Homage to Nina Hagen

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.

Our modern ears

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers or the Li family Daoists—and even scholars who interpret them.

Hence the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s; from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer.

I come back to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: Amy Winehouse, Erbarme dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration.

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t: in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.

This week’s dinner party

Guests for my fantasy dinner party this week (Friday to Monday):

Jaroslav Hašek, Stella Gibbons, Flann O’Brien, Harpo Marx, Keith Richards, Viv Albertine, Zoe Williams, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Caitlin Moran, Diane Morgan [far-fetched stage name of Philomena Cunk—Ed.], and Bridget Christie.

Dress optional. 1859 for 1900. That gives them 41 years.

It might be churlish of me to worry that Hašek and Myles might not shine in a large mixed group. But hey, it’s a fantasy.

The counter-tenor, and minimalism

The male counter-tenor voice is well suited to the ethereal. In Early Music, apart from Michael Chance, you can find many brilliant singers—Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, and so on.

Veering somewhat off the beaten track, here’s Klaus Nomi (1944–83) singing Purcell’s Cold song:

for which I’m again indebted to Private passions, this time George Shaw.

Nomi was singing the song shortly before becoming an early victim of AIDS. But it still recalls the vibrant experimentalism of the New York scene, with punk and so on—like Diaghilev’s Paris, or indeed New York after the war.

Here’s a non-vocal interlude, linked by Purcell for our times.

Meanwhile England was buzzing too. Apart from punk, we had the films of Peter Greenaway, like The draughtsman’s contract (1982—just before Lost Jockey’s Buzz Buzz Buzz, and Madonna’s stunning debut album!) with Michael Nyman’s exhilarating minimalist take on Purcell:

And his funky Don Giovanni:

All this, note, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

On the other side of the world, in a poor village in north China, Li Qing was leading the revival of his hereditary tradition of Daoist ritual, copying a full set of their manuals, preserved by his uncle Li Peisen.

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Later (we’re back in England with the counter-tenor now), Martin Jacques, in The tiger lilies, was spellbinding too.


* Note for Rowan: There, I did notice some popular culture at the time…

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 la over the do drone. 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. Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar: