Heartland excursions

Ethnomusicology at home


Following the recent loss of the great Bruno Nettl, I’ve been revisiting another of his stimulating books,

  • Heartland excursions: ethnomusicological reflections on schools of music (1995).

It’s thanks to works like this that we can now understand WAM within the context of musicking in societies throughout the world. Such “ethnography at home” belongs with a corpus of studies like those of Henry Kingsbury, Christopher Small, Ruth Finnegan, and more recently Stephen Cottrell.

Nettl opens his Introduction thus:

Let me be quite personal. What is it about ethnomusicology that has fascinated me for over some four decades? At first, it was the opportunity of looking at something quite strange, of hearing totally unexpected musical sounds and experiencing thoroughly unfamiliar ideas about music. Later, to learn to look at any of the world’s cultures, and listen to any of the musics, without being judgmental. And further on, the notion that one should find ways of comprehending an entire musical culture, identifying its central paradigms, and finding points of entry, or perhaps handles, for grasping a culture or capturing a music. And eventually, having also practiced the outsider’s view, to look also at the familiar as if it were not, at one’s own culture as if one were a foreigner to it.

He shows that while this idea was taking root in ethnomusicology by the 1980s, scholars native to the traditions they researched (Africans, Indians, Native Americans, Indonesians, and so on—and Chinese, of course) had been studying the musics of their own “cultural backyards” all along; as indeed had those studying urban minority cultures in North America and Europe, including popular genres.

Listing some major contributors to the field, Nettl explains his description of WAM as “the last bastion of unstudied musical culture”: ethnomusicologists

try to understand the musical culture through a microcosm, to provide an even-handed approach without judgment, to look as well as possible at the familiar as if one were an outsider, to see the world of music as a component of culture in the anthropological sense of that word, and to view their own music from a world perspective.

Here his main subject is his own musical “home”: schools of music in universities in the Midwest (rather than the world of professional WAM performance, for which see Small, Cottrell, and so on). He makes suggestive comparisons with other musical cultures, notably those of the Blackfoot, Tehran, and Madras.

Always seeking to elicit structures, he comments

A wonderful musical system may not mean a wonderful cultural system, only the desire for one; a musical system with sharp social distinctions may reflect a social system, or it may only remind us that the social system contains the seeds of inequality.

He ends the Introduction by explaining that his purpose is not (quite?) to criticize, reminding me of Small’s ambivalence and the doubts of his reviewers:

Although I may discuss Western classical music—and the subculture that practices and teaches it in one of its 20th-century venues—with a raised forefinger, or with tongue in cheek, or with wrinkled nose, and maybe even with a note of cynicism or sarcasm, and although I think it may reflect the cultural structure of a sometimes mean and unkind society, I nevertheless cannot imagine life without it.

RCMThe Royal College of Music, London.

In Chapter 1 Nettl views the music school as “something like a religious system or a social system in which both the living and the dead participate” (cf. aboriginal culture), viewing it as “a society ruled by deities with sacred texts, rituals, ceremonial numbers, and a priesthood”. He introduces the extraterrestrial ethnomusicologist from Mars, who

arrives at the mid-western school of music and begins work by listening to conversations, reading concert programs, and eavesdropping at rehearsals, lessons, and performances. The E.T. is overwhelmed by hearing a huge number of names of persons, but eventually it realizes that many of these persons are alive, but many are no longer living and yet the rhetoric treats them similarly. […]
The E.T. soon finds that many kinds of figures populate the school: students, teachers, administrators, members of audiences, musicians who are not present but are known, and a large number of musicians who are not living but are treated as friends in conversation. Among these are a few who seem to be dominant figures in the school. They constitute pantheon, the composers about whom one rarely if ever hears a critical word. Two seem to get more (well, just a tiny bit more) attention than the rest: their names are Mozart and Beethoven, and they appear to have the roles of chief deities.

He discusses

the Mozart and Beethoven of the present, as they are perceived by music lovers today, as living figures in today’s musical culture. My purpose is not, however, to participate in the now widely respected study of reception history, but to characterize contemporary art music culture.

Going on to describe pantheons and canons. By way of the dream songs of the Blackfoot, he discusses acts of creation, and the identity of the quasi-sacred composer. The “great works” of the WAM canon are akin to religious scriptures, served by a priesthood of performers and musicologists.

The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam; right, Mahler.

He discusses the significance of the names of the great composers engraved on concert halls and music schools, making the analogy with bumper stickers and T-shirts. What is the purpose here? Such buildings are like shrines where we should pay homage.

Despite the apparent claim to eternity, tastes change: as with other league tables, composers can be promoted or demoted over time. This can be entertaining; to Nettl’s instances from the USA, we might add the list of names at the Concertgebouw, where

around the balcony and ceiling of each are inscribed the names of the great composers, perceived from an earlier Dutch perspective: Wagenaar beside Tchaikovsky, Dopper next to Debussy, and Rontgen alongside Richard Strauss, while in the small hall Rubinstein and Hiller rub shoulders with Mozart and Beethoven.

Suggesting that the Mozart–Beethoven axis reflects the dualism of modern Western thought (genius and labour, light and heavy, Zeus and Prometheus), he notes that as in other pantheons, lesser deities have their distinct personalities too.

As in The study of ethnomusicology, Nettl explores the nature and role of genius. He discusses myths central to cultures, from the supernatural beaver of the Blackfoot to those of Mozart and Beethoven. He explores the notion of greatness—large orchestral performances of great works by great composers; and costume (“tuxedos, blazers, turtlenecks, robes, dhotis, Elizabethan garb, T-shirts with holes, leather jackets”) as an indicator of musical hierarchies:

Uniform accomplishes the depersonalization of the individual, giving the orchestra a faceless quality that is exacerbated by requirements of such uniform behaviour as bowing. […] Your uniform tells people what you do, and musical uniforms tell what kind of music musicians “do”.

He is alert to gender:

It is indicative of gender roles in American society that these uniforms derive principally from men’s dress, that there is less difference among their various female versions, and that women sometimes simply use the men’s versions of uniforms.

and always takes a broad view:

The tendency of musicians in Western culture to wear clothes different from their everyday attire contrasts with the custom of Plains Indian powwow singers, who wear precisely and determinedly what they might wear at other times—jeans, T-shirts, and farmers’ caps—despite the clearly special nature of musical performance. Perhaps they do so because virtually all others present—the dancers—are in costume, and the singers wish to separate themselves from them.

The symphony orchestra may be seen as a metaphor of industrial factory, political organization, and colonial empire. The concert master is “a kind of factory foreman keeping things in shape for the management”, while the conductor, with a “baton” of military origin, is the general:

he gets credits for victories, is listed on the album cover, takes bows, but is not heard and so risks little. […] The occupants of the first chairs are officers who have a certain amount of authority over their trrops, whose main task is to march—that is, bow and finger—in unison, mainly for the appearance of discipline. There is little democratic discussion. […] Conductors are often permitted or even expected to be eccentric; sport long hair, strange dress, and a foreign accent; and lead a strange life.

He enjoys reiterating the metaphor:

If the orchestra is a kind of factory or plantation for producing great music or an army for exhibiting perfection on the parade ground, it is principally in the service of the great masters.

Nettl unpacks the major role of notation in the culture, and the strange notion of “reading” music:

Having perhaps forgotten that they learned their first songs by hearing them, many of the denizens cannot conceive of a musical culture that does not use notation, and until recently my colleagues were inclined to marvel at my account of Indian musicians’ improvising interestingly for an hour, or Blackfoot Indians’ maintaining a repertory of hundreds of songs, keeping them separate and knowning which go where in rituals, without any visual mnemonics.

Notation is a meta-language:

Various musicians can communicate with each other and play in the same orchestra, even when they do not share a language. It is also a separating device in the sense that it enables individual musicians in orchestras or bands to play their parts without knowing what sounds will emerge or how the entire work sounds.

He wonders what it is that is transmitted:

We should ascertain whether a performer is required to play a piece exactly as he or she learns it, whether changes are permitted, whether there are interpretive choices, or even whether there is the requirement that a piece be altered every time it is rendered. The cultures of the world vary greatly in their answers to these questions.

He discusses the changing structures of concert programming, again comparing other cultures:

In a concert of the classical music of South India, the multi-sectioned improvised number called ragam-tanam-pallavi begins just after the midpoint, although there is actually no intermission. In Persian classical music, the conceptually central and most prestigious section, the improvised Āvāz, appears in the very centre of the full-blown performance.

He ends the chapter provocatively:

In this system of Western culture that produces wonderful music, what are the principles and values that are expressed and that underlie it? Here are intriguing concepts such as genius, discipline, efficiency, the hierarchical pyramid of musics and composers, the musician as stranger and outsider, the wonders of complexity, the stimulus of innovation, and music as a great thing with metaphorical extensions. But we are also forced to suggest dictatorship, conformity, a rigid class structure, overspecialization, and a love of mere bigness are all explicitly or by implication extolled. One may counter that the analysis is faulty, that instead of conformity there is cooperation, instead of authoritarians there are leaders. Or argue that the kind of social structure described, for all its undesirable aspects, is essential for the proper performance of music by the great masters, that in order for music of such an incredibly elite character as that of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s to be created and performed one must simply sacrifice independence and personal opinion, must undertake an incredible amount of discipline and accept dictates of an elite wherever they lead.

But Nettl never downplays the role of hierarchies in other traditions. He opens Chapter 2 by observing the competitive, even conflicting distinctions among performers in south Indian music, where caste, professional status, and gender play major roles. He then explores the opposing forces of our schools of music (teachers, students, administrators; performers and academics; singers, string players, wind players; conductors and conducted), reflecting the hierarchies, the “corporate ladders”, in American society. As ever he offers parallels: the progression by age of singing and playing didjeridu in Aboriginal societies, Persian radif, and south India again. He elaborates on the industrial model, with its customers (students and audiences) and products; and he discusses classes of musicianship, and competing central and peripheral roles. On the tension between music educationists and musicologists, he observes:

Performers see musicologists as a kind of police, imposing music history requirements on their students, making them take entrance examinations, and otherwise forcing them to jump through hoops of (they think) an essentially irrelevant defence of an obscure and ephemeral canon. They may see little need for their students to know about medieval and Renaissance music, or about the music of India and China.

Still more revealing is the division between singers and instrumentalists. Again he highlights gender, noting that in other societies (and indeed in our own popular music and jazz) women sing more commonly than playing instruments. Of course, in line with broader social changes over recent decades, women have come to play an increasing role in orchestras and as conductors. Nettl unpacks cultural stereotypes:

Men are traditionally thought in this society to be better at handling tools (e.g., instruments) and better at solving intellectual problems, whereas women are “closer to nature” and more “emotional”.

Such distinctions are to some extent submerged beneath the wider struggles between the music school and the rest of the university, the arts versus the sciences, and art music versus pop and rock.

He observes a further distinction between “bowing and blowing”, with string players generally more esteemed than wind players, mainly due to their greater place in the canon. And he notes the major role of the piano.

The maintenance of the stock of pianos is one of the major financial—and ideological—commitments of the school.

By way of a discussion of the importance of heritage (like Indian gharanas), adducing pedagogical lineages such as those of Theodor Leschetisky, Leopold Auer, and Ivan Galamian, he moves onto the various types of ensembles within the school. The role of the conductor (another godlike persona, further elevated in the professional world) is discussed at greater length in Small’s Musicking.and Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth.

If the music school might seem a potential meeting-place for all musics, in Chapter 3 Nettl’s ethnomusicologist from Mars quickly notes that not even the various genres of WAM are treated on equal terms, and when other types of music are considered at all, it is only on special terms; indeed, in some ways

The music school functions almost as an institution for the suppression of certain musics.

This is worth noting, though it’s no great surprise: other musical institutions around the world (families in Rajasthan or Andalucia, and so on) also naturally privilege their own traditions; outside music too, other Western institutions have long been selective about including popular genres. Nettl likens such policing of choices to “purification rituals”. He suggests the model of concentric circles to evoke the taxonomy and relative value of musics at the school, with the canon at its centre; as in the world’s cultures at large, genres converge and collide. Again, he outlines the changing modern history of the school of music, with early and contemporary musics gaining a certain ground, as well as jazz, folk, and world music, noting degrees of bimusicality and polymusicality, as is routine outside the elite institution.

A Blackfoot man whom I knew claimed to have two musics central to his life—the intertribal powwow repertory of Plains Indian culture and the country and western music that he plays in a small band in a bar. He was also trying to learn, but slowly, some older and explicitly Blackfoot ceremonial music. He played trumpet in high school band and learned the typical repertory of such institutions (marches and some concert band music), he goes to a Methodist church and can sing several hymns from memory, and—a person of some curiosity—he has seen two opera or musical comedy productions at a nearby college.

Many institutions, however (his list includes the Met, the First Lutheran Church, groups in Tehran and Madras, and some radio stations), are mainly unimusical.

In North American society he finds a certain potential mediation between styles in the form of concerts, record stores, the film industry, and even the music school. He unpacks the various kinds of music presented in concert—quite diverse, yet still only rarely encompassing rock and Country.

The similarity of the concentric circle structure to a colonial system is suggestive. Musics outside the central repertory may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants’ entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population).

He reminds us that each society has its own music history:

Nowhere is music simply “what happened”; it is always interpreted in ways that are determined by, and support, fundamental values and principles of culture. Even where societies have little information about their own musical past, they still have ideas and beliefs of what happened based on myth, folklore, and oral tradition; they also have some idea of how music history “works”, about its mechanisms of change and continuity.

While many cultures emphasize that their music is ancient, a pure expression of the culture, distinct from—and even superior to—the music of other societies, this notion is particularly central to WAM. Nettl ponders the “specialness” of Western music history.

Other societies also insist on the uniqueness of their own music, but they usually do not suggest that it ought to be adopted by all other cultures. Western musicians, like the Western politicians of yore, impose their music on the rest of the world. Western society regards its [art—SJ] culture as different from the rest, not only in degree but also in kind, and reflects this in its attitude towards music.

Nettl notes the contrasting stresses in WAM between the values of the old and the demand for innovation. In the potential meeting of musics he finds convergences and collisions, encouraged or inhibited by the preservation of purity, specialized audiences, and among the “peripheral” ensembles, the privileging of those that seem to reflect the values of the central canon.

He broaches the widely-used metaphors of the melting-pot and mosaic (and the bazaar is another one). Within the central repertoire the meeting of musics is blunted, while genres outside it—which are often unsuitable to concerts, for a start—are approximated to its ethos: the (modern) concert format rules. Mediation is limited: the peripheral genres are “permitted to maintain a modest spot in the institution if they bow to the values of the centre”. Again, all this may seem unremarkable, a common feature of musical groups around the world.

In Chapter 4, mustering his usual cross-cultural comparisons, Nettl further explores the school’s repertoire, with its central canon. But he begins with more Martian contextualizing, considering the obligatory songs of the music school and the wider society, “that everybody seems to know and can sing, a group that she may not find attractive but seems to hear a lot”: the ceremonial repertoire, such as songs for life-cycle and calendrical events and graduation ceremonies, including Happy Birthday, Auld lang syne, and Stars and stripes forever. Such songs might also seem to be “central”, yet “it is not what the denizens of the Music Building regard as their culture’s great music, and most of it is not serious music to them”; despite the ritual origins of much of the core repertoire,

in the art music world of today, it seems inappropriate to associate what we consider the best music with specific ritual or ceremonial functions; it is a way of denigrating the music’s stature.

Typically, he compares such pieces to ritual items like Peyote songs and the Proper and Ordinary of the Christian Mass. The rituals of the Music Building

are not carried out, in the last analysis, for the sake of humans and their necessary activities, but in the service of the great masters, whose works stand above the hustle and bustle of human coming and going and exist as art for art’s sake.

He now points out that rather than defining the “central” as “normal” or indeed “popular”, in the world of WAM it resides in the more abstruse “great works” of the canon, which he proceeds to unpack. Musical “greatness” seem to reside in bigness and complexity, and its centre lies between 1720 and 1920.

Do the typical musical structures of that time reflect the social structure that the American middle-class desires, or was it what society used to desire, or did musical structure and the relationship of musical and social organization just freeze at some point, as Small has suggested?

Nettl surmises that

the kinds of relationships that are evident in the the society of people in the Music Building, and in art music generally, play an important role in determining ways in which they conceive of the musical materials themselves—pieces of music, kinds of compositions, and instruments.

YYXY 86Cellist, Shanghai Conservatoire, 1986. My photo.

Noting that the taxonomy of instruments among cultures is modeled on important aspects of their worldviews, adducing Chinese and Arabic classifications, he considers “families” of instruments—a concept also adopted in African societies. He adduces the development of orchestras with SATB “choirs” of “traditional” instruments as a pervasive pattern of musical Westernization:

The four-part structure does reflect some major tensions in family and between genders and generations in society—and this perhaps accounts for its amazing tenacity.

He discusses the hierarchical concept of leaders and followers (accompanists) in music and society (cf. McClary on Brandenburg 5), going on to consider genres and forms within the “ruling class” of WAM.

Is it not conceivable that certain composers and groups of composers or musical cultures simply discovered better ways of producing music, and that this ability was recognized by later musicians and listeners?


We are tempted to ask whether modern music listeners are most comfortable with music reflecting a social structure that precedes the social upheavals of the French revolution and the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While noting that some of the canonical works, like Mozart operas, “go further than simply representing or going along with the inequalities and inequities of society”: they also provide a critique of the system. Nettl is

struck by the ways in which the critique is incorporated into a style that otherwise reflects a conservative view of society.

He explores the values of the concerto, with its “tension between art as the organization of forces and art as individual accomplishment”.

Under “the priesthood of the repertory” and the concept of equality he notes some of the most highly valued music, such as fugues,

in which there is textual equality of parts, and in which distinctions of power, volume, tone colour, and role specialization are relatively unimportant, a body of music that has, in addition to its sonic existence, a life in the abstract. This is music whose structural details play a greater role than the pleasurable nature of its sound, moment to moment. In general, it has no programmatic content and perhaps little in the way of obvious emotional connotations.

The discipline of the fugue “seems to result from a combination of technical and social principles”, and it had a significant afterlife even after the heyday of the art.

He reflects on the role of the string quartet in the canon—I’d love to see him or Susan McClary discussing the Große Fuge, so very full of conflict. And he surveys the quartet audience (“broken down by age and sex”, like Keith Richards).

Discussing “cultural performance”, Nettl again opens with the instructive instance of the Blackfoot powwow, going on to consider the tensions of the secular academic “commencement” ceremony, where the values and allegiances of the WAM community are celebrated and graduates admitted to the priesthood of elite music, an army to defend its beleaguered position in society. He offers an interlude on the colour pink, suggestive of subordination, curiously used for their academic hoods since 1895.

In his brief Afterword, Nettl, like Small, expands on the trepidation he expressed at surveying his heartland in such terms. In an important passage he considers the related work of Henry Kingsbury, Music, talent and performance: a conservatory system (1988), and its review by Ellen Koskoff (Ethnomusicology 34.2, 1990)—herself no hidebound defender of the autonomy of WAM, but a great ethnomusicologist focused on gender issues (see Flamenco 2, under “Gender”):

The impression Kingsbury gives to some readers is of a culture or subculture that is essentially mean and even brutish to most of its population. Ellen Koskoff’s review suggests that Kingsbury has “an axe to grind”; that he wishes to “laugh, poke fun at, or cry… at the grim reality of conservatory life” [cf. Mozart in the jungle]; and that he will only convince those musicians “who remember their own musical training with resentment and who want, deep down, to settle the score”. Kingsbury does not totally deny these aims in his response, because he closes his rejoinder by citing Howard Becker to the effect that social scientists must make judgments and that “appeals for ‘balanced’ accounts in the social sciences are all to often merely veiled admonitions to endorse the status quo”. Kingsbury would presumably like to see change in the conservatory, change that would improve life and maybe improve music, and I applaud and agree. Even the rosiest picture would have to contain its share of grimness. And so I, too, would like to see change, although at this point I am not sure from what to what.

It’s a complicated place, the Heartland music school, existing as it does at a number of crossroads. It’s a place that aims specifically to teach a set of values, and it does so not only through practical instruction but also through the presentation of a quasi-religious system. It’s a place that puts “music” first and looks at music as if it were a reflection of a homogeneous human society. It is an umbrella under which different approaches to music can coexist, interact, and argue. It collects many kinds of music, brought from many places and composed at many different times, putting them all under one roof but making them all march to the drummer of the central classical tradition. It reflects the culture in which it lives, but it also tries to direct that culture in certain directions. […]

However, I have tried to avoid endorsing anything. If an explicitly critical stance will preach only to the converted, then perhaps an approach that tries to present a balanced picture might show champions of the status quo why they should depart from it. But that will have to be their own choice. An article of faith with most ethnomusicologists is that they should try their best to avoid disturbing the cultures they study or introducing new musics and practices, and that they should also restrain themselves from unduly encouraging musical cultures to eschew change in order to preserve the past. And, in my role of ethnomusicologist, I wish to abide by this principle, even when considering the culture in which I live. As much as I can.

Yet again I relish the lucid accessibility of Nettl’s style. As a system within a particular society, the rules of WAM deserve unpacking just like those of any other. But, just as Nettl implies, while WAM scholars and aficionados would benefit greatly from such an analysis, I suspect they may be the last to read studies like this; still, they should feel stimulated rather than threatened by such an approach.

For more armchair ethnography from my Chiswick home, see here.





A recognition sextet, and more stammering



To follow my Mozart opera dream:

Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.

The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:

A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:

But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):

* * *

The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!

Besides all the musical portrayals of disfluency that I mentioned in this post (including Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”), we can add Vašek in Smetana’s The bartered bride:

An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but

some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.

And the role of Dr Blind in Die Fledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.


Mozart vocal trios


I don’t really go in for the analysis of dreams, though I did report the pitiless satirizing of my naïve aspirations to insider status in Lisbon. Now I’m most grateful to a dream that I had the other night for reminding me of one of Mozart’s most magical vocal trios (cf. Mozart for winds, and genius).

Like many musos, I regularly have dreams where I find myself in a prestigious venue struggling to perform a challenging piece for which I’m totally unprepared, perhaps further unable to find how to get onto the stage, and equipped with the wrong instrument (as in this Larson cartoon).

In this case I can’t recall the context—I was involved somehow in the performance, but I don’t think I was singing; and I didn’t catch any lyrics. On waking up, it took me a while to realize that what I had heard in my sleep was Protegga il guisto cielo from the Act 1 finale of Don Giovanni—a piece that I hadn’t heard for many years. Though in my dream I distinctly heard it in E (!), it’s actually in B♭:

Protegga il giusto cielo il zeto del mio cor     May a just Heaven protect my heart’s zeal
Vendichi il giusto cielo il mio tradito amor   May a just Heaven avenge my outraged love

In the context of the Act 1 finale the trio is even more moving, with the frantic dramatic activity suddenly interrupted by those two descending phrases on strings to lead into an oasis of moral probity.

Thankyou, dream. It takes me back to the annual cycle of Mozart operas that we did around Europe in the 1990s, punctuating my visits to China to study the ritual association of Gaoluo village. Our 1994 Don Giovanni tour started in Parma—where a beautiful Italian relationship also began for me.

While I’m here, I just have to add another exquisite little trio (terzettino): Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte, which we performed in 1992. Here’s another version:

Little gems like this don’t necessarily spread into the wider world, but it’s gratifying how widely loved this one has become, partly through featuring in films like Sunday bloody Sunday. And this trio really is in E—I wonder if that’s why my dream transposed the other one for me…

This leads nicely to Aboriginal dream songs.

Mozart for winds, and “genius”

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.

The specialisation of professional training in WAM tends to work as an obstacle to appreciating the broader soundscape. Of course as a fiddle player, taking part in The Rite of Spring, Bach, Mahler, or opera gave me ample opportunity to admire great wind playing and singing; but somehow it seemed impertinent, as if it was none of my business—”just play the dots”, do your job, like a factory worker or a soldier not privy to the grand design (cf. Ecstasy and drudge). Chamber music offers more personal input, but makes a less reliable food-bowl for most performers.

Studying world music inevitably broadens our horizons. However inept, my training in participant observation among Chinese ritual groups and shawm bands helped me focus on the artistry of a range of musicking outside my own expertise.

Returning to WAM, Mozart’s piano concertos are full of exquisite wind parts (see also here, and here). And during our time at Cambridge my ears were opened by Stephen Barlow conducting the astounding Serenade in C minor—here’s an earlier recording:

Such miraculous inspiration is movingly articulated in one of the great scenes from Amadeus (on the Gran partita):

Such wonders are not the exclusive preserve of WAM composers. As always, Bruno Nettl has wise words (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, pp.57–9):

“Musical genius”. It’s the term music lovers in Western culture use to describe their greatest creators of music in classical music and also in jazz (like Louis Armstrong). It is sometimes also used for key figures in the history of popular music (like the Beatles and Elvis Presley).

After unpacking the mythology of Mozart and Beethoven, Nettl compares similar figures in Carnatic music—notably Tyagaraja, also credited with divine inspiration. He goes on:

There certainly are many cultures that share the concept of musical genius on one way or another. Again in my experience, a kind of star system was there in the classical music of Iran in the mid-20th century,  where the line between stars and others was even more pronounced than in Europe, star performers being accorded relatively more status, artistic license, and money. The nonstars were readily ranked from acceptable to incompetent. What distinguishes the “stars” among the most significant creative musicians in Iran, the ones who excel in the improvisiatory section of the performance of a dastgah—the avaz—is their ability to do something new within strict confines.

And while technical virtuosity was less of an issue in my experience of the music of the Blackfoot people, outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

He explores the issue further in Chapter 26 (see here, under “Music and learning”).

Anyway, while we naturally seek out the most outstanding bearers of tradition, yet as Christopher Small observed, musicking is a diverse social activity in which genius and virtuosity play only a limited part. Indeed, in both art and popular traditions they serve as something of a red herring; all kinds of performance events can be meaningful, and moving—from lullabies to a Dolly Parton gig.

Still, to return to inspired wind playing, I always relish Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations of Daoist vocal liturgy, or Hua Yinshan’s searing and soaring shawm playing. See also jazz and trumpet tags—selection here.


Köchel numbers


Along with 1066 and all that and little-trumpeted works like The ascent of Rum Doodle and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, another classic from my youth is the slim tome

  • Bluff your way in music (1966).

Tactfully, the name of its author Peter Gammond is not disclosed. By “music” he means WAM, of course—HIP and “world music“, then only in their infancy, are spared, though folk music and jazz get succinct tributes. There is also a drôle Glossary, forerunner to many twee tea-towels—you know the kind of thing, like

  • Chamber music—music written for a very small number of listeners.
  • Development—what composers do with the melody in order to make a composition of decent length.
  • Exposition—the popular bit of a composition while the tune is still being played [see also Francis Baines‘s definition of sonata form].
  • Harmony—a term of no meaning whatsoever. Such phrases as “rich harmony”, “stark harmony”, “satisfying harmony” can be used indiscriminately.
  • Mode—scales which sound a bit odd.
  • Portamento—the ability to move from a wrong note to a right one without anyone noticing the original mistake.
  • Recitative—when an opera singer forgets the tune.

But my enduring memory of the book is:

Mozart had the distinction, as everyone knows, of writing Koechels instead of Opuses, a thing no other composer has done before or since. Mozart’s great popularity dates from the fact that this absorbing fact was discovered, by some strange coincidence, by a man called Koechel.

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 (3rd edition, 2015, augmenting his original 1983 version),

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

In Chapter 2 he notes the wide range of definitions among societies of what constitutes “music” (cf. McAllester on the Navajo):

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 Chapter 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 Chapter 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 Civilisations (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 part of 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.

Conducting from memory

As S-S-Simon Rattle formally takes over the LSO, his latest media love-in reminded me of Harry and Paul’s fine departure in their Scousers series:

But Seriously Though Folks, some thoughts about conducting from memory. As both a performer and a concert-goer, I love it when conductors do this. I suppose it excites me partly because I’ve spent most of the last three decades toiling under what Norman Lebrecht calls “semi-conductors” in the early-music world, where it’s very rare—but never mind them.

We may compare WAM soloists—and musicians in most the world (to take an entirely random instance: um, Daoist ritual specialists…). Conducting from memory now seems to me like a basic courtesy to the orchestra. Conductors don’t have to worry about strings going out of tune, or reeds misbehaving, or splitting notes—they’re earning a zillion times more than the poor people who actually play the music, and all they have to do is “wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow”. And the benefits, for both players and audience, are immense.

Conductors have more nuanced views, of course. Here’s Paul Hostetter:

Conductors had the score in front of them, not because it wasn’t memorized most of the time, but rather almost as a reverent gesture to the composer’s intent.

Similarly, John Murton:

I always interpreted this as a sign of humility towards the music they were performing, perhaps even in some quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance.

This is revealing. But Will Crutchfield comments:

… among [conductors] it is becoming something of a point of honour to perform without a score.
And why shouldn’t they, if we’re going to say soloists ought to? There are essential differences. First and simplest, it’s harder. There are many instruments and thus far more notes to be memorized; even if you can easily recall the musical substance, the matter of who’s playing what, when, with whom is complex and constantly shifting. And the conductor does not have the benefit of motor or tactile memory of how the notes feel because he does not play any of the notes.
For the same reason, conductors are the only musicians who can fake memorization, or perform a piece ”off book” when it is only partly learned. If it’s a matter of putting down the right keys on the piano, you either know it or you don’t. But if a conductor succeeds in memorizing the score at a gross level (the basic rhythms, the major entrances), he can go ahead and conduct ”by heart” while he’s still learning the details, or perhaps without ever learning some of them. If you don’t think this happens, even in big places, have a beer with any longtime orchestral player and ask.

The practice caught on from Toscanini. Furtwängler, Celibidache, Karajan (sorry), BöhmBernstein, Barbirolli… Of all conductors I would expect to dispense with the score, it would be Rozhdestvensky—he’s so spontaneous and direct. But apparently he always had the score in front of him, and the result was electrifying anyway.

The score can serve as a safety-net for the conductor; for the band, as a psychologically stabilizing element. But it’s also as a protective layer insulating the conductor from communicating directly—we know how much more thrilling a performance is without the safety-net.

The focal position of the score reminds us all that we’re here not so much to celebrate an incandescent moment of communication between musicians, as to reinforce the hegemony of a dead composer. During the “performance” the audience may even consolidate this by occasionally resorting to the printed programme.

I just find it distracting, and a sad limitation to the potential for the direct engagement that should be intrinsic to any kind of performance.


Just a few instances. Here’s the magical Carlos Kleiber conducting Brahms 2 in 1991, with an unrepentantly all-male Vienna Phil (using free bowing!!! and 1st and 2nd violins seated opposite!!!):

Be spellbound by the coda of the 1st movement, with the horn solo introducing the violins playing high on the G-string (from 12.59)… and then the slow movement!!!*

And here’s S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement of Mahler 5:

You can find Abbado’s Mahler 5 here; and the 6th here. And don’t miss him accompanying the divine Hélène Grimaud in Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto.

Chamber groups like the Chiara quartet have also found playing from memory fruitful. Even more radical is to get (and pay?!) the orchestra to play from memory too, as the Aurora orchestra often does:

Note this roundup of posts on conducting.


* In the words of a Classic FM presenter, “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it? Give us a call.”

Yet more Mozart

Mozart’s divine A major piano concerto came on the radio while I was reviewing Blair Tindall‘s story of the conflicting feelings of professional musicians as they try to maintain youthful ideals when confronted with the harsh realities of the music business.

One doesn’t have to have a long relationship with a piece (whether “classical” or popular)—it can be amazing to make a discovery in later years. But a cumulative personal listening-history is enriching.

All the late Mozart piano concertos (and most of the earlier ones too) are special, but hearing the A major concerto again, my immersion in it is a cumulative result of accompanying it in my teens (actually, even practising it, in the days when I could also play piano), and later for Mozart’s own incarnation, Robert Levin (also here).

(YouTube BTL comments always entertaining:)

Was this recorded using period microphones too?
Yes and it needs period listener too.

But (you know me) I also have to offer Hélène Grimaud playing the slow movement—sod the purists, it’s no less enchanting to the ear than to the eye:

Mozart in the jungle

Blair Tindall’s Mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs, and classical music (2005) is the kind of book that I (if not my imaginary bank manager)* am glad I didn’t try and write. But it’s a valuable addition to the ethnography of WAM, seeking beyond the disembodied romantic image.

Despite its salacious subtitle, it’s of an entirely different order from fictional romps like Jilly Cooper’s Appassionata. As an insider’s account, it’s all the more revealing for being, um, “true”. The “muckraking” hype may make it seem like tabloid fodder, but I’m all for lifting the lid on the orchestral business with thick description.

Those reading it for the kiss-and-tell stories may get bogged down in the detailed accounts of arts funding—and indeed vice versa—but as one reads on, it’s well worth it. As I seek to integrate the thick description of contemporary Chinese life with the more arcane minutiae of ancient Daoist texts, I take this to heart.

While not initially sympathetic, the story later becomes a bravely candid and noble indictment. Fighting through depression. when Tindall finally escapes the twin prisons of the Allendale (graveyard of many a career—“a squalid rat-infested building where musicians lived because they had no choice”) and her stagnant orchestral life, you want to cheer. As if to explain and put in perspective the reinventions that Taruskin unpacks, she comments:

I was in a narcissistic industry that that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape. (247)

As she finally tunnels her way out of the Gulag to a journalism course in Stanford, she wonders,

How could I have allowed such an insular, incestuous business to rule me for a quarter century? (291)

* * *

Ethnographies are always specific to their time: for orchestral life, Vienna around 1900, 1950s’ Leeds, Dubai in 2015, and so on. Here we have New York from the eve of AIDS into the 21st century. But whatever the time and place, it’s always about real people seeking work.

Tindall argues against the kind of cloistered education she received. Soon she is plunged into the fray of the New York scene. Freelancing, all over the world, is an insecure life. She makes a terrifying debut with the NY Phil, doing Tchaik 5 with Tennstedt, soon followed by The rite of spring with Bernstein. Sounds glamorous, eh? What could possibly go wrong?

She describes the transition from the initial excitement, during a boom, to the decline of the 90s as ideals hit the rocks. Such stultifying routine is well observed by Alan Bennett in 1950s’ Leeds. After the Golden Age of the 1980s, Tindall notes the irony of the transition:

The culture boom was fizzling, yet the business of the arts were gaining momentum.

With an on-off relationship with the NY Phil, she schlepps around on out-of-town gigs with her friends. And she’s just as good at describing the life of the pit band for shows, a more dependable livelihood to which her career “descends”. Getting a regular job in Aspects of love, she

discovered an unusual skill possessed by about 10 percent of Broadway musicians. I could read a magazine while playing my part simultaneously. Those without the gift passed the time in other ways, plugging in transistors, knitting, making lists, or doing crosswords. One trumpeter studied maps.

This puts in perspective the reported churlishness of the Berlin Phil towards S-S-Simon Rattle—at least they have secure jobs, playing different masterpieces every night with a highly sympathetic conductor.

Tindall notes adverse changes in the recording industry. On an increasingly rare film session she comments:

As I watched the violinists’ bows going up and down in unison, reflected against glass beyond which sat the film’s production team, I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of people. In the booth sat men who made money out of trying a new idea, succeeding or failing and then trying another. On my side of the business, musicians returned to the same kinds of gigs, playing someone else’s music and earning a per-service wage. As the bows went up and down, I was reminded of a scene in Ben Hur in which galley slaves rowed without much idea of where they were headed. (275)

As she admits, she was proud to be unable to identify a pop song from the Beatles to Blondie (90). Indeed, she was missing out on a vibrant period for popular culture in New York—just as I would have, and indeed did, in London.

A full-time symphonic job evolves into monotony for many players. Orchestra musicians saw away like factory workers, repeating the same pieces year after year. Once a player is employed in a desirable orchestra, career advancement is severely limited. Perfectionism and injuries wear musicians down. Nighttime and holiday work disconnect them from mainstream life. Players complain that they forfeit autonomy to an omnipotent conductor who works a third of their schedule, is paid as much as twenty musicians [so little?!—SJ], and gets credit for the music they make.

In a world where the livelihoods of the rank-and-file are so tenuous, Tindall attacks the grossly inflated fees of conductors, soloists, and management with detailed arguments (see also here).

Reminding me of a survey of trusted professions in China, she cites a survey of job satisfaction of workers in a variety of industries,

in which orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in overall job satisfaction than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. (215–16)

I doubt if people go into hedge-fund management, or restaurant service, burdened by particularly high spiritual ideals. So it’s the disjuncture of lofty youthful dreams of making beautiful music (and the enduring rosy public image) with the harsh mundane realities of eking a living that can make for such soul-searching. Even those aspiring to some other professions—like becoming a cook, or a teacher or nurse—are better armed with cautionary tales.

The book is full of poignant passages like

I was tired of pretending I wanted this. Tired of my hopeless reed-making. Sick of the same old excerpts. Sick of spending every cent trying to win a job that offered only a minimal salary. After twenty-five auditions, I had spent $30,000 on flights, hotels, private oboe lessons, and missed work, most of it accumulating on a credit card. Even if I had won this gig, I’d never get out of debt.
I signaled the bartender and ordered a double Dewar’s. He wiped down the bar. I swallowed the burning whiskey and cleared my throat.
“I tried out for the Nashville Symphony today,” I told the bartender. He didn’t know Nashville had an orchestra. He loved music though, playing a little guitar himself. What was my instrument?
“Oboe,” I said simply. “I play the oboe.”
Oh-boe?” he asked, and stopped wiping, rag suspended over the bar. “What the heck’s an oh-boe?”(186–7)

* * *

Perhaps the more deviant behaviour that Tindall describes is prompted by the mismatch between ecstasy and drudge. For London since the 1970s, the main drug of choice was alcohol—as well as the elephant in the room, beta-blockers. Tindall reflects on drug use (“substance abuse was almost a badge of honor”), and its often-tragic consequences, with elegant summaries:

There were plenty of reason for musicians to get high—to soothe the frustration of spotty employment or to dull the repetitious nature of practicing and performing the same works over and over again. For others, it was the pursuit of perfection in an art whose quality cannot be measured. (106–10)

Noting that Tindall used to sell bags of weed as a teenager to subsidize her budding career, if you don’t know the Family Guy song, then you must!

She notes gender relations, with the ratio improving more quickly than the attitudes of the still-dominant male elite (86–7). Personal life can suffer too (as in the UK musos’ motto “touring doesn’t count”). Moaning with a girlfriend about the difficulty of finding a suitable partner, she observes:

Back in my early twenties, men my age lived in squalor, and the ones I met in orchestras were either geriatric or already spoken for. By their thirties, though, responsible guys had jumped ship for a career that could support a family. That left people outside the business, who were difficult to meet and had peculiar notions about us anyway. Outsiders were forever intimidated by musicians, whom they imagined as erudite superintellects.
“Ha! Musicians are more like blue-collar workers than PhDs,” Sydney joked. She had a point. Music performance was a specific craft that was perfected more by practice than by analysis. Our colleagues’ narrow focus sometimes made for dull conversation too, centering around dirty jokes, shop talk, and expensive wining and dining that everyone pretended they could afford. (226)

* * *

Tindall acknowledges some positive recent changes in symphony orchestras that put the needs of their communities first (301). Yet in the end the concerts she attends leave her cold. She sums up:

The role of classical music has changed in American society since 1960. In the thirties, forties, and fifties, [“classical”—SJ] music had been a part of everyday life for Americans, many of whom played instruments or sang together as amateurs. Today, classical music has become peripheral and irrelevant to mainstream life. It is regarded as an incomprehensible art that must be performed perfectly or not at all. […]
Today, amateur musicians are conservatory-trained professionals who cannot find work. Typically, their lives are the reverse of the 1950s amateurs—highly trained in their hobby but uneducated in whatever becomes their money-making career. […] They […] may flounder through life doing non-musical work that does not use the high levels of ambition and intelligence many gifted musicians possess. […]
I’m one of those part-time musicians now. When I do play music, it is a joy. […] What offers me a meaningful life today are the infinite possibilities in our modern world, of which music is only one. (306)

The book is unlikely to transform the staid image of WAM, but that’s not the point at all (she comments wryly on the rampant “sexing-up” of WAM). As Tindall herself commented on young audiences in interview,

My experience with them is that when people see live musicians wearing clothes that they wear, who look like them, they’re mesmerized by it. But when it’s presented as something very highfalutin, it’s frightening. The wall comes down right away.

* * *

As an oboist, Tindall sprinkles the book liberally with shavings from reed-making and all its paraphernalia, reminding me of Wu Mei and Ciaran Carson:

Jimmy dug into his satchel. Oboists carry reed tool kits: knives, mandrels, pliers, sharpening stones, plus cigarette papers for leaky keys. He shook a plastic film canister filled with water for soaking reeds. He put it aside and grabbed a second canister, tapping out some pot to roll a joint. We smoked dope, got naked, and embraced. (100)

It’s good to find an early source for my casual reference to TFL’s use of classical music at London tube stations. As she schlepps back from a church gig in New Jersey, she passes through the bus station at Port Authority, known as a magnet for crime:

Mozart’s Eine kleine nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray”. […] The technique had first been used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. […] I thought about the message of Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime. How could we, the industry producing the stuff, demand that our fans pay top dollar for the same treatment? Ironically, the public’s distaste for classical music opened up a new market for repackaging symphonies and sonatas as cultural spinach. Mozart may be yucky and boring, went the reasoning, but it’s good for you. (205)

* * *

As Edward Smith notes in a finely-titled review,

the sex and drugs are peripheral to the much more important things she has to say about the music industry and the broader relationship between society, finance and the arts. […] By the time Tindall turned pro in the 1980s, the classical music industry still expected a deference that it no longer commanded. Supply outstripped demand.

Given such insights, Smith’s conclusion seems unkind:

First Tindall used sex for advancement in one profession, now she has used writing about sex for advancement in another.

Anne Midgette’s review also has some reservations:

There’s a lot wrong with the classical music business. But there is a lot wrong in other fields, too. Plenty of people in this country are stuck in dead-end jobs even more repetitive and less interesting than Ms Tindall’s. Plenty of them can’t afford health insurance. Plenty of industries need fixing. Plenty of people used a lot of drugs in the 1980’s. Plenty of workers die in car accidents during their daily commutes. So these arguments alone are not a strong indictment of classical music per se.

Of course the frustrations and injustices of other professions are indeed important topics, but ethnographers like those of Tindall are valuable partly in order to deflate a dangerous myth that is less common elsewhere.

Aaron Bady gives a fine review of the book along with the more recent, and predictably more benign, Amazon TV series:

She spent the first half of her life trying to be a good musician in a system that no longer had a place for her, yet a system that needed her drive and passion and desperation to keep itself viable… but that would never allow her a life in which she could thrive. Once she understood this cruel fact, she left.[Tindall describes]
how trickle-down austerity feels on the bottom of the pay-scale, how economic disparities become social exploitation, and how an appeal to idealism and doing-what-you-love becomes a ticket to poverty for those foolish enough to believe it (all against the backdrop of a data-driven journalistic analysis of how overpaid administrators have mismanaged classical music into oblivion).
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Amazon’s version is a point-by-point response to Tindall’s critique. If Tindall tries to disillusion us, Amazon gives glamorous cameos to Lang Lang, Emanuel Ax, Joshua Bell, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, and Anton Coppola, the very same rich and famous stars who (as Tindall showed) luxuriate in a system built on bloody hands, broken lungs, and crushed ambitions. Their participation in the show is fun, perhaps because it puffs up the mythology that Tindall was trying to deflate.

 For more reviews, see here.

* * *

Of course, the life of a few elite orchestras doesn’t represent the totality of music-making, even in urban areas. The classic ethnography (largely free of sex and drugs) is Ruth Finnegan’s The hidden musicians, on all kinds of musical life in Milton Keynes. Tindall’s account should also take its place alongside all the jazz biographies detailing another side to New York musical life (vibrant yet also insecure), and all the ethnographies of local music-making in world societies.

Some orchestral players, both in regular jobs and freelancers, take the rough with the smooth and find considerable fulfilment. But I suspect they are outnumbered by those who reach a point of frustration and helplessness. This book should be compulsory reading for idealistic young musicians—not necessarily to dissuade them from a musical “career”, but just to increase awareness and encourage debate.


* Remember them? They had bowler hats and moustaches and caught the 7.46 from Surbiton.

Summery Mozart

Talking of Roaming in Paradise, perfect music for summer nights (cf. Berlioz) is Mozart’s C major piano concerto—not least the amazing vista that miraculously unfolds in the finale, introduced by an abrupt cadence (from 3.47):

I’m by no means an early music purist, but I really find the fortepiano more expressive here—or rather, the way it suggests the music can be played. All Mozart’s amazing late concertos are really piano and wind quintets, but melting into those string entries (1.03, 1.52)  is a spine-tingling experience.

By contrast with the disembodied fallacy of “autonomous music”, our experiences of all kinds of music are always an accumulation of associations. Those sessions with Malcolm Bilson at St John’s Smith Square (in interludes between my fieldwork in China) are a happy memory. It also reminds me of accompanying Roy Howat (also a brilliant Ravel specialist) with Charles Groves* directing the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra during May Week (which is of course two weeks in June, as Clive James reminds us) in 1974. And Robert Levin’s Mozart is in a league of its own.

Sharing the piece with Natasha, always attuned to classical beauty alongside her taste for icons and electronica, was magical too.


*He had just been knighted. I haven’t written “Sir Charles Groves”, not so much out of resistance to antiquated honorifics, but because it would only remind me of the Sir Simon Rattle story. Oh go on then.

Yet more heritage flapdoodle: Hongtong

Hongtong 1
Further fodder for my distaste of the heritage shtick—thanks again to Helen Rees, my Word on the Street, I’ve been reading an interesting article by Ziying You,

  • “Shifting actors and power relations: contentious local responses to the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in contemporary China”,
    Journal of folklore research 52.2/3 (2015).

And now she has published a book on the topic, which I look forward to reading:

Hongtong cover

Hongtong county, in south Shanxi, is always cropping up in studies of local culture in north China—notably since it was used as a huge migration transfer centre to areas further north and northeast that had been depopulated by the appalling dynastic warfare of the early Ming. Like many villages on the plain south of Beijing, Gaoluo, subject of my book Plucking the winds, is said to have been founded as a result of this migration; and Li Manshan’s lineage moved north to Yanggao just around this time. [1]

It’s a long time since we’ve featured The China Daily, so I’m delighted to cite a 2012 article here:

A step into Hongtong county in southern Shanxi province and I found myself transported into a land filled with fairy tales.

YAY! The paper hasn’t lost its old magic, then. It does provide a couple of charming pieces of folklore:

The Chinese term used today to mean “go to toilet” or jie shou is also linked to the legend.
The migrants had their hands tied behind their backs when they migrated. They were only allowed to untie their hands when they needed to relieve themselves. Jie shou, which literally means to untie the hands, gradually became the term used for “go to toilet”. The expression spread widely to the provinces where the Shanxi migrants were sent.

Another interesting tale on Hongtong involves a woman by the name of Su San in the Ming Dynasty, who became probably one of the most well-known prostitutes in Chinese history.
Su met young scholar Wang Jinglong at her brothel. The two fell in love and Wang stayed with Su for a whole year but was later chased out of the brothel because he ran out of money. Su was then sold to another man as concubine. She was framed for murdering the man, imprisoned and was sentenced to death.
Meanwhile, Wang who attempted the imperial examination, did well and was appointed governor of Shanxi. He heard about Su’s case and helped with the investigation to deliver her from death row.
The lovers eventually got married and as how all fairy tales end, they lived together happily ever after.
The story has been adapted as a Peking Opera play The Story of Su San (Yu Tang Chun) and became one of the best-known Peking Opera plays in China. Hongtong county where Su San was imprisoned became well-known through the play.
Although the original prison was severely damaged during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the present one restored in 1984 retains all its original features. For example, there is a cave used for dead bodies, and a well with very small mouth to prevent prisoners from jumping in to kill themselves.
Su San’s story has brought fame to the prison, making it a must-see in Hongtong. Today the site is renamed as “Su San Prison”, and her story is presented by a series of wax statues within the site.

Damn, I’m trying to write about the ICH here… Led astray by The China Daily“typical!”

Anyway, Ziying You’s article concerns Hongtong as the site of an enduring cult to the ancient sage-kings Yao and Shun, in which several villages form a she parish, with temple fairs and processions. [2] For ICH purposes it is nominated as Hongtong zouqin xisu “the custom of visiting sacred relatives in Hongtong” [3] — and yes, sure enough the term “living fossil” rears its ugly head again.
Hongtong procession
Though not currently on the UNESCO “Representative list” for the ICH, it has been inscribed on the provincial and then national lists since 2006. With typical official razzmatazz, local cultural cadres set up a “Hongtong Centre for the safeguarding of ICH”, niftily bypassing the temple committees which are the lifeblood of the whole tradition.

BTW, as at many such festivals, I see no signs here of liturgical sequences of ritual specialists—only large groups of gong-and-drum ensembles (which are also widespread in Shanxi).

By contrast with the alacrity of cadres,

For most ordinary people, ICH was a foreign term remote from their knowledge and discourse.
Those who were mobilized to assist in the ICH application expected to receive a large amount of money from the central government to do whatever they wished within their local communities.

Not only has this expectation been unfulfilled—the Yangxie temple committee spent a substantial amount in the extended process of preparing the application. Moreover, the Centre, jockeying for favour with ICH bodies higher up the chain, monopolizes as-yet elusive state funding. And while the local conflicts between the villages did not originate with the ICH application, they were exacerbated in the process. Anyway, the temple committees, true “bearers of the heritage”, have been disempowered.

The ICH project thus became a means for the local ICH centre to exploit the local population and harvest the profits from the state.

Citing Chiara de Cesari, the author comments:

UNESCO frequently ends up reinforcing the power and reach of the nation-state and its bureaucracy, which is contradictory to its own principle of involving local communities and “grassroots”.

Yet again, the ICH machinery appears not to be safeguarding local cultures so much as safeguarding itself.

My encounters over the years with groups earmarked for ICH status—such as the village ritual associations of Qujiaying and Gaoluo, as well as the Li family Daoists—only confirm such findings. But the juggernaut rolls on.

As I write, Haitink’s recent Prom is on the radio, with the Prague symphony. No Mozart balls, just boundless energy and creativity!


[1] For the migrations to Yanggao, see Jing Ziru’s article in Yanggao wenshi ziliao 阳高文史资料 2: 216–228 and 206.
[2] Note also Anning Jing, The Water God’s Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater (Brill, 2001)—albeit more historical iconography than contemporary ritual ethnography.
[3] These photos are among many from http://photo.xinzhou.org/2010/0717/picture_1826.html

The late great Hugh Maguire

Hugh Maguire (1926–2013) managed to combine his work as leader of orchestras with making some fine chamber music. I share my admiration for his playing with far more distinguished pupils of his. As he caressed the strings lovingly, his way of turning a phrase was irresistible.

In the NYO another important kind of education for me was pub sessions where he and flautist Norman Knight would swap indiscreet orchestral stories over copious G&Ts.

Blessed with a brilliant Irish sense of humour (see also Irish tag), Hugh could be both charming and tough with conductors. It was he who told me the Hermann Scherchen story.

This reminiscence gives an idea of his sincerity:

His playing appears all too rarely on YouTube, but here’s his wonderful 1964 recording of Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov, not the equally ravishing Ravel version) with Pierre Monteux and the LSO:

BTW, Monteux (1875–1964) had conducted the premières of Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Daphnis and Chloe—just imagine! That recording was his last, in his final year.

Pete Hanson, heir to Hugh’s own spirit, recalls his account of a scary moment during the Scheherazade sessions:

Towards the end of a day’s recording, Monteux turned to him after the first take of the finale, with its ethereal high harmonics, and said “Come on Maguire, get it right!”

Hugh too could be as down-to-earth as his playing was sublime. Here’s Pete again, with a couple of choice comments received during lessons:

“You sound great, Pete, all the shapes and feelings are there—but you’ve got to play all the notes!”

“Pete, even if your strings are out, you must play in tune! Just do it wit’ your fingers!”

Nor is the play of fag-ash on ancient instrument the exclusive province of Li ManshanYet again, Carson has a beautiful description (Last night’s fun, p.54):

So I remember fiddle-players with cigarettes poised between two fingers of their bow-hand, and the ash would wave and sprinkle across their trouser-knees; or the cigarette that drooped between a player’s lips would let drop a little grub of ash into an f-hole of a fiddle, where it disintegrated as it crashed into the ersatz “Stradivari” label. The knees were dusted off, someone rosined up, and a fitful shaft of sunlight would illuminate the dust-motes like a dissolute snowstorm souvenir.

Even better, Hugh really was playing a Strad—like the first fiddler in Mick Hoy’s wonderful story.

This 1968 recording of the Mendelssohn Octet has long been a favourite, with Hugh leading a star cast including Neville Marriner and Iona Brown (or Iona Brown violin, as she’s known):

On the same LP, the poise of Hugh’s playing in the Minuet of the Boccherini Quintet is charming too—with a bold yet tasteful glissando on the cello (0.37, 1.03, and best of all at 3.15):

Boccherini also makes a priceless backdrop for The ladykillers. For an incident in the middle of a string quartet, see here; and for another string quartet, here.

And here’s Hugh leading the Allegri quartet in the finale of the Mozart clarinet quintet, with Jack Brymer:

Love song, and more Mozart

Talking of craftsmanship in words and music, here’s Bill Bailey:

Of many classic lines, this is brilliant:

The duck lies shredded in a pancake
Soaking in the hoisin of your lies.

I’m also keen on his pub joke:

An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar—and everything unfolds with a tedious predictability.

He’s a fine pianist too. It would be just as much fun to play Mozart piano concertos with him as with Robert Levin—here playing Mozart’s very own piano:

Gosh—I’m even playing there too, a stay in Salzburg making a pleasant change in between fieldwork trips to Hebei.

Mozart at the tube station

Coming out of Goldhawk road tube late on a rowdy Friday night, the station speakers regale me with the moment where the sun clouds over near the opening of the slow movement of Mozart’s 21st piano concerto.

I don’t linger, I have an onward bus to catch. Fortunately I’ve been accompanying the concerto for several decades, so I can fill in the tranquil opening and the whole progress of the movement; and it evokes memories of many performances over various stages of my life. So even that tiny fragment, in such an incongruous context, is full of meaning for me. It’s another of those pieces that can’t be ruined by their use in film music (in this case Elvira Madigan). But what if you don’t know the piece? The project wasn’t aimed at people like me.

Still, thanks, TFL.

More fieldwork tips

The Police squad series builds on Airplane the way Don Giovanni builds on Le nozze di Figaro.

An idée fixe that often comes in handy during fieldwork (see also under Themes) is

In rural China the etiquette of exchanging cigarettes and lighting up for each other is an important skill for the fieldworker to acquire, confirming social bonds (my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.24). Generally, when two or more men meet they compete to be first to get their offer accepted. The first offer is vehemently rejected; the giver is then obliged to insist until the cigarette is reluctantly accepted. The word thankyou is never used. Some shoving may be involved. Then the two compete to be first to proffer a light; as the recipient lights up, he expresses appreciation by touching the lighter’s hand with the little finger of the hand holding the cigarette, and the man with the lighter takes care to keep the flame going as he lights his own. I learn to emulate Li Manshan’s ritual of reluctantly accepting a cigarette, his frown, his look of confusion—“What is this funny little tubular object that is being offered to me, and how should I react?”

With the Li family Daoists we’ve developed a classification of cigarettes according to price, which varies widely. Using the class status language of land reform, we call the posh brands “rich-peasant fags”—the cheaper ones are for wannabe poor peasants like me.

Police squad provides another useful idée fixe on the importance of local knowledge in fieldwork:

The Greek subtitles inadvertently add a further Pythonesque touch. Though perhaps less so if you’re Greek.

My current favourite fieldwork tip heads this post.

Ravel et al.

Further to my Ravel page (under WAM):

Tanita Tikaram (where has she been all my life?), for her wonderful Private Passions, chose Michelangeli’s version, also very fine, of the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

Apart from Bach (including the amazing Lalo Schifrin) she featured the slow movement of Mozart’s A major piano concerto, with the ill-fated Clara Haskil.

Mozart balls

Amidst all the hype surrounding Alma Deutscher, she is the only one talking sense:

I love Mozart very much, he’s probably my favourite composer, but I don’t really like it when people call me “Little Miss Mozart” because I don’t like being called “little”. I’m very big, and secondly, if I just wrote everything Mozart wrote again it would be boring.

Another one for the T-shirt of female composers… And further mature proto-feminist wisdom.



This is often claimed as a photo of Mozart’s wife Constanze (1762–1842), just imagine… Or is it? See here.

Many of us would like to give it the benefit of the doubt. If it is her, then it will be one of the most surprising things you will ever see. OK, it was taken in 1840, when he was long gone. Few wives outlived their husbands. As Munger says, she became the Yoko Ono of the 19th century.

If only we had photos of the Li family Daoists (and their wives) from then… Even the photo of Li Peisen and his wife from the 1940s is rare enough. Indeed, in a world where female members of a family are taken for granted at best, people remembered her as exceptionally able and intelligent too.


Of all the beautiful things you can do in 5 minutes and 20 seconds (like playing Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body at the end of the Transferring Offerings ritual), the divine Ronnie’s 1997 maximum is likely to remain unmatched in human history:

Beats 4’33” any day, with all due respect to John Cage.

I shouldn’t need an excuse for showing this, but here it is. After taking Li Manshan to a conference in Hong Kong (my book, p.333), I was staying with him in a posh hotel in Beijing when we switched on the TV to find Ronnie playing in the world masters snooker. Snooker has become staggeringly popular in China, but Li Manshan hadn’t seen it before, and his amazement was delightful. So I showed him this 147, which is flabbergasting even if you don’t quite know how ridiculously difficult it is…

After the lavish banquets in Hong Kong, at which we both felt rather uncomfortable, we were happy to eat a simple bowl of noodles in peace together in a little caff over the road. Next day I took him to the station to take the train home and get on with his routine of determining the date, decorating coffins, and funerals.

My favourite expression of snooker commentators is “he’s eying up a plant”. Tang poetry is all very well, but I wonder how you say that in Chinese…

Since Ronnie is often described as the Mozart of snooker, I note that Mozart enjoyed a game of billiards.