Chicago blues

blues

In The blaze of obscurity Clive James (R.I.P.) compounds his paltry efforts to represent Japanese culture on film with a candid and fatuous account of filming a blues session for his Postcard from Chicago:

But Chicago’s expatriated European art would have been an unduly quiet story if it had not been offset by something noisier, and our candidate for that was the blues. Unfortunately, much as I loved jazz, I had only a limited tolerance for the kind of blues number in which the singer sings the same not very inspired line twice (or even worse, three times) before capping it with a third (or even worse, fourth) not very inspired line, followed by a peremptory wail from from that least disarming of all jazz instruments, the amplified harmonica. I spent a long, harrowing night in a blues club where I had to look fascinated by the cacophonous remains of a famous blues shouter called something like Slow Dirt Buncombe (I remember his real name but his lawyer might still be alive) while he gave a string of examples of how a song with less than a minute of material could be stretched to thirty minutes if you made the same line and stanza sound different by mangling them in a different way each time. Yelled at cataclysmic amplification, “Well mah woman she done leff me” was a recurring motif. “No bloody wonder” was the obvious continuation, but he never sang that. Thanks to the unnecessary volume—the sure sign of inadequate music—I was never completely clear what he was singing, but I could rely on a maximum air of drama when he pulled back from the microphone, slanted his polished ebony head to shield it from the blaze of the heavenly splendour he had created, and suddenly leaned forward again to give a long blast on his hellishly resonant harmonica. The desirable and necessary ideal of racial equality should, in my view, allow us to say that there is the occasional blues artist whose parade of desolation amounts to an acute pain in the neck. Slow Dirt Buncombe was one of these. Unfortunately Nobby, the deaf sound-man who was once again on the case, caught every line of Slow Dirt’s act with perfect fidelity, and some of the results got as far as the final cut, accompanied by cutaways of my enchanted, lying face.

Maybe he was just unlucky—although one wonders why the BBC scouts wouldn’t be able to find a good band. And sure, it’s a typically funny account. But rather than making an effort to identify what it is that makes blues so effective and using his own gift for words to encapsulate it, he chose here to disguise his incomprehension beneath glib cliché.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of fine documentaries about Chicago blues, like this:

Not to mention more general histories, such as:

Or Blues America (here and here). And of course there’s a vast treasury of live performances online.

So to exorcise Clive James’s experience, here’s the great Junior Wells with Buddy Guy in 1970:

 * * *

Still, despite Clive James’s cultural blind spots, I am eternally grateful for his priceless evocation of Barbara Cartland’s face:

Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.

Some jazz fiddling

Having given a little introduction to some styles of world fiddling (see also fiddles tag), I must confess that I often find jazz violin underwhelming. Country fiddling is amazing, but whereas sax and trumpet are made for jazz, the violin seems to struggle to adapt to the bebop revolution.

Much as I love Nigel Kennedy, I prefer his electronic excursions, where he seems less bound by classical” conventions. His own taste for jazz goes back to his teacher Menuhin’s collaborations with Stephane Grappelli.

But I am totally in awe of Chris Garrick—and I’m pleased to see that Maxim Vengerov is too:

I want to learn to play like Chris Garrick!

Just a taster—but do explore the variety of his soundworld:

Besides pioneers like Joe Venuti and Eddie South, Stuff Smith had a distinctive style:

They were followed by classically-trained fiddlers like Jean-Luc Ponty and Regina Carter.

Further from mainstream post-bebop, east Europe and Turkey, along with their more traditional string bands, also make fruitful breeding-grounds for new styles. The Paganini lookalike Nedim Nalbantoğlu is great—here he is playing acoustic with oud:

And this session at his Paris café:

Here’s Félix Lajkó:

He’s not always as frenetic as this:

Still more of a melting-pot for folk styles is Tcha Limberger:

And pioneers of fiddling in Polish jazz were Zbigniew Seifert and Michel Urbaniak.

How I envy such creativity…

Polish jazz, then and now

 

Further to my post on improvisation, it’s been a while since I heard live jazz, so I went along to the splendid POSK Jazz Cafe in Hammersmith for a gig in the London Jazz Festival with the creative young sax player Krzysztof Urbanski (based in London since 2010) leading his Quintet, driven by the dynamic, sensitive drummer Asaf Sirkis, a regular on the world music scene.

I love the intimate atmosphere of live jazz—chamber music with the relationship between performers and audience so much more tangible than in modern WAM. And I reflect not only on the complexity of the jazz language and the interplay of the instruments, but the way that audiences somehow identify with it, the timbre of the sax in particular making the perfect medium. How I envy jazzers their creativity.

Here’s a playlist with some of Urbanski’s earlier work:

And a couple of weeks later at the same venue I heard the great Zbigniew Namysłowski (b.1939), veteran of the jazz scene in Poland since the era of state socialism. I’ll return to him shortly, but first some background.

Polish jazz is an absorbing theme (on the useful Culture.pl website, see introductions here and here). As the latter post observes, perhaps what makes it significant is its reflection of the country’s own quest for freedom and democracy—a feature that Poland shares, of course, with alternative cultures elsewhere in the Soviet bloc (e.g. the GDR; cf. Musical cultures of east Europe, and note the Iron Curtain tag).

In the “catacomb” period after the utter devastation of war, a leading early band was Melomani (who “hung out at the Łódź YMCA, one of the centres for independent thinkers in the late 1940s”—I just love sentences like that):

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, jazz emerged more boldly, marked by the Sopot jazz festival, which was held even after the unrest of 1956. Dave Brubeck performed in Poland in 1958. The trumpeter Tomasz Stańko was active from 1962, sometimes working with pianist Krzysztof Komeda (who provided film scores for Polanski and others). Amidst continuing political unrest, Miles Davis performed in Warsaw in 1983. The collapse of communism gave rise to the transgressive Yass style of bands like Miłość.

Jazz fiddle doesn’t always do much for me (Nigel Kennedy was based in Poland for some years, teaming up with local jazzers), but Zbigniew Seifert (1946–79) sounds great:

On a different tack, also intriguing are Andrzej Jagodziński’s jazz reworkings of Chopin.

Meanwhile Zbigniew Namysłowski had been exploring modern jazz since 1960, and began touring internationally. Here’s his 1964 album Lola, recorded in London:

and he appears along with Tomasz Stańko in the Komeda quintet’s 1965 album Astigmatic:

For aficionados of chinoiserie, in the gig he also featured Jasmin Lady—here he is with some more funky fiddle from Michel Urbaniak:

In this interview Namysłowski reflects on his career and the influence of Polish folk. Here’s his amazing 1973 album Winobranie (instructively reviewed here), featuring additive metres and even an original take on Indian music:

And in this recent video he takes a back seat to the highland string band Kapela Góralska (another entry in our list of world fiddles, cf. Musical cultures of east Europe; for more on Polish folk, see here and here, as well as Songlines):

So it was great to hear Namysłowski at POSK, still in fine form at 80, along with his son Jacek on trombone. And Polish jazz continues to thrive.

* * *

Polish jazz, long roaming free beyond the confines of the Łódź YMCA, is also enjoying a certain international vogue with Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War (2018):

Just in case you thought the Chinese invented everything, I like this story from Jozef Tischner’s A Goral history of philosophy [History of philosophy according to Polish highlanders, 1997]:

People from all over the world were coming to Biały Dunajec, a town in the Tatry mountains, to learn about the Polish Highlander’s music… Even the Blacks from Africa came one day to learn of the new music. A famous Polish Highlander philosopher Władek Trybunia-Tutka taught them how to use fiddles and play basses. Unfortunately, on their way home to Africa they encountered a storm and all of their instruments were washed overboard. Arriving home with just their bows and no fiddles or basses, they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born.

Despite London’s chronic lack of a dedicated venue for world music, just in my Neck of the Woods I can sally forth to POSK, the Bhavan, and occasional flamenco in Chiswick.

For the Polish immigrant experience in the USA, see under Accordion crimes; for delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, here.

Mary Lou Williams

 

MLW

Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of BingenÉlisabeth Jacquet de La GuerreLili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.

From the Composer of the week website:

A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”

MLW
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:

See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here:

 

Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!!

LB

Among the controversial, countercultural icons who drove themselves to an early grave was Lenny Bruce (1925–66), “America’s No.1 Vomic”.

With my penchant for jazz biographies, in a similar vein [sic] is the extraordinary book

  • Albert Goldman (from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller), Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! (1974). *
    (Do read this most perceptive review by Wallace Markfield—interestingly garbled in the course of digitisation.)

The opening chapter, “A day in the life”, is a dazzling, graphic, blow-by-blow reconstruction of his arrival in New York in 1960 for a gig at the Blue Angel. Just a taster:

Around ten, a yellow cab, somewhat unsteadily driven, pulls up before a narrow gray dilapidated building on one of the crummiest sidestreets off the Square. Above the spattered pavement an extinguished neon sign flaps patches of cold hard shadow across the stone steps: HOTEL AMERICA, FREE PARKING. The cab opens with a jolt, back doors flying open so that two bare-headed men dressed in identical black raincoats can begin to crawl out from the debris within. […]

The night before, they wound up a very successful three-week run in Chicago at the Cloisters with a visit to the home of a certain hip show-biz druggist—a house so closely associated with drugs that show people call it the “shooting gallery”. Terry smoked a couple of joints, dropped two blue tabs of mescaline and skin-popped some Dilaudid; at the airport bar he also downed a couple of double Scotches. Lenny did his usual number: twelve 1/16th-grain Dilaudid pills counted out of a big brown bottle like saccharins, dissolved in a 1-cc. ampule of Methedrine, heated in a blackened old spoon over a shoe-struck lucifer and the resulting soup ingested from the leffel into a disposable needle and then whammed into the mainline until you feel like you’re living inside an igloo. […]

The America is one of the most bizarre hotels in the world: a combination whorehouse, opium den and lunatic asylum.

LB club

As Lenny honed his act at strip clubs, Goldman explores his background in

the fast-talking, pot-smoking, shtick-trading hipsters and hustlers who lent him his idiom, his rhythm, his taste in humor and his typically cynical and jaundiced view of society.

He describes Lenny’s connection with comics like Joe Ancis, Mort Sahl, and George Carlin. Joe

insisted on schlepping Kenny and Lenny to the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art, taking them on whirlwind tours of both collections with his rapidly wagging tongue doing service as a catalog, guidebook and art-history course. “The fuckin’ Monet, schlepped out, half dead, in his last period, you dig? Painting water lilies—is that ridiculous! Water lilies, man, giant genius paintings, man, like the cat is ready to pack it in, but he has to blow one last out-chorus!

The book’s gory details of drug-taking and its paraphernalia, a staple of jazz biographies (Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker (here and here), John Coltrane, and so on), are unsurpassed, and as Markfield observes “could easily serve as basic text in a graduate seminar on mainlining”.

Much as I love Chet’s ballads, he seems to have traded on his early angelic, melancholy image merely as a means to the end of a constant supply of drugs; whereas for Lenny the drugs and the performance went hand in hand, evoking the explorations and discipline of Billie and Miles. Amidst all the squalor, the book evokes the technique of Lenny’s creativity, the way he played the room (cf. Stewart Lee’s labyrinthine footnotes):

Suddenly, he lowers his head and shoots a bold glance into the house—a real arched-brow zinger. “Looks like some faggot decorator went nuts here with a staple gun!” Bam! He’s in, they’re tittering. Then he goes for the extension: “Whoo-who!” (high fag scream) “It’s just got to flow like this!” (big wrist flap and faggy, camp gestures as he dances around triggering off staples with his thumb). They’re starting to laugh. Now for a quick change-up. Take them into his confidence. “You know, when I was a kid, I always dreamed about going to a nightclub.” Nice, easy mood, nostalgia. Then into the thirties movie bits with the George Raft takes and the Eugene Pallette club-owner pushing back the panel in the office to get a view of the stage and the little shaded lamps on the tables and the tuxes and the deep-cleft gowns and the hair on the guys bayed back at the temples and Lenny home from the movies standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a scissors cutting away the hair from his temples so he’d have a hairline like Brian Aherne or Robert Taylor and then his disillusionment years later when he went to the Copa for the first time and everything was so tacky and there wasn’t even a men’s room attendant and they had whisky bottles right on the table like a Bay Parkway Jewish wedding and … and … and … By the balls! They’re hanging on his words. Eating out of his hand! Kvelling because it’s their experience—but exactly!

Indeed, not just Lenny’s lifestyle but the techniques of his free-flowing stage routine have aptly been likened to bebop:

He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there—from recall, fantasy, prophecy.

A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn’t plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up—as if he were a spectator at his own performance!

In another passage, Goldman comments:

The ghetto idiom was far more than a badge of hipness to Lenny Bruce: it was a paradigm of his art. For what the language of the slums teaches a born talker is, first, the power of extreme linguistic compression, and, second, the knack of reducing things to their vital essences in thought and image.

Jazz slang is pure abstraction. It consists of tight, monosyllabic that suggest cons in the “big house” mumbling surreptitiously out of the corners of their mouths. Words like “dig”, “groove” and “hip” are atomic compactions of meaning. They’re as hard and tight and tamped down as any idiom this side of the Rosetta Stone. `if any new expression comes along that can’t be compressed into such a brief little bark, jazz slang starts digesting it, shearing off a word here, a syllable there, until the original phrase has been cut down to a ghetto short.

The same impatient process of short-circuiting the obvious and capping on the conventional was obvious in jazz itself. […] Listening to Be-Bop, you’d be hard put to say whether it was the most laconic or the most prolix of jazz styles. At the very same that it was brooming out of jazz all the old clichés, it was floridly embellishing the new language with breathtaking runs and ornaments and arabesques. Hipster language was equally florid at times, delighting in far-fetched conceits and taxing circumlocution. A man over forty, for example, was said to be “on the Jersey side of the snatch play”.

LB arrest

But whereas for jazzers music made a pure, abstract language transcending their mundane lifestyle, Lenny’s act was inevitably entangled with it. He was getting busted for his act as well as his medicinal habits, becoming ensnared in a series of obscenity trials. But he was at his very best for the midnight gig at Carnegie Hall on 3rd February 1961, again brilliantly evoked by Goldman—riffing on topics such as moral philosophy, patriotism, the flag, homosexuality, Jewishness, humour, Communism, Kennedy, Eisenhower, drugs, venereal disease, the Ku Klux Klan, the Internal Revenue Service, and Shelly Berman. Had he lived on, an invitation to today’s White House seems unlikely. Goldman reflects:

What else is this whole jazz trip? You take your seat inside the cat’s head, like you’re stepping into one of those little cars in a funhouse. Then, pulled by some dark chain that you can’t shut off, you plunge into the darkness, down the inclines, up the slopes, around the sharp bends and into the dead ends; past bizarre, grotesque window displays and gooney, lurid frights and spectacles and whistles and sirens and scares—and even a long dark moody tunnel of love. It’s all a trip—and the best of it is that you don’t have the faintest idea where you’re going!

Here’s one of several video clips of his live act (more here, as well as many audio recordings online):

London
Chapter 10, “Persecution” describes Lenny’s 1962 sojourn at Peter Cook’s new London club The Establishment—designed to elude the censoring scissors of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, “maiming English stage plays since the 16th century”. Indeed, this was part of an exchange of hostages that led to the Beyond the Fringe team’s long run on Broadway—International Cultural ExchangeYAY!

Lenny in London! Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like James Brown at the Bolshoi. Or Little Richard at La Scala.

(Nice idea, but not so bizarre—neither London, Moscow, nor Milan are so culturally monochrome…)

Here’s an intriguing prequel to the misguided vinegar advertisement, and indeed Always look on the bright side of life:

The Establishment was preparing a skit that depicted Christ Jesus as an upper-class gent hung between two cockney-talking thieves, who complain in their petty, rancorous way: “ ’E’s getting all the vinegar sponges!”

Goldman goes on:

Lenny’s notions of England—compounded from old Hollywood flicks and Alec Guinness imports—were queer, to say the least. As Jonathan Miller summed them up, Lenny saw Great Britain as “a country set in the heart of India bossed by a Queen who wore a ball dress. The population had bad teeth, wore drab clothes and went in for furtive and bizarre murders”.

Not all of this was so wide of the mark.

As Lenny’s apostle Kenneth Tynan observed,

If Beyond the fringe was a pinprick, Mr Bruce was a bloodbath.

As ever, critical responses were polarized. Brian Glanville later wrote in The Spectator:

Bruce has taken humour farther, and deeper, than any of the new wave of American comedians. […] Indeed, the very essence of the new wave is that one hears an individual voice talking, giving vent to its own perception and, in Bruce’s case, its own obsessions. An act such as this requires a good deal more than exhibitionism; it also need courage and passion. Essentially, it is not “sick” humour at all. The word is a tiresome irrelevance—but super-ego humour: a brave voice calling from the nursery.

He was denied entry the following year as an “undesirable alien”.

I’d be curious to learn what Alan Bennett thought of Lenny, but his influence on Dud ‘n’ Pete can be heard in their later foul-mouthed Derek and Clive recordings. Christopher Hitchens wrote a fine article on these transatlantic comedy genealogies.

Goldman devotes a perceptive chapter to “The greatest trial on earth”, a high-profile obcenity case over six months in Manhattan in 1964. Despite support from an array of prominent literati, Lenny was sentenced; freed on bail pending an appeal, as his mental and physical health went into a tailspin, exacerbated by paranoia over litigation, he died in squalor.

The only flaw I find with Goldman’s brilliant book is that it lacks an index. See also Doubletalk.

* * *

All this is a far cry from the bland hagiography of Chinese biographies. And the book reminds me again that the post-war era before the Swinging Sixties wasn’t entirely drab and conformist (see e.g. Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder). It also highlights issues of free speech, which are so urgent today. By comparison with Lenny, the challenging routines of Richard Pryor, or Stewart Lee, seem almost genteel. Still, the latter’s travails over Jerry Springer: the opera, detailed in How I escaped my certain fate, and his ripostes in “Stand-up comedian” (2005) and ” ’90s comedian” (2006), richly deserve attention; while Lee too highlights his debt to free jazz, his art is acutely disciplined (for his thoughts on Lenny, see here).

 

* The title’s punctuation reminds me of Mahler’s fondness for exclamation marks!!!

Alternative Bach

Bach

In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.

In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of  Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.

Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).

Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.

Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:

* * *

Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.

Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if the former has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights. Christ lag in Todesbanden has remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated:

For their recording from Eisenach during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilrimage, click here; for an introduction to the cantata, click here.

So questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate early interpretations with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.

The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):

The person who crystallized all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognized as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]

As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:

How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?

And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”

Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced,  lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:

The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.

As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.

People were quick to realize that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
[…]
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the  original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”

In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.

Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.

* * *

I’ve touched on related issues in several posts, linked in Reception history. On a lighter note, see here; and for vignettes on my days in the English Baroque Soloists, here and here.

Two recent themes

*UPDATED!*

Two images from the 1950s.

Recently I wrote a mini-series of posts on the fortune of expressive culture through the first fifteen years of the PRC, and the intrepid scholars who documented it—worth reading along with my tribute to the great Yang Yinliu:

And further posts followed:

This happens to be an important period for the relationship of politics and culture—the Maoist decades are a crucial bridge from the “old society” to the current reform era—but that’s not the only reason for studying it. One always seeks to gain a picture of change over the lifetimes of informants; if we had visited in the 1880s, or indeed the 880s, we would also have asked them how their social and cultural life had before the cataclysms of the Taiping uprising and the An Lushan rebellion respectively. While I’m critical of reified studies that are limited to the “salvage” of an idealized past, a diachronic approach is always valuable. For a recent volume on doing fieldwork in China, see here.

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I followed up that series with Great Female Singers Week (cf. A playlist of songs):

Again, these are part of larger series, in this case on gender (for a roundup, see here), jazz, and Mediterranean culture—to which you’ll find links in the above posts.

Expressive culture (both popular and elite) always makes a revealing prism through which to view social change—whether for China, Puglia, New York, or Vienna.