A Tang mélange

Regarding Chinese history, my focus is the local cultures and politics of the modern era, including both my own fieldwork since the 1980s’ reforms and Maoism, Of course, all the living ritual traditions I study are deeply rooted in the late imperial period, and occasionally I make more historically-minded excursions into this culture (such as this series).

Going further back, just in case you haven’t notice the Tang tag in the sidebar, it contains a growing number of posts—some of which are somewhat, um, ludic. Here are some highlights:

On Li Bai and Mahler:

And among many genres active today that are not a “living fossil” of Tang music:

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



Mahler and the mouth-organ


More on the European taste for exotic orientalism (see Berlioz, and Ravel).

Stimulated by the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the 1889 Exposition universelle in Paris, I was interested to read

Among composers she discusses are Purcell, Debussy, Puccini, and Stravinsky; but here I’d like to continue my series on Mahler by reflecting on his possible exposure to Chinese music. While the “imitations” of Tang poems by Hans Bethge that Mahler used for Das Lied von der Erde have been much discussed, Kang discusses the oboe lines of Der Abschied (see also here):

One can ponder whether Mahler may have heard the reedy timbre of the traditional and popular Chinese instrument called the sheng on the wax cylinders given to him by his friend Paul Hammerschlag. M. De La Grange gives an account of an event which may have strongly influenced the Chinese dimension in Das Lied:

During the last fortnight [of the summer of 1908] Mahler had a visit [at Toblach] from Paul Hammerschlag and his wife. Later, the banker recalled two memories of that summer, particularly one of a lively discussion during which, to his great surprise, Mahler suddenly threw up his table napkin so that all the guests could see that he had slashed it with his knife as it was on his knees. Another, more interesting, concerned some cylinders of Chinese music, recorded in China itself, that Paul Hammerschlag had bought in Vienna in a shop near the cathedral, and that he had given to Mahler at that time. This makes it quite certain that Mahler had not only read, but actually heard music from that far- off land before composing Das Lied.

There is no evidence with regard to what types of music the cylinders contained, and whether it was instrumental, percussive, or vocal music. And one can only speculate whether it was popular, celebratory, religious, or funeral-like.

57 shengguan trio

Indeed, I don’t know why Kang chooses the sheng mouth-organ here, rather than the guanzi oboe that accompanies it in north Chinese ritual; after all, Mahler didn’t feature the organum characteristic of the sheng. Still, it makes an equally intriguing speculation. Unfortunately, neither the shengguan ensemble nor the deafening shawm bands make likely candidates: several scholars have been studying early recordings of Chinese music, but most were vocal, with chamber ensemble of plucked and bowed strings. Had Mahler heard early recordings of the solo qin zither, such as those among the wax cylinders made by Herbert Müller in China between 1903 and 1913, that meditative sound-world might have appealed more to him.

Anyway, Kang goes on:

Traditional Chinese music tended to be categorized according to social function. Aside from the possible influence of the wax cylinders, there was also research being undertaken in Vienna on non-Western techniques (as in other major centres of musical creativity). This was no doubt as a result of current fashion, thinking, and growing academic interest in sinology and ethnomusicology as we have already witnessed in France in chapter 3. Guido Adler’s article “Uber Heterophonie” (1908) is a prime example of the fascination with and thinking about non-Western traditions that was common in Vienna at that time. Adler writes:

Although there is as yet a very incomplete, and largely unreliable body of exotic music extant, it is, nevertheless, possible—thanks to reliable material on music for several voices, whether vocal or instrumental—clearly to distinguish one kind of treatment that is essentially different from both homophony and polyphony. We may then sum up the main corpus of the kind of exotic music just referred to as follows: the voices begin in unison, in harmony or in octaves, only to separate from one another subsequently. The main theme is paraphrased and distorted, so that secondary and transitional melodies arise to join the main theme, now consonantly, now dissonantly. This paraphrasing and distorting, then, lead one to suppose that the instrumentalists and singers wanted to add something of their own, whether in individual deviatory sounds or merely in grace notes. But these deviations soon give the impression that the instrumentalist or singer has only unconsciously deviated from the right path, that the deviation is merely a coincidence, either because the performers have had a mental aberration or because they do not consider these middle sections worthy of their attention. As at the beginning, the voices then approach the end almost invariably in unison, or in a regular parallel movement. This kind of movement of several voices is the main branch, even the stem, of heterophony.

Today Adler’s comments hardly stand up. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can now find further clues to those wax cylinders. Still, whatever sounds they captured, I doubt that they were the ethereal transcendent tones of Mahler’s imagination. However timeless anyone might suppose Chinese music to be, he was seeking neither to reproduce the Chinese music of his own time nor to recreate that of the Tang. So in all, any precise links with actual Chinese soundscapes remain elusive; like Bethge’s poems, his fantasy of the Mystic East is uppermost—which is fine by me.

All the same, how I wish I could have introduced Mahler, and Berlioz—not to mention Bach—to the exquisite shengguan ensemble of the Li family Daoists, who only managed to perform  in France and Germany long after they were gone.


Is music a universal language?


What is music, anyway?
And who’s asking?

Ethnomusicologists have long questioned the seductive idea—derived from 19th-century Europe and latterly popular with the peace-and-love brigade—that music is a global language transcending the conventions of time and space. As always,

  • Bruno NettlThe study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

gives a masterly and accessible overview of the field, in chapters 2, 3 and 5—and indeed passim.

In Ch.2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music”:

There is no conceptualization of definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures, and very few societies have a concept (and a term) precisely parallel to the word “music”. They may instead have taxonomies whose borders cut across the universe of sounds produced by humans (or even animals) in ways quite different from those of Western societies.
Fieldworkers early on learn this major lesson: they may get one kind of answer when asking a question that would normally have no place in the culture and another when observing the society’s behavior. And we may note rather different approaches in formal statements by authorities, informal interviews, and ordinary conversations. Of the three, the cocktail party conversation may give us the most reliable perspective on the way urban, middle-class Americans actually use the concept of music in their lives.

The perspective of the (“gluttonous, insatiable”) ethnomusicologist is broader than that of a cultural insider—itself, as he observes, an ethnocentric approach, though, always broad-minded, he approves of a plurality of ethnomusicologies as much as of musickings.

In Ch.3, while noting changing trends, Nettl cites a 1939 article by George Herzog stressing the diversity of world musicking.

It seems to me that for some twenty years after about 1940, musics—as conceived in Western academia—had to be liberated, as it were, from Western ethnocentrism; ethnomusicology had to make clear their mutual independence, had to urge the acceptance of each on its own terms and not simply as evolutionary way stations to something greater and more perfect. This mission accomplished, ethnomusicology could return to exploring the world’s musics as part of a single whole.

He goes on to discuss different kinds of universals; and under origins, besides worship and individual or group bonding, he notes competition and conflict. Music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together—varying constantly and delineating boundaries not only of ethnicity but over time, and by class, age, gender, and so on.

In Ch.5 Nettl explores some boundaries of concept, space, and time, borrowing from linguistics and noting idiolects as well as heterogeneity and polymusicality within individual cultures. Musical cultures may not be universal, but it would be unwise to draw clear boundaries. For more, see here.

* * *.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service’s long-running series The listening service always broadens the mind beyond the confines of the station’s largely WAM audience (cf. here, and here)—ethnomusicology in plain clothes, perhaps. He debunks cosy Western myths in a series of three programmes to accompany the TV series Civilizations (which wisely limited its brief to material culture)—a welcome antidote to Radio 3’s mystifyingly ethnocentric complement to Neil MacGregor’s fine series Living with the gods.

In the first programme, Searching for paradise, Service notes the basic importance of music to religious observances, with a collage of ritual music from around the world (shamans, qawwali, plainchant, Sardinian liturgy, Bach…). Unpacking the “spiritual” and reflecting on the historical ambivalence of religious leaders towards the embodiment of ritual texts through sound, he makes connections with the latter-day rituals of the concert hall.

Indeed, the search for exotic Oriental mysticism is a major theme in Western studies of the East. In his second programme, Orientalism and the music of elsewhere, Service adduces Mozart, catering to the 19th-century craze for all things Turkish; the taste for the exotic sounds of Indonesia and Japan in 19th-century France (later furthered by Messiaen); and more recently, raga, the music of Africa (Reich, Ligeti), film music, and the whole “world music” fad with its gleeful taste for “fusion” (for a parody of which, scroll down here).

But, he suggests, for some composers such sounds were more than a “titillating and imperialist added extra”: they also transformed our ways of experiencing sound, suggesting other modes beyond the discursive, nay “shouty”, 19th-century ethos. Here we might also add Mahler’s Abschied. And so for visual culture too.

Along with my early fascination with Eastern mysticism (see series beginning here), I too was seduced by all this, and remain so—even as I found through fieldwork (as one does) that musicking in local Chinese societies was anything but an exotic activity.

Meanwhile in the notionally Mystic East, led by Japan, Western culture became suddenly desirable, with profound and lasting consequences—not least in China, where traditional culture came to be considered “unscientific”. There’s a thoughtful cameo from Unsuk Chin (who adorns the splendid T-shirt of female composers!), with her piece for the sheng mouth-organ. But the “two-way conversation” surely remains unequal.

Service suggests we listen to music in its own terms (that is, in the terms of its own culture), rather than as sonic propaganda. I like his bald question “Is our music better than theirs?”, evoking Judith Becker’s influential 1986 article “Is Western Art Music superior?“, which debunks some major Western preconceptions.

In his last programme, Is music a universal language?, Service opens with a discussion of the “universality” of Fidelio, observing, “You need to be conversant with the patterns of tension and release in the specific confines of the Western tonal harmonic system”—not to mention knowing what opera means, and what it meant in Vienna at the start of the 19th century, and so on. He then segues adroitly to Chinese opera.

As he notes, identifying “universals” (fast repeated rhythms for dancing, slow repeating lyrical melodies for lullabies, and so on) may be a bland exercise. We can find similar building blocks, such as the (anhemitonic!) pentatonic scale, but the way they are used and experienced will differ widely. It’s nature and nurture again. And then there’s timbre…

* * *.

Such issues, bearing not just on “music” but on human cultures, are among the standard fare of ethnomusicology. While in my studies of Chinese ritual I tend not to scare the sinological horses by focusing too narrowly on music, the discipline is really most stimulating. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before: sound is not some optional decoration to rital, it’s the very medium through which it is expressed! Whatever your cultural focus, do follow up The listening service by reading Nettl! And for further canonical works, see here and here.

Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this seasonMahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5, The Rite of Spring (post updated!)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.



This season’s Proms

Mahler 10 scream

Notwithstanding my admiration for Christopher Small‘s critique of the curious behaviour that is concert-going, as opposed to more communal kinds of musicking (see e.g. here), I’m enjoying visits to this year’s Proms.

So far, among the feast (nay, “veritable smorgasbord“) of musicking on offer, I’ve basked in Turangalîlaalways an overwhelming experience, as well as the NYO Prom.

The latter included Debussy’s La mer (which I played with the NYO at the Proms under Boulez in 1971!) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand (for ways of occupying the other hand, see here). Now I’m looking forward to Les enfants et les sortilèges with S-S-Simon.

Meanwhile it was wonderful to hear the Philharmonia with the great maestro Salonen (the drôle story of whose interview encapsulates Some People’s attitude to WAM!). Effectively, from the spartan pointillism of Webern he segued directly into the desolate viola line the opens the first movement of Mahler 10, before its devastating prophetic catclysm (see my fantasy timeline here; lots more under Mahler tag). Salonen conducted this first half of the concert without a baton, recalling Boulez with his expressive hand gestures and the insights of a composer. I can’t wait to hear him conduct the complete symphony live.

For Salonen’s Mahler 9, see 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).