. Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten. Der Wein kost’ kein Heller Im himmlischen Keller; Die Englein, die backen das Brot.
Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten, Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten, Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen Und was wir nur wollen. Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit! Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben; Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben. Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen, Auf offener Straßen Sie laufen herbei! Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen, Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen! Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter Mit Netz und mit Köder Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein. Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, Die unsrer verglichen kann werden. Elftausend Jungfrauen Zu tanzen sich trauen. Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht. [ending with a descending portamento, by contrast with the frequent ascending ones for strings!!!] Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, Die unsrer verglichen kann werden. Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten! Die englischen* Stimmen Ermuntern die Sinnen, Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.
The Adagio, barring an abuse of organ point effects, is at first harmless enough; but suddenly we are introduced to a circus scene. This may be a not unwelcome diversion for some; but without wishing to be traditional or pedantic, we cannot but remark that for us, at that moment, it was a shock and an unpleasant one. From a business standpoint it might be advantageous to utilize portions of this adagio on the pleasure boats which travel up and down the Danube in the spring. The bands could easily master any difficulties forthcoming in such appropriate extracts, and the Viennese ladies, munching sweet cakes, sipping light wine and flirting with handsomely dressed officers, would no doubt very much enjoy a dainty accompaniment to their conversation. [winner of the 1901 Rear Admiral Foley Award for Sexist Crap.]
The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler! It is not fair to the readers of the Musical Courier [Tweety: SO UNFAIR! Cf. Peccable musical sensibilities] to take up their time with a detailed description of that musical monstrosity, which masquerades under the title of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There is nothing in the design, content, or execution of the work to impress the musician, except its grotesquerie… The writer of the present review frankly admits that… to him it was just one hour or more [sic] of the most painful musical torture to which he has been compelled to submit.
Pah! No pleasing some people…
* * *
Armed with this comprehensive review, here are some recordings that delight my ear.
Again (e.g. Mahler 2), long before the Mahler craze of the 60s, early versions are rich ground for studies of changing performance practice (see also Reception history). The first ever recording (mystifyingly cutting one of the most exquisite passages in the 3rd movement!) was made in 1930 by Hidemaro Konoyewith the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo—a year before his own symphonic composition Etenraku, inspired by the gagakupiece! The singer in the exceptionally ponderous finale is Eiko Kitazawa.
If Willem Mengelberg‘s Bach is hard to take nowadays, in November 1939, on the eve of the German occupation of Holland (and as with Furtwängler and others, there have been attempts to defend his collusion with Nazism), he recorded Mahler 4 with the Concertgebouw and Jo Vincent. Though he’s remarkably cavalier with Mahler’s instructions (right from the huge rit. after the opening sleigh-bells), and his rubato doesn’t always work (like the cellos in the first “vision” from 4.45), it’s still wonderful:
Of several versions by Bruno Walter, there’s a recording of his live performance in February 1944 with the New York Phil and (singing in a kind of English!) Dési von Halban (daughter of the soprano Selma Kurz, whom Mahler himself, um, favoured just around the time he was composing this symphony); here’s their 1945 studio recording:
Walter also recorded the symphony in 1955, with the Vienna Phil and Hilde Güden; and in 1962, with the Concertgebouw and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Note also his Mahler 2 from 1948.
From the next generation, here’s John Barbirolli in 1967, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Heather Harper:
And LeonardBernstein live in 1972, with the Vienna Phil and Edith Mathis:
Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony and Laura Claycomb, recorded live in 2003, is also very fine:
And among many versions by the wonderful Claudio Abbado, here he is live in 2009, with the exceptional Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Magdalena Kožená:
His stories are even more trenchant if you’ve heard him reading them on BBC Radio 4. I’ll try not to give too much away.
“What I learned” evokes his imaginary days at Princeton. The “modesty seminar” for freshmen has echoes of faux Oxbridge self-deprecation:
In my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.
“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”
To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond: “What? Me go to college? Whoever gave you that idea?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, ”Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so”.
And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.
“So where do you sort of think you went?”
“And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer. […]
You had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.
I needed to temper his enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”
My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?”she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder? You too high and mighty to take out your only mother?”
They started bickering, so in order to make peace, I promised to consider a double major.
“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.
I’ll leave you to read the excellent dénouement. For Sedaris, his father, and Li Manshan, see here.
In “The monster mash” he forks out on a copy of Medicolegal investigations of death,
a sort of bible for forensic pathologists. It showed what you might look like if you bit an extension cord while standing in a shallow pool of water, if you were crushed by a tractor, struck by lightning, strangled with a spiral or non-spiral telephone cord, hit with a claw hammer, burned, shot, drowned, stabbed, or feasted on by wild or domestic animals. The captions read like really great poem titles, my favourite being “Extensive Mildew on the face of a Recluse”. I stared at that picture for hours on end, hoping it might inspire me, but I know nothing about poetry, and the best I came up with was pretty lame:
Behold the recluse looking pensive! Mildew, though, is quite extensive On his head, both aft and fore. He maybe shoulda got out more.
“Of mice and men” parades his social unease, featuring a bigoted cab driver (whose London counterpart is milked by Stewart Lee, e.g. here, and here).
When it comes to meeting strangers, I tend to get nervous and rely on a stash of pre-prepared stories. Sometimes they’re based on observation or hearsay, but just as often they’re taken from the newspaper.
One such clipping
concerned an eighty-one-year-old Vermont man whose home was overrun by mice. The actual house was not described, but in my mind it was two stories tall and isolated on a country road. I also decided that it was painted white—not that it mattered so much. I just thought it was a nice touch. So the retired guy’s house was overrun, and when he could no longer bear it, he fumigated. The mice fled into the yard and settled into a pile of dead leaves, whicih no doubt crackled beneath their weight. Thinking that he had them trapped, the man set the pile on fire, then watched as a single flaming mouse raced back into the basement and burned the house to the ground. […]
How could you go wrong with such a story? It was, to my mind, perfect, and I couldn’t wait to wedge it into whatever conversation presented itself.
A ride in a New Jersey cab seems to offer him a perfect pretext. But the driver is underwhelmed by the story, churlishly finding it implausible. They embark on a surreal and testy exchange, an irritated Sedaris floundering as he defends the report’s veracity:
“Isn’t no way that a mouse could cover all that distance without his flames going out. The wind would have snuffed them.”
“Well, what about that girl in Vietnam?”
Later, vindictively checking the clipping back home, his righteous anger is deflated.
In his lengthy diary of quitting smoking by going to live in Tokyo, an account of a visit to kabuki makes an interesting contrast with Clive James’s excursions into Japanese culture. Both are drôle, but whereas James seems patronising in his incomprehension, Sedaris is genuinely moved.
Four hours into Yohitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, and I wondered how I had survived all these many years without Kabuki.
The book’s title comes from a safety booklet in his hotel room, with the rubrics
Following my recent posts on contemporary Noh drama and transmission and change in Noh, and hot on the heels of relishing late Beethoven quartets, for a different vision of sublime mysteries I returned to the South Bank for a live performance of a new English-language Noh play at the Purcell Room. Do hurry (an unlikely word in this context!) to catch further dates on the tour here, with more in London, as well as Ireland and Paris.
Since the group can hardly recreate the elaborate Noh stage on tour, they’ve opted for a simple backdrop. But the performance, by the seasoned artists of Theatre Nohgaku with their long experience of creating Noh in English, was mesmerizing.
The evening opened with the auspicious final dance from the traditional drama Takasago, which I introduced in my first post, with the distinguished Akira Matsui embodying the God of Sumiyoshi.
Then came the world premiere of the English-language Noh drama Between the Stones, the third collaboration between author Jannette Cheong and composer Richard Emmert. It explores how the burden of grief can be transformed through the healing power of the karesansui Zen rock garden. Attuned to the spirit of traditional Noh, the text is highly poetic. The programme’s libretto gives helpful clues to structure—shidai and issei entrance music, sageuta and ageuta low- and high-pitched song, mondo dialogue, and so on.
In the midst of a typhoon, a grieving traveller (waki, Jubilith Moore) visits the rock garden at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto. where she meets a woman gardener (shite, Kinue Oshima—the only professional female Noh actor in the Kita school). Understanding the traveller’s sadness, the gardener helps her appreciate the nurturing properties of the garden and how the art of raking the gravel enhances its beauty and evokes a peaceful soul. The gardener then vanishes.
In the interlude a temple priest (ai, Ashley Thorpe) appears, giving the traveller an introduction to the history and mystical significance of the garden. He then tells her that the woman gardener was an illusion, perhaps the spirit of the garden appearing to the traveller.
Act Two takes place some years later “on an island in the West”, where the traveller has now created a simple rock garden of her own. The woman gardener reappears and reveals herself as the garden’s Spirit of the Silent Waves. Along with the chorus, they evoke the pain of loss and the courage of those who face death—”as heavy as Mount Tai, or as light as a winter butterfly”. The Spirit of Winter Butterflies then emerges with the final dance, performed by 11-year old Iori Oshima—sixth generation in the Oshima lineage.
The hayashi ensemble—including two female performers—is entrancing as ever, with ethereal flute and haunting kakegoe cries from the three drummers. The international chorus plays a major role too.
Between the Stones makes a numinous addition to the growing repertoire of Noh in English. Here’s an excerpt from Pagoda, the first collaboration of Cheong and Emmert from 2009, a modern British–Chinese story pondering themes of identity and migration:
the lucid text well rendered in fluent translation by Edgar W. Pope—no easy feat.
I introduce this lengthy article here not just for its insights on Noh, but because it bears more widely on the transmission of traditional genres—including the WAM canon. Indeed, it often reminds me of debates over rubato in romantic piano music.
Bruno Nettl has suggested parameters for change in musickings around the world; Noh would seem to belong to his rubric of “gradual, normal change” (“An absolutely static musical culture is actually inconceivable”; for Daoist ritual, see e.g. here), and the concept of “isolated preservation”. Fujita’s article also bears on Nettl’s discussion of flexibility and improvisation.
Within the conservative goal of preservation, Fujita seeks to reconcile apparently conflicting emic and etic viewpoints, and the tensions between ideal and real performance—common concerns of those analysing world music. He wisely considers the whole Noh community, and addresses both the nuts and bolts of performance and the mystical underpinnings of the tradition. As Pope summarizes:
A puzzling situation defines the contemporary transmission of Noh. On one hand, the genre’s community of practice is governed by strict orders to preserve musical sound through repeated imitation and to avoid change at all costs. On the other hand, the community discourages explicit dialogue between teachers and learners concerning what exactly constitutes those ideal musical sounds as well as the extent to which those sonic ideals are being faithfully maintained across performances. With a focus on the transmission of hiranori vocal rhythms, Fujita explores the ambivalent strategies with which participants navigate this conundrum and discovers a paradoxical process by which Noh’s so-called “preservation imperative” actually encourages musical change.
Pope also highlights the relationship between ideal models and actual performance, discourses of continuity and authenticity, and the sometimes-frustrating ambiguities of self-consciously “traditional” arts.
The article also demonstrates Fujita’s characteristic methodological approach: combining close musical analysis with perspectives gained from extensive ethnographic experience, and using critical historical insights to complicate his own ethnographic observations and challenge common scholarly assumptions.
As Fujita explains:
According to the theorists cited above, the place of performance is precisely where creativity happens. But in reality, do the spectators gathered in that place of performance always expect creativity or novelty from the performing art? At each and every performance, do they always focus their attention on how much creativity is being exhibited? One cannot necessarily say so. Depending on time and circumstance, many spectators are likely to expect not something new, but rather a past performance repeated in the same way, here and now. A performance that makes use of bodily movement and sound occurs only once, and then immediately vanishes. The desire to try repeating it again the next day often arises; but can we say conclusively that creative processes and interpretive variation exist there as well? […]
Classical music is like an antique, in the sense that as times change it does not necessarily adapt itself to the changing tastes of its audience. In order to transmit this antique from generation to generation, the community itself has taken on the distinctive form of the iemoto system, in which the iemoto and their branch families are at the apex, and beneath those, in the form of a tree, are positioned their disciples and the disciples of disciples (cf. my image of the iceberg). The focus of this essay is the acquisition by low-level members (disciples) of the techniques held by high-level members (teachers).
Performing artists must be sensitive to the changing demands of changing times if they always construct their performances on the basis of unchanging prescriptions, it is likely that audiences will eventually grow tired of them, and the art itself will become extinct. [….]
This high-pressure imperative takes the form: “Even if it’s boring, don’t ask why—just preserve!” […] Suppose, hypothetically, that you were to find yourself a member of such a community. You yourself have no clue as to what the purpose of preservation might be. And yet you are compelled to participate in preservation. You think to yourself “What’s the use of this? It’s boring. I want to quit!” But you are unable to defy the preservation imperative, and as your participation immerses you completely in the various mutually contradictory rules of practice that fall under the preservation imperative, you experience, at some times and in some cases, a joy in the very practice of preservation itself. Once you have had this sort of experience a number of times, you reach a state where you suddenly think to yourself “I’m glad I’m doing this.” Even though you are repeating (or being made to repeat) over and over again things that have been determined in advance, one day a feeling even comes over you that some realm of freedom is finding expression here—a world in which you feel that a kind of richness that surpasses the merely technical has been secured. The community that provides this strange experience is the community of classical music transmission in Japan.
Fujita suggests the enduring basis of this conservatism in the vestiges of Confucian ideology, with instances from Buddhist chant and biwa music (and of course around the world other ideologies impose limiting effects on creativity in varying ways and degrees), and a brief aside on the aesthetics of calligraphy. He goes on to observe that the community’s emphasis on preservation is modified in actual practice, adroitly suggesting why my suggestion of punk versions of Noh was so impertinent (not to mention this).
Notation is always an imperfect tool. Analysing the rhythmic structure of Noh, Fujita uses tradional graphical representations, largely to reveal their inadequacy. Indeed, he notes that in the past, they “were considered an impediment to learning and were apparently kept hidden”; that they have never come to be used as standards; and that the actual sound of Noh deviates greatly from such schemas.
A stable flow of sound that could appropriately be called a pulse never reaches your ear. You hear a series of terrible arrhythmias, so to speak. As a result, it is generally difficult to perceive an eight-beat meter  from the actual sound, that is, to reconstruct the graphical representation from the sound.
Fujita explains in detail the vital roles of the kotsuzumi and ōtsuzumi drums. Commenting on the great flexibility of the pulse, he gives a magnificent analogy:
For the reader who is unfamiliar with the sound of Noh, please envision, for example, a scene in which a drunk person is singing a song with a great deal of emotional expression. Large changes in the pulse will often occur. If a sober listener who knows the song well tries to clap along with the performance, it will become clear that there are large expansions and contractions in the intervals between pulses, of the kind we have described here.
On singing, Fujita observes:
Scholars who try to explain the rhythm of Noh singing usually abandon from the beginning any attempt to explain this phenomenon of elasticity of the aural pulse. Many of them, when explaining rhythm, begin by introducing a graphical representation (such as Figure 1) that shows twelve syllables arranged over eight beats. After that they add some such commentary as the following:
In transcription it appears as shown above, but in actual performance the rhythm is transformed, through various techniques, to the point that this basic meter can barely be perceived. When watching Noh, the parts where one cannot follow the beat in relation to the performance on stage are mostly these hiranori parts, which are constructed through an extremely complex and subtle rhythmic sense. One might call it a rhythm that does not show its rhythmic sense on the surface.
This is clearly a declaration that the writer has given up on explanation. But why does he arrive at this kind of impasse? The problem is that with no detailed observation or description of contemporary practice, he has developed an explanation that depends from the outset on graphical representations, which are not actively used as models within the community. We have seen that the rhythm of Noh, when compared to its graphical representation, involves large tempo changes and is greatly “distorted” in performance. We must not, however, take such “distortion” [henkei] to mean literal distortion. The “distortion” of Noh rhythm is systematic and has been thoroughly drilled into the performer in the course of practice. To that extent, rather than being the result of individual contrivance, it is more accurate to think of it as something that has been habitualized.
He then identifies the set of norms that produce such “distortion”: the way that the drummers memorize sequences, with mnemonics for timings (komi, the preparations for producing sounds) and timbre, and the haunting kakegoe vocal cries (mostly in the intervals between pulses, and a major element in Noh’s rhythmic elasticity). The interplay of the two drummers is crucial. We may be only mildly reassured by the conclusion of this section:
The form of explanation that begins with something like “Noh rhythm is based on an eight-beat meter”, although not at all incorrect as a historical explanation, turns out to be completely meaningless as a description of current practice. In reality, as we have seen, the lengths of drum syllable sequences used by ōtsuzumi and kotsuzumi players do not necessarily fill up a span of eight beats; and performance proceeds from a consciousness centered on those drum syllables. During a performance, moreover, many performers have no idea where they are (i.e., which beat they are on) in terms of pulse numbers. In actual practice, this is no longer eight-beat music. It is quite natural, then, that the sound produced by the performers does not sound like eight-beat music.
While he points out that performers are not entirely oblivious to graphical schema, they may adopt some principles and regularities that they perceive therein for the purposes of their own performance.
Principles discovered by performers for themselves are not used as oral explanations in education. Moreover, graphical representations of those principles have never come to the forefront and circulated as a primary means or as standards for learning. This has been especially true in the study of Noh singing.
In §3 Fujita takes a historical approach to komi. While the concept has long existed, it has only been emphasized more recently. Identifying “surreptitious” change below the preservation imperative, he astutely unpacks emic and etic approaches:
When scholars accept without question the ideology of the preservation imperative, thinking that the practices of traditional music transmit the forms of ancient sounds mechanically like a tape recorder, and repeating like parrots the community’s assertions that they “do it exactly the way it was taught,” it is evident that we have a problem. On the other hand, a standpoint that assumes people in the community are simply lying when they say “we do it exactly the way it was taught”, that focuses only on empirically tracking down changes in actual sound and seeking to discover in those the creativity of performers, could be seen as rushing to conclusions and distorting the object of research. What we need, then, is to look carefully at how the ideology actually operates.
So he goes on to discuss the language used since the late Meiji period to inhibit undue reliance on graphical rhythmic schema—particularly with regard to singing, the most popular activity within the amateur community.
With regard to singing practice, sound itself is excessively emphasized [!]. Everyone in the community is expected to imitate faithfully the sound of Noh singing. From the beginning, they must not rely on schemas that serve as frameworks. They must not look at graphical representations. They must not have any interest in theory. This sort of thing is hammered into their heads.
Fujita cites a passage from 1943 [his italics]:
At first there is no need to think about the logic of jibyōshi [the eight beat meter]. One simply has to swallow as a whole the actual way of singing with the meter, and pound it into one’s memory until it becomes a habit. Regardless of any theory about meter, its actual use is nothing other than a focusing of the spirit [kiai], and so the best way to give life to the meter is to grasp the focusing of spirit that appears in your teacher’s singing. In short, the fundamental problem must be to build a foundation from which you can sing more or less together with the meter, even if you don’t know how to keep the meter. You can try to study meter on the basis of Noh singing, with its uncertain pulse, but all you will get is a logical understanding, which you will not necessarily be able to use in the actual practice of singing. Even worse, you may well end up with meter for the sake of meter, not meter for the sake of singing.
He explores the learning process, and the interaction of singers and drummers:
Of course, the singer’s memory of the sound is not perfect. The singer, furthermore, has no understanding of the schema. It is therefore entirely possible that discrepancies will arise between the singer and the drummers in some places. For example, it must frequently happen that a singer starts one pulse too early, or one pulse too late. Those who do so are instructed to practice that part over and over, and as a result of this repeated practice acquire a feeling of “falling into the meter”, even in that part.
§4 goes on to discuss the mysticization of identity: the realm of kokoro (heart/mind)—”the place for secret manouevring”. Here he turns to the flute:
In the following episode, a teacher of Noh singing critiques the flute-playing of one of his students. Unlike the drums discussed in §2, the flute is an instrument with a low degree of structure in the realm of articulation, and in that sense we could say that it is similar to vocal performance. On one occasion, a flute performance was critiqued in the following way. Kaneuchi Yoshihira was the youngest Noh flute player during the time my teacher was alive, and he also had a weak physical constitution. One time when he was playing flute for the otokomai dance in “Atsumori” he noticed that his teacher was looking at him; apparently he froze, and the sound of his flute abruptly stopped. Nevertheless out of fear of his teacher he tried even harder to play, while taking kurai, but finally he lost his composure and was unable to produce a sound. He continued on like a madman, puffing away at his flute without making a sound, until the piece ended. He then went back to the musicians’ room, cringing at the thought of the scolding he would get. But he found his teacher to be in an extremely good mood. “It was fine, it was fine. Your iki [spirit] and your kuraidori [taking kurai] were very good today.” Kaneuchi spoke of how happy he was when he heard those words of praise, and said that for the first time he felt self-confidence in his flute playing.
Noting a further tendency: “an irresistible turning toward the enjoyment of unrepeatable immediacy”, he ponders the apparent conflict between emic (“we always do it the same”) and etic (“these details are completely different”) views (again, cf. Nettl), and lists significant emic terms that appear to resolve them.
in spite of its rigid, closed, and conservative appearance, there actually do exist “free” and “creative” processes,
Fujita concludes by discussing the recent influence of audio-visual techology on the learning process, which was slow to gain acceptance but is now compressing the space for the preservation imperative.
 For this post I silently [sic] convert the “nō “of the text to “Noh”. For more in English, see e.g. here.
 For the very different (and more audible) eight-beat structure of Chinese shawm bands and Daoist groups, see here. For official attempts to replace ritual skills with discursive knowledge, see Training Daoists in Shanghai.
While Clive James (R.I.P.) was generally admirable as well as entertaining, in chapter 12 of The blaze of obscurity he candidly describes his inability to represent traditional Japanese culture on popular TV. Coming to the topic via the unpromising genre of game shows,he concludes a passage describing the rationale behind the filming of his own discomfort (not merely physical) at a session with a samisen-playing geisha by proclaiming:
To let myself in for ridicule might mitigate any impression that I was setting out to ridicule the culture, which in fact I revered, even for its way of becoming even more incomprehensible as you focused your attention on it.
But he gave up far too easily. That comment follows a paragraph that includes a reference to Noh:
A Japanese classical sword-smith takes a long time to make a sword, you need a degree in metallurgy to appreciate what he does, and the finished product looks exactly like a stage prop from an amateur production of The Mikado. In a Noh play an actor takes half an hour to cross the stage. The special walk he is using takes a lifetime’s training, but he looks exactly like an old man with arthritis setting out to buy a newspaper. You can fall asleep while he is making his entrance and when you wake up again he is still making his entrance.
Sure, there’s no denying that Noh is short on hectic car chases and steamy love scenes. This passage is distinguished by its lazy cultural chauvinism:
In Kyoto, at the Geisha training school, the top lady was one of the greatest living players of the shami-sen, the single-stringed guitar [HEY] that has come down through the ages without acquiring any extra strings to compromise its purity by providing it with, say, the capacity to produce a chord. It goes plunk. It goes plink.
So much for ethnomusicology, and James’s proclaimed reverence for Japanese culture. At least he or his team of researchers might have counted the strings, FFS. At least the Serbian gusle really does only have one string, though the review featured here is no more enamoured with it.
To return to my orchestral tours, while I really shouldn’t emulate the way that James plays for laughs the culture that he professes to revere, Noh goes quite well with jet-lag—you can indeed nod off, or pop out to do a bit of shopping, and by the time you get back to the action the waki will still only have shimmied halfway across the stage. But enchantment soon takes over.
Further irreverent ideas might include a feature-length Family guy—Oh Noh!, with Brian and Stewieas an original waki–shite duo; not an entirely silly idea, as redemption (e.g. here) and time travel are common themes of the series.
Whereas gagaku traces its origins to Tang China, Noh evolved within Japan, notably with the canonical work of Zeami (c1363–1444).  While the local ritual dramas (often using masks) of China have been much studied (setting forth from projects led by C.K. Wang), everything about Noh seems remote from Chinese theatre.
The plots, derived from medieval literature such as the Genji and Heike monogatari, are based on the theme of exorcism; often a traveller or pilgrim (the waki role) meets a local dweller, who is later revealed as the ghost of a renowned ancient personage who died there in tragic circumstances (the role of shite).
Perpetuating the spirit of Zen in modern Japan (cf. posts on Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder), all the performative elements are other-wordly and entrancing—from the vocals of the solo actors and chorus, and the masks and costumes, to the hayashi ensemble of piercing flute punctuated by the haunting rhythms of the three types of drums (with their otherworldly kakegoe cries), and the cathartic final dance (cf. Bertolucci).
Noh in Japan, 1992. My photos.
Orchestral tours always gave me an opportunity to explore local cultures (flamenco in Seville, táncház in Budapest; for a fortuitous spinoff, see here), and on tours of Japan in the 1990s local Noh theatres were always my first port of call. Here are two complete dramas:
Atsumori is a mugen ghost play by Zeami, based on the Heike monogatari:
The monk Renshō (in the waki role) arrives at Ichi-no-Tani seeking to ask forgiveness from Atsumori (the shite role) and calm his spirit. There he meets a flute-playing youth and his companions; after they briefly discuss the flute and Atsumori, the youth reveals that he has a connection to Atsumori.
In the second act, after a kyōgen interlude, the actor who played the youth in the first act has changed costume, now playing Atsumori. Along with the chorus chanting for him, he relates his tragic story from his perspective, re-enacting it in dance form. The play ends with Renshō refusing to re-enact his role in Atsumori’s death; the ghost declares that the monk is not his enemy, and asks him to pray for his release.
InTakasago, a priest travels to Takasago in pleasant spring weather. Among the beautiful pine trees, he hears a bell toll in the distance. An elderly couple arrive and begin to sweep the area under the pine bower. The old man recites from a collection of waka poetry, describing the Takasago and Sumioe wedded pine trees that, according to legend, will remain together for eternity. When he explains that the paired pines are a symbol of the marital relationship, the priest observes that all relationships, like life itself, fall short of the ideal expressed in the poem.
At this point, the old couple reveal that they are the spirits of the paired pines, and they set sail across the bay in a small boat. As the tide goes out, the priest also sets sail.
* * *
While the Noh scene in Japan has remained largely faithful to medieval plots, Allan Marett, working with Richard Emmert, has composed two remarkably imaginative new Noh dramas in English. Among the distinguished pupils of Laurence Picken working on Tang music at Cambridge in the 1970s, Allan then began devoting himself to Noh, and his drama Eliza (1985) makes a kind of bridge to his fine fieldwork on aboriginal culture in Australia:
A traveller to Fraser Island in Australia meets an old woman who tells the story of Eliza Fraser, the wife of the captain of a ship shipwrecked years ago. The woman begins to tell fantastic stories about Eliza’s experiences and how these were used to satisfy the beliefs of white society. As the traveller questions her story full of exaggeration, the woman’s true nature as the spirit of Eliza is set free. The spirit then reappears and dances in an aboriginal festival, reliving her experiences of aboriginal culture and the truth of her harmonious stay with aboriginal peoples.
No less remarkable is Allan’s 2015 drama Oppenheimer:
In Noh, agents of suffering (often warriors) first appear trapped in the form a ghost and then—in the course of the play—attain liberation; thus the drama traces the spiritual journey of Robert J. Oppenheimer from tormented ghost to agent of redemption. It makes an allegory about the tragedy of Hiroshima and how it affects us all. As Allan comments, “my play points beyond Hiroshima to all acts of violence and inhumanity.”
Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditional mugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen play will free the ghost from the wheel of samsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox, the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
a stark and beautiful meditation on loneliness, with numerous textual and musical allusions to 20th-century popular song. Judy is a lonely, middle-aged woman, and a devout Elvis fan. She makes a pilgrimage to Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis’s death, but she is forced to wait outside, due to the overwhelming crowds. Her dream shattered, she is left to reflect on her life, through the verbal imagery of popular song. But then, during the candlelight vigil, a mysterious man lets her into the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried, and there, under the light of a blue moon, she encounters a spirit.
Such creations feature new plots while remaining faithful both to the spirit of Noh (recognition, redemption, and so on) and to traditional performance style and staging. I wonder impertinently if there’s more radical potential for modern Noh. Bruno Nettl has suggested some parameters for change in world musicking (gradual or radical, allowable variation, isolated preservation, and so on), with varying approaches to maintaining elements considered to be core. In Europe, opera changes substantially over time. Apart from new operas, we have avant-garde productions of older operas, using the original plots but interpreting them in modern settings, often with the “original” music; and we have “rock operas”. Within Japan, might one use sax, or ondes martenot, with drum-kit, and punk vocals; skyscrapers and modern costumes? [Noooh—Ed.] For a masterly rebuttal of these meretricious ideas, see here.
Irrespective of such idle musings, works like Eliza and Oppenheimer make refreshing, stimulating innovations in the Noh repertoire.
Having enjoyed a London reunion with Allan Marett, I much appreciate his guidance on this post.
 For a useful database, see here. For succinct introductions to Noh in the context of other Japanese genres, see Isabel Wong’s chapter in Bruno Nettl et al. (eds.), Excursions in world music, and David Hughes’s chapter in Michael Church (ed.), The other classical musics. For a meretricious footnote to this post, see here.
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:
It should be read in a strong Lancashire accent. The opening line (for a variant, note comments below!) would be a headline, rather in the style of “Ping-pong ding-dong“. And the “rhyme that doesn’t quite work” doubtless has one of those fancy names that they try and teach you in school:
Trouble at t’Morris ‘As PC gone mad? Ey-up— T’Nutters of Bacup!
For Stewart Lee’s trenchant rebuke of “PC gone mad gone mad”, see here; and for “Ey-up!” in Venice, here,
I was first spellbound by Seven samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) at Cambridge in the early 1970s, among many other formative film experiences there.
Of the samurai, I was most captivated by the master-swordsman Kyūzō (a character inspired by the “sword-saint” Miyamoto Musashi), akin to the Zen archers and mystics who were then inspiring me.
While my fellow-students were attracted to contemporary China, I was still mired in silent immobile ancient texts; but though the film’s drama is set in 16th-century Japan, it must somehow have sown the seed for my later studies of Chinese peasant life…
Among several homages, never mind The magnificent seven: most subtle and perceptive is Tampopo.
Věna Hrdličková, Zdeněk Hrdlička,
and narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing
Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička with Qi Baishi, Beijing 1952.
This article is based on material kindly provided by Lucie Olivová (former student of VěnaHrdličková) and the couple’s grandson Zdeněk.
My brief mention of narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing leads me to a remarkable Czech couple, and thence to the Prague sinologists, prompting me to consider the work of Chinese and Czechoslovak scholars—and their tribulations.
The Prague sinologists
The Prague school of sinology became widely admired for its achievements in the realms of modern and traditional Chinese literature, linguistics, history, and philosophy. It was led by the great Jaroslav Průšek (1906–80), who became head of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.
Do read Marián Gálik’s useful introduction to their work up to the demise of state socialism.  It both attests to their remarkable energy and gives glimpses of careers and lives (both Czech and Chinese) frustrated by political currents—among countless instances, we might compare the vicissitudes of the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang.
Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička
For Věna Hrdličková (1925–2016) and her husband Zdeněk Hrdlička (1919–99), useful introductions are
Lucie Olivová, “Chinese and Japanese storytelling: selected topical bibliography of the works of Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička”, CHINOPERL papers 25 (2004), pp.87–97 
Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Old Chinese ballads to the accompaniment of the big drum,”Archiv orientální 25.1 (1957), pp. 83–145
Věna and Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Lianhua lao and its traditions”, in Vibeke Børdahl (ed.), The eternal storyteller: oral literature in modern China (1999), pp.71–7.
I am also most grateful to the Hrdlickas’ grandson Zdeněk for sharing further material—including a draft translation (awaiting publication) of an eloquent series of interviews in Czech with Věna by Ivana Bakešová (Czech Chinese Society, Prague, 2016). Below, apart from direct citations (indented), I have collated and adapted text from all these sources.
Under the Nazi occupation, universities were closed and most Czech books were forbidden. Věna came from a schoolmaster’s family, whose classroom was a hut with an earthen floor. Teachers now had to say Heil Hitler! as they entered the classroom—though, as Věna recalled, they did it carelessly, just waving their hand at most.
Managing to avoid being sent to work in Germany, at high school Věna studied English, when most schools were teaching French and German. Meanwhile she attended dance school—where she met her future husband Zdeněk. His father, a widowed railwayman, was also a bandmaster.
The couple became interested in China—Věna inspired by early poetry, Zdeněk with a view to contemporary prospects. They discovered that they could study Chinese with Průšek at the Oriental Institute. In 1945 Zdeněk, together with other colleagues, founded the journal Nový Orient [New Orient]—still being published.
In 1946, at Průšek’s recommendation, they received scholarships from the Ministry of Education to study in the USA. They travelled by train to Paris, where a sailors’ strike compelled them to spend a month, and then took the ship to New York. Since term hadn’t yet begun, they used the interlude to get married. They spent two years studying in the USA (Věna at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Zdeněk at Harvard), attending lectures and seminars by John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others. Following the war, Harvard was now favouring modern spoken Chinese above classical studies.
In 1948 they returned to Europe by ship from Québec. Back in Czechoslovakia the Communists, under Soviet domination, were tightening their grip. As I remind myself, Prague was still recovering from the trauma of long Nazi occupation, the devastation caused in the 1945 uprising and Soviet “liberation”, and the ensuing expulsions of (and vengeance upon) the German population. 
As Czech universities reopened, the couple enrolled in Sinology and Religious Studies at Charles University; Věna also studied Japanese. Zdeněk graduated in 1949 with a thesis on the Daoist concept of immortality; the next year Věna graduated with her thesis on the author Ki no Tsurayuki in Heian Japan.
Meanwhile in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. That year a Chinese Peace Delegation visited Czechoslovakia, led by Guo Moruo, soon to be president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Zdeněk was chosen to attend. From 1950 he was employed at the Oriental Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture, and that winter the couple joined the first Czechoslovak cultural delegation to the PRC, led by Průšek.
They took the Trans-Siberian train, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days. There Věna recalled the perils of crossing chaotic roads with crazy drivers, and admired the palatial metro system. And then they took the train through Siberia. In the dining carriage, as Švejk connoisseurs they shared their enthusiasm with an elderly gentleman. After spending the night in a little hotel at the border in Manzhouli, they changed to a Chinese train. Průšek, cracking sunflower seeds, was full of expectation. They arrived in Beijing in beautiful sunny weather, the sky clear above the glistening rooftops of the Forbidden City near the embassy. Their affable hosts had new winter coats made for them.
Still, returning to Beijing after an absence of around ten years, Průšek was disappointed, exclaiming “This is not the China I knew.” And while Prague in the late 1940s, recovering from war, must have been devastated, Věna’s strongest initial impression of Beijing was the poverty. When they arrived in the winter cold, she stood through the night at her window in the Beijing Hotel watching rickshaws trudging through the snow. She was also shocked by the lines of blind people walking the streets. She admired the Chinese for the speed with which they were able to fall asleep, no matter where they were. But as she became acquainted with the society, she appreciated the urge of the Chinese to improve their conditions.
In 1951 Zdeněk was appointed the first Czechoslovak cultural attaché to the PRC. Wanting to live among the Chinese rather than in an expat bubble, they rented a modest siheyuan courtyard house, living beside poor neigbours in Zhong Shicao hutong alley just west of the Zhihua temple—just as Yang Yinliu and his colleagues were discovering the Beijing temple traditions there.
With Lao Zui. Photo: courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.
Their cook Lao Zui served as a general fixer for them, finding them books and arranging for a lianhualao troupe to perform at their house. Their first son, also called Zdeněk, was born in Beijing in 1952; their teacher (a Manchu) gave him the Chinese name Huasheng 华生 “born in China”, soon adapted by their nanny to Huashengmi (Peanut). Their second son Stanislav was born in 1957.
During a period of remarkably good relations between the two countries, the couple got to know leading cultural figures—including academician Guo Moruo, painters Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Slavic scholar Ge Baoquan 戈宝权 (1913–2000), authors Mao Dun, Ding Ling, and Lao She, Indeed, Lao She had also been studying in the USA, but had made the fateful decision to return to the New China out of patriotic idealism.
As their secretary the Hrdličkas were happy to find Yang Leyun 杨乐云 (1919-2009). Among her later translations into Chinese were the works of Bohumil Hrabal—another Czech author hardly suited to state socialism.
By contrast with most pampered Western academics, the couple had in common with Chinese scholars a legacy of occupation and a tacit awareness of the constraints of the new society.
During their mission they negotiated an official gift of Chinese books to the Oriental Institute, which became the core of the Lu Xun Library in Prague, and the purchase of Chinese antiquities for the National Gallery.
Meanwhile in 1953 a Czechoslovak team was filming a documentary about the construction of the Sichuan–Tibet highway—including rare glimpses of a landscape of daily Tibetan life and traditional ritual that was soon to be erased. Premiered in 1955, the film won awards at the film festivals in Venice and Karlovy Vary. It was screened in Czechoslovak cinemas in 1956, but it was later banned by the Communist authorities, right until its recent rediscovery and showing in Prague.
After the 1949 “Liberation” these early years of the PRC were a relatively optimistic period, before collectivization and campaigns intensified. By contrast with residents from the Western bloc,  not renowned for their devotion to Chinese expressive culture, the Hrdlička couple were exceptionally interested in the performing arts, immersing themselves in the narrative-singing scene.
Narrative-singing in early 1950s’ Beijing Sinology has traditionally been concerned mainly with silent written texts, and remains so in many branches of the field. As Věna later recalled, they were now drawn to oral performance culture because with some 80% of the population illiterate, it was largely thus that they transmitted their history and culture. They were also aware that oral traditions would be threatened by the modern media.
In China there was little ethnographic discussion of the changing conditions of narrative-singing between the 1940s and the Cultural Revolution, but the couple provide some glimpses. Following in the footsteps of Průšek in the 1930s, they often visited the Tianqiao quarter. In an article published in 1968 Věna evoked their explorations:
The T’ien-ch’iao, Peking’s Heavenly Bridge, was one of the most colourful places of this kind, where not only storytellers but also other entertainers regularly competed for attention. Despite its exalted name, it was an unpretentious marketplace with simple earthen arenas, small crude huts and humble teahouses, but it offered much enjoyment for modest sums. We spent there many unforgettable hours enthralled by the mastery of puppeteers, the deftness of magicians, the incredible skill of acrobats, and of course the art of the storytellers. They often commented on our presence with improvised verses, which, though not complimentary, were witty and never really offensive. Eventually, when we became more familiar with fairly frequent attendance, they treated us in the same way as they did the Chinese in their audiences.
We used to invite itinerant storytellers and ballad-singers to our residence in Peking. Though their dress made it obvious that they were poor, their professional pride gave them great dignity. After singing, they were served tea. They then would bow and leave quietly. Some of them in time became our friends, divulging the secrets of their art and helping us to collect handwritten and printed texts of various forms of shuo-shu.
In their article on lianhua lao they recalled:
In the early 1950s we had occasion to watch a group performing caichang lianhua lao in the Tianqiao market, while we were studying shuochang in the field. Thus we made their acquaintance and they consented to give us a performance in our home, in a typical hutong [lane], Zhongshi caor in the eastern part of the capital. These performers from the marketplace presented their act in the courtyard, surrounded by a wall. In addition to the principal of the troupe, Wang Pingtan, there were two women singers, a comic actor, and a musician [on sanxian]; they were typical folk performers, and obviously of low social standing. They had not yet been brought under the aegis of any of the professional organizations then being set up to reform the narrative arts by purging their repertoire of elements of feudalism, as the phrase was, and replacing this with texts that could serve political ends, and help in the struggle against illiteracy, corruption, or for equality of the sexes.
Of course, despite the formation of such troupes, only a few performers were ever recruited to this cause, and only sporadically—as we can see in my notes from Shaanbei. In the cities (such as Yulin), change would have been caused as much by the evolving control of public space as by political elements.
Teahouse in Tianqiao, 1987. My photos.
After I began working in China from 1986, I only dabbled in the narrative-singing scene in Beijing. Whereas many amateur clubs remained active after reviving, the Tianqiao scene enjoyed but a brief revival in the 80s before the area was irretrievably glamourized. Though narrative-singing moved to more salubrious fake-antique venues, some charming amateur clubs have persisted.
Prague and Japan Their time in China was interrupted when Zdeněk was recalled to Prague in 1954, where he now taught Asian history at Charles University. When they returned to Prague, Věna completed her doctoral thesis on storytelling, based on her fieldwork in China. She defended it in 1959.
When the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Tokyo reopened belatedly in 1957, Zdeněk was appointed chargé d’affaires there (1957–61), later serving as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador (1964–69). They decided to live in a Japanese-style house.
They were on good terms with the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko (1912–2000), “an elegant, handsome man” with a wealth of international experience, who served as Soviet representative at the UN from 1963 to 1968. Over at the American embassy were their former teachers John Fairbank and Serge Elisséeff.
They could only take the boys to Tokyo under the condition that they would attend Russian school, but when circumstances became a bit more relaxed they transferred them to Japanese school, where they were taught in Japanese in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; the children were happy there, and apart from speaking Czech at home and learning Russian they became fluent in Japanese and English. Their grandchildren too followed in the family footsteps.
Despite the intensive workload in these posts, the couple continued to pursue their cultural interests enthusiastically. Věna continued to explore folk story-telling. Each tea-house had a banner saying which story-teller was going to perform that day. They were pleasantly surprised to find small story-telling theatres in the Ueno quarter, including one for rakugo 落語. They were enchanted by Japanese folk ceramics, travelling throughout Japan to collect them, and later presenting them in exhibitions and writings. They studied the tea ceremony, cuisine, gardens and bonsai.
I note superfluously that during their interlude in Prague they do not seem to have met the young Alexei Sayle, later himself to become a folk storyteller…
The Prague Spring and “normalization” Amidst diverse global revolutions, the couple was spared the Cultural Revolution in China. Their old acquaintance the great author Lao She, himself an aficionado of narrative-singing, was hounded to death in 1966.
But in August 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally crushed when the Warsaw Pact armies occupied Czechoslovakia. The family were on holiday in Prague. It was night-time, and still jet-lagged, they didn’t hear the airplanes with their transports of tanks—they were only woken by the sound of someone shouting: “The Russians have invaded!” Věna thought it was nonsense until she switched on the radio. Zdeněk immediately set off for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a lot of employees had already gathered, moving to safety some documents that might be of potential interest to the invaders.
He was ordered to return immediately to Japan. Not knowing what was awaiting them, or even if they would ever be able to return, they only took bare necessities in their rucksacks. A friend drove them to the Austrian border, and they flew Swiss Air to Tokyo. At the airport they were met by embassy employees and Japanese reporters; Zdeněk made it clear that the country had been brutally invaded. The newspapers published photographs of him and Dubček. The Czechoslovak flag was flown at half-staff on the embassy building.
As Věna recalled, the Japanese were supportive, but diplomats behaved according to their political affiliations; among the east Europeans, only the Romanians could offer any support. At first, embassy employees unequivocally condemned the occupation, but then gradually things became blurred. As it became clear how the situation was going to evolve, some started distancing themselves.
The couple’s postings to China and Japan evoke the career of Robert van Gulik, who served in China before the Communist takeover, going on to successive postings in Japan. Of course, they moved in different circles: the only contacts between diplomats of the Western and Soviet allies occurred at formal receptions. Still, in Tokyo the couple did indeed meet van Gulik. His third posting there from 1965 had to be interrupted in June 1967 so he could return to the Netherlands for medical treatment, where he died in September. But after the Prague coup the following year van Gulik’s son Pieter sent Zdeněk this letter of sympathy:
Courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.
Meanwhile, with murky realpolitik, the Chinese leadership also denounced the Soviet-led intervention—ironically, given their support for the quelling of the 1956 Budapest uprising (not to mention later events in Beijing).
Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 predated the common resort of Tibetans protesting occupation.
The couple remained in Tokyo for around a year, but they took recall as a matter of course; they knew what awaited them, and never considered emigration. As soon as they arrived back in Prague, Zdeněk was sacked from the ministry. He briefly became research fellow at the Oriental Institute, but during the so-called “period of normalization”  that followed the repression he lost his new post—he wasn’t even admitted to the Oriental Institute library.
While his was a high-profile demotion, he was not alone: as Gálik shows, several other Czech sinologists, including the great Průšek, were expelled from the Academy of Sciences, and the Party, over these years. No-one was immune, neither academics nor ordinary workers.
The Hrdličkas had to go to some lengths to secure the children’s progress in education, with help from their neighbour Jiří Marek (1914–94), author of the script for the 1968 TV series Sinful people of the city of Prague. Věna was pressured into taking early retirement, and Zdeněk too received a small allowance. They took their fate stoically.
In 1976 Zdeněk and Věna retreated into idyllic rural seclusion—emulating principled ancient Chinese literati like the poet Tao Yuanming (never an option, alas, for their counterparts in Maoist China). In the tiny village of Brzánky on the river Elbe the couple cultivated their Wine-Press Manor (Na Lisu); visitors delighted in the magical atmosphere there, discussing poetry and the arts in the garden over wine with their hosts.
Their bucolic retreat, though dilapidated, had a large plot of land. Without electricity, they had no fridge, but they did have a cold cellar. They grew garlic, kept bees, harvested fruit, and made their own wine—which though ordinaire, they relished because of the work and joy that went into it. In a way it was a beautiful life, giving them time to read and study. Věna later reflected wryly that by depriving them of employment the regime improved their health.
They liked to have guests, such as the renowned art historian František Dvořák with his wife Nataša, and their friends like the artists Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) and Kamil Lhoták (1812-1990). Denied passports, the couple weren’t allowed to travel abroad; but over the years their foreign friends managed to visit them at the cottage. They maintained contacts with Russian friends who had denounced the occupation. In April 1989 their old friend Ge Baoquan visited them there:
Photo courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.
Through the oppressive years of Soviet occupation, Věna managed to keep her post of lecturer at the Department of Asian and African studies of Charles University—still, she was only belatedly awarded the full dozent professorial qualification in 1990. In the Department she mainly taught Chinese literature, training a number of students—including Lucie Olivová. Věna’s textbooks The history of Chinese classical literature, vol.1 (1980), and An introduction to sinology (with Jaromír Vochala, 1985) are still valued.
Most of the studies that Věna and Zdeněk wrote jointly during the 1970s and 80s could only be published under her name. A couple of journals were bold enough to publish his papers, but Nový Orient, the popular journal for Asia—which Zdeněk had created—remained closed to him.
Meanwhile, of course, many of their friends, both at home and in China, were punished in many ways from the mid-50s until the early 80s. Both peoples had suffered under wartime occupation and had to adapt to one-party rule; both had seen brief liberalizations ruthlessly crushed.
A certain rehabilitation came when Zdeněk, with other enthusiasts, was able to found the first ever Bonsai club in Prague, which later became the Prague Bonsai Society. They published a quarterly newsletter from 1981; from 1990 it became a journal in successive incarnations. As well as organizing activities, exhibitions, and lectures, here it was possible for Zdeněk to publish. The couple designed several Chinese and Japanese gardens in Czechoslovakia, receiving a gold medal for the design of a Japanese garden at the Flora Olomouc Exhibition in 1983.
Věna in China, 2004.
After the Velvet revolution of 1989, new freedoms opened a sudden range of possibilities. The couple once again traveled to the USA, Japan, and China.
In the new Czech Republic, they participated in the re-establishment of the Czech-Chinese Society and the Czech-Japanese Society. They organized projects such as an exhibition of paintings by Qi Baishi at the National Gallery at Prague, and the publications of miscellanies, including the often-reprinted Èajová zastavení [Tea stations] (Prague, 1997). Věna published literary translations of contemporary Chinese novels, and Chinese and Japanese folk tales, which appeared in splendid Czech and foreign editions. She translated over a hundred films, mainly from Japanese, for Czech TV and other distributors. She was much decorated.
So at last they were able to publish under their own names. After working together at the tranquil cottage, the couple published the popular book Emperor Shenzong’s China (Čína císaře Šen-cunga) and books about Japanese and Chinese gardens.
Zdeněk’s sudden death in March 1999 came as a painful shock to all his friends and acquaintances; however, Věna continued her activities and research with commitment and perseverance.
Chinese studies of narrative-singing After 1949, although the Hrdlička couple explored the narrative-singing scene on their own initiative rather than in collaboration with Chinese scholars, the latter too were busy studying and promoting the diverse genres along the middle of the vocal spectrum from folk-song to opera.
Of course, the big cities were only the tip of the iceberg. Later studies tended to focus on the Jiangnan region, but genres still common around Beijing and Tianjin include Jingyun dagu 京韻大鼓, Meihua dagu 梅花大鼓, and Xihe dagu 西河大鼓. Yang Yinliu himself began studying the danxian 单弦 melodies of Beijing as early as 1950, soon after arriving there.
While its 589 pages consist almost entirely of transcriptions, it includes a useful bibliography. Many festivals were also held through the 1950s.
National festival of narrative-singing, August 1958.
Above: danxian performer Rong Jianchen (front, 4th from left) with disciples, 1954.
Below: Founding of drum-singing guild, Tianqiao, 1940s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Large-format lianhualao led by Rong Jianchen and Wang Wanfang (6th and 5th from right), 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Though the work of the Chinese scholars was constrained and reified, it laid the foundations for later studies, notably the Anthology—for which note the provincial volumes of both the Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志 and the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成—see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003).
Jingyun dagu masters. Above: Liu Baoquan, 1920s. Middle: left, Liu Baoquan, 1936; right, Bai Yunpeng. Below: Bai Fengming.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.
Ma Zengfen 馬增芬 performing Xihe dagu, 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi zhi, Beijing juan.
Some fine archive recordings are included in the 2-CD set
Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [English title Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).
Meanwhile it became apparent that alongside entertainment genres, the ritual component of narrative-singing was also widespread and important in local cultures throughout China. The Czech couple’s explorations could hardly extend to the countryside—even just a few hours south of Beijing, narrative-singers continued to perform through the 1950s, alongside ritual groups.
Back in Czechoslovakia, ethnographic study of regional folk traditions was also circumscribed after the Communist takeover—as earlier in Ukraine.
* * *
In what may sometimes appear as a Western-dominated field, all this serves as a reminder of the wider world of scholarship and the international situation in the years following the revolutions of the late 1940s, as well as the achievements and vicissitudes of scholars and artists both in China and in Soviet-dominated countries.
With many thanks to Lucie Olivová and Zdeněk the younger!
 The list of twenty-two scholars includes my own mentor Paul Kratochvil; note also Dana Kalvodová (1928-2003), scholar of Chinese opera.
 Lucie Olivová, Věna Hrdličková–Zdeněk Hrdlička: A list of published works and oral presentations 1945/46–2002 (Prague: Oriental Institute, 2002, bilingual) lists almost a thousand bibliographical entries under headings including storytelling, Chinese and Japanese gardens, Japanese pottery, and Chinese literature.
 See e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp. 126–35; for background on the early Communist period, see Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of eastern Europe.
 from journalists like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley to politically-engaged residents like the Hintons and the Crooks: see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976 (2016).
 As I write this, I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ remarkable memoir Hitch-22, where he describes it as “one of the most casually ugly phrases of the whole 20th century”—but then, if anyone is equipped to demolish such insidious language, it’s the Czechs themselves.
Robert van Gulik (Chinese name Gao Luopei 高羅佩, 1910–67)—“diplomat, Asian scholar, calligrapher, polyglot, polymath, passionate lover of life in all its forms”—is perhaps best known for his Judge Dee detective novels set in the Tang dynasty and his writings on the qin zither, as well as on imperial Chinese painting and erotica.
A 1995 biography, now translated into English,
C. D. Barkman and H. de Vries-van der Hoeven,Dutch mandarin: the life and work of Robert Hans van Gulik (2018)
makes a fascinating read, at once sympathetic and dispassionate, and covering not just China and Japan but the many cultures where Van Gulik was posted during turbulent times.
And at a recent conference on the qin at SOAS, convened by the enthusiastic London Youlan qin society, I was glad to see the 2016 film
in the presence of Van Gulik’s granddaughter Marie-Anne Souloumiac. It’s far from a biopic, more a free-ranging fantasy—somewhat as imperial China was for Van Gulik and others like Arthur Waley. Here they introduce the film:
Indeed, Van Gulik was only able to make stays in China from 1936 to 1946. While his interests were broad, his character affable, and his lifestyle tactfully bohemian, he immersed himself deeply in the role of an imperial mandarin. For all his hedonism, his writings are full of meditations on impermanence.
Early life With his parents, Van Gulik’s early life was spent mostly in Dutch East Indies. As he recalled:
Father’s main orderly and groom was a Javanese sergeant who was a lover of the wayang, the ancient Javanese shadow-play. The puppets he had hung on the wall of his room caught my fancy at once (these stylized puppets constitute as a matter of fact one of the finest expressions of Javanese artistic genius) and prompted by me he began to relate to me the stories enacted on the shadow stage. The wayang thus became the dominating passion of my childhood. My parents knew that I expected no other birthday present than a new wayang puppet, and I built up a small collection of the main characters, with which I gave performances against a bedsheet hung across the room, and under the guidance of the Javanese groom.
So precocious was the young Robert that he wrote a substantial essay on wayang in 1921, aged 11! He also attended performances at village feasts, and (like Wang Shixiang in Beijing) enjoyed martial arts, kite-flying, and football.
I can’t help thinking of the accident of birth: what a contrast Van Gulik’s blessed life makes with his Chinese peasant contemporaries like household Daoist Li Peisen—who himself was luckier than most.
Back in Holland, while Van Gulik’s interests turned towards Chinese culture, he became familiar with an array of languages—even including Blackfoot (in whose music Bruno Nettl would also specialize). Still,
Although I had a certain facility for learning languages, my aim in doing so was primarily to come to know more about the people who used these languages, and not to become an accomplished philologue.
Studying Chinese and Japanese at the universities of Leiden and later Utrecht, Van Gulik also added Tibetan and Russian to his repertoire, continuing his studies of Sanskrit. At first the reader may find all this rather overwhelming—as with other prodigies of that generation like Laurence Picken’s mentor Walter Simon, or Harold Bailey at Cambridge.
With his family background, Van Gulik now naturally gravitated towards the Foreign Service, serving as diplomat first in Japan (1935–42) and then China (1943–46)—with a typically picaresque interlude as a secret agent in east Africa.
His first experience of China was a week-long stop-off in Harbin on his train journey towards Tokyo—just around the time that journalist Gareth Jones was murdered by “bandits” in Manchukuo. Though the book’s authors go on to refine it somewhat, van Gulik’s description encapsulates the shock of the idealistic scholar:
Harbin shocked and baffled me. It was the most dismal city in the dismal puppet-city of Manchukuo. I felt completely at a loss, also because my Chinese, Russian, and Japanese colloquial knowledge proved sadly inadequate [YAY!—SJ]. In the cavernous Hotel Modern where I was staying, suave Soviet officers (then still attached to the Chinese Eastern Railway) rubbed shoulders with grim-looking Japanese agents, in the squalid streets Chinese hooligans brawled with pauperized poor White Russians, under the indifferent eyes of slovenly clad, insolent Chinese soldiers, and smartly turned-out, contemptuous Japanese military police; the bars were crowded by blowzy Russian prostitutes, and the noisy Chinese women in the shops and in the streets were drab and ugly. Everywhere one was met with hostility and suspicion. Where were the refined Chinese scholars, writing poetry in their elegant miniature gardens, where their dainty damsels? It was a terrible disillusion.
His confusion continued on arriving in Tokyo. But amidst his busy hedonistic life there, as his spoken Japanese improved, he also took lessons in Chinese; and “every so often he would learn another language (Mongolian, Hindi, Korean)”. Perhaps we can derive very slight consolation from comments that even in later life his spoken Chinese accent was less than perfect. And I note with a certain pride that we can add Van Gulik to the list of Famous People with a Slight Speech Impediment.
Early encounters with the qin On his first visit to Beijing in September 1936 Van Gulik purchased an antique qin zither, taking lessons with Ye Shimeng. Back in Tokyo he found another Chinese qin player to instruct him further.
Much of the repute of the qin zither outside China may be attributed to Van Gulik’s publications (even if he called it a lute, for which organologists tend to forgive him!). His two books on the “lute” were completed as early as 1940—when he still had very little practical experience of the qin community.
John Thompson, whose amazing website remains basic to qin studies, has an instructive page on Van Gulik. Indeed, John has a cameo in Rob Rombout’s film. I describe my own ambivalent relationship with the qinhere.
Tokyo Van Gulik’s diplomatic work in Tokyo had become even harder after the Japanese launched their full-scale invasion of China in 1937, and then in 1940 with the German occupation of Holland. He intervened to forestall an anti-semitic move in Japan—back in Holland, his brother would help Jews to escape.
In summer 1939 he was able to pursue his sinological interests in Shanghai. But in 1940 he lost his entire collection of books, paintings, and objets d’art after sending them to Batavia for safe-keeping. Like Li Shiyu and his collection of precious scrolls, he simply began again.
On a trip to Beijing in December that year, his first qin master Ye Shimeng having died in 1937, he pursued his tuition with Guan Zhonghang.
His diplomatic work became ever more urgent with the spread of the war to Indochina and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He wrote a detailed report on extreme nationalist parties in Japan. A fortnight after the surrender of Dutch East Indies, Van Gulik still managed to order qin strings from Beijing (indeed, as a baroque fiddler, strings are a topic that I take to heart). In July 1942 the legation was evacuated, sailing to Portuguese east Africa. There, apart from his energetic undercover activities, he began to learn Swahili and Arabic while continuing his library studies. Travelling widely, he found the experience (and, as ever, the women) enchanting. Meanwhile the tide in north Africa turned in favour of the Allies.
Chongqing 1943–46 With much of the heartland of China now occupied by the Japanese, intellectuals and artists flocked to Chongqing, stronghold of the Nationalists in their uneasy truce with the Communist forces based in Yan’an in Shaanbei further north. Van Gulik was now to take up a post as first secretary to the embassy in Chongqing. On his tortuous journey by way of Delhi in 1943, he became acquainted with the great Joseph Needham, then working for the British Embassy.
In between taking shelter from bombing raids, he took part keenly in the activities of the Tianfeng qin society, and sometimes played Chinese chess with the mystically-inclined John Blofeld. He met Shui Shifang, who soon became his wife; they went on to have four children.
The very evening I arrived in Chongqing, Van Gulik and his wife had arranged a dinner-party for a number of Chinese musicians, the Needhams and myself. Liang Tsai-ping, Zha Fuxi, and Xu Yuanbai were all present…
Laurence too was immediately captivated by the sound of the qin:
There was no music like it! I bought a qin, made under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai, and began to take lessons. I played guqin every day. In England, I had always enjoyed a daily ration of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues; I felt it no loss practicing guqin instead.
Laurence also became a member of the Chongqing qin society, and bought a qin, made in 1935 by Li Shaotang under the supervision of Xu Yuanbai. He asked Van Gulik to stamp his seal on the back.
I’m honoured that Laurence bequeathed this qin to me.
And do read the CHIME story of how Van Gulik made Laurence “a sort of emissary” when he visited Pei Tiexia—and his two Tang-dynasty instruments!—in Chengdu. For an account of the tragic fates of Pei Tiexia and Pu Xuezhai, see here.
Aftermath of occupation Van Gulik’s insights into the wartime situation in China were tempered by a colonial desire to restore Dutch power in the East Indies. And he made no efforts to engage in covert diplomacy with the Communists. He learned of the Japanese surrender while on a plane to the USA for meetings with the embassy and the State Department, and once there he advised strongly against the removal of the emperor. During his month-long trip he found time to visit libraries and museums, and to confer with scholars.
Talking of the USA, another fine contributor to Rob Rombout’s film is the New York antiquarian bookseller and litterateur Henry Wessells, also a Van Gulik aficionado (for his tribute, see here). In the film he reads from his novel A funeral procession, which features a fantasy Van Gulik—reminding me of the cortège Mahler heard in New York that inspired him to write the finale of his 10th symphony.
As the Dutch embassy relocated from Chongqing to Nanjing in 1946, Van Gulik was recalled to the Netherlands. But first he paid another visit to Beijing, at last meeting his distinguished father-in-law, as well as qin master Guan Pinghu.
There he also visited An Shilin, errant abbot of the White Cloud Temple—shortly before irate priests burned him to death on his return from performing a yankou ritual.  The character of An Shilin was to become the basis for The haunted monastery in Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series (see below).
In 1946 the Van Gulik family spent two weeks in England, visiting London, Oxford, and Cambridge.
Interlude: fate and nostalgia Once again we come up against the 1949 barrier (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.371–4): alas, neither Van Gulik nor Picken were able to continue visiting China after “Liberation”. This, of course, was a common pattern among Western sinologists right until the 1980s’ reforms.
Van Gulik was unable to serve there since Western nations like the Netherlands had only chargés d’affaires in the new PRC, a post too high-ranking for his status; later in Kuala Lumpur he even declined the Chinese ambassador’s offer of a trip as guest of the government “because he had no wish to revisit China where so many of his best friends had perished.”
And Picken too demurred from attempting to visit, since “I didn’t want to return to a country where I couldn’t move about freely. Travelling would have been possible only on a sort of Intourist basis.” His belated return in 1990 followed an interval of fifty years.
Golden-age nostalgia is a chronic conceit, that has also recently become increasingly fashionable in China. Those gatherings in the 1940s, before the convulsive change of dynasty, are now adorned by a numinous patina.
One curious absentee from accounts of Van Gulik’s time in Chongqing is the incomparable Yang Yinliu, who was also active there at the time. With Yang’s deep erudition on Chinese music (both elite and folk, and both history and current practice), and his own studies of the qin, they would have got on splendidly. Indeed, like Picken, Yang had a qin made by Xu Yuanbai in 1935.
In Chongqing, Van Gulik and Picken had spent time with the pipa player and artist Yang Dajun (1913–87) (see here, here, here, and here). Van Gulik even repaired Yang’s pipa for him. Early on my first trip to China in 1986 I visited him in Beijing, at Laurence’s suggestion; but alas even if my language skills had been up to it, I was still too callow to ask him for details on his life before and after Liberation. But such slender silken threads bind us with the past…
With Yang Dajun, Beijing 1986.
Long after Van Gulik’s visit to the ill-fated abbot An Shilin, in Beijing in the early 1990s I also visited the White Cloud Temple to consult the far more upright priest Min Zhiting—great authority on Daoist ritual, and also a qin player.
And now I succumb to nostalgia myself, recalling sessions in the 1980s with qin elders like Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhaoji, Lin Youren, and Yao Gongbai. Even today grand masters continue to assemble at qin gatherings.
One may also be nostalgic for the days of the Renaissance man (even the gendered term is quaintly outmoded) and the polymath orientalist. While such enthusiasts may still be found even in this age of dour professionalized academia, there remains a gulf between the classical sinologist and the modern ethnographer.
As Li Manshan observes at the end of our film, “things ain’t what they used to be” (今非昔比). Indeed, Old Lord Li decorates coffins with images of the qin (see film, from 18.46), although he (like most rural dwellers) has only seen it on TV in the last decade. And while very remote from Van Gulik’s refined taste for the amateur art of calligraphy, Li Manshan is always busy writing characters for ritual use (film, from 10.44).
Still pursuing this unlikely link, Van Gulik, like Li Manshan, was a chain-smoker. I’m amused to learn that, not entirely bound by Confucian taboos, he was wont to allow fag-ash to drop onto his precious antique qin—like my violin teacher Hugh Maguire onto his Strad, and Irish folk musicians.
After China From 1946, as people worldwide recovered painfully from wartime devastation, Van Gulik embarked on to a succession of posts in The Hague, Washington DC, India, the Middle East, and Malaya, as well as more extended stays in Japan—his Chinese wife gradually overcoming her understandable reluctance to live there. For their son’s letter of sympathy to the Czechoslovak amassador after the crushing of the Prague Spring, see here.
Thus after the age of 36 Van Gulik never returned to China. While he had relished life there, interacting with various types of people, his main passions (like many sinologists and indeed lovers of “high art”) were always antiquarian. Notwithstanding Nigel Barley’s caveat about “being accepted” (here, under “Rapport”), Van Gulik’s insider status has long been fêted both in China and Japan. Apart from important intelligence work, his formidable reputation allowed him to privilege his scholarly pursuits over routine diplomatic chores, his eccentric lifestyle largely tolerated by his superiors.
For all his keen insights into the situation on the ground, his political horizon was limited, as the book observes. With Communist victory imminent in China, he lamented that the USA had not helped Chiang Kai-shek attack them earlier, but commented that the conflict
is not one of ideological differences, it is actually the struggle for supremacy between two rival power groups, both shaped in the same totalitarian mould and both relying on the nationalist sentiments of the Chinese people. Communism in China is not a foreign doctrine to be imposed on the people by force, it links up with how the Chinese have lived for centuries.
He also observed,
Chinese culture is in the Chinese blood and will endure for as long as there are Chinese. Whatever they may say about Communism, it is not totally new in China. Earning money for money’s sake has always been regarded with the greatest contempt in China. Down the centuries, China has offered everyone equal chances, and the important industries have been state property.
In Hong Kong, and later in Kuala Lumpur, he took part in gatherings with qin players. In India he pursued his studies of Tantrism. Back in Holland he renewed his affinity with wayang and gamelan, chatting with Jaap Kunst. He continued to enjoy visits to the cinema, and (like Mozart) playing billiards. In Kuala Lumpur he developed a passion for gibbons, keeping them as pets. He relished haiku and limericks.
Meanwhile in the West, oriental mysticism was coming into vogue, as people like Gary Snyder and Alan Watts began to spread the word.
Judge Dee Most captivating are Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty and based on the real character of Di Renjie. Rob Rombout’s film includes suitably naff scenes of the Judge Dee park in Taiyuan.
Van Gulik had taken an 18th-century Chinese novel about Di Renjie with him when the Dutch legation was evacuated from Tokyo in 1942, and set to work on translating it in Washington DC in 1947, publishing this first volume in 1949. He now embarked on a whole series of beautiful novels on Judge Dee’s exploits—some written during his time in Lebanon during the civil war.
Agatha Christie praised The Chinese maze murders, and the series became popular in translation in China. For more, see here; for an internal chronology and Judge Dee’s postings around China, here.
Naturally, since Judge Dee is Van Gulik’s alter ego, he makes him a qin player.
I’m not so sure that the State Department’s erstwhile choice of the novels as “the best possible introduction to the background to Chinese life” was entirely practical—though given my own early taste for Tang culture, I’m a fine one to talk. Anyway, for what it’s worth, soon after reaching China in 1986, inspired by Van Gulik and Picken I avidly began learning the qin; but my own interests transferred to living folk traditions of music and ritual. At first, still seeking vestiges of elite culture, my rural forays were driven by the Confucian concept of “when the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“.
But as studies of China continued expanding in scope beyond classical sinology (political campaigns, famine, gender studies, migration, and so on), I was soon pursuing broader ethnographic (and modern) concerns, hanging out with household ritual specialists, spirit mediums, outcast shawm players, and vagrants. Hence my gradual estrangement from the tiny, rarefied world of the qin, despite my admiration for my mentors there like Yuan Quanyou and Lin Youren.
Towards the end of his life Van Gulik was planning keenly for cartoon and puppet versions of the Judge Dee stories. Rob Rombout’s film also features a vignette from Frédéric Lenormand, author of a further series of novels focusing on Judge Dee’s wives.
Art and erotica Van Gulik’s later life was also devoted substantially to the study of imperial Chinese art and erotica. On the latter he published two major works, Erotic colour prints of the Ming period and Sexual life in ancient China.
He had carried out impressive practical research on the “arts of clouds and rain” during his bachelor days, notably in a succession of more or less transactional liaisons with female companions in Tokyo—hinting again that Philip Larkin may not have been entirely correct to claim that sexual intercourse was invented in 1963.
Quaintly, Van Gulik wrote the more explicit passages in Latin, as they were not intended “to be read by all and sundry”—although even he couldn’t devise a system to prevent the riff-raff from enjoying the illustrations. Diligently, he also documents the array of dildos available to the ancient Chinese, a theme probed further by Li Ling in the film.
Meanwhile his health was declining. Though ever keen to explore new cultures, his last years, apart from another stay in Japan (and Korea) from 1965 to 1967, were spent mainly in the Netherlands, where he succumbed to cancer, too young, aged 57.
* * *
What an extraordinary life. While making allowances for Van Gulik’s background and tastes, his story suggests tantalising perspectives on changing strands in sinology, and how the scholar or amateur might engage with, or withdraw from, the Real World—regarding ancient and modern China, and further afield.
With thanks to Marie-Anne Souloumiac and Cheng Yu
 For refs., see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, p.226; also e.g. Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, pp. 259–301; here, here, and here.
Tampopo (Juzo itami, 1985), “the first ramen western”, is one of the all-time great genre-defying films.
It’s a profound, exuberant, nuanced meditation on food, sex, dedication, and life, with a succession of wonderful personalities led by truckdriver Gorō as he helps widowed Tampopo to perfect the noodles (“sincere, but lacking in character”) that she serves in her struggling little restaurant. Here’s a trailer:
Every single scene is beautifully crafted, but vignettes include
the French restaurant scene
an etiquette class for women on how to eat spaghetti properly.
the hobo scene (shades of Steinbeck’s Tortilla flat and Sweet Thursday, and indeed Hanshan), moving from veneration of the master to slapstick, and sequeing into
the most erotic scene ever. Breaking an egg will never be the same again (nor, for that matter, will the Mahler Adagietto—throughout, the choice of music is brilliant).
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 memorise 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 “cesarean 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. For impressionistically-translated Italian guidebooks, see Towers and wells.
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.
While I constantly stress vocal liturgy, the shengguan wind ensemble is also a major aspect of the ritual soundscape in north China. The role of the sheng in the ensemble is somewhat akin to that of the baroque continuo. Like a harpsichord before a Bach cantata, the sheng needs regular fine-tuning in advance of performance. The term diansheng (dotting the sheng) derives from the adding of a drop of wax to the reed to tune it, but includes general maintenance; played for long rituals, with their sound-chambers susceptible to moisture, wear-and-tear on the sheng is considerable. Musicians may tune individual instruments themselves, and any sheng player can do it after a fashion, but it is a difficult job to do well, and a well-tuned sheng section is an important aspect of a good ensemble. As with the work of the luthier worldwide, it is a slow and meticulous task (for a loving tribute to instruments and instrument-making in Irish music, see Last night’s fun).
Occupational Daoist bands in north China, like the Li family in Yanggao, tend to maintain their own sheng; with quite a small personnel, they rarely have more than four to tune. Players can all carry out basic repairs, and in between the many ritual visits to the soul hall over the day they busy themselves in the scripture hall making fine adjustments to tuning. This is among the many practical skills that Daoists have to learn. Still, Li Bin takes all the band’s sheng to fine maker Gao Yong once a year for a thorough overhaul.
On the Hebei plain, amateur village ritual associations tend to be much larger, often using as many as twenty sheng players—so occupational sheng-repairers are much in demand. Most associations invite a sheng-repairer to tune all their sheng systematically two or three times a year, or before their major outings, at least before the New Year rituals. The Zhaobeikou association had its sheng repaired at least three times a year, once “before the lake freezes over”, again before the New Year rituals, and also before the river lanterns ritual of the 7th moon. Some associations may be reluctant to spend money on inviting a repairer—although in some villages in the early reform era payment for this comes out of the funds of the village committee. Around 1995 it cost 5–10 yuan to tune one sheng; most associations had at least eight sheng to tune. Sheng-repairers were making a good living.
When a ritual association buys new sheng, musicians take them to be tuned (pinsheng 品笙) to the standard pitch of their own association, taking the che gong of their yunluo or tuning them to the lowest note of their dizi flute.
So apart from their vital musical services to the village ritual associations, the sheng tuners act as a unifying factor in communication, an informal rather than institutional link. Experienced observers of musical life over the whole area, they serve not only ritual associations but also shawm bands and opera troupes, and they know a lot more about local ensembles than any cultural cadre we have met. They often go on tour throughout the villages, but ensembles may also take their sheng to the craftsman’s home. Again, most craftsmen still come from long hereditary traditions.
Below I introduce some of the more renowned sheng-repairers and makers around the Hebei plain.
Bazhou, Xiongxian, Jinghai Back in 1989 our very first clue to the ubiquity of ritual associations on the Hebei plain came from Bazhou county. Based in Xin’an town, the Qi family was among many lineages of sheng-repairers active around Beijing, Tianjin, and the countryside just south.
We met Qi Youzhi (b.1920), from a long line of sheng-repairers in his lineage. His grandfather Qi Baoshan had worked for the imperial palace lamas in Beijing. Before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Qi Youzhi’s father Qi Lanpu used to play sheng in the Tianqiao district of Beijing. Later, through contacts with palace eunuchs, he learnt to repair sheng, building a reputation with temple musicians. His older brother Qi Lanting and his oldest son Qi Youcai also took up the business, and they also repaired sheng in Tianjin.
Qi Youzhi (right) with Xue Yibing, Xin’an 1989.
They used to go out to find work repairing sheng, making the rounds of all the Buddhist and Daoist temples. They also tuned sheng throughout the villages. Twice a year Qi Youzhi used to go on a long trek by foot to Beijing with his uncle, staying in villages on the way and tuning sheng wherever there was work. After the 1949 Liberation, Qi Youzhi could no longer find work in Beijing, since priests were returning to lay life and temples were now largely inactive—but significantly there was still plenty of work repairing sheng for the village ritual associations. Indeed, this work continued until the Four Cleanups in 1964. By 1980 Qi Youzhi was 61 sui, and, despite the revival, gradually became less active.
Nearby in Gaoqiao village—whose Buddhist-transmitted ritual association is so outstanding (playlist track 8, and here)—the Shang familysheng factory is a long-established cottage industry. A local source claims that they too were repairing sheng for palace groups in Beijing as early as the Xianfeng era (1850–61), and that they made their first sheng in 1853. By the 1980s they were making sheng for the Hongsheng instrument factory in Beijing and Tianjin; by 1993 they had even started making shō for Japanese gagaku. In 1995 they were charging 140–180 yuan for a new sheng. The head Shang Xuezhi was often on tour, mending sheng for ritual associations (and also shawm bands and opera groups) over a wide area; he kept a three-volume list of his clients, wonderful evidence of the continuing vitality of the associations.
InXiongxian, another excellent sheng repairer was Fan Huilai, based in Gegezhuang (see photo above; below, some of his equipment). By 1993 he was visiting about sixty associations every year (including Catholic groups in Hejian county), charging 5 yuan to repair each sheng. As he pointed out, most associations had about eight sheng to repair, but some, like Quantou on the Baiyangdian lake, had as many as eighteen.
Still in Xiongxian, there was a local saying: “from Nanjing to Beijing, the Shao family of Gaogezhuang are good at reparing sheng”. They came twice a year to Hanzhuang to repair the association’s sheng, tuning eight sheng for 100 yuan. Hanzhuang has a sheng said to be from 1929, with “made by Shao Guanghui” incised on one of the reeds; they had another even older one with a wooden bowl.
In Jinghai further east, Lesser Huangzhuang (also with its own ritual association) had an instrument factory specializing in sheng. They had been making sheng since before the Japanese occupation. In the 1950s the business was collectivized; in 1968, while assistant chief of the village revolutionary committee, Li restarted the workshop. Since the 1980s it had split into eight (!) household industries. One of their itinerant repairers was Tao Laicheng, who regularly visited the Zhangzhuang association in Bazhou, for instance.
Sheng parts, East Jiangcun, Renqiu county. Photo: Music Research Institute, 1993.
Xushui and Yixian In my article on ritual associations of Xushui county I introduced Qingmiaoying, another village long famed throughout the region for its hereditary makers and repairers of sheng mouth-organs. Several groups in this western region of the plain have fine old sheng made by the Qingmiaoying craftsmen, and all spoke of them with respect. In fact, since the technique of instrument-making has suffered, old instruments may survive better than new ones, and their timbre is much valued by musicians.
The Altar of Accumulated Altruism, East Yuzhuang 1995.
In 1995 we found Yao Haijun (b. c1965) at Qingmiaoying. His great-grandfather Yao Leping died in the Cultural Revolution; he still ran a stall at the county-town market in the 1950s. Leping’s son Hongru (b. c1914), and grandsons Xinghua (b. c1930) and Xingli, also took up the trade. In Dingxing county nearby, the Yishangying association had some fine sheng made by Yao Jiqing in 1951. Yao Haijun was letting his 10-sui-old son watch while he repaired sheng, hoping he would take it up too.
Yao Haijun was charging a dozen or so yuan to tune one sheng. Associations were bringing him over a hundred sheng every year to tune; in the 12th moon someone came virtually every day. He tuned a lot of them for free, because of long-standing good guanxi with the associations, and he wasn’t mercenary.
Another sheng-repairer in Qingmiaoying, Wang Qinghe, had learned from Yao Leping, and lived to the age of over 100 sui. His son, known as Tiger Wang (Wang Laohu, over 60 sui in 1993), continued the business; the Gaoluo association used to go to him on occasion right until 1991.
Just north in Yixian county, Li Kungui, a member of one of the four ritual associations in Shenshizhuang, was a sheng repairer active within a smaller radius. His father also repaired sheng, having learnt from one Zhang Rui. Li Kungui also mended sheng for the village’s East association, but the West association has its own sheng-mender. In this case, Li has been responsible for a certain local standardization in pitch. The fixed pitch of the Upper Huanghao association used to be D, but he changed their pitch to E for them to match that of other groups in the area—such as East and West Baijian, as well as Lower Huanghao and Mawuzhuang.
A nice story illustrates musicians’ awareness of the dangers of sheng-repairers going on tour to other villages. Senior musician Fu Zhongren (c1898–1983) had a comprehensive knowledge of the repertoire of “holy pieces”, but realizing that Li Kungui used to go round other villages repairing sheng, he wouldn’t teach him too many pieces in case he taught them to other associations!
Further south Before the Japanese invasion in 1937 a sheng-repairer called Du, from Dujiazhuang in Shenxian county quite far south, walked to Gaoluo every winter to tune sheng for all four ritual associations there. Villagers said the maker was called Du Furui. We also heard of him in Yixian county: near the Western tombs of the Qing emperors, cultural cadres had found some old sheng with “Dujiazhuang in Shenzhou” incised on them.
In Jingxian county still further southeast, another renowned sheng-making lineage was the Wang family from Yangzhuang,  which went back some five generations. They were versatile, making many other instruments too; and like other such cottage industries, they have moved with the times, supplying instruments for urban professional troupes.
Since they are itinerant, sheng-repairers may also transmit the paraliturgical music, either directly or by acting as intermediaries. Two early transmitters of the “southern” style of shengguan music in Xushui were sheng-repairers, the Daoist priest Wang Leyun (fl. 1860) and Feng Daya (fl. 1920s), both from further south.
I look forward to reading material on sheng-repairers in regions like south Hebei, where shengguan is also a major component of the rituals performed by household Daoists.
I have discussed sheng-repairers at some length, both to illustrate continuity with pre-Liberation traditions and to suggest the practical material basis behind ritual culture in local society. Though there are no longer stalls at town markets, village repairers still still do good business making the rounds of rural ritual ensembles, as well as maintaining their contacts with urban outlets and taking part in innovations in instrument design. Sheng-repairers, like the assistants in funeral shops, are likely to be a more useful source of local knowledge than cultural cadres.
 See Zhang Zhentao’s masterly study, Shengguan yinweide yuelüxue yanjiu [Temperamentology of sheng pipe positions] (Ji’nan: Shandong wenyi cbs, 2002). For north Shanxi, note also the work of Chen Kexiu and Jing Weigang. For sheng factories in a changing society, see e.g. http://www.onesheng.cn/news/102721.html.  See e.g. Yu Xuehong 于学洪, “Shengwang shijia” 笙王世家, Yueqi 1984/5 and 1984/6.
His 1972 autobiography In my own way is complemented by
Monica Furlong, Zen effects: the life of Alan Watts, and
David Stuart, Alan Watts: the rise and decline of the ordained shaman of the counterculture. 
Watts was blessed with extraordinary mentors throughout his youth. His accounts of drab suburbia in the early chapters of In my own way are worthy of Betjeman. In the distinguished British tradition of alienation, he reflects on his early exposure to Christianity: “on the whole I am ashamed of this culture”, and “I could not make out why such pleasant people espoused such a fearsome and boring religion”. Yet while deploring the “asinine poems set to indifferent tunes”, “wretched bombastic, moralistic and maudlin nursery rhymes”, he goes on to appreciate their charm. He would have loved Dud’s Psalm.
“the sermons of the clergy—bleated or sonorously boomed […]—conveyed nothing beyond the emotional energies of their funny voices, which all of us used to mock and mimic”. 
Still, he did well to note:
Strangely enough, young people in Japan have the same feeling about the atmosphere of their parents’ Buddhism—the atmosphere which is, to me, enchanting and magical with booming gong-bells and deep-throated and unintelligible sutrachanting. To them all this is kurai—a word which means deep, dark, dank musty, gloomy, and sad. (p.46; cf. pp.421–22)
Such dispassionate observation needs taking on board while observing Chinese rituals (cf. my post on Geertz).
Watts made trenchant comments on the “ritualized brutality” of British education and the teaching of history (“propaganda for the British Empire and the Protestant religion”). His view of schools and universities as “production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine” may be par for the anti-establishment course of the time, but In This Day and Age his mission to retune values is worth revisiting.
Railing against God and his [sic] role in Europe’s bloody history, he had to escape, taking refuge in the more “amiable” tradition of Buddhism, seeking a mystical depth his guilt-ridden religious upbringing couldn’t offer. Through Christmas Humphreys he became immersed in the Zen of D.T. Suzuki. His early fascination with the Mystic East was nurtured both by his mother’s “oriental treasures” (he relished the clarity, transparency, and spaciousness of landscape paintings), and—plausibly—with Fu Manchu (for me it was The inn of the sixth happiness!). He got to know Nigel Watkins, whose bookshop he relished long before me (In my own way, pp.123–4)—aware that a lot of such literature was “superstitious trash”, he appreciated Watkins’s “perfect discrimination”. He wrote his first pamphlet, An outline of Zen Buddhism, while still a pupil at King’s School, Canterbury. Among many meetings with remarkable men [sic, as ever], he was first introduced to Krishnamurti in 1936. In 1937 he met Eleanor Everett, daughter of Ruth Fuller Everett (herself later married to the Zen priest Sokei-an Sasaki before his death in 1945); they married the following year, moving to the USA as war loomed.
Without any contradiction, Watts’s escape from the grey conformity of suburban Kent also made him “an unrepentant sensualist”. It’s all the more remarkable that he went on to train as an Episcopal priest, becoming ordained in 1945; at the time “it seemed to be the most appropriate context for doing what was in me to do, in Western society”. But unable to reconcile this “ill-fitting suit of clothes” with his inner beliefs, he withdrew from the church in 1950, and after a divorce he moved on to California. Of course, deploring missionary zeal, he was always free-floating—the ultimate trendy vicar, eagerly imbibing all the psychedelic trappings the burgeoning alternative scene had to offer from the prime position of his Cali refuge. Never one for institutions, he had an on-off relationship with academia, becoming what he called a “philosophical entertainer”—guru to the counterculture.
Watts’s 1957 book The way of Zen (1957) is a remarkable introduction to the whole subject. As he notes there:
During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism.
So—just like sexual intercourse (on which he would also have much to say, based on avid participant observation—see e.g. Nature, Man and Woman )—we clearly have to backdate the Western craze for Zen rather before 1963.
In parallel with Gary Snyder, Watts trod his own path, but his admiration for Snyder is clear, evinced in his writings such as the 1959 Beat Zen square Zen and Zen. And for all their discipline, they shared a delight in language and humour:
The task and delight of poetry is […] to eff the ineffable, to screw the inscrutable.
And he even relished Brazil’s balletic “gaieté d’esprit” in the 1970 World Cup! He also left a rich archive of audio recordings—many of them are on YouTube, even if some tip over into self-help or Thought for the day.
Also in England (and with a similar background in his Anglican church choir), the translator John Minford became hooked on Laozi, The Dharma bums, and later the work of van Gulik on the qin zither, as he recounts in this fine zeitgeist article. His early fascination with Chinese mysticism was less challenged than mine was to be, as I came to experience the spit-and-sawdust of folk Daoist ritual practice.
* * *
If the hippies were predated by the beats, then before them both came R.H. Blyth(1898–1964, when authors might still have unscrewable initials rather than personal forenames; see also here), to whose work I was drawn by Alan Watts. Blyth completed his Zen in English literature and oriental classics while interned in Japan in 1941.
I was far more amenable to the oriental classics (notably haiku, his main exhibit) than to all the Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but I got the point that enlightenment didn’t necessarily have to be sought in remote oriental mountain hermitages—as the Daoist and Zen masters indeed remind us. Blyth was also a great Bach lover.
He wrote a whole further series of books on haiku, as well as on humour in Asian and English literature—main exhibit for the former being senryū, humorous counterpart to haiku. He would have enjoyed “the first English haiku”, not to mention this limerick.
Apart from Alan Watts, other devotees of Blyth’s work included Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and Christmas Humphreys (another challenging dinner party), all of whom I admired in turn. For Steinbeck’s and Salinger’s absorption in oriental mysticism, see here.
* * *
And before Blyth… there was EugenHerrigel, whose 1948 book Zen in the art of archery was based on his studies in Japan in the 1920s! His later membership of the Nazi party is less advertised (see here); see also The Celibidache mystique.
Apart from this whole fascination with Zen and Daoism, it was the characters provided in The way of Zen and Zen in English literature and oriental classics that led me to study Chinese at Cambridge, and eventually to read between the lines of dour field reports on local Chinese folk ritual, as well as seeking the unassuming wisdom of Li Manshan. As I became involved with such grass-roots religious activity among poor rural Chinese communities, documenting their fortunes under Maoism, I came to feel somewhat uncharitable towards traces of lofty New-Age hippy-style abstraction in studies of Chinese religion; but now that I revisit the work of such trail-blazing sages, I’m not just nostalgic, I sincerely find much to admire.
 Among many online sites, notehttp://www.alanwatts.com  He also had a fine line in limericks, often religious—work this one out, a footnote to the Salisbury (Sarum) rite (In my own way, p.67), rather in the vein of Myles’s tribute to Ezra £ (and there’s another early orientalist!):
There was a young fellow of Salisbury
A notorious halisbury-scalisbury
He went about Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the vicar compelled him to walisbury.
One of my great inspirations via teenage excursions to oriental bookshops was the great Gary Snyder(b.1930). Though his path puts me to shame, he was a great hero of mine (along with Pierre Boulez—looking back, I see this was not entirely normal in suburban London, however experimental the age).
Snyder was always more serious than most of his beat contemporaries. Studying anthropology, he developed an affinity for Native American cultures. As he became immersed in Zen, he began learning Chinese and Japanese (indeed, just at the right moment to benefit from the disturbing Teach yourself Japanese!).
All the while he was writing poetry, part of the beat generation with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, taking part in the seminal 1955 reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco. That year he made the first of several study periods in Japan over the next fourteen years, living as a “de facto monk”.
In 1958 and 1959 he made (almost) the first translations of theCold Mountain poemsby the numinous 8th-century Zen recluse Hanshan (see his reflections here). At the other end of his life, his poem Go now is an unflinching tribute to his wife in her final days.
He has deepened his early studies by going on to lead a whole life unobtrusively based on Zen, without parading it or getting hung up on, well, anything. Living in harmony with nature in a series of hermitages, his environmental activism has complemented his occasional jobs as seaman, firewatcher, and logger (among a wealth of articles on him, I like this, and this). Now I come to think of it, I’d like to introduce him to Li Manshan—they’re both conscientious, unfussy, living on and with the land.
Snyder made a suitable paragon for Alan Watts (another guru of the age) in his 1959 pamphlet Beat Zen square Zen and Zen, a generous critique of both the Western craze for Zen of the 1950s and the ascetic rule-bound tradition in Japan. Citing Jack Kerouac’s portrayal of him (as “Japhy Ryder”) in The dharma bums, Watts’s warmest words are for Snyder; despite his rigorous training in Japan, he transcended both the “spiritual snobbism and artistic preciousness” of square Zen and the spaced-out bohemian scene of beat Zen. Watts’ tributes in his autobiography In my own way also hit the nail on the head:
Gary is tougher, more disciplined, more physically competent than I, but he embodies those virtues without rubbing them in. (p.309)
He is like a wiry Chinese sage with high cheekbones, twinkling eyes, and a thin beard, and the recipe for his character requires a mixture of Oregon woodsman, seaman, Amerindian shaman, Oriental scholar, San Francisco hippie, and swinging monk, who takes tough discipline with a light heart. (p.439)
From Snyder’s Cold Mountain poems:
In a tangle of cliffs, I chose a place—
Bird paths, but no trails for me.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here —how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
“What’s the use of all that noise and money?”
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the word’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
The splendid Jiayang Fan recently found her thoughtful TV interview on the flapdoodle over the 19th Party Congress and Uncle Xi subjected to an impertinent appraisal from an unreconstructed commentator on Chinese Twitter. As she comments,
My fav Chinese social media criticism: I can’t trust anything Jiayang Fan says or writes due to the ugliness of her necklace collection.
Perhaps the Twitter pundit might consider this entirely representative sample of the Chinese population more trustworthy, with their tasteful neckwear:
Of course, this photo doesn’t tell the whole story, since also modestly “holding up half the sky” are a charming and tastefully attired Red Detachment of Women silently and obligingly serving tea—so that’s all right then.
While one hopes there was an element of tongue-in-cheek about the Chinese comment, it evokes the fatuous appraisals of female politicians’ accessorising favoured by the Daily Mail. Perhaps Ms Fan might try wearing a full burqa next time, to further obviate any criticism of the shade of her eye-liner—even if it arouses the ire of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson. Gah, choices…
Another option might be to adopt the old ruse of Japanese komusō 虛無僧 monks playing the shakuhachi end-blown flute—which they might also use as a weapon. I note that many komusō were spies for the Shogunate, and some were merely disguised as priests; and they were abolished in 1871 for “meddling in earthly affairs and not the emptiness of being”. Anyway, it beats me how wearing a basket on your head might be considered an effective disguise, but hey, maybe I should stick to Chinese culture.
A judgement such as the Twitter comment may seem to be based merely on grounds of taste, but it shades into still more fatuous opinions on decency. Since we’re not holding our breaths for wise guidance on dress-codes from the Chinese or US leaderships, study sessions may be in order—based on the Everyday Sexism project, Hadley Freeman (note her fine article “Why not just ban women?”; Hell, Tweety McTangerine could have worn a mankini for his inauguration—we couldn’t possibly think less of him), perennial discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s hour, and comedians like the great Bridget Christie. That’s just a random sample of UK media—not to mention a wealth of research and websites on the beleaguered status of women in China.
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!
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 the sheng not as a 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.
Home base is the various do–so (he-che, in gongchesolfeggio) 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. With frequent use the pipes are soon gilded with a patina where the fingers have worn them down.
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 Yong in Gaoshantun for a thorough overhaul.
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 that 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 guanzioboe 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 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.
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.
I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life. 
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 explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk; see also here) 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 realise 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 (see here).
Having assisted him with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. The reason for my first visit was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to recreate 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 historical musicology to one side 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; cf. Dissolving boundaries), it reminded me that while Chinese and Western scholars have described the scales and macro-structure of Chinese instrumental music, few have done any serious analysis of its melodic progression—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 analysing 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.  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”  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 remained committed to the qin zither after his initial studies 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 his chamber music gatherings, I have another cherished memory of Laurence 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 Laurence’s memorial service:
Music from the Tang court: Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)
Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the Tang court music of the early 8th century. 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 1986 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 Korean 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…
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), then allow me to recommend Teach yourself Japanese, by the reputable Messrs Dunn and Yanada.
First published in 1958, it’s 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! (For Effle, click here, with further fine links; for another wacky linguistic fantasy, here.)
Let’s begin with
There is a hat on your head.
Gosh! Thanks for telling me! It all seems to start off so innocently. But a hint of the sinister turn that 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:
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.
The fact is, this book is peculiar. Death is not going to be enough—by Lesson 13 we have to master suicide:
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?”
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.
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 (alsoavailable 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 shtick 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.)
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?