A Swedish psalm

Following my thoughts on musical complexity, and the taxonomy of singing:

While I rejoice in the intensity and economical language of much popular music, generally I’m underwhelmed by the upright Victorian simplicity of Christian hymns—although of course Bach’s chorales are in another league.

The Swedish psalm Härlig Är Jorden, sung a cappella, is Complete Perfection, Pure Simplicity:

Glorious is the Earth
Glorious is the Earth, glorious is God’s heaven,
Beautiful is the pilgrimage of souls
Through the fair kingdoms of the Earth
We go to paradise with song

 Ages come, ages go
Generation follows generation
Never is the sound from Heaven silenced
Of the soul’s glad pilgrim-song

 The angels sang it first for shepherds of the land
Beautifully it rang out from soul to soul
People, rejoice, the Saviour has come
The Lord bids peace upon the Earth

BTW, notwithstanding the critiques of Alan Lomax’s ambitious Cantometrics project, this does seem to illustrate one of his notable insights:

that sexually restrictive and highly punitive societies correlated with degree of vocal tension. The tendency to sing together in groups, tonal cohesiveness, and the likelihood of polyphonic singing were all associated with fewer restrictions on women. Multipart singing occurs in societies where the sexes have a complementary relationship.

The Real Group sings the psalm divinely, but it can be just as moving in less polished amateur versions. This is nothing to do with our recent British penchant for Scandi-noir. Of course, not being Swedish, I can’t assess what layers of association it may have for various strata of Swedish society today. For me, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s, another likely image of religious purity (and another of those changing traditions à la Hobsbawm), is highly conflicted—Dudley Moore expressed this well, if not entirely reverently. I doubt if all young Russian liberals are so entranced by Orthodox liturgy as I was on Mount Athos.

So as with Bach, there is no “correct” way to experience a piece like this: it will vary by class, time, region, and so on.

While we’re relishing the singing of the Real Group, I can never resist a bit of Bill Evans:

Back to black

For the sixth anniversary of Amy’s death

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

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

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

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

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

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

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

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

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015).

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

 

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

From Bosch to Stańko

The labyrinthine crime novels of Michael Connelly are brilliant—set in L.A., packed with gritty procedural, historical, and psychological detail, with their protagonist Harry (short, indeed, for Hieronymus) Bosch.

A tangential delight permeating the series is Bosch’s fine taste in jazz. Continuing my trumpet theme, it was through Nine Dragons (a murky Triad case) that I learned of Tomasz Stańko, “the Polish Miles Davis”.

To remind us of the jazz scene under state socialism (see e.g. Pickham and Ritter, Jazz behind the Iron curtain), here are versions of First song from 1976:

And even a recording from 1970:

WOW… His ballads are great too:

Practice makes perfect

More WAM ethnography:

Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.

Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes  did.

The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):

“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.

(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and

“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.

Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:

Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.

After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”

Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.

My favorite things

As if my musical life hasn’t been stimulating enough lately, BBC Radio 4’s fine series Soul music recently broadcast a lovely programme about one of the great jazz standards, a seemingly saccharine song whose complex harmonies have provided inspiration for musos, um, down the ages:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08r1vzc

Coltrane’s versions are justly renowned, like

OMG, Bill Evans too:

It’s almost too perfect to be vocalized, but here’s Sarah Vaughan, changing the mood again:

The Li family Daoists in France

Paris gig poster

First concert yesterday on our mini-tour of France, our fifth foreign trip since 2005. Not least, we haven’t seen each other for a year, so it’s great for us to catch up.

After a procession leading the audience through the circus ground on campus at Nanterre, the gig was unforgettable—profound and exhilarating. The audience went wild, and I’m proud for them. They’re right up there with Bird and Dizzy’s band; or with a senior string quartet who have been working together for decades, playing the Heilige Dankgesang on long tours, constantly delving deeper into the inner meaning.

Living the reclusive life that I do, this sudden lurch into serving as their minder, roadie, and stage manager is an invigorating shock to the system. They appreciate all my work—but since I always depend on them when I’m in Yanggao, it’s great for me to able to repay them a bit by looking after them for a change.

In my book (p.335) I wrote about our foreign tours:

Once we’re on the road, looking after the Daoists is an infinitely rewarding full-time job for me. Between sorting out daily logistics with our hosts, shepherding the Daoists round airports, stations, hotels, and restaurants, explaining how things work (showers, coffee machines, and so on), interpreting, helping them buy souvenirs, and keeping everyone in good spirits, I manage to find time to ask further questions about their life stories and rituals. Apart from working as their roadie, I enjoy being stage manager too. Li Manshan observes that they all want to do good concerts for my sake, so I won’t “lose face”; but they take pride in the gigs for themselves, irrespective of my pedantic concert professionalism. Elsewhere I note their high standards back home despite the careless attitudes of their village patrons, and here too they really care about adapting to the demands of a concert. We constantly discuss how to refine their stage presentation, and they get more polished at taking their final bows.

If course one of the insights in spending time in the ”natural habitat” of their home environment is to reveal their humanity. But touring, outside the narrow field laboratory, further helps me relate them to the hubbub of the global bazaar.

They’ve brought me a couple of bottles of Fenjiu “white spirit” from Shanxi, so after our gig we all polished them off over a convivial meal. At midnight Li Manshan knocked on my door and we ended up sharing loads more stories, “having a meeting with Teacher Wang”, and fondly recalling Li Qing, reflecting on this whole amazing story since my first visit in 1991.

Back in Paris tomorrow for our last gig at the Centre Mandapa (see Upcoming Events in sidebar)—for anyone at all nearby, not to be missed!!!