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.

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. For more on the American minimalist scene, try Alex Ross, “Beethoven was wrong” (The rest is noise, ch.14); and on BBC Radio 3, Tom Service.

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.

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Meanwhile, over 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. Indeed, having noted the importance of percussion for the minimalists, they might enjoy the cymbal patterns of the Daoists, with their complex hocketing.


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, the flat re 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. Here’s a sarangi version from Sultan Khan:

Or Nikhil Banerjee on sitar:

And did those feet in ancient time?

Still thinking about Alan Bennett’s feet and early religious culture:

In the wonderful song Jerusalem, rather like those questions they ask you at the airport check-in desk, you think all the answers are going to be “No”, but you have to keep on your toes (sic, see below) just in case.

Great that it’s tipped for our new national anthem, to replace the meretricious God save the Queen (although the version here is fine)—but we have to take care not to “leave it unattended at any time” in case it gets hijacked by “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”.

Mind you (and talking of keeping on your toes), if I had an anthem like this (Wow! Italian opera at its most intoxicating! 1831-ish, see here)

even I would score a goal like this:

(1970—“ancient time”?] That’s right up there with Ronnie’s 147.

Indeed, Latin American nations (notably Uruguay and Ecuador) are among the star exhibits in Tom Service’s entertaining programme “How Do You Make a National Anthem?” in The listening service.

I was in Washington DC with the amazing Hua family shawm band in 2002 [more on that story later] when Brazil won the World Cup. We all crowded into the hotel bar early in the morning to cheer them on, suitably lubricated with A Pint of Plain—It’s Your Only Man.

And then there’s our fantasy football team/Daoist ritual band

“which will bring us back to”

Li Manshan!

[Been at the Bombay Sapphire again, Dr Jones?—Ed.]