Two recent themes

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:

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.

* * *

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 of posts, 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.

Billie Holiday

So far I’ve struggled to resist devoting this site entirely to Billie Holiday, just rationing myself to her captivating 1957 TV Fine and mellow and a few tracks in other posts. Of course she is one of the stars of my Playlist of songs (indeed, everyone’s). *

But to follow Barbara Hannigan singing a Berg-tinged Embraceable you, I just had to go back to Billie singing it—both 1944 and 1957 versions here:

Among my all-time top songs of hers, You’re my thrill is strangely neglected, as she herself lamented. Again, apart from the extraordinary nuances of her voice, intoxicating and intoxicated (surely this is her ode to heroin), note the chromatic melody and disoncerting leaps (I’ve extolled the magic of the major 7th, and now I feel a paean to the minor 7th coming on) and the brilliant noir orchestration—smoochy strings, wind arabesques, languid swaggering brass interlude:

You’re my thrill
You do something to me
You send chills right through me
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

You’re my thrill
How my pulse increases
I just go to pieces
When I look at you
’cause you’re my thrill

Mmm
Nothing seems to matter
Mmm
Here’s my heart on a silver platter

Where’s my will?
Why this strange desire
That keeps mounting higher?
When I look at you
I can’t keep still
You’re my thrill…

It was also natural that Chet Baker, not to be outdone in the shooting-up department, should perform the song:

Generally Chet’s singing has an intensity that matches that of Billie, but for this song I’d always choose her (not that we have to choose).

In Lover man the orchestration again complements Billie’s vocals:

Meanwhile in 1944, far from the turmoil of Europe (just as ethnologist Germain Tillion was composing Le verfügbar aux enfers for her fellow Ravensbrück inmates), a young Miles Davis was combing the New York streets for Charlie Parker, as he describes in one of the great passages of jazz writing.

Billie’s Don’t explain is amazing too. The lyrics, meekly tolerating infidelity, may now seem as dubious as Stand by your man (and dodgy lyrics are by no means the prerogative of popular music), but as always Billie somehow transforms the song:

And whereas she looks radiant in the 1957 TV broadcast, here’s her harrowing live performance of Don’t explain the following year, with more pain than joy:

To learn more about how all this works, apart from the innumerable books on Billie, I keep learning from Berliner’s Thinking in jazz.

 

* I learn to my chagrin that I’m not the first to discover either Billie or Aretha—but perhaps I can claim credit for the first recording of Dona Rosa.

Barbara Hannigan

BH

Photo credit: Musacchio and Ianniellos.

Having been spellbound by the great Barbara Hannigan singing Let me tell you, as well as her f-f-flabbergasting Gepopo, I just attended another LSO concert in which she both sang and conducted in Berg and Berg-tinged Gershwin (programme notes here).

I became immersed in Berg’s first opera Wozzeck in my teens, but at last I got to hear Hannigan in a suite from Lulu, one of her signature roles. While only featuring two brief but mesmerizing arias, it gives a taster for the complexities of Lulu’s psyche.

Lulu has long seemed to embody all the inherited archetypes of diva/femme fatale, madonna/whore, victim, elfin waif, destroyer/destroyed (see also Madonna and McClary[1] and the “cute psychopath” of Killing Eve), both in the original Wedekind plays and Pabst’s 1929 (silent!) film Pandora’s box:

Hang on—these were all created by men…

All these myths may have gone largely unchallenged until quite recently, but Hannigan doesn’t buy it. So despite Lulu’s common image as abused, manipulated, and degraded, Hannigan finds her inspiring “as a musician, an actor, and a human being”, with her “instinctive emotional intelligence that tends to drive the people around her up the wall”; rather like her remoulding of Ophelia, she regards Lulu as the architect of her own destiny—angry, resistant, and triumphant. As Paul Griffiths wrote,

Hannigan sees her as a spirit of freedom, who breaks loose from the plays, the opera, and the films in which she would seem to be contained. Refusing taming or limits of any kind, she scorns death, even while longing for it. Murdered in one scenario, she simply finds herself another. She is a deity with innumerable avatars.

Hannigan makes her case brilliantly here—describing her passionate relationship with Lulu as well as her her own Stockholm syndrome and survivor guilt, and unpacking gender issues:

Now I welcome new visions, and changing reception history, but I’m still not sure we can simply “celebrate” the lives of women like Lulu without acknowledging the tragedy of their situation in societies where they are constantly hampered—and without keeping the iniquities of patriarchy to the fore (cf. China). Surely the role model here is not Lulu but Hannigan’s vision of her.

She ended the concert with an arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl crazy suite. At first one might think, uh-oh—not another cheesy crossover in the vein of “Dame Kiri Sings the Sex Pistols Greatest Hits by Candlelight“? Far from it: Hannigan “wanted to have a suite with songs from Gershwin musicals, but to look at them through the prism of the Second Viennese School, and especially from the perspective of Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz.”

As Griffiths observes, the link is by no means far-fetched:

Gershwin admired Berg and welcomed the opportunity of a meeting when the American was in Vienna in the spring of 1928. This was a year before Berg began work on Lulu, with its jazz-age touches, and two years before Gershwin was writing songs for Girl crazy. It might be hard to hear Berg’s influence in Gershwin’s own score, but that can be arranged. You just have to find an arranger.

Bill Elliott, who won a Tony award in 2015 for his orchestration of Gershwin’s music in a new show, An American in Paris, was an obvious first choice, and created a 13-minute score on which one could imagine the two composers had worked side by side. Berg sits back to admire the course of a melody Gershwin is writing, then leans forward to add harmonies here, a wandering counterpoint there. *

So the resulting suite, transforming But not for me, Embraceable you, and I got rhythm[2] makes a stimulating and exhilarating piece that inevitably gets a standing ovation. Here’s an earlier performance:

With her magical voice, her expressive arms, her whole body, Hannigan totally inhabits all her roles.

BH2

Photo credit: Jag Gundu.

Now we can also admire Hannigan’s recent Vienna fin-de-siècle CD, including Zemlinsky, Berg, and Alma Mahler:

 

* For good measure, a couple of quaint vignettes on Gershwin’s friendship with Berg’s teacher Schoenberg in the USA:

Gershwin asked Schoenberg—whom he also painted—for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, reportedly saying “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

And in a charming foretaste of the Monty Python Beethoven LP,

Gershwin enjoyed playing tennis with Schoenberg once a week. Gershwin’s playing was described as “nervous” and “nonchalant”, “relentless”, and “chivalrous”—while Schoenberg was “overly eager” and “choppy”.

 

[1] Indeed, Leo Treitler compares Madonna and Lulu in “The Lulu character and the character of Lulu”, ch.10 of his Music and the historical imagination (1989). For a general introduction to the opera, see Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.224–31.

[2] Hiromi‘s manic piano version of the latter is amazing, but I always fantasize about a Bulgarian aksak version…

Bach as bandleader and arranger

As I observed in a post on Bach and the oboe,

Going to hear Bach every Sunday in church must have been like the Duke Ellington band having a 27-year residency at Ronnie Scott’s. And the congregation rarely heard the same piece twice—kind of “one-off performance”, as the Chinese might say.

All four orchestral suites are wonderful. In the 3rd suite—like Mahler’s Adagietto in the context of his 5th symphony—Bach’s Air deserves to be heard in context, after the exhilarating overture. For a change, here’s Ton Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (including some stars of the London scene) in 1989:

The 4th suite is astounding too:

Bill Evans would have loved those harmonies over a pedal (from 1.48/3.20, and again from 8.12):

Bach 4th suite

And everyone gets in on the act—brass, woodwinds, strings, even the bassoon with its funky break (from 9.45). It beats me how anyone can possibly be expected to sit still through pieces like these.

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I only noticed recently that the overture of the 4th suite is a version of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which Bach unleashed on his Leipzig congregation on Christmas Day 1725, in both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche (cf. the Christmas Oratorio).

For musicians today, as John Eliot Gardiner comments (Music in the castle of heaven, p.445),

the piece emerges new-minted, alive with unexpected sonorities and a marvellous rendition of laughter-in-music, so different from the stiff, earnest way it is often played as orchestral music. When they are suddenly doubled, as here, by voices singing of laughter, instrumentalists have to re-think  familiar lines and phrasing. Reciprocally, the singers need to adjust to the instrumental conventions of a Fremch overture.

Unser Mund sei voll Lachens                          May our mouths be full of laughter
und unsre Zunge voll Rühmens.                     and our tongues full of praise.
Denn der Herr hat Großes an uns getan.     For the Lord has done great things for us.

And there’s another amazing solo for oboe d’amore (from 10.41).

The cantatas are an inexhaustible treasury.

* * *

I don’t think the Leipzig congregation would have heard the orchestral suite—it’s not even clear if Bach had written it by then. Nor did they have the luxury of hearing it on CD or online: they were lucky to hear any of his works more than once.

Still, they were blessed beyond measure. And just imagine being in Bach’s Big Band, playing dazzling new music every week…

Sure—their ears, teeth, bodies, sanitary arrangements, and whole life experiences were entirely different to ours when we perform or listen to Bach’s music (see here, under “Ears, eyes, minds, bodies”). They hadn’t heard Duke Ellington or the Rite of Spring; and rather than having to take taxis to Heathrow for an early start or hurriedly checking into a hotel before trying to find a quick pre-rehearsal snack— they were there all the time, in a provincial town still recovering from traumatic warfare. All of which makes the constant aural bombardment from their kappellmeister–bandleader even more remarkable.

Trumpets, wind and brass bands

Trumpet chart

As this blog features a growing number of posts on trumpeters (both jazz and WAM), wind bands, and brass bands, here’s a handy list. I’ve already awarded trumpet its own tag in the sidebar. My usual proviso: all these genres belong within changing social life!

The list might begin with Chinese shawm bands (e.g. herehere, and here)—I won’t try and index all the shengguan wind ensembles here, but they’re a constant theme of posts under Local ritual, for instance. Both types feature in the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Some great jazz trumpeters:

wind band

Also on jazz, starting from African musicians at European renaissance courts, is

Jumbo

WAM trumpeters featured include

  • John Wilbraham
  • enchanting versions of Handel‘s Eternal source of light divine by Alison Balsom, Wynton Marsalis, and David Blackadder (WOW).

For folk bands, see

  • the high trumpets punctuating ritual saeta songs in Andalucia, here and here.

And whatever you do, don’t miss

  • the amazing wind and brass turbo-folk bands of east Europe!

fanfare

Roaming the clouds: Miranda Vukasovic

 

Left: Beijing, 2017 (photo: Samantha Camozzi). Right: Cannes, 2018.

On my returns to Beijing from the countryside, much as I miss Li Manshan, I oscillate between encounters with inspiring Chinese scholars and glimpses of the expat life. Following my fleeting introduction to Miranda there, she deserves a separate homage.

You can explore her varied talents online—as singer-songwriter, poet, and designer (notably jewellery).

Photos: Wu Hujun.

* * *

Like a Daoist priest, Miranda roams the clouds 云游, a free spirit, finding evanescent soulmates. In her exuberance she’s more Italian than the Italians. Her company—”red-hot sociality” more akin to Mediterranean fiestas than to Chinese temple fairs—is both enchanting and exhausting; but she lives with her energy all the time.

After her early life in wartime Croatia [1] (and even here, she stresses love, not trauma), Miranda spent periods working in architecture in Milan, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Mexico 
City, London, and New York before coming to live in Beijing in 2011—always exploring spiritual and physical landscapes, spreading her wings.

Watch out for her chapter in the fine forthcoming collection

* * *

Radiance poster

I’m particularly drawn to Miranda’s music. In Beijing she formed the Radiance band in 2015. While I’m keen to avoid the trap of sexist vocabulary like diva and femme fatale (ha!), as a singer-songwriter Miranda creates compelling music “through a kaleidoscope of fragile emotions” in multi-media performances.

From a 2016 gig in Beijing—Beginning of the end:

Soft machine:

Beijing, 2017:

With Nina Simone, David Bowie, Bach, and Astor Piazzolla among her inspirations, Miranda is working with Chinese and international musicians (as has been common since the 1980s, or, to take a longer view, since the Tang dynasty)—constantly exploring.

Beijing gig, 2016.

Miranda—“to be marveled at”, indeed. Beijing is just the kind of creative environment in which she can thrive; she feels an “energy and a flow of young ideas, always in motion”. But wherever she lands, she will always find like-minded people and stimulating projects.

 

[1] For some other roving female prodigies from East Europe, see here and here.