Roaming the clouds: Miranda Vukasovic

 

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

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

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

Photos: Wu Hujun.

* * *

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

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

Watch out for her chapter in the fine forthcoming collection

* * *

Radiance poster

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

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

Soft machine:

Beijing, 2017:

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

Beijing gig, 2016.

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

 

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

Fashion notes

funeral pop better

Pop outside gateway, Yanggao village 2018.

Two lists, just possibly somewhat partial, of what is In and what is Out in rural north China:

Things that are at no risk of going out of fashion:

  • hawking and spitting / emptying contents of nose onto the floor
  • exchange of cigarettes
  • “leather” miniskirts
  • corruption
  • piles of stinking rubbish by the roadside
  • pollution
  • getting legless (for which there’s a nice Yanggao term, erjinban 二斤半)

(If Uncle Xi is as omnipotent as China-watchers suggest, then WTF?!)

Oh, and

  • Hymn to the Three Treasures as first sung hymn (Opening Scriptures) on arrival at the soul hall.

Things that have gone out of fashion (cf. my book, Coda pp.357–61):

  • Thanking the Earth
  • funerary Communicating the Lanterns, Crossing the Bridges, yankou
  • shengguan suites for earth and temple scriptures
  • yunluo frame of ten pitched gongs, dizi flute
  • reed-matting on the kang brick-bed (Plastic Rules OK)
  • Serving the People [remind me when that was In?]
  • pop music at funerals!!!

The latter came as a surprise to me. As you see in one of the most striking images of my film (from 30.32), whereas in the early 1980s villagers were glad to restore the “old rules”, by the 90s they were much more excited* by the pop bands performing on a truck outside the soul hall. But over the last few years even the audience for these acts has dwindled, as people can watch the Real Thing (sic) on their phones.

 

*In Li Manshan’s words: leqilaile 乐起来了!

A stunning keyboard break

I keep meaning to give an introduction to the work of Susan McClary, which (both for its ideas and its lively language) has prompted such a major “disciplinary explosion” in musicology, with her iconic book Feminine endings. Her ideas, “received as radical—even outrageous—within musicology, only brought to music studies the kind of projects that had long since become standard fare in most other areas of the humanities” (p.ix).

McClary’s work shouldn’t be reduced to soundbites, but alongside astute gender-based discussions of a broad range of music from Monteverdi to Madonna, Carmen to Laurie Anderson, many passages have both inspired and shocked—her detailed unpackings of patriarchal assumptions, such as on Beethoven (“assaultive pelvic pounding… and sexual violence “), or the “erotic friction” of Italian trio sonatas (“two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions”—an interactive texture that was later displaced).

Meanwhile, listening again to Brandenburg 5 recently after my post on his fawning letter to its churlish recipient, I was reminded of one of McClary’s most famous accounts, from her 1987 article “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”.

Somehow I long took for granted Bach’s “frenzied” harpsichord solo near the end of the 1st movement—McClary observes how our senses are dulled by familiarity with later romantic concertos (and anyway we fiddlers tend to think it’s none of our business—we know our place, which is precisely McClary’s argument). So I’d like to run through the way she unpacks it; whatever you think, she’s always stimulating (see also this post).

She begins by summarizing important background, her constant theme:

At the very moment that music was beginning to be produced for a mass bourgeois audience, that audience sought to legitimize its artifacts by grounding them in the “certainty” of another, presumably more absolute realm—rather than in terms of its own social tastes and values.
[…]
From very early times up to and including the present, there has been a strain of Western culture that accounts for music in non-social, implicitly metaphysical terms. But parallel with that strain (and also from earliest times) is another which regards music as essentially a human, socially-grounded, socially altered construct. Most polemical battles in the history of music theory and criticism involve the irreconcilable confrontation of these two positions.

Inspired by Attali’s book Noise, McClary seeks “the tension between order (indeed, competing claims to legitimate order) and deviation —if not outright violence…” Reminding us of harmonic music’s underlying assumptions of goal-attainment (“playing with (teasing and postponing, gratifying) the expectation of imminent closure”), she plunges into the 1st movement of Brandenburg 5.

She notes the rise of the concerto form, where “the soloist is an virtuosic individualist who flaunts the collectivity of the large ensemble”. […] “It begins as if it is going to be a concerto for solo flute and violin, but it soon becomes clear that “there is a darkhorse competitor for the role of soloist: the harpsichord”. Its normal “service role” at the time seems self-effacing, but “the harpsichordist is often a Svengali or puppet master who works the strings from behind the keyboard. Here s/he “creates a ‘Revenge of the continuo player’: the harpsichord begins in its rightful, traditional, supporting norm-articulating role but then gradually emerges to shove everyone else […] out of the way for one of the most outlandish displays in music history.”

The harpsichord, which first serves as continuo support, then begins to compete with the soloists for attention, and finally overthrows the other forces in a kind of hijacking of the piece. […] The ritornello seems to know how to deal with the more well-behaved soloists, how to appropriate, absorb, and contain their energy.” But Bach now “composes the parts of the ensemble, flute, and violin to make it appear that their piece has been violently derailed. They drop out inconclusively, one after another, exactly in the way an orchestra would do if one of its members started making up a new piece in the middle of a performance. Their parts no longer make sense. They fall silent in the face of this affront from the ensemble’s lackey, and all expectations for orderly reconciliation and harmonic closure are suspended.
[…]
It unleashes elements of chaos, irrationality, and noise until finally it blurs almost entirely the sense of key, meter, and form upon which 18th century style depends.

McClary concludes provocatively:

 The usual nice, tight fit between the social norm, as represented by the convention of concerto procedure, and specific content is here highly problematized. Certainly social order and freedom are possible, but apparently only so long as the individuals in question—like the sweet-tempered flute and violin—abide by the rules and permit themselves to be appropriated. What happens when a genuine deviant (and one from the ensemble’s service staff yet!) declares itself a genius unrestrained by convention, and takes over? We readily identify with the self-appointed protagonist’s adventure (its storming of the Bastille, if you will), and at the same time fear for what might happen as a result of the suspension of traditional authority. […] The possibility of virtual social overthrow, and the violence implied by such overthrow, is suggested in the movement, and the reconciliation of individual and social hierarchy at the end— while welcome—may seem largely motivated by convention. To pull this dramatization back within the limits of self-contained structure and order may seem to avoid the dilemma, but it does so at the expense of silencing the piece. For Bach is here enacting the exhilaration as well as the risks of upward mobility, the simultaneous desire for and resistance of concession to social harmony.

McClary’s work is akin to ethnomusicology (“If I can no longer privilege any one tradition, I find myself perpetually in awe of the countless ways societies have devised for articulating their most basic beliefs through the medium of sound”), and its class and gender implications cry out to be applied to Chinese musical cultures (I made a preliminary and rather unsuccessful attempt in my “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”).

With Bach’s solo, it’s easy to think “that’s just how it goes”, but whatever your “class standpoint” (阶级立场), if you listen to it afresh, every few bars you think, WTF??? I know the analogy with jazz can be overdone, but even jazz solos, however virtuosic, also generally fit within fixed (and democratic?) parameters—except when someone like Coltrane goes off on an interminable fantasy. In its wackiness Bach’s solo reminds me of a pianist like Hiromi—or a Hendrix guitar solo.

It makes a suitably awe-inspiring opening to The chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, all the more exhilarating in Gustav Leonhardt’s restrained version:

And now for something completely different: Glenn Gould, 1962. Don’t worry about the rest of it, just listen from 7.17ish:

Reception history is always intriguing. Little is known of any performances in Bach’s lifetime, but it looks as if the concerto may not have been played again, at least in public, until 1853. Like Rudolf Serkin’s 1935 recording with the Busch Chamber Players, Alfred Cortot’s 1932 version (still on piano) is more genteel than manic:

But performances only became more common with the harpsichord revival of the mid-20th century.

Richard Egarr always offers wacky insights too (from 21.19ish):

Having blown everyone away, the harpsichordist gives a little signal of the return to normality (“relents and politely (ironically?) permits the ensemble to re-enter”) so that they can pick themselves off the floor to come in with the ritornello that innocently began the whole trip.

Sure, one can’t really cheer at every manic new turn, but I still think the only possible reaction of both band and audience, whether now or in Bach’s lifetime, would be akin to that of Billie Holiday as she exults in the succession of amazing solos her band offer up to her.

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glued to Strictly come dancing every week. Oh yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse of popular culture all right [adjusts monocle, grappling ineptly with concept of the high-five]. I was mortified in 2015 when Georgia didn’t win:

Or indeed Alexandra this year… But hey, “It’s not winning but taking part”, eh [zzzzz].

As with Handel opera, or a Moroccan wedding, you just have to suspend your disbelief. Sure, as Barbara Ellen notes in a fine reviewStrictly proved yet again

that it understood its own winning formula—drown the contestants in a vat of fake tan and what a cynic might term even faker bonhomie, and let the controversy and sequins fly. […] A sugar-rush of schmaltz combined with a brawl on the entertainment deck of a cruise ship…

But for me it’s classic BBC “educate, inform and entertain” stuff—inculcating diligence, expression, and appreciation of historical style (!), with the pros and the judges vouchsafing us little dollops of technical advice. For all the fatuous clichés of the competitive formatStrictly can be inspiring and deeply moving. So there.

Still, my question is this:

However were we all conned into thinking that a genre that seemed pathetically antiquated even in the early 1960s could possibly achieve such wild popular success in the 21st century?

This baffling device of prefixing an unlikely and outmoded format with an utterly random adverb gives me an idea whose time has surely come:

Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual

After all, Daoist bands have long been used to ritual competition, “facing platforms”. In my film (from 24.08) my use of karaoke captions for the percussion mnemonics makes an instructive innovation that draws us into a crucial element of ritual performance. And we’ve just had “The Reverend Richard Coles” on Strictly, so hey. My new programme concept has got everything from the original—a grand ritual arena, movement, costumes, music…

Admittedly, even with a minimum of six ritual bands contesting, each performing a different ritual segment for each programme (Presenting Offerings, the InvitationBeholding the Lanterns, and so on), the weekly programme would require at least four hours—and the nocturnal yankou ritual alone takes longer than that. Still, BBC ratings will doubtless soar.

Coming up next—we’ve got Du Zhimin’s band all the way from Guangling, performing the Ambulating Incense ritual!!!

I’ll be delighted if the drôle Claudia Winkleman will host the new show. As to

THE JUDGES…,

the fragrant Darcey Bussell [surely an anagram, e.g. “Recall Debussy”—cf. Gran visits York] is always welcome (how can anyone be so elegant and savvy and still be English?). And now that the great Li Manshan is ceding much of his ritual work to his son Li Bin, he seems the ideal choice as chair of the judges.

Some quotes from the panel:

Darcey [purring]: “Oh MY! I have to say, just make sure you grade that accelerando in Yellow Dragon Thrice Transforms its Body just a bit more carefully.”

Bruno [does pirouette]: “Bellissimo! But you still need to work on your posture, dahling.”

Li Manshan [dragging on fag], in unison with Craig: “That was chaotic!”

And the scores are in

I look forward eagerly to discussions with the BBC. [1]

***

Another Daoist-ritual spin-off might be to adapt the brilliant “One song to the tune of another” from I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. One recent fave was Jan Ravens singing the words of I can’t get no satisfaction to the tune of Wouldn’t it be loverly, but here’s Barry Cryer:

The Daoist version might go something like this:

 [Jack Dee, or indeed Li Manshan, lugubriously:] “Now I’d like you to sing words of The Song of the Skeleton to the tune of Diverse and Nameless are the Bitter Roots…”*

*Tedious footnote: at least in Yanggao vocal liturgy, these two items are in fact quite closely related (my book, pp.267–8, 274–5)—so less than suitable. Scope for exploration here, though.

Such impertinent fantasies, if not for purists, are at least more frankly ironic than the kitsch commodifications from the Intangible Cultural Heritage (see under “The reform era” here).

 

[1] Inexplicably, I still await a reply from the BBC to my initial pitch, Strictly Albanian Dentistry—where  peasants attired in colourful traditional costumes have just a week to learn a series of intricate procedures such as implants and root-canal treatments. For another money-spinner of mine, see here.

 

Quartets

BBC4 has just reshown an interesting diachronic trawl through the archives in Classic quartets at the BBC (available online until 2nd January; see also Schubert and the Budapest quartet).

Apart from the inevitable Amadeus quartet, it features the Allegri under Eli Goren, predecessor of Hugh Maguire. Here one can’t help noticing James Barton, left-handed fiddle-player—part of a small group that notably includes Charlie Chaplin:

And among hours of harmless fun on youtube:

How can I resist reminding you that the divine Ronnie O’Sullivan is ambidextrous—though I’m not sure he stretches to Bach.

Of course, the life of a quartet (actually, any performing group that works together regularly—few are so constantly in each other’s pockets as Li Manshan‘s band) resembles that of a marriage, or (still more thornily) a ménage a quattre—that too is a topic for elsewhere (see also here).

But I digress. In the film, I love the quaint early vignettes, as if the swinging 60s never happened—the clipped tones of announcers, and musicians gamely clambering into their dinky little cars to play for expectant audiences keen to worship at the altar of High Culture after the tribulations of the war…*

And before long we will all look quaint. Closer to our times, there are vignettes from groups like the Borodin, Lindsay, Arditti, and Kronos quartets, as well as the Smith quartet playing Steve Reich’s extraordinary Different trains, and the Brodsky quartet’s work with Elvis Costello.

 

* But what of the thankyou letter to the Martin string quartet, I hear you ask?!

Sing…

As a corrective to all the glowing speeches from divas and the rapturous adulation of their fans, Bill Bailey (don’t miss his Love song!) recalls:

I was at a Whitney Houston gig, it was supposed to start at three—finally at four o’clock she comes on stage and says,
“I just wanna say, I love each and every one of you!”
and this big black guy next to me shouts,
“Sing, bitch!”

A different kind of song


As if we needed further evidence of the refined tastes of Tweety McTangerine in the cultural sphere (let alone his fawning admiration for dictators expert in brutal repression):

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/13/you-are-the-light-philippines-duterte-sings-love-song-for-trump

Call me old-fashioned, but as love songs go, I still prefer Bill Bailey’s version

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

And we can only sigh to recall the days not so long gone when there was taste at the White House: