Back to black

For the anniversary of Amy’s death

Sure, for me to write about Amy is like a football journalist discussing ballet. But she was one singer I was entranced by at the time, rather than decades too late—her music forming a soundtrack while I was getting to grips with the rituals of the Li family Daoists. I continue to listen to her songs in awe.

I cheated myself,
Like I knew I would,
I told you I was trouble,
You know that I’m no good.

A song full of brilliant lines like

And sniffed me out like I was Tanqueray.

The comparison with Billie Holiday is inevitable. If Billie isn’t considered a blues singer, Amy isn’t necessarily linked with jazz. Pop, like WAM (at least since the 19th century!), is at the narrow end of the spectrum of variation in world music (instances of the broader end perhaps including Indian raga or Aboriginal dream songs)—whereas Amy sang with the freedom of a jazz instrumentalist. To listen to all her different versions of the same song with the aid of YouTube, no matter how strung-out she was, you can hear how she couldn’t help exploring constantly: she couldn’t bear to sing anything the same way twice. So I guess the commercial pressure to churn out the same old standards “note-perfect” contributed to her decline.

Back to black is one of the all-time great songs:**

Sifting through different versions of her songs is instructive (more so, for instance, than comparing recordings of Zerfließe):

The whole album is a masterpiece. This BBC film by Jeremy Marre in the Classic albums series is a fascinating insight into the process of creation and recording—great contributions from producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, instrumentalists, friends, with Amy always a moving presence.

For all the craft that went into perfecting the studio album, Mark Ronson comments,

Sometimes I’d even go to her shows and I found it a little maddening, cos I was like, “We worked so hard and these are the songs and people wanna hear it this way, but everything is slightly improvisational. She would never sing a melody the same way twice, because it’s almost like, “Why would you do that? I already did it that way.”

She was at her best (and this may be a universal truth) in small-scale informal sessions.

Please excuse the BBC bias here (“Typical!“), but her 2007 session for them makes a good compromise, where she is on her best behaviour yet comfortable in the personal setting of Porchester Hall, with her home crowd:

Her late work with Tony Bennett is moving:

A definitive film is Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015) (update, June 2020: currently on Channel 4 for a month only!). A recent programme in the Soul music series on Radio 4 also shows how much she moved people.

I’d love to be reincarnated as one of her backing singers, though this seems unlikely. I would have settled for her staying alive, and happy.

**  “The all-time great songs” is generally used in the limited sense of “favourites of Anglo-American pop since the 1960s”, but here I am indeed happy to rank her oeuvre alongside the likes of Orpheus, Hildegard von Bingen, or Niña de los Peines. See also my playlist here.

Singers of the world?

Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos (for Alexei Sayle and others on contests, see here).* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.

Bartok 1907

Bela Bartók recording Slovak folk singers, 1907.

And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. For a more rigorous attempt to document the riches of world singing, see here.

It’s not that I really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing; but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior. For yet more, see here.

 

* Another fatuous Bible quote:

The race is not to the swift.

Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?

Women of Yanggao 3/3: singers

At a tangent from female members of Daoist families, or sectarians and spirit mediums, are the female vocalists who serve weddings, funerals, and celebrations—now mainly singing pop. As ethnographers we can no more ignore this than we can neglect pop music in our own cultures.

First I should give a little overview of gender roles in Chinese performance. [1] In their worthy goal of reinstating women into the story of Chinese music, the two articles by Cynthia P. Wong and Su Zheng in The Garland Encyclopaedia of Music: East Asia volume leave no space to spell out women’s historical and ongoing submission in society (cf. Lulu).

Though I’m happy to accept Zheng’s portrayal of Confucian culture as misogynistic, her “radical view” shouldn’t mean airbrushing the evidence of the submission of women. This is as serious as (and not unrelated to) ignoring the ever-backward supply of water, healthcare, electricity, literacy, and transport available to much of the population. Along with celebrating women’s musical contributions, and for all the complexities of women’s ongoing struggle, it is worth stressing their ongoing exclusion from power and choice in public society, underlining the persistence of patriarchal tradition and the limited scope of modern progress.

Both Wong and Zheng illustrate women’s contributions to early Chinese music history by referring to archeological excavations that show that female musicians were buried alive along with their dead master. A disturbing (if remote) echo of this is in posthumous marriage, which has been reviving in northwest China since the 1980s.

When women were allowed to survive their masters, they often worked as prostitutes. Zheng goes on to observe that, in ancient China, women could also be bestowed as a gift, and bought and sold—another enduring tradition today. What a lot of categories of prostitute upright Confucian men had to choose from—and some were even chosen to be concubines! We should indeed incorporate all this into our account of Chinese music history, but I struggle to see what there is to celebrate here.

Wong and Zheng briefly point out women’s progress in the 20th century. To be sure, foot-binding was successfully stamped out, and arranged marriages became exceptional; female education was no longer limited to a tiny elite.

Yet despite government campaigns, female babies are still routinely murdered or abandoned. Under siege from the draconian birth-control policy, women and men alike attend rituals to pray to the gods to be granted a healthy son. Girls are a burden: since upon marriage they will be lost to another family, rural parents invest mainly in the welfare and education of sons. Economic progress has been uneven since the reform period. Scholars note many instances of regression in women’s status: decollectivization and urban migration have been a mixed blessing. Women are still abducted and sold to poor older disabled men in less impoverished provinces; they continue to be subject to domestic abuse and are largely barred from public roles. Female leaders remain rare—at village, township, county, provincial, and national levels. Prostitution is rampant, though some women now rise to the artistic heights of working as karaoke hostesses.

Our accounts of women’s roles in Chinese music cannot assume that readers know all this. Any study of gender and music in China must include a broad assessment of women’s progress, or regression, and this must be based on detailed local ethnography (both for expressive culture and the society that nourishes it), rather than plucking out instances of female stars. In my chapter (n.1) I further outlined some issues of gender and class, violence and power.

Rural performance: overview
As in all areas of study, we should beware describing gender in performance mainly through the prism of urban state troupes.

At the bottom of the social pile, opera performers (xizi), like shawm bands (chuishou), were traditionally part of a litany of outcasts, and also in most places all-male until the 1930s. Along with other low-status men like grave-diggers, coffin-bearers, and cooks, they all play essential roles at life-cycle and calendrical events.

Since at least the 1930s women have gradually played a larger role in opera for life-cycle and calendrical rituals, though they have still little power within the troupe—the troupe bosses are male, making the arrangements with the male temple committee and controlling the fees. And by displaying themselves thus in public women are always vulnerable to moralistic criticism.

The vast majority of narrative-singing genres in the countryside, given their public nature (not to mention their primary ritual function of invoking blessings from the gods), are still performed by men. Bards in Shaanbei, for example, are traditionally blind and male (see my Ritual and music of north China, vol.2). For Shanxi, Liu Hongqing’s harrowing tale of the dysfunctional families of blind itinerant performing groups in Zuoquan county is revealing of the wretched fate of poor people generally and the burden of care on women. [2]

At weddings and funerals, though laments sung by the female kin (once a means of venting frustration against the Confucian system, however impotently) have become rarer, women are often among small itinerant groups of beggars performing songs, accompanying themselves on clappers and erhu fiddle.

beggars

A group of beggars sing auspicious songs facing the coffin before offerings of sheep heads, 2001.

XX: a piece of (field)work
Most visible, vulnerable, and innovative on the public stage are the pop singers who perform on a truck outside the gate of the mortuary home (my film, from 30.32 and 1.07.32). These singers, both male and female, have become increasingly accomplished since the 1990s, performing arrangements of local vocal music and pan-Chinese pop as well as sophisticated skits. [3]

pop better

Pop outside the mortuary home, 2011.

Pop duo

The evening session, 2015.

On one of my occasional excursions into town, Li Bin has arranged for us to meet up for supper with young star gujiang shawm-player Bobo. I first met him way back in 2003 when he was a teenage pupil of a wonderful cultured gujiang shawm player. Then, he seemed shy and I could never find a way of chatting with him, but now, once we realize we can chat together, he is sweet, relaxed, and funny.

Then femme fatale singer XX shows up, all glammed up. So a Daoist, a shawm player, a pop singer, and a WAM muso take a convivial meal together. Endless joking, largely revolving around the theme of the local beauty (meinü) and the foreigner (laowai). While XX is adept at orchestrating the flirting, she is intelligent, sincere, clearly aware of the delicacy of her public position as a singer, yet not afraid to be seen in our company. Accomplished at presentation—outfit, make-up, hair, perfume—she acts the part, but behind it all there is an alert woman, strong by necessity. Allergic as I am to the word “feisty”, here it is the mot juste: she has to be considered a kind of feminist.

She enjoys showing me the vast library of photos on her smartphone, mostly but not all glam.

XX and friend

The selfie mania: two popular Yanggao singers.

I’m not quite understanding the rules here. My attitude to XX is different from that of my Yanggao friends, who see her at funerals all the time. They’re used to the local language of flirting: she can read their signs and knows how to handle them. Sure, I enjoy it—I can’t shake off my ethnographic instincts, but the context isn’t conducive to getting to know people better, so I go with the flow. My best chat-up line:

You’re nearly as beautiful as Li Manshan!

Knowing my devotion to Li Bin’s father, she takes this in good spirit.

While XX and I enjoy the banter, we’re both a bit wary since we realise our signs may differ. So she backs off—as even I do; as we stagger out of the restaurant I kiss her hand in farewell, which even after all the backchat still takes her aback.

On my next trip into town we all meet up again for supper. One reason for my visits to town is to take a shower at Li Bin’s place—much needed after ten days traipsing round village funerals. XX turns up in her posh black car—“I didn’t even have time to wash my face, only the car!” Still, she’s pretty dolled-up (tiny hot pants, black tights, heels, red coat), yet enigmatic as ever. Other diners come over to our table to share a toast, musicians who know all about me—people still thanking me for introducing Yanggao culture to the world. The son-in-law of a revered Daoist, whom alas I never even met, discreetly pays our bill and goes off before we can protest.

XX is even busier than Li Bin and Bobo, since she does weddings too, as well as acting as hostess for various gigs like yuansuo coming of age parties (see my film, from 5.26). So she drives off to get some sleep before embarking on a heavy series of three days of back-to-back wedding gigs.

By 2017 she had remarried, was pregnant, and no longer singing.

Pop at Yanggao life-cycle events continues to evolve, with both male and female performers constantly innovating; singers like XX are at the vanguard of local modernity, forging a role, negotiating old values.

For a further update, see here.

Conclusion
The tiny corner of China that is Yanggao county reminds us that we need grass-roots study, beyond simple images of educated urban milieux. As long as we remain mesmerized by urban stage performances, and by Confucian and Communist propaganda, we will never comprehend gender roles in the expressive cultures of the myriad local communities. But one point is clear: however much we unearth women’s varied roles in local cultures, and for all their “subversive strategies”, as long as girl babies are murdered or abandoned, as long as women are kidnapped from poorer provinces and sold to older (sometimes disabled) men unable to afford a local bride, and as long as women remain excluded from public power, their ability to contribute to expressive culture in the public sphere is likely to remain limited.

 

[1] Again, much of this is adapted from my “Gender and music in local communities”.

[2] Liu Hongqing, Xiang tian er ge: Taihang mangyiren de gushi (Beijing chubanshe, 2004). Still, the role of women is clearly increasing: see e.g. Zhang Yanqin, “Zhangzi shuoshu jiqi xijuhua qingxiang,” Minsu quyi 151 (2006), on narrative singers in a county in southeast Shanxi.

[3] See also the stimulating article by Zhang Zhentao, “Nü yueshou yu nü changjia,” Xinghai yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2009/3, pp.43–9.

Sgt Pepper

*Substantially revised and augmented!*

Sgt Pepper

Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting; but their later studio albums took our admiration to a new level. As I reflect in my introduction to this series, of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyse” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But studies like those of Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.

* * *

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.

The Beatles’ previous albums contain many wonderful individual gems, but for me both Sgt Pepper and the following Abbey road are “choral symphonies”, song cycles, seamless wholes—even if only Side 2 of the latter was conceived thus. Individually he songs are gems, but with their themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, loneliness all in balanced contrast, they work as one long suite. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.

So while I introduce A hard day’s nightRubber soul and Revolver selectively, here I just have to go through the whole sequence. Wilfred Mellers considers Sgt Pepper:

We have seen how Beatle music began as a communal activity of danced song: and how in their second phase—as verbal developed alongside musical interest—it became concerned with human relationships in a social context. The songs were now to be listened to, rather than danced to; and by the time of Penny lane and Strawberry fields it was improbable that the numbers could even be “participated in” in live performance, since they were dependent on electronic equipment. This does not necessarily mean that the songs have ceased to have ritual significance, for the long-playing record is a more radical innovation than we once realised. It transplants ritual from temple or theatre to any place where two or three may gather together, including the home or commune, as well as club or discotheque. This is why the supreme achievements of pop so far are halfway between ritual and art. With remarkable verbal articulateness, though at a poetic level beyond intellectual formulation, the Beatles’ next disc, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, explores the perennial as well as current problems of adolescence—loneliness, friendship, sex, the generation gap, alienation, fear, nightmare; and perhaps could do so because the Beatles’ early “corporate identity” was always a synthesis of four different individuals. Yet if Pepper is, in this relatively traditional sense, art, it is also a ritual involving the young—through its electronic extension of musical sounds into the environment of the external world—in a ceremonial togetherness, without the prop of a church or state. This two-way function as art and ritual remains valid, even though the Beatles, in common with most pop groups, disclaim both moral responsibility and artistic technique: for that responsibility and technique may be intuitively independent of conscious volition is the heart of the matter.

No longer do the Beatles offer us a miscellany of songs; we rather have a sequence of intricately related numbers, forming a whole and performed without break. The verses, though composed “orally”, by trial and error, are printed on the record sleeve, so that we may go back and read them again, “like a book”: just as on disc we may repeat bits of the music, as one cannot in a live (especially in part improvised) performance.

None of the songs is a love song; and that the main theme of the songs is loneliness would seem to admit that the Beatles’ early attempts at tribal togetherness had failed—not as music, but as a way of life.

Here’s a playlist for the 2009 remastered version:

  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Mellers’ comments, illuminating the transitions and contrasts between songs, reveal just how sequential they are. He continues:

Sgt Pepper himself is an old-world character rooted in the camaraderie of a distant past: “It was twenty years today Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. So we open with a “public” number (by Paul), inviting us to the show, and recalling Edwardian military music, the circus and the working men’s club, delivered with extrovert rhetoric, and with approving audience-noises off-stage. Yet if the brisk rhythm, the jaunty fanfares and the military scoring of this first song suggest simple solidarity, the music is far from being what it superficially seems. In tonality it is curiously ambiguous: for while it gravitates towards a smiling G major, the introduction wobbles between dominant sevenths of D and F, and when we reach the tune itself and the Band, having been introduced, plays and sings, the rhythms of the tootling arpeggiated tune are tipsily displaced by cross accents (three against two) and the “open” tonality is clouded by blue false relations. So this public show-piece hides beneath its zest a certain jitteriness. The cosy world of Pepper may embody a truth; but it’s one that is dubiously relevant to young people today. On the cut-out included with the disc the Beatles sport their resplendent Edwardian uniforms as comic fancy-dress.

Referring to this “overture”, Alan W. Pollack reminds us:

Don’t allow any of the overdubbed effects to blunt your sensitivity to the well executed bassline, lead guitar licks, and drumming.

And he observes that the bowed strings in the fade-up ambient noise prepares us for their major role in She’s leaving home and A day in the life.

  • With a little help from my friends. Mellers goes on:

Indeed, the instability of this first song already demonstrates that although Pepper is a military man, very peppery, and runs a band of people playing together, they none the less play to a club of Lonely Hearts. So we’re not surprised when the public junketings fade out, after a reference to the “lovely audience” Pepper hopes we’re going to be, into a sad little song, also by Paul but with help from John, but sung by Ringo, commonest of common men. And he begins by apologising for his incompetence, as contrasted with peppery professionalism. […] The song epitomises the reasons why the Beatles needed one another and reveals why their awareness of “separateness” and “togetherness” was meaningful to the young at large.

Pollack’s analysis is here. Actually, for the first song proper on the album, I find it just too bold in its hamminess: I’m not prepared yet for such irony. But Now For Something Completely Different:

  • Lucy in the sky with diamonds—(Pollack here) psychedelic, as Mellers notes, a “revocation of a dream-world of childhood”, its vivid colours

those of a poetically recreated kids’ comic”. The music, too, preserves its innocence: a lazily wafting waltz tune undulates around the third of the scale (with dreamy flat sixths and sevenths in the accompaniment), and the fairy-tale scoring, tinklingly plangent, helps us to see and hear the lovely landscape as larger than life, the flowers “incredibly high”, the girl’s eyes “kaleidoscopic”.

An abrupt change to a rapid 4/4 brings further tonal refinements, and

the fade-out carries us back from trip, childhood and dream-girl to reality, though again with equivocal irony.

  • Getting better—balancing contrasts, as this album and Abbey road do. Pollack notes how the abstract Lucy is followed by this representational song, judiciously relaxing the tension. Mellers:

a raggedy music-hall song by Paul, evoking school rebel and angry young man. The scalewise-moving, non-modulating boogie-rhythmed tune expresses fury with rule and authority and lovelessness in personal relationships, with perky insouciance. […] Though the language is not only plain, but blunt, the music doesn’t allow us to take the self-denunciation, or even the denunciation of authority, very seriously. At the same time the diatonic simplicity of the refrain makes its optimism somewhat wobbly. This again indicates how the Beatles’ vulnerability is part of their honesty; so it’s natural enough that this emotional frailty should lead into the deepening commitment of the next song,

  • Fixing a hole: Pollack suggests that here the protagonist is actively fulfilling the potential of Getting better. Mellers:

We’ve moved from Sgt Pepper’s old-world club to the dubious potentiality of friendship; from there to a dream-girl or the fairy-world of childhood; from the dream-girl to a remotely possible real one; and from that nervous expectancy to this subtly mysterious little song about the nature of identity. […] It begins in a dorian F, rocking fourths being followed by a pentatonic upward lift, balanced by a descending flat seventh; the end of the first strain creates the mind’s free wandering, as it floats pentatonically upwards, always just off the beat.

  • She’s leaving home—in triple metre, like Norwegian wood. Pollack finds it close to mimicry, but surely it’s one of the Beatles’ most moving ballads. Mellers:

The girl and her situation, though typical enough, were culled (Paul tell us) from the Daily mirror, and the verses evoke the mystery of the commonplace, having the true economy of poetry. How much is conveyed by the reference to the “note that she hoped would say more”; how sadly funny it is that she leaves home for the purpose of “meeting a man from the motor trade”, probably a shady rather than conventional character, but either way one from whose life-style the glamour will soon wear thin. Even the parents’ lamentation (“With never a thought for ourselves … we gave her everything money could buy”), though guyed with falsetto obbligato, is without trace of bitterness.

He observes the irregular, subtle musical structure:

The vocal tune is a corny waltz mainly in stepwise movement, but with a yearning life from the second to the tonic in the higher octave, followed by a descent by way of the flattened seventh. […] The arching cello solo is as beautiful as it is comic; and the irregular structure enacts the story, conveying not merely the fact of the girl’s departure but all the muddled hope, apprehension, and fear in the girl’s heart, the fuddled incomprehension of the parents. There’s failure all round, in both generations; yet the failure doesn’t deny the tune’s heart-felt lyricism, nor lessen the comedy of the falsetto obbligato. That the song makes us laugh and cry simultaneously is testimony of its truth to experience.

This little tragi-comedy of personal relationships is banished with a return to the public world of the circus in

  • Being for the benefit of Mr Kite! Pollack:

The song’s function in the cycle is more important than its intrinsic interest; it recalls our starting point, after the songs have explored the ramifications of loneliness and togetherness; and by ironic contrast it prepares the way for George Harrison’s number

  • Within you without you (Pollack here). “Bringing in the religious implications of the search for identity”, following tracks on Revolver, the Indian sitar again features prominently, its orientalism (Mellers) “re-created in terms of the Beatles’ newborn innocence”. This was one of the main pop creations that were now turning on a generation to Indian music.

In a mixolydian scale with major third and flat seventh, it’s said to be loosely based on rag Khamaj (The raga guide, pp.100–101, CD 3 #6)—although the only point of such a claim is to lead one towards the complexities of raga in its native form. The refrain and middle section also feature additive metres.

Pollack makes an interesting comment on the eerie laughter at the end of the song:

I’m aware of at least two schools of thought:

    • The xenophobic audience (remember there’s an underlying element in the “Pepper concept” that at least indirectly connotes a Victorian/Edwardian outlook of supercilious imperialism) is letting off a little tension of this confrontation with pagan elements.
    • The bedazzled composer, in an endearingly sincere nanosecond of acknowledgement of the apparent existential absurdity of the son-of-a-Liverpudlian bus driver espousing such other-wordly beliefs and sentiments, is letting off a bit of his own self-deprecating steam in reaction to the level of true courage expended by him in order to come out of the uneasily-anti-materialist closet.

But, don’t you think it’s a combination of the two?

Mellers:

From these metaphysical reaches within the mind we’re jerked back by a leery laugh; a deliberate exercise in “trivialisation” which may be self-defensive, though its not self-destructive.

Making yet another contrast, the next song, Paul’s

  • When I’m sixty-four, as Mellers continues,

cannot be adequately described as parody, though we’re back in a suburban terraced house, and in the raggy, twentyish music-hall style of George Formby, with oompahing tuba bass and noodling clarinet obbligato. This reinvokes Dad’s world and era with comic yet touchingly poetic wit. […] Of course the oldies’ little cottage has to be in the Isle of Wight, and of course their grandchildren must be called Vera, Chuck, and Dave. Yet these oldies are at the same time identified with the Beatles.

Talking of unpromising chromaticisms,

64

Meanwhile, Pollack seems rather less convinced. Having been a tad disconcerted by With a little help from my friends early on, I’m well cool with the style by now. Returning again to the present,

  • Lovely Rita (meter maid) makes an earthly balance for Lucy in the sky, as Mellers notes, not pretending that she is more than “an alleviation of loneliness and distress”. As Pollack notes, it’s been quite some time since we heard anything resembling rock. The song ends with what Mellers calls an “indefinite threat”, something of which persists through
  • Good morning Good morning (Pollack: “truly, truly, one of the great songs”), with more additive metres—its euphoria containing a spooky, hallucinatory undertone (Mellers), thus leading into
  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)—which has “now lost its show-biz glamour, or recognises it as illusory”. Pollack discusses it on his page on
  • A day in the life (here), an epilogue transporting us back into the “real” world, both funny and creepy, as Mellers observes; its news items, whatever their source, do indeed constitute “a Day in the Life—anyone’s life, here and now,” with the contrast between the simplicity and frailty of the little tune and the horror and confusion of the events dispassionately referred to. And then a long electronic crescendo ushers in a more urgent middle section, turning hallucinatory. The final da capo is less innocent,

threatened with ferocious percussion, and leading into another and wilder electronic trip that seems to be also an atomic explosion, obliterating both public revelry and private love.

Mellers even considers this song “the Beatles’ deepest exploration of their familiar illusion–reality theme”.

Perhaps it’s an unconscious tribute to the Beatles’ innocent honesty and tough resilience that, after the explosion, the commotion settles into an infinitely protracted if weirdly spaced (with obtrusive thirds) chord of E major: the key which, in the 18th century and after, was traditionally associated—though the Beatles cannot have known this—with heaven!

Which leads us (OK, me) to Bruckner 7 and the north Chinese ritual wind ensemble…

I can’t tell how people listen to an album like this—in a variety of ways, I suppose, like all music: one can zoom in or out on all kinds of music. But however consciously or not one listens, such analysis explains Sgt Pepper’s deep meaning and lasting appeal for audiences.

* * *

For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in 2017, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution (not currently available, but sometimes reshown). It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.

Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.

Maestro Goodall also makes a game interviewee in Cunk on Britain.

For Yesterday (from the same period), see here; and note my tribute to Abbey road.

Homage to Nina Hagen

 

Nina

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one YouTube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme Dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

Just remind me again, what is music?!

Hardly was the ink dry (or whatever we should call it nowadays) on my comment

It’s worth replacing the vague term Western music with Western Art Music (WAM), if that’s what we mean; and observing how European folk traditions are an equally precious part of our heritage. “Music” can be a misleading little word: just as there’s more to music in Shanghai than its opera house—such as amateur silk-and-bamboo clubs or temple fairs in Pudong—so music in Lisbon is more than the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. Symphony orchestras and erhu solos are but the tiny shiny tip of the iceberg.

than I perused the BBC4 schedule to find:

The Birth of British music
The legacy of Austrian composer Josef Haydn in Britain.

Hmm. Discuss (with the aid of Bruno Nettl; cf. Das Land ohne Musik).

Of course, it’s just an amusing casualty of knocking up a snappy publicity blurb. And to be fair, it’s the third in a series that runs from Purcell and Handel (sic) through Haydn (sic) and Mendelssohn (sic­—well that’s quite a lot of sic). I’m not blaming anyone—making programmes about four WAM composers who lived or spent some time in Britain is cool by me (cf. They come over ‘ere…).

Still, it combines two common misapprehensions—about history and about class. Much as I love Purcell, I’m sure the engaging presenter Charles Hazlewood is perfectly aware that even British ART music (BAM!) goes back a little before that. This isn’t my forte, but never mind Tallis, Byrd, Lawes, and so on (whatever would Francis Baines have said?!)—how about the medieval mystery plays and early manuscripts, or musicking at the time of Boudicca?!

And anyway, if we’re talking about “British music”, there’s that social ellipsis again—how about broadside ballads, singing and fiddling in tavern culture, early wind bands, and so on?

This casual use of language is just as bad as the (still more common) other extreme, which is to date the origins of British music from Lonnie Donegan or Frank Ifield.

I’m sure it’s a great series on those four composers. “British Art Music from the 17th to 19th centuries” doesn’t make quite such a snappy title.

Conversely, here’s another misleading title, this time from the Guardian:

The 20 best music documentaries.

There are some great films in this list (including Amy and, at No.1, In bed with Madonna), but it’ll be disappointing for those expecting to find coverage of WAM, flamenco, musicking in Sardinia or India, and so on. Again, the title The 20 best documentaries on Anglo-American pop doubtless struck them as pedantic.

Just saying, like…

Can’t take my eyes off you

Valli

By contrast with slow intense WAM, and as a change from female singers, here’s Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ finely-crafted original version of Can’t take my eyes off you (1967), with its smoochy intro leading the funky “I love you baby”:

I note Woody Allen’s comment from Manhattan, in a cab with Diane Keaton:

You look so beautiful I can hardly keep my eyes on the meter.

See also Modulation: Schubert and Coltrane.

The windmills of your mind

Windmills cover

While we’re on the wonderful melody, harmony, and orchestration of Michel Legrand, how about The windmills of your mind (apparently * inspired by the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante!)—here’s Legrand singing it himself in 1969, the rhythms always fluid:

And it loses nothing in English—I continue to be belatedly impressed at the good taste of Dusty Springfield (English lyrics again from the Bergmans):

But though the lurch to the bombastic is only fleeting, I still prefer to maintain the tranquil mood of the original.

Above the shifting harmonies, not only does the melody relish leaps of a 7th, but after the 3rd phrase each new incipit sets forth by falling a 7th from the previous cadence! Cf. the 7ths in Moon river.

For Francis Lai, see here; and for sequences, here.

 

* We commonly read that The windmills of your mind is “borrowed” from the opening two phrases of the Mozart; but I can’t find a comment from Legrand himself recognising a conscious inspiration. Anyway, here it is—just as wonderful:

Cf. Mahler and Beauty and the Beast.

Mark Padmore

Padmore

The brilliant Mark Padmore, Passion Evangelist par excellence (see here, and here), made a suitable guest on the Easter edition of Private passions.

He began by reminding us of the liturgical context of Bach’s own performances, pointing out that Bach only heard the John Passion four times, and as he constantly revised his works, it was not simply about new composition but also about adapting elements of the whole tradition. All of which, surprise surprise, reminds me of Daoist ritual and Li Qing.

Mark went on to choose Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing Mahler’s Ich bin wer Welt abhenden bekommen (cf. the version here), ending with another kind of devotional singing—from Mahalia Jackson.

Heart of glass, and Rag Marwa

Heart of glass is yet another masterpiece from the late 70s—just after Naturträne.

Apart from its spacey vibe, there’s one detail of Debbie Harry’s song that Yer Average fan will experience instinctively, but the tedious analytical bent of the musicologist may home in on: the hallucinatory temporary modulation at the end of the third line (find/blind), fleetingly sketching a major triad on la—all the more ironic for the deflation expressed by the lyric.

That harmonic shift reminds me of rag Marwa, with its implied major scale on Dha/la (A major, one might say) over the Sa–Pa/do–so/C–G drone, the flat re (C♯) clashing with the tonic. Sure, Heart of glass hardly compares with the complexities of the ascending and descending scales of the rag, worked through over a long period, but hey.

Most transcendental is Zia Mohiuddin Dagar on rudra vina, in his last year:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

For another rendition on sarangi by Ram Narayan, see here.

Countrier than you

Countrier

As I browse the back catalogue of Rusty Debris, I find Rich Hall makes an engaging guide for my latent dilettante interest in Country. He’s also a fine Tweety-baiter, of course, such as this. And his BBC4 film is both instructive and hilarious:

Country may often seem banal to us poncey liberal elite—although we’re on thin ice if we’re going to laugh at the outfits. But like flamenco, or tango (or, come to think of it, almost any genre worth its salt), beyond the cosy domestic image it’s about pain, and poor suffering Hugh Manity.

Another entry in the list of drôle Country song titles:

If you won’t leave me, I’ll find someone who will.

In time the industry managed to cash in on the outlaw image (at first latent, later a badge of honour) that came to supplement the homely veneer—embodied in The Highwaymen and the great Johnny Cash. And so on to Willie Nelson (“Then one day, thankfully, his house caught fire”).

Rich’s comments on Tom Hiddleston’s ill-advised Hank Williams biopic I saw the light are priceless. He also manages to give short shrift to John Travolta, Taylor Swift, and even Bono.

Like a gen-u-ine ethnomusicologist, he notes the diverse ethnic origins of Country, its local distinctiveness, migration, and patronage. Again, there are some fine taxonomies here. He notes the shift from Nashville to Austin, and the Cosmic Cowboy collision of redneck and hippy. And wow, there’s some hot fiddling.

He only lets himself down a bit on female singers, who were (and are) such a major aspect of the genre’s success.

There are also some nice details on changing instrumental technique—a trademark of the best discussions of music—like “He [Chuck Berry Junior, not the Chuck Berry, R.I.P.!] told him [Waylon ] to replace the top E string with a banjo string to bend it easier, and to shave down the frets on his guitar to get a lower action.”

The secret is to replicate, not to regurgitate.

This quote from the online blurb could be an encapsulation of ethnomusicology:

As he unearths the roots and inner workings of country music, Rich finds it’s more than just music—it’s a lifestyle.

There are loads of wonderful documentaries on such topics, avoiding hagiography while evincing proper respect—but where are all the programmes about shawm bands or Daoists, eh?

Update: Ken Burns now has a major series Country music (cf. his Jazz series), its eight parts now being shown in abbreviated form on BBC4. Just the opening programme, on the early history of Country to 1933, is an aural and visual feast. For more, see here.

Country

See also Accordion crimes.

The Catechism of Chinese Cliché

li-band-venice

Following the Li family Daoists‘ 2012 tour of Italy, praise within China came in a report published online in the regional capital Datong. Written in bold red characters in the style of a report on a bumper harvest in the Great Leap Forward, here’s an excerpt:

cliché

Recalling Myles and my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché, this inspires me to pen a Catechism of Chinese Cliché:

What kind of response did they evince in their audience? Would it have been sullen and apathetic, by any chance?
No. It was warm and enthusiastic, Begob.

What did the performances achieve?
They consolidated the friendship between the Chinese and Italian Peoples.

Surely they did more than consolidate it?
OK, they developed it too.

And what was the art of Chinese Daoist culture able to do where?
Be magnified 弘扬 and promoted 宣传 in a foreign country.

Just in a foreign country?
Oh all right then, you win—on the soil of a foreign country.

So what did the performances receive from the Italian people?
A good assessment and high praise.

And what did the tour do for the entire group?
Um, it encouraged and stimulated their trust and determination to revive our Chinese Daoism.

So since their return, what are they now doing?
They are gradually perfecting and elevating their art.

Is that all?
[grits teethThey are developing and strengthening it too. Do give it a rest.

The report also contains a resounding clarion call:

This is the pride of us Chinese People! The pride of the Chinese Nationality! It is the pride of us Shanxi people! The pride of Datong people! More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao!

I’m not entirely taking the piss. A report like that, however comical and cliché-ridden it may seem, evinces genuine feelings. Even if such terms are alien to peasants like Li Manshan, some people do use them, and most can; and it’s a useful skill for us outsiders to deploy them in suitable contexts.

Also, such coverage subtly, um, Consolidates the reputation of the Li family and Daoist ritual in north Shanxi. What it doesn’t do is make local patrons and audiences value their rituals as much as pop music.

BTW, the article is quite right to observe that “More precisely, it is the pride of our 300,000 People of Yanggao”. Still, it uses the duplicitous Chinese media title for the Li band, “Hengshan Daoist Music Troupe”—which I take to the cleaners here.

Still on the theme of International Cultural Exchange (grrr) between China and Italy, I penned the party game The Silk Road (“hours of harmless fun for all the family!”).

While we’re about it,

What is the Venice of the East?
Suzhou, if you must. Like Balham is gateway to the south.

Note also clichés of Chinese art and music, as well as the fine parody Eat, pray, self-love: my lyrical journey through the heart of genocide country. Cf. Tibetan clichés.

Walking shrill: shawm bands in China

Walking Shrill CD

In extreme contrast to the image of glamorous female soloists on the concert platform, male shawm bands are by far the most common form of instrumental music in China. They perform mainly for life-cycle and calendrical rituals—as you do…

Bands are widely known as “drum music bands” (guyueban 鼓乐班), the members as “blowers-and-drummers” (chuigushou 吹鼓手) or just “blowers”. In Yanggao they are called “drum artisans” (gujiang 鼓匠).

Indeed, these bands are more ubiquitous and indispensable at funeral and temple fairs than groups of ritual specialists. In Yanggao the Daoists and the shawm bands alternate, and often go on procession together.

Such groups are common throughout China—not to mention the Islamic world and early Europe. To give you an idea of just how common, take the Anthology volumes on instrumental music for Liaoning province. There are no solo pieces, nor any pieces for strings; instead it contains four wind ensemble genres:

  • the music of the shawm bands (guyue 鼓乐);
  • shengguan 笙管 pieces (here a subsidiary repertoire of the shawm bands)
  • yangge 秧歌 pieces (again played mainly by the shawm bands); and
  • “religious music” (sic), with subheads for Buddhist and Daoist music, including vocal liturgy, percussion, and shengguan pieces.

But this overview for one single province contains 1,491 pages, of which 1,113 are devoted to the shawm bands—and as ever, the material published on them was only a tiny proportion of that collected.

That’s an outline for one whole province. In 2001, within the single county of Mizhi in Shaanbei, a local band boss estimated that there were 138 bands working at least part-time there. Again, contrast the qin, with its tiny elite coterie of players, and its vast media presence.

Further south many bands play a rather light repertoire, though there are some fine genres, such as the longchui of south Fujian (#15 on playlist in sidebar, with commentary here). But it’s the majestic timbre, heterophony, and complex repertoire of long suites of northern bands, played on XXL shawms, that appeals to me particularly.

While my main focus has always been Daoist and Buddhist ritual, its vocal liturgy accompanied by shengguan ensemble, I realized I had to give serious attention to the shawm bands too. So from 1999 to 2005 I took some lengthy time out to document them.

My two books Ritual and music of north China are largely about such bands, in north Shanxi and Shaanbei respectively; both include DVDs. [1]

Status and disability
Shawm bands were always at the bottom of the social pile. Virtual outcasts, they were often illiterate, bachelors, opium smokers, begging in the slack season, associated with theft and violence. Freelance like household Daoists and carpenters, they had difficulty adapting to the straightjacket of the commune system, but revived by the 1980s.

At least until recently, shawm players often had some disability, notably visual. In north Shanxi, in Yanggao town alone, blindmen Liuru (c1931–2007), Erhur (b.1946), and Yin San (b.c1947), were all fine players and delightful people (for more on blind shawm players in Yanggao, see here; for posts on blind musicians, here).

6 LR,YS

Liuru (left) and Yin San, 2003.

In China and much of the world, blind musicians are thought to have special musical gifts. Erhur learned, and loves to sing, the gongche solfeggio, but pointed out playfully, “Only a stupid musician needs notation”! Take that, qin players (see also here)!

7 Erhur

Erhur, 2003.

Elderly Liuru, living in pitiful conditions, was also devoted to the gongche of the suites.

9 shack

Liuru’s shack in Yanggao county-town, 2003.

I also met several stammering shawm players. Like the fraternity of one-legged men in The third policeman, as a stammerer myself I naturally identified with fellow sufferers like Yuanr, the young shawm band boss in Zhenquan township, Shaanbei—bluntly known as “The Stammerer” (Jiekazi). When I introduced myself he thought I was taking the piss. Both his colleagues and mine had a terrible time trying to conceal their mirth once we got ch-ch-chatting. Imagine the number of tapes you’d need to record the interviews.

Blind boys also often become itinerant bards. For Shaanbei, see here; for a harrowing tale of blind bards in Zuoquan, Shanxi, here; and for blind bards in Gansu, and great songs on the Coronavirus by stammering folk-singer Zhang Gasong, here.

North Shanxi
I studied the Hua family shawm band in Yanggao county (also home of the Li family Daoists) on and off from 1991 to 2005. Over the years I got to know many other bands in Yanggao too; since 2011 it’s been a pleasure to continue meeting them at funerals. Yang Ying, a regular dep for Li Manshan’s Daoist band, is also the leader of his own family shawm band, one of the finest in the area. Shi Ming, Li Qing’s friend from their days in the regional troupe, led a great band in Wangguantun just west.

8 Shi Ming band

Shi Ming’s band, Wangguantun 2001.

The Hua band played magnificently, despite being totally dysfunctional as a family. Led by two senior brothers on shawm and drum who were barely on speaking terms, they played in perfect ensemble, with complex heterophonic melody, and meticulously graded tempi. I still admire their artistry as much as I admire the Li family Daoists.

We did some great tours together (Washington DC, Holland, England), and made the most spectacular CD, Walking shrill, that should be part of everyone’s collection. Go on, order it—it’ll blow your head off.

While we’re about it, I wrote a long detailed analysis:

  • “Living early composition: an appreciation of Chinese shawm melody”, in Simon Mills ed., Analysing East Asian music: patterns of rhythm and melody, Musiké vol.4 (Semar, 2010), pp.25–112.

Only slightly less complex is this intriguing excursion—and there are two tracks (#5 and 11) on the audio playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here.

Here the classic style consists of long suites for large shawms. But since soon after I began visiting (“Typical!”), as my books show, such majestic music has largely become a casualty of the “big band” pop style adding trumpet, sax, electronic keyboard, and drum-kit. Hey ho.

Shaanbei

CWZ big band

Chang Wenzhou’s big band at village funeral, Mizhi 2001.

Further west, the barren loess hills of Shaanbei, heartland of the revolution, is renowned inter alia for its shawm bands (chuishou). We met many bands there.

1981 photoShawm players from Mizhi county, assembled for a regional festival in 1981.

Scholar Huo Xianggui, who began collecting Shaanbei shawm music as early as 1971 (!), had regular contacts with some of the great players, including Jin Wenhua, Hao Yongfa, and Chang Wenzhou. In another a revealing story about status, revealing the chuishous’ own sense of inferiority, he tells of an incident with the great shawm player Li Daniu—a poor illiterate opium-addicted bachelor. The Party hoped to cultivate Li’s talent by recruiting him for a state troupe, but he found it hard to adapt. One morning Huo invited Li Daniu to his room, and wanted to take him out for breakfast, but Li wouldn’t go. As Huo was about to go off to get food to bring back, Li insisted on squatting outside to wait for him, with the room locked; only half-joking, he said, “How am I supposed to explain if something in your room goes missing?”

By the 1990s, most distinguished of shawm players in the area was Chang Wenzhou, also a fine luthier, though he could be almost as difficult as the Hua brothers. Li Qishan’s rival band was also very fine.

By contrast to the mercenary atmosphere in Mizhi county-town, I enjoyed my time in the hill village of Yangjiagou with the lowly and unsung village band there. Of no great technical distinction, they merely supplemented their livelihood by doing occasional funerals. The two leading shawm players there, Chouxiao and “Older Brother” (on the left of the photo), semi-blind, were delightful unassuming people.

YJG band

The Yangjiagou band playing for a village funeral there, 1999.

The 1999 funeral sequence from Yangjiagou is one of the highlights (§B) of my DVD Notes from the yellow earththat comes with my 2009 book.

The northeast
As a kind of footnote, both to this post and to my account of our 1992 fieldwork, in summer 1992, just after our trip to Shanxi, we visited southern Liaoning province to seek shawm bands there.

Northeast China is also renowned for its majestic bands with large shawms. [2] The editor of the Anthology for Liaoning (see above), Yang Jiusheng 杨久盛, had a rare grasp of the material—like his fine colleague in Jilin province, Li Laizhang 李来璋.

Through Yang Jiusheng we found a wonderful young scholar in Panjin county called Li Runzhong 李润中. He was himself son of a fine shawm player—so he had already done rather well for himself.

Besides making the usual transcriptions from his recordings, he had diligently collected rich material on social contexts (including photos, maps, and diagrams), and written brief biographies of some of the leading shawm band players and ritual specialists in the county. Locally published in several thick volumes, his work, like the music of his county, is likely to remain unknown.

This was a period when the Anthology was in full swing, but it was also an insecure time after the chipped “iron rice-bowl” of the commune era. Under Maoism people, in their villages and secure work-units, knew they were screwed; now they had to go out and fend for themselves, and would probably still get screwed. But Li Runzhong, like our friends in Hebei, was passionate about doing the fieldwork.

A vast archive of precious recordings for the Anthology languishes unpublished. Perhaps it was then that I realized someone would have to document this major aspect of Chinese musical life for outsiders.

Liaoning

Liu Yongqing (b.1922) at funeral, Liaoyang city, 1992.

Here are two pages of images from the Anthology volume on Jilin province:Jilin 1

Jilin 2Technique
Using circular breathing, the two shawms play continuously in heterophony, often an octave or two apart. Home base (cf. the sheng) is the lowest note, do in the basic scale; the upper player often “walks shrill” with soaring and searing high notes. With drum, cymbals, and gong thwacking away too, the sound is deafening even from a hundred metres away, but sitting in the band is a serious yet intoxicating challenge to the ears.

Our SOAS shawm band
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous:

Having taken part occasionally, and sketchily, in the ritual associations of Hebei on yunluo gong-frame and even sheng, I eventually took the plunge with the shawm too. Shawm music is much harder to learn than either the ritual shengguan ensemble of the Daoists or their vocal liturgy; the instrument itself is a challenge (certainly for a baroque violinist…), and the wild improvised decorations can only be learned through prolonged exposure from young. But hey—I knew it would help me get a handle, however rubbish I was.

13 me and band

I accompany Hua band for funeral, Wangzhuang village 2001. Photo: Chen Kexiu.

At first I didn’t try taking part with the Hua band, but when I got to Shaanbei in 1999 I thought I might have a go on the shawm. Chang Wenzhou showed me the ropes, and I tried a few pieces out with Dage and Chouxiao in Yangjiagou.

FXP 2001

With Feng Xiaoping’s band, Yulin 2001.

In 2001, after more fieldwork in Shaanbei with my Beijing colleagues, I spent some time alone in Yulin, the regional capital. Putting aside my scruples about such a culturally inappropriate context, I went for daily “lessons” several times a week, one-to-one with a younger folk player, Feng Xiaoping. He got his band together for an informal “graduation concert” in his courtyard for bemused neighbours (well, they didn’t have much choice). After getting through a little suite I was completely knackered. The place names used at the dentist sprung to mind. As in Teach yourself Japanese, I drank a little beer.

In Yanggao with the Hua band in 2003, I mainly stuck to cymbals or gong—like their sons do from aged six!

In 1999 I had come down from the mountain, like Moses (also a stammerer, I note), with a whole set of instruments made by Chang Wenzhou. At SOAS I now had a little coterie of like-minded ethnos: Rachel Harris, Simon Mills, Manuel Jimenez, and Morgan Davies, all fine musicians, experts in their own various genres (Uyghur, Korean, Indonesian, Indian), and great mates. So, just for fun and our own instruction, we boldly decided to have a go at learning a few pieces. This is not like learning the erhu in a conservatoire—they are wild complex long semi-improvised pieces.

We made enough progress to give the occasional gig for suitably uncritical audiences—at CHIME conferences in Venice and Sheffield (not Scunthorpe), at SOAS, and even on procession (aha!) at the Lord Mayor’s Parade. We strung a few pieces together in little suites, and had a lot of fun.

Later I also bought a set of instruments in Yanggao (like “the music itself”, they vary from region to region—it’s no good playing Shanxi repertoire on Shaanbei shawms, or vice versa!). We all loved the Hua band’s wild repertoire, but it was considerably more daunting than that of Shaanbei. Still, I had all my recordings and videos, and I was making transcriptions anyway, which served as a useful crutch—another compromise, since picking it up entirely by ear would have been a challenge too far for us. Rachel, Simon, and I took turns on the two shawms, and since the drum is always an anchor, we relied heavily on the intuitive brilliance of Manuel Jimenez.

SOAS shawms

Then in 2005 I managed to get the Hua band invited for a tour of England. My old friend Bureau Chief Li, from the Datong regional Bureau of Culture, who had acted as “group leader” on the band’s 2002 DC trip, came along for the ride again.

Bureau Chief Li has always been most tolerant, nay supportive, of my fascination for folk culture—like a bemused dad baffled by his son’s obsession with Aston Villa. On the National Mall in DC, taking one look at all the performance tents set up for a mind-blowing array of groups from all over the Silk Road, he exclaimed, “Hey Steve, you bring us all this way and they’re supposed to play for another bloody temple fair?!” In England our most delightful gig was in Portesham Village Hall in Devon, home to a great jazz series. This time Bureau Chief Li chuckled, “WTF?! You’ve gone and done it again, Steve—this time you’ve got us a gig in the sodding village brigade headquarters!”

Anyway, during this visit, SOAS impressively invited the Hua band for a brief residency. We solemnly assembled daily in a little recording studio in SOAS and took turns joining in with the band on all the various instruments. One evening Morgan and I took a couple of the youngsters to a blues bar—though no strangers to the considerable vices of Yanggao town, they seemed a little nonplussed.

Now that we’re dispersed to the far corners of the globe, or at least of England, we’re all deeply nostalgic about those years. It’s not that we did it at all well—it could sound excruciating—but we learnt a lot, and it was the perfect way to work up a thirst for a good session in the nearby art-deco bar of the Tavistock Hotel, not least in memory of  hosting the Hua band there in 2005.

Alas, the Hua band has since gone the way of many “blower-and-drummer” families. Drummer Hua Jinshan survived a stroke onstage in Amsterdam later in 2005. Falling ill there doubtless saved his life: if it had happened back home in Yanggao, it would have been curtains. As he recovered in hospital, I could only obey his pleas to wheel him daily to the courtyard for sneaky fag along with a motley crew of inmates. But his younger brother Hua Yinshan died of cancer, and Wuge, Yinshan’s son, was stabbed to death in an unsavoury brawl.

My usual rant
(For a similar one, see here; see also this). If you’ve heard me go on about this before, then go and pour yourself a large G&T.

None of what we tried at SOAS could possibly happen in a Chinese conservatoire. Sure, plenty of folk musicians have become professors there, but once enshrined in the big city they have to develop a more, um, “scientific”, more breezy repertoire. No-one there would dream of learning long suites of up to an hour, in the style of local folk genres, or emulating a bunch of peasants.

The brief of anthropologists/ethnomusicologists is to study people in all levels of society, and to show that all kinds of music-making are valid aspects of social activity, local cultures, in constant flux. Different genres have different aesthetics, all based on social practice.

So we mustn’t assume that state education is the norm. Among all the kinds of music in the world, WAM is rather exceptional, in its notation-based classroom training system and its domination by “concerts”. But that’s the ethos of the conservatoire. All kinds of musicians learn in different ways.

Vocal music too is rarely dependent on the state educational system. In England, aspiring bluespeople, like Mick and Keef, learned their art in art schools. Jazz was only seriously institutionalized since the 1980s, though school bands were always an influence. Elsewhere traditional music may be adopted in similar fashion: there are schools for flamenco, Irish music, muqam, and so on, but often they change the flavour of folk style—and anyway they only represent a miniscule tip of the iceberg.

My old friend Matt Forney, long-term Beijing resident whose towels I have often darkened in between my trips to the countryside, is a fine old-time banjo player. How do spirit mediums in Guangxi, or indeed punks in Beijing, learn? Such folk performers have no need of notation, training classes, WAM theory, and so on. It may be a continuum, but we shouldn’t confuse one for the other.

As to instrumental music: solos are rare in China, as you can see from the Anthology. Solos for erhu, pipa, and zheng are neither a norm nor an ideal. Notable aspects of traditional music-making include oral transmission, versatility, flexibility, and not performed for “concerts”. Folk instrumental music remains male-dominated, whereas since the 1980s the conservatoires have become dominated by women.

So look at these differences between local shawm bands and conservatoire suona soloists: different society, different values, different aims, different music. Even the names of the instruments are different: the urban term suona (found in historical sources) is rarely heard in rural China: instead they use a variety of local names, like weirwa, wazi, or laba. That’s why I fall back on the English word shawm.

Shawm bands
(chuigushou 吹鼓手, guyueban )
suona soloists
By far the most common form
of instrumental music in China.
Not so numerous, even in conservatoires.
Weddings and funerals. Concerts on stage; film sessions.
(formerly) Family training, from young;
largely oral training, in course of rituals.
Some blind or disabled; they may beg
in the off season.
Partial to liquor and drugs.
Even if from a rural background, they now learn with a “teacher” in the conservatoire.
Notation plays a role.
Upwardly mobile!
(formerly) Long complex suites derived
from imperial tradition.
Short simple pieces derived from 20th-century modern urban values.

The upwardly-mobile conservatoire suona soloist will never aspire to the social context of the blowers-and-drummers. The most one can hope is precisely what does happen: maybe the former will pick up a few techniques from the latter.

Learning in a classroom, whether in China or elsewhere, is very different from the participant observation of the ethnographer. This difference is clear in China, where the former is done in conservatoires, the latter not at all.

If we learn shawm pieces, we’re unlikely to do it for the same reasons that a young boy in a shawm band family does; his reasons are not the ideal for us—we don’t want their lives. The rural bands may be occupational, but it’s not the kind of professionalism to which conservatoire musicians aspire. Suona soloists in conservatoires learn with a view to doing concerts on stage, or making money in pop/film studio sessions, not doing weddings and funerals.

I should stress again that notation may be a badge of elites, but is not so common either in China or elsewhere, nor is it a criterion for superiority! Notation is not at all important as a learning tool in China or elsewhere, though it may be a totem/fetish for those seeking to establish a “canon”. Of course it may be a useful tool for our analyses…

Yang Der-ruey’s study of a Daoist training school in Shanghai (anyway an exceptional case: most Daoists learn through hereditary family training in the course of rituals) shows the school’s break with tradition, and its irrelevance once they begin working in the real world, collaborating with temple patrons and spirit mediums. Even for amateur genres like Shanghai silk-and-bamboo, the point of learning isn’t to win prizes or even to “perform” in stage “concerts”; it’s a social activity, not to be judged by conservatoire standards.

The kinds of music promoted in conservatoires are very selective: mainly solos that can be taught, with precise scores, one-to-one, like a Brahms concerto or a Chopin étude. The flexibility of traditional ensembles, folk-singers, or a spirit medium, is not required here. But this gives people a very narrow picture of what Chinese music is about, both musically, socially, and historically. One may attempt to create a “canon”, but within the whole field of Chinese or world music it will be no more significant than that of WAM. Such a discourse may even play into a dangerous nationalistic, patriotic, narrative.

In China some examples of the chasm between folk and conservatoire aesthetics are the rare attempts by conservatoire musicians to render traditional music; in failing to subscribe to its aesthetic, they entirely lack the “flavour” that makes it effective, as with their polished stage renditions of the shengguan music of the Zhihua temple, or silk-and-bamboo: meticulously rehearsed from fixed parts, with graded dynamics, and so on.

In general, though, conservatoire musicians neither want to nor could learn local folk traditions. They learn a fixed version of “the dots”, overlooking style, and entirely removed from the social context that nurtures it. They may consider this superior, “improved”, more “scientific”. The musical style of rural shawm bands is also ridiculously difficult—but the point is that there’s no reason at all why conservatoire students would want to learn long shawm suites like this.

In sum, the conservatoires do what they do, and that’s fine. It’s just that as ethnomusicologists we seek to offer a broader soundscape and a broader social range. And anyway, for a sensitive musician, the intensity and grandeur of the folk style will be far more rewarding than those cute little conservatoire pieces.

So after all this discussion of urban (and urbane) concert performance, we should return to the rural ceremonial setting by watching the Hua band playing their hearts out at a funeral—see my lengthy analysis here.

On shawm bands elsewhere around the world, see e.g. south Asia, Iran, and Xinjiang.

 

[1] See also my Folk music of China, ch.10, and its CD, as well as the 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. In Chinese, my colleague Zhang Zhentao has also written well on them. See also my “Men behaving badly: shawm bands of north China”, in Gender in Chinese Music, pp.112–26.
[2] See my Folk music of China, ch.10, and §4 of the CD. Note also two CDs from François Picard: Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, musiques de la première lune, and Chine, Hautbois du Nord-Est, la bande de la famille Li (Buda, Musique du Monde, 1995).

More on taxonomy

As with feminist punkvocal styles of the worldthe organology of the world’s instrumentarium, and indeed any other human activity, the taxonomies made by ordinary people are evident from their fine discriminations of nuance between pop genres that may seem arcane to the outsider—like acid house, drum and bass, grunge, indie, metal, Northern soul (“Naa, I’m not into the Manchester sound, guys”), rap, hip-hop, and even trainers, FFS  (don’t ask me…).

And just the same goes for rural dwellers’ perceptions of ceremonial genres and ritual activity in any single county of China: shawm bands, geomancers and spirit mediums (distinctions within the latter partly gender-based), [1] amateur sects, temple priests, occupational household ritual specialists, inner and outer altars, civil and martial altars, Buddhist Daoists and Daoist Buddhists (I kid you not), [2] “northern” and “southern” ritual wind bands around Beijing[3] opera troupes, singers, bards, beggars….

Taxonomy is not merely the preserve of the fusty academic; it’s part of what makes us all human.

Such perceptions can also arouse passionate and bitter disputes—never more so than between, and within, religions (if less so in China, notwithstanding imperial persecutions). But classification doesn’t have to equate with building walls. Whereas the brutish black-and-white (sic) xenophobia of a certain Tangerine fuckwit suggests that his sensibilities may not be so finely tuned, taxonomy can also reveal connections and build bridges.

 

[1] For just one region, see Adam Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8.
[2] See several reports in the Daojiao yishi congshu series, and Overmyer, Ethnography in China.
[3] See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 1.

Punk and feminism

While I’m on the topic of feminist songs, and continuing from Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys, this is another fantastic piece of, um, diachronic ethnographic herstoriography:

http://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/9923-the-story-of-feminist-punk-in-33-songs/

Predictably, bands from East and West coasts of North America dominate the list. For any China-watchers branching out into Riot grrrl and Bikini kill, try this:

Indeed, Feels blind was released in 1991, the year I first met the late great household Daoist priest Li Qing in Yanggao…

The UK comes up a strong second on the list—not least the amazing Poly Styrene, and The Slits, and there’s even a great early PJ Harvey number (roll over “late Beethoven“). The playlist does suggest the wider nature of the scene, with Volpes from Spain and the Swiss band Kleenex. But I do wonder if Pitchfork’s postbag has been flooded with a letter from a Mrs Ivy Trellis of North Wales, deploring the lack of French, German, or Spanish bands—or indeed Dame Vera Lynn. Not to mention Pussy Riot, or Chinese bands… For more female punk playlists, see here.

Consider this an addition to my growing category of topics about which I know Fuck All. I guess covering feminist punk in a blog about Daoist ritual is marginally less implausible than the other way round—I do look forward to that, though.

You don’t own me

I promise I won’t make a habit of this—and sure, there must be thousands more sites where this came from—but here’s a great list of

17 feminist songs that were ahead of their time.

All the more important under the current assaults on what should be common sense, and the major role of women in leading the protests.

However can I have missed You don’t own me? (Lesley Gore, 1963) all this time? Or at least, how did I miss the 1964 cover by Dusty Springfield?

I’m finally getting why people get so hooked on Country (like you do on the suites of north Chinese shawm bands. Possibly.)—it’s good to see it featuring so strongly here. Kitty Wells, and Dolly Parton—feminist in, um, plain clothes…

How good to include Ethel Smyth’s 1910 suffragette anthem!

(Hmm, given that one seeks to discard outmoded gendered nouns, the term “suffragette” seems a bit ironic… BTW, you don’t hear much about “usherettes” these days, eh? They were a vital part of the Away from it all cinema experience.)

And of course “no playlist is complete without” the incomparable Billie Holiday

But how did I will survive (1978) not get onto the list? Anyway, here it is…

And here’s an updated list “to get you hyped for the women’s march“.

To return to Country: of course, the antithesis of all this is Stand by your man (1968, not great timing), but it’s still a great song, somehow—as long as you ignore the lyrics…

Tammy Wynette spent most of her life vainly trying to defend it. Here’s some more “negative teaching material”—with this quote she just digged herself further into a patriarchal hole:

Personally, I’m not particularly fond of the thought of digging ditches or climbing telephone poles. I’d rather stick with something a little more feminine. I wouldn’t want to lose the little courtesies that we’ve always been extended, like lighting cigarettes and opening doors, and pulling out chairs and things like that. I enjoy that. I guess I just enjoy being a woman.

Oops. Retired Rear Admiral James Foleyso retired he’s dead—will be nodding his head wisely and playfully slapping her cute lil’ ass.

At the time I may not have clocked You don’t own me, but at least I was aware of Dusty Springfield (!).* And digressing only a tad from the feminist path, I do vividly remember Cilla’s Anyone who had a heart (1964, her cover of Dionne Warwick’s 1963 version)—but great as both are, you must hear Sheridan Smith’s astounding cover (from the 2014 TV series Cilla):

The sheer creative energy of music in the often-discredited 1960s is an endless topic. But we can always put in wider context—not just civil rights and hippies, but further afield, in Nigeria, or the ongoing struggles of Eastern Europe… And ritual specialists in Chinese villages!

 

* My friend Rowan points out wisely that I’ve never been aware of anything at the time. Now I’m still living in the past, for all my so-called “contemporary ethnography”…

Country titles

Further to tune titles (from The China Daily, and in Irish music),

on the many websites devoted to drôle country song titles, I like

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

Also of note is

Get your tongue outta my mouth, I’m kissing you goodbye. *

Many such titles, of course, are a stark record of the misogyny of the milieu, though some express mutual alienation—if that helps…

À propos, I note Nicholas Dawidoff’s splendid book title In the country of country—another piece of musical ethnography. See also the films of Ken Burns and Rich Hall.

 

* On a more scholarly tack, for farewell poems in the Tang dynasty, see here.

Period style

Talking of authentic recordings, here’s the classic 1932 version of Pique-nique by Edouard Ibert (“Call me Ted”) (cf. Authorship):

With the wonderful plummy voice, and great original, period instrumentation—menacing brass and xylophone, and zany woodblocks, like Cantonese jazz, I may be drawn to it by its heavy use of the pentatonic scale, but to anyone the final chorus is a definitive proclamation of those sober values that made the British Empire great, after the sinister bacchanalian debauchery of the sylvan outing…

Cf. the reflections of Alan Bennett. And the pique-nique may remind us of Five go mad in Dorset, with lashings of ginger beer…

Strauss (R.) and Elvis

Wild

David Lynch always amazes (for Twin Peaks, see here), but the final sequence of Wild at heart is great:

Morphing, almost seamlessly, from the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss to Elvis, it makes both works even more intense; and then the song (really sung by Nicholas Cage!) is filmed in one long take, the camera coiling amorously around him and Laura Dern.

Worth celebrating genius—all the more in the USA these days, where the list of artists deemed “overrated” by the arbiter of cultural taste will be growing…

The shock of the new

Rite

“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains overwhelming today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life (see also here).

Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticised view of folk culture! (For a “pagan” ritual performer among the Cheremis, see here; and for the New Year rituals of Gaoluo in China, here.)

Among endless discussions, Tom Service gives a succinct introduction. Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. The NYO website led me to Gertrude Stein’s curiously detailed account of the event:

We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.

As the site observes, this is hardly surprising, as she wasn’t actually there.

Supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”

I’ve cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also pp.421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned:

Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.

Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field (more crowded, for instance, than analysis and reception history of the suites of Yanggao shawm bands since the Ming dynasty—funny, that), his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.

I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing.

Swan Lake it ain’t. Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music. You can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here, and the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:


Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:

For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here.

And here’s an attractive quandary:

Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:

If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version

sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,

then good for him.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:

A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube. Jazz tributes include the Bad Plus arrangement:

In her recent exploration of The Rite, Gillian Moore also observes:

My feelings of creeping feminist unease in writing a book on a ballet about the sacrifice of a young woman created by three men were at least partly relieved when I came across the Russian folk metal band Arkona and their frontwoman Masha Scream.

On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.

By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.

Yesterday…

I have outlined the importance of the Song of the Skeleton in the rituals of both north and south China (In Search of the folk Daoists pp.233–4). It’s a common theme throughout the north—mainly as part of the yankou, both Daoist and Buddhist.

In Yanggao Daoist ritual (Daoist Priests pp.274–5), several hymns are related. The Mantra of the Skeleton (Kulou zhenyan 骷髏真言, more commonly known here by the melodic label Wailing to Sovereign Heaven, Ku huangtian 哭皇天) is prescribed, a cappella, for Opening Scriptures on the first afternoon of a funeral.

It’s a kind of catalogue aria, with seven long verses for the visits to the stations of purgatory over seven days. Its melodic material overlaps substantially with that of other hymns, beginning with the opening of the Diverse and Nameless melody (Daoist priests pp.267–8). The melismatic “Ah, Skeleton” (Kulou) refrain, and the coda in pseudo-Sanskrit (also in common with Diverse and Nameless), are not written here in the manual. My film (from 56’08”) gives the sixth verse:

Ah Skeleton! Skeleton!
On the sixth day he reaches Netherworld Souls Village
His sons not to be seen
Starving and parched, at his wits’ end,
Desperate to sup broth.

kulou-2kulou-1
From Li Qing’s hymn volume, 1980. The final folio on the left has the opening of Mantra to the Wailing Ghosts—my book p.266, also featured in the film, from 1.03.56).

* * *

For most such hymns one hardly expects an “emotional” response from audiences—in Yanggao, after all, it shares both melodic material and style with many others in the repertoire. But in his brilliant ethnographic studies of ritual practice in old Beijing, Chang Renchun notes how the renditions of two celebrated Buddhist monks moved their audiences to tears. Performative tears feature in many posts on this blog—links here.

Some common versions open:

昨日去荒郊玩游        Yesterday, seeking diversion roaming in the barren outskirts…

So talking of “Yesterday”, Paul McCartney heard his own version in a dream, like Aboriginal singers.

Yesterday

Though secular, it’s deeply moving. Here’s an early solo rendition, live (and Paul’s unaffected style is a major element of the song’s impact—no cover versions come close):

Here’s the remastered version from 2009:

As I observe in the introduction to my series on the great Beatles albums, analysis, while optional, can supplement our response; again it’s instructive to read Wilfred Mellers and Alan W. Pollack. Dating from the same period as A hard day’s night, Mellers considers Yesterday a “small miracle”:

Although the opening words tell us that yesterday his troubles seemed far away, the music in the second bar immediately enacts these troubles with a disquieting modulation from tonic, by way of the sharpened sixth, to the relative. The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles “return to stay” with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B♮is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence. […]

The immediate nostalgia of the song is without suspicion of sentimentality, and the corny accompaniment of string quartet can be employed, with validity, to reinforce the music’s frail bewilderment.

Yesterday quartet

George Martin’s manuscript for Yesterday, on display at Abbey road studios.

Pollack’s analysis is also insightful. And as he notes (also in my roundup), the opening uses a device here that Paul was to use regularly in some of his great songs: a declarative word, followed by a pause, and then rhythmically active ascent.

I can be quite confident about our own emotional responses to this song; less so about the responses of various types of Chinese mourners to the Skeleton, over time.

Early music put in its place

One evening after doing the Monteverdi Vespers, or should I say Vespas [No you should not—Ed.] in St Johns’ Smith Square I had to get somewhere else in a hurry, so I jumped into a taxi.

The driver goes, “So wot you bin up to then?”

Me: “Um, been playing this amazing piece by Monteverdi, it’s, um, like, old stuff—like early music, you know?”

“Oh right—you mean like Frank Ifield an’ that?”

Me: “Er, yeah, that’s the kinda thing…”

* * *

“But you know”, as Alan Bennett’s sermon goes, “he put me in mind of the kind of question I feel I should be asking you here tonight”: what is early music, and is it closing time yet?

For another detached review of early music, see here (among many stories under the humour subhead of the WAM category). And here’s a comment from Larson.