The art of the miniature

Tom and Jerry

By way of supplementing my playlist of great songs with a little series on great theme-tunes (below):

Tom Service’s BBC Radio 3 series The listening service is always stimulating—like Susan McClary, he breaks down boundaries, as here.

This episode [sic] on Brevity, with a playlist of miniature gems encompassing Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Satie, Webern, Boulez, Zorn, Napalm Death, Bartók, Kurtag, and Ligeti, is full of fine observation—under the headings of absurdity, immediacy, density, violence, and eternity.

Irrespective of genre, such pieces are microcosms, crafted with a range of expression and intensity—akin to haiku or netsuke.

Also among the fleeting exhibits is the great Carl Stalling, composer of classic soundtracks for Warner Brothers cartoons (these playlists should work if you click on YouTube at the bottom right of the window):

Not forgetting Scott Bradley, of Tom and Jerry fame:

Not least, this is about taking seriously all kinds of musicking throughout human societies, including WAM and popular music.

So here are some thoughts on great theme-tunes:

 

Detroit 67

 

More “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, à la McClary and Small—in this related post I both make a disclaimer and explore the point of venturing beyond familiar territories.

On soul, apart from classics like

  • Nelson George, Where did our love go? (1985),

I’ve been admiring

  • Stuart Cosgrove, Detroit 67: the year that changed soul (2015)—

not just to educate myself about the music, but to admire compelling writing about history, and the nexus of society and culture.

For background (if you’re on another planet, like me—I guess if you know much about soul, you’ll have better things to do than reading this blog…) it’s worth revisiting the fine BBC documentary R.E.S.P.E.C.T (from the Dancing in the street series), here in four parts—they should segue automatically:

The film also covers the southern scene, no less important—and more edgy. I now look forward to reading Cosgrove’s Memphis 68: the tragedy of southern soul.

* * *

In 1967—just as the Cultural Revolution in China was becoming even more violent, and ritual specialists were keeping their heads down; shortly before the crushing of the Prague Spring; while I was primly learning Brahms and Ravel in a youth orchestra in suburban London, with little idea that there might be any other kinds of musicking in the world—Detroit and Motown were entering a pivotal phase of turmoil.

Cosgrove’s focus on one year is a most effective device. At a time-remove from the “one-year” rule of anthropological fieldwork, he takes 1967 as a microcosm of festering race relations, social upheaval, and musicking.

Incredulous as we are at the current travails of the USA, it’s also a reminder that they have a long history.

This was the year of Sgt Pepper (for all popular [Anglo–American, that is!] genres that year, see here). Indeed, the soul movement had had to react to the market challenge from British groups like the Beatles, and to maintain crossover appeal; but Sgt Pepper itself was a retreat from the innocent lyrical messages they had been crooning on their frantic touring life.

Supremes 2

A fine piece of thick-description ethnography from a distance of time and space, the book is based on the troubled relations of Berry Gordy and his protégées the Supremes, with a focus on the ill-fated Florence Ballard. But Cosgrove adroitly weaves in portraits of individual figures with their back-stories; the automobile industry, social change, race, housing, poverty, crime, and the police; civil rights, Vietnam, hippy counterculture, bikers, and LSD.

There was the hippie Steering Committee, the young rock gods of the Grande Ballroom, the disgruntled officers of the Detroit police, and a legion of car-assembly workers drawn from the tense communities of Polish and African-Americans. There were disenchanted young men who moved from unemployment to Vietnam, the radical soldiers of Black Power, the independent producers who saw soul music as their Klondike, and the caravan of older gospel Christians who had seen their homes destroyed to make way for freeways.

Youth culture was fragmenting into a mosaic of different tribes.

Half a million people had migrated to Detroit between 1940 and 1943, mostly African-Americans from the southern states. Already by 1959 its image as a boomtown was wearing thin, but migrants kept arriving.

As anti-Vietnam protests grew, in 1965 came a wave of self-immolations. By 1967

the area around Twelfth Street had witnessed complete transformation in twenty years as white residents fled to new buildings, better neighbourhoods or the encroaching suburbs. In a contemporary survey by the University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, the area was described as a community of high stress where an overwhelming majority of the residents were disenchanted with their living conditions. […] It was a blighted area about to take centre stage.

Still, the social milieu for Motown was aspirational. In March, Berry Gordy’s mother hosted a coffee evening in her role as past Exalted Ruler of the Lady Camille Temple of the Michigan Elks:

Floral handbags, matching frocks and elegant hats turned the room into a chorus of colour. […] This was a room of elegant elderly women who valued status, took pride in their families, and cared deeply about emancipation.

In June the Supremes, “in a bubble of fame, increasingly out of touch with the new militancy in the black community and the rising fury of their hometown”, made an ill-judged appearance in LA for a beleaguered President Johnson.

The July riots, including the appalling Algiers Motel incident (on which see John Hersey’s book), were a flashpoint—and again there’s plenty of youtube footage. As with the violence in towns throughout China at that very time, the turmoil had deep social roots.

As Motown abandoned Detroit for LA, African-American music kept moving.

Detroit’s wooden-porch image as the home of soul music had been damaged to the core, and the family image that had been so crucial to the Motown story was brutally displaced by darker visions of a charred city under martial law. […] The nightclubs, the bars and the independent studios that had been the foundations of Detroit’s soul scene had been burned to the ground, ransacked, or destroyed. […] The generation that had shaped one of the greatest periods in the history of popular music had seen its city devastated. For the Supremes and others within Motown, the riots were to become a metaphor for ruined harmonies and wrecked friendships. In a broader sense, the disturbances were also a requiem for Detroit’s great industrial achievements and its declining manufacturing base.

Meanwhile John Sinclair and MC5 feature regularly, and there are cameos from Muhammed Ali and Martin Luther King. The latter observed:

Perhaps the most tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population… So we have repeatedly been faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It was his assassination in 1968 that would mark a definitive turning point for both society and music.

Singers, songs, music
The Motown sound emerged from the background of the incredibly rich talents brought up in gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, and so on. Cosgrove explores the nuances of changing style, documenting the host of composer-arrangers, choreographers, backing groups, instrumentalists, recording execs, and lawyers.

And decorum coaches—the Motown Finishing School (great scenes in #2 of the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. film)! Some of the singers took readily to Miss Maxine Powell’s training, while one of the Temptations complained “I don’t want to learn how to be white”.

To some, Motown resembled a hit machine, an assembly-line like the city’s car plants, producing polished feel-good tracks—a saccharine soundtrack to a convulsive era. It was “predicated on a compromise”. Gordy had

softened the rough edges of R&B, draped the music in the familiar cadences of teenage love, and his girl groups […] pioneered a highly addictive from of “bubblegum soul” that lent itself perfectly to the still-segregated radio stations of America.
[…]
It was in every respect an art of repetition: familiar backing tracks were refashioned, everyday phrases repackaged and the anxieties of young love were played out as memorable drama.

I may be the last person qualified to offer a playlist, but it hasn’t stopped me before (e.g. Amyfeminist punk)…

In fact even I heard The Supremes on Top of the Pops in the mid-60s, though they felt alien to me. Of course, they were—but countless other British kids were hooked.

Cosgrove also weaves in the stories of

  • Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the street—“an otherwise innocent piece of teenage pop [that] became inextricably linked to social unrest”:

  • Marvin GayeAin’t no mountain high enough, with Tammi Terrell:

And the roots of What’s going on were firmly in 1967: “masterpiece of the inner city, echoing the events of the Algiers Motel killings, the ‘trigger-happy policemen’, the lives of returning Vietnam vets, the emotionally devastated mothers who had placed their faith in the benevolence of God, and the scattered fragments of a war-torn city”:

  • Aretha Franklin (R.I.P.) came from Detroit, but wasn’t part of the Motown stable, getting snapped up by other labels. And she was also more readily recruited to the civil rights movement. Respect, her version of an Otis Redding song:

I say a little prayer was originally written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick, but Aretha, along with the Sweet Inspirations, transforms it. Not so homely as the dreamy opening suggests (it’s about the singer’s anxieties for her man serving in Vietnam), it’s both ecstatic and defiant, with a real gospel call-and-response feel:

This live version from 1970 is just amazing too:

(Talking of how naturally performers learn the complex rhythms of flamenco clapping, I guess no-one even had to think about the triple-time bar inserted into the chorus here (you’ll stay in my heart we never will part—see also here)… Actually, why did Bacarach write it thus? It’d work perfectly well to maintain the duple beat throughout—but in Aretha’s version it creates greater urgency and a feeling of spontaneity. I am in awe of everything about this song.)

  • Otis Redding (one of many sadly short-lived artists in the story) also features in the book, though his story belongs with that of southern soul. And James Brown was leading the way forward with that common blend of musical brilliance and unsavoury personal relations.

Behind the glossy stars and glamorous hype lie gruelling touring schedules (indeed, The Supremes were rarely in Detroit), drug habits, internal disputes, and personal breakdowns—like a New York orchestra, a Chinese shawm band, or indeed any group.

Tedious legal wrangles invariably take up considerable space in such books on the popular music business. Motown seemed like a cosy family, yet

the close-knit relationships forged in postwar Detroit were destined to be dismantled as success and dysfunction tore the surrogate family apart.

Here the style and lyrics of such love songs seem quite detached from the realities of personal and social life. That’s common in music worldwide, though anguish is often paraded too, in genres like flamenco deep song, Bach Passions, or Daoist funeral liturgy

In many world genres, links between culture and politics may be opaque. The book’s social context is compelling, but the commercial pressures that drove the music seem estranged from social change. In the end the music inevitably, suitably, takes a back seat, though the songs remain intoxicating.

I had remarkably little idea of any of this, either then or later. Better late than never, eh. Detroit 67 is just the kind of in-depth study of social and musical tensions to which ethnographers aspire in documenting any genre—whether “art”, “folk”, or “popular”.

Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary

 

Left: I found this postcard in Ireland in the mid-1990s; though still drôle, it no longer seems quite so fantastical.
Right: Susan McClary—less futuristically.

Since the party for Madonna’s 60th birthday [I know…] has already begun (see e.g. here), it may seem a tad cerebral to celebrate by revisiting the work of the great Susan McClary (notably her classic 1991 book Feminine endings: music, gender, and sexuality). But given that academics are mostly lumbered with writing, she does at least rejoice in the physical.

Of course, many female performers have continued exploring the trail that Madonna blazed, and she no longer has such power to shock. Similarly, while many critics (not least feminist authors) have disputed and refined McClary’s work, the thrust [sic: her own writings are full of such ludic language, matching her theme] of her argument has practically become mainstream—but her thoughts remain most perceptive.

Fem endings

So far I’ve mainly written about Susan McClary in the context of her provocative analysis of the extraordinary harpsichord solo of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg concerto. Her insights also get a mention in my post on Ute Lemper.

It would be quite wrong to reduce her oeuvre to soundbites—but hey, here goes! With her early research based in baroque music, she notes the historical contingency, mutability, of musical signifiers. Inspired by Greenblatt on Shakespeare (“once science discovered that female arousal served no reproductive purpose, cultural forms silenced not only the necessity but even the possibility of sexual desire in the ‘normal’ female”), she revels in the (pre-watershed) erotic friction of the 17th-century trio texture from Monteverdi through Corelli:

in which two equal voices rub up against each other, pressing into dissonances that achingly resolve only into yet other knots, reaching satiety only at conclusions. This interactive texture (and its attendant metaphors) is largely displaced in music after the 17th century by individualistic, narrative monologues.

Aww, shucks. A review goes on:

The narrative structure of 19th-century instrumental music becomes for her
“a prolonged sexual encounter of intense foreplay that results inevitably in a cataclysmic metaphorical ejaculation. Beethoven becomes the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music, whose recapitulation of the first movement of the 9th symphony “unleashes one of the most horrifyingly violent episodes in the history of music”.

McClary was a pioneer in broadening our concepts of cross-genre “music” studies, encompassing both WAM from a wide period and notably pop music—all with a focus on gender. Feminine endings also covers Monteverdi, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, and Laurie Anderson—and such breadth is just what makes her so great. She’s a real genre-bender. As she writes in Conventional wisdom: the content of musical form (2000),

If I tend to reread the European past in my own Postmodern image, if I frequently write about Bach and Beethoven in the same ways in which I discuss the Artist Formerly Known as Prince and John Zorn, it is not to denigrate the canon but rather to show the power of music all throughout its history as a signifying practice. For this is how culture always works—always grounded in codes and social contracts, always open to fusions, extensions, transformations. To me, music never seems so trivial as in its “purely musical” readings. If there was at one time a rationale for adopting such an intellectual position, that time has long since past. And if the belief in the 19th-century notion of aesthetic autonomy continues to be an issue when we study cultural history, it can no longer be privileged as somehow true.

Madonna
In the final chapter of Feminine endings,

  • “Living to tell: Madonna’s resurrection of the fleshly”,

McClary notes the conflicting strands of interpretation between viewing her as mere commodified sexuality or as a feminist in control. But as she comments, what most reactions share is an automatic dismissal of her music as irrelevant. Visual appearance and image seems primary, yet the music in music videos is also powerful. Hilary Mantel’s 1992 review doesn’t even bother with any of these features (and an apt riposte there draws attention to McClary’s work).

Her pieces explore—sometimes playfully, sometimes seriously—various ways of constituting identities that refuse stability, that remain fluid, that resist definition.

Citing the historical demeaning by sexualization of composer–performers Barbara Strozzi (as featured on the wonderful T-shirt) and Clara Schumann, and continuing to unpack the sexual politics of opera, she observes:

One of Madonna’s principal accomplishments is that she brings this hypocrisy to the surface and problematizes it. […]
The fear of female sexuality and anxiety over the body are inscribed in the Western music tradition. […]
Like Carmen or Lulu, she invokes the body and female sexuality; but unlike them, she refuses to be framed by a structure that will push her back into submission or annihilation.

McClary reiterates the historical trivializing of dance by (male) critics. Madonna’s

engagement with traditional signs of childish vulnerability projects her knowledge that this is what the patriarchy expects of her and also her awareness that this fantasy is ludicrous.

No matter what genre she discusses, McClary’s work is always detailed in musical analysis. She repeats her thesis of tonal structures, with the exploration and subduing of “Other” keys—the “desire–dread–purge sequence”, returning to her much-cited portrayal of the violence of Beethoven.

in her analysis of Live to tell McClary shows in detail how such assumptions are subverted:

and she validates the contradictions of Open your heart:

She takes Like a prayer seriously, its ancient virgin–whore cliché mingling with an exploration of religion and race, sexuality and spirituality—

about the possibility of creating musical and visual narratives that celebrate multiple rather than unitary identities, that are concerned with ecstatic continuation rather than with purging and containment.

Her footnotes (endnotes, actually) are always wonderful too. McClary’s, not Madonna’s.

* * *

Whether or not you concur with all of McClary’s conclusions (apart from a host of critiques, do read her thoughtful introduction “Feminine endings in retrospect” to the more recent edition), it’s a throughly stimulating way of reflecting on culture.

All my own gadding about from century to century, culture to culture is partly inspired by her work. But that’s not her fault. As ethnomusicology shows, if elites invariably try to prescribe and control the prestige of genres across the world, in studying them a level playing field is essential (for a cross-class analysis of Chinese music, see here).

Among numerous youtube clips, albeit less physically engaging than those of Madonna, here’s a sample of McClary’s wisdom:

I used to delight in Bach without stopping to think about Leipzig society of his time; flamenco, without noticing gender and social issues; and it took me some time to unpack gendered aspects of Chinese ritual. Such a mindset is basic to ethnomusicology, to which McClary’s work is a major stimulus.

In the 1990s, for what it’s worth (and not for what it’s not worth), on returning from village funerals in Hebei to regroup at Matt’s place in Beijing, I would regularly bask in Holiday:

 

In their different spheres, Madonna and Susan McClary are both iconic and iconoclasts!

 

.

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
  • exchanging 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.