New musics in Beijing

BJ club

The recent BBC Radio 3 Late Junction programme on the Beijing indie scene (still available here for 20 more days) prompted me to educate myself a bit by exploring further—with my customary disclaimer. Whatever our tastes, our modern ears are imbued with modern sounds (for a somewhat less contemporary take, see here).

As in any society, the Chinese soundscape is diverse. What individuals mean by “music” may often seem comically circumscribed (see also here). Just as “European music” means more than either Beethoven or British pop, so “Chinese music” should encompass all kinds of genres. For some, it may mean the qin zither (which, as I am wont to observe, is like focusing on the clavichord); for others, the schmaltzy solos of the conservatoires or the kitsch song-and-dance ensembles; for folkies like me, the gritty rural shawm bands (cf. here) and the songs of spirit mediums. Of course, the Chinese soundscape is all of the above, and more. Zooming out still further, there’s the whole issue of elite and folk cultures worldwide.

* * *

While Cui Jian still remains iconic, it’s a relief to be reminded that the scene moves on. Like I’d know—it’s largely invisible (inaudible) to me. My first arrival in Beijing in 1986 more or less coincided with the rise of Chinese rock (though I don’t believe I can claim credit). It makes me feel my age—I can tell you much more about temple ritual groups there, now and before 1949.

But the indie scene too is a worthy topic of ethnography, all part of the diverse soundscape. And of course it’s always fluid. The current scene in Beijing, with its diverse techno and clubbing subcultures, has been compared to New York or Berlin—no wonder that artists like Miranda Vukasovic are drawn here.

Kloet

There’s a wealth of journalistic coverage, which is as it should be. But it’s long been a popular academic subject too; for a definitive study, what we need is

  • Jeroen de Kloet, China with a cut: globalisation, urban youth and popular music (2010).

Besides hanging out with performers, he learns from producers and other industry people, fans, and pundits. The book is an exemplary ethnography, and makes a fine prism to view change in modern China altogether.

As is common worldwide, most of these bands disavow simple political agendas—and not merely out of prudence. And by contrast with the early period after the 1980s’ reforms, people no longer seem so hung up on issues like “But is it Chinese?”. De Kloet delves deeper into such issues; particularly in his Conclusion, he unpacks deeper political meanings.

Anyway, the scene is an important corrective to the Western media image of a brainwashed population cowed by Xi Jinping Thought. It’s worth listening to these bands as you read the latest propaganda from the People’s Daily (as you don’t…). De Kloet also offers a nuanced view on the commercial pop scene:

If we dig deeper, both sonic as well as political realities are more complex and contradictory than we may at first realize, and hence refuse to be essentialized into monolithic meaning like “rebellious” and “totalitarian”, or to be contained in fixed dichotomies like official versus unofficial or resistance versus compliance. Neither state nor artists can be pigeonholed that easily.

Bands
Sure, in this field my grasp of taxonomy is impressionistic (rock, underground, punk, noise, metal, hooligan, dakou, depression, grunge, and so on; for hip-hop, see e.g. here). But popular musos are simultaneously capable of wonderfully fine distinctions and not at all hung up on them, as we can see in the Rito y geografia del cante flamenco series. Anyway, I may be doing a bit of genre-bending with this selection.

Punk, including girl bands, makes the most lively sub-tribe (cf. here, including Riot grrrl’s take on China)—as ever, De Kloet’s Chapter 3 “Subaltern sounds” is well worth reading. Many online sites give updates, with bands like Criminal Thought, Gum Bleed, and Torturing Nurse—try this, and listing sites like thebeijinger.com and timeoutbeijing.com (e.g. this 2014 survey); see also this interview with entrepreneur Michael Pettis.

Just a few tracks to whet your appetite:

Hang on the box

Hang on the box.

Hang on the box sound great:

Hedgehog

Here are Hedgehog live in Beijing at D22 in 2008:

Carsick Cars—whereas the fieldworker’s choice of Zhongnanhai cigarettes, named after the luxury compound of the Party leadership, has lost its ironic bite, this is more incisive:

Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… I can’t live without Zhongnanhai.
Zhongnanhai, Zhongnanhai… Who the fuck smoked my Zhongnanhai?

Zuoxiao Zuzhou:

De Kloet is also good on “hyphenated scenes”, like pop-rock, pop-punk, folk-rock, and so on. His book also led me to this hard-hitting 2007 song from blind musician Zhou Yunpeng (cf. Mo Yan’s Garlic ballads, cited here under “Old and new stories”):

And here’s a 2010 documentary from Shaun Jefford (and as ever, note the BTL comments):

* * *

And of course there are thriving scenes in other Chinese cities too (also thoughtfully covered by de Kloet), not least Chengdu—including Tibetan bands.

For what it’s worth, while I remain deeply committed to the ethnography of rural society, I find all this an invigorating contrast with the fusty, rosy official praise of “traditional culture” and the absurd heritage flapdoodle. It’s gratifying to think that playlists like these must be on the phones of students who attended my recent film screenings in Beijing.

Meanwhile in the poor countryside, perhaps terminally demoralized, much of this is alien to funeral singers in Yanggao; but there too the scene has been changing. And students returning from city colleges to attend the rural funerals of their grandparents may be listening to the grittier urban sounds.

Meanwhile on our own sceptered isle, I’m reliably informed that (as I’m sorry I haven’t a clue would have it) Popular Beat Combos have achieved a certain currency—with singers like Vera Lynn, Lonnie Donegan, and Frank Ifield. Yeah, I’ve got my finger on the pulse all right.

 

 

 

More from the great Viv Albertine

 

Viv 2

The title of Viv Albertine‘s brilliant memoir Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys derives from her mum’s despairing litany of her daughter’s tastes as a teenager. In her new book To throw away unopened her mum takes centre stage. Structured around a shocking flashpoint, it’s at once harrowing and inspiring. *

Always brutally honest in her account, as daughter, sister, and mother in a matriarchal setup Viv Albertine both comes to terms with anger and makes a compelling case for  it.

One of the reasons why feminism took such a strong hold in my mind, and in the minds of many girls of my generation, is that we were brought up by repressed and dissatisfied women who had grown into adulthood during the war, learned new skills, tasted independence, and then had to dissolve back into their dark-brown homes and watch from behind their ironing boards as the swinging sixties unfolded.

On the saccharine brainwashing of pop songs:

Society had the same dreary old expectations of us girls as always: to be attractive, smile, acquiesce to men, search for romantic love and become supportive wives. […] Such an effective way to keep girls and women down and render us ineffective.

I managed to fight off the dogmas of patriarchy, organized religion, capitalism, class deference and respect for authority easily enough. How come I fell at the last fence and impaled myself on the railings of romance?

Where’s the advert on TV telling you to call a freefone number if you’ve been mis-sold, not a pension, but a belief system? My religion turned out to be bogus. I’m still unpicking those decades of conditioning that were stitched, or rather sung, into my brain.

A review can hardly encapsulate her psychological nuance in dissecting the demons of dysfunctional family life. The contrary scenario of a comfortable middle-class family leading contented idyllic lives over the generations is not only less compelling, but it must be rare—even illusory.

Along the way the book also contains valuable social history. She’s good on the disjunctures of urban life, and the unlikely pleasures of its architecture. In her youth, living near the Hornsey Gas Holder No. 1, she appreciates its elegance while comparing it to a Lowry painting in winter.

Like Annie Proulx and Ciaran Carson, she effectively evokes the texture of daily life with long lists of mundane objects, with vignettes on topics like the history of the Craven A cigarettes that her mum smoked. As for the Queen Mother, “No wonder she looks good for her age, she’s never had to carry four pounds of potatoes home.”

Modifying our image of punk history, on a US tour with the Slits in the 70s she looks forward to homely letters from her mum. Even recently, embarking on a weekend away with yet another feckless partner, her detailed inventory of preparations and packing, while hardly exceptional (“just to feel comfortable”), is still sobering—”If men lived in a society that expected them to put that amount of work into a date, they wouldn’t bother dating.”

Reading this traumatic family history, it’s intriguing to return to Clothes clothes clothes music music music boys boys boys. Everyone (including men) should read these books!

 

* While this blog, rashly or mercifully, does venture way beyond Daoist ritual, an encomium from me may not seem the most likely addition to the many rave reviews of the book (e.g. here)—but it’s all ethnography, unpacking the messy complexities of people’s real lives…

 

 

Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99).

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance.

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica. His diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the scramble of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.

Namesakes

Not me, with Sid Vicious.

Of my several distinguished namesakes, I will (alas) not be readily confused for my fellow muso Steve Jones, guitarist of the Sex Pistols—imagine the look on the face of his Careers Guidance Officer at school.

Press cuttings about him provide me with hours of harmless fun. This quote might seem to describe one of my own performances of the transition into the finale of Beethoven’s 5th symphony:

We were all looking at one another. It wasn’t panic, it was more confusion.

Another Stephen Jones, of Babybird, received this concert review:

Stephen Jones abused his audience, his band, and himself.


 

NYO Prom: The Rite

47 years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms. You can find the TV broadcast here for the next 30 days.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9; cf. here), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

(The complete BBC4 broadcast includes a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...)

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 recently 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 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 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. The ballet, of course, is even more unsettling—you can see a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography here.

Swan Lake it ain’t.

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 and the Li family Daoists—and even for scholars who interpret them. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer, or unhear the sounds all around us.

But that’s only one rationale for 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. More fundamentally, I return to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: all kinds of musicking in all societies  should be treated on an equal footing—Amy Winehouse, Erbarme dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration (for a great playlist, see here).

* * *

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t (see here, and here): in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension, with music (and culture generally) delineating barriers as much as commonalities—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.