A tribute to Laurence Picken

I was one of Laurence Picken’s more tangential disciples, but he remains among the great inspirations of my life.[1]

I know several of us have fond memories of turning up for lunch at his little house overflowing with books, a sherry followed by a carefully prepared meal, listening to him carefully explaining, non-stop for four or five hours (for all his encyclopaedic erudition, he knew nothing of small-talk) how the marker to the right of the column in some 11th-century Japanese zither manuscript had been misinterpreted—with liberal asides on plainchant, birdsong, and medieval Sogdian viniculture—to which I occasionally managed to interject “I say, fancy that…” And that’s how it went, every couple of months for about twenty-five years.

Apart from his immense scholarly arsenal, he was a true amateur, an enthusiast. He maintained a network of like-minded people, communicating extraordinary enthusiasm for a topic that, even by the high standards of obscurity of those topics that many of us here today pursue, was pretty arcane. His devotion to scholarship was nothing to do with conforming to institutional demands; as a bit of a Lone Ranger myself, I now realize where I got it from.

He corresponded indefatigably with scholars all over the world (not least Eastern Europe)—he had to wait far too long for the invention of email. Though I think his influence on Western scholarship on Chinese music has been disappointingly slight, his work on Tang music had echoes in that of Chinese scholars, including He Changlin and a group of scholars in Shanghai, from Ye Dong and Chen Yingshi to a newer generation. Senior scholars like Yang Yinliu and Huang Xiangpeng were themselves engaged in similar work through the 1950s, and would have relished a chance to exchange ideas with Laurence.

Having helped him out with his magnum opus Music from the Tang court for many years, I finally began going to China in 1986. My initial reason for going was to seek clues to Tang performance practice in living traditions there—how to play his transnotations in a convincing style. Except for his early and late visits, most of his life coincided with a period when few foreigners could gain meaningful access to living traditions in the PRC. And immediately I discovered a vast unknown treasury of living folk and ritual music, soon putting to one side what we might call historical musicology in favour of contemporary ethnography (see e.g. my Plucking the Winds, pp.169, 184–5). But what I really appreciate is that Laurence entirely understood, and was immensely generous and supportive of this churlish choice of mine.

A special edition of Early Music, edited by Richard Widdess, includes my succinct thoughts on the relation between “early music” and living traditions in China, with thoughts on notation and recreation:

  • “Source and stream: early music and living traditions in China”, Early Music August 1996: 375–88.

As I published a lengthy analysis of some of the pieces from the Hua family shawm band’s suites introduced in my 2007 book (and the accompanying DVD film, and an amazing CD), it reminded me that very few (Chinese or Western) have done any serious analysis of Chinese instrumental music—so Laurence’s project with Noel Nickson (however traditional in style) on the Tang repertoire remains a bold, comprehensive, and detailed body of work. My only reservation is that I’m not so keen on analyzing old scores when we can’t hear how they actually sounded; doing fieldwork in rural China, I’m happy if we can make an educated guess— within a living tradition—about how a score no longer in use, was performed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000!

A distant relative of the Cambridge early music movement (Dart, Munrow, Hogwood…), Laurence’s Tang music project was controversial, not least in Japan, where it challenged deeply-held assumptions about the sanctity of gagaku.[2] Most striking is his theory that in Japan the Tang scores were gradually retarded—ending up being played up to sixteen times more slowly, robbing the melodies of their melodic coherence. Generally this remains convincing, though our later experience of living genres in China like the temple music of Beijing, or Nanguan in Fujian, might prompt us to refine it.

Unlike some scholars, I quite accept that the Tōgaku scores that Laurence collected do indeed represent Tang music. But I wish I could debate with him now. His tenet that we should read the scores “with no more information than that given in the manuscripts themselves”[3] may seem at odds with his following comment, “the attempt to determine what an ancient text meant at the time when it was written”. So I think he might concur with my response:

I agree absolutely that we mustn’t assume the way a piece is performed now is the way it was performed before; this was his way of explaining an alternative to the passive acceptance of modern-day gagaku performance practice in Japan. However, one cannot possibly “use only the information contained in the scores themselves”! Recreations of European medieval music (a tradition to which Laurence belonged) always try to extract as much information as possible from early instruments, treatises, anecdotal literature, iconography, society, and so on—and also, notably, from living traditions which have remained relatively stable, as performers of European medieval music do for folk singing and instrumental heterophony in Europe and North Africa. All such material is abundant for the Tang, and Laurence would have loved to make more use of it; one cannot possibly treat the score (a skeletal outline) as if it provides all the information necessary to performance (it doesn’t even do that for Bach or Mozart!), in some kind of cultural void. Of course, we need to  select judiciously which cultures we use as our material. Music is never merely notes on a page!

Laurence retained committed to the qin after his initial studies with Zha Fuxi and Xu Yuanbai in wartime Chongqing, along with Robert van Gulik (imagine…). In the 1960s he provided notes for John Levy’s Lyrichord recordings of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in Taiwan and Hong Kong, a rare initiative for the time—Laurence would have been excited by later projects on the mainland. (I note, en passant, that one online catalogue, under Genre listing, gives “Non-music”!)

The interminably long titles of his articles were endearing—my prize goes to

The musical implications of Chinese song-texts with unequal lines, and the significance of nonsense syllables, with special reference to the art songs of the Song dynasty.

And his language was charming, with formulations like

In this context, sheng 聲 is to be understood as an acoustic phenomenon with extension in time—something organized so that (again in time) it may be complete or incomplete; in fact, a tune.

Apart from Laurence’s chamber music gatherings, another cherished memory is him playing Bach on the clavichord—above which a magnificently garish framed picture (gift from a friend in China) of the workers, peasants, and soldiers clutching the Little Red Book, celebrating the achievements of the Cultural Revolution.


And for what it’s worth (not, you realize, for what it’s not worth), here are my notes for the memorial service:

Music from the Tang court: Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor)

Rachel Harris (dizi flute)
Stephen Jones (sheng mouth-organ)
Sun Zhuo (zheng zither)
Simon Mills (changgo drum)
Richard Widdess (bo cymbals)

Laurence worked for several decades on recreating the music of the early-8th-century Tang Chinese court. His insights from deciphering scores exported from Tang China to Japan still deserve wider recognition.

We tried playing these transcriptions in the 1970s, with more enthusiasm than ideas about Tang performance practice, or indeed any Chinese performance practice—given that this was during the Cultural Revolution, when we had virtually no access to the practice of traditional music in China. I still have little idea of Tang practice, but trying to play such pieces under the influence of “ancient” genres still performed today for rituals in the north Chinese countryside—notably the shengguan wind ensemble of ritual specialists around Xi’an, Wutaishan, and Beijing—yields what I find rather attractive results.

Laurence changed the course of my life. I first went to China in search of clues from living music there about how to perform these scores, and he was most generous, as ever, in understanding my rapid conversion to the documenting of living traditions in China, postponing historical reconstruction—well, until now.

In returning to the piece Qinghai bo (Waves of Kokonor), we ornament the simple outline of the tune, in 12 bars of 8/4, as Laurence suggested; we model our version on shengguan music, and are also influenced by our playing of Shanghai teahouse music. Whereas Laurence convincingly showed that Japanese performance practice had retarded the melody substantially, we begin with a very slow ornamented version, and gradually strip the ornaments away as we speed up, as they still do in Shanghai. I have no evidence that this practice was used in the Tang—given that the piece seems to be in 8/4, the first, slow, version is most likely to be “original”, but the faster versions are closer to the way that Laurence would have heard it, so these successive versions are more like alternatives.

Today we use dizi flute, sheng mouth-organ, and zheng zither, all of which have early scores for this melody; accompanied by a small changgo drum, a rough approximation to the Tang jiegu, and a pair of small cymbals, as in north Chinese ritual music today.

Laurence didn’t allow purism to delay his exploratory renditions of these pieces: one of my enduring memories of him is his playing of the melodica, with a completely straight face—I’m sure he would have recognised that modern ritual specialists’ style on the sheng, with its addition of fifths and octaves to the melodic line, might make a more suitable model.

While this is far from a historically informed rendition, it marks an advance from our versions of the 1970s; Laurence would doubtless have many comments! The music at last sounds Chinese, if not necessarily Tang Chinese…

[1] Just a few partial references:
On film:
[2] Among much discussion, Richard Widdess provides context: “Historical ethnomusicology”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: an introduction (The New Grove handbooks in music), pp.219–37.
[3] Ibid. p.221.

Faqu tu 2, or tutu

At Cambridge, Paul Kratochvil was not alone in enjoying a bit of drôlerie.

Here’s another jeu d’esprit on the faqu 法曲, from a precious old letter that I just found from my teacher Denis Twitchett, sent (by post!) from Princeton in 1986. A tad more whacky than his magnum opus Financial administration under the T’ang dynasty, it deserves to take its place among his magisterial writings on Tang history:

Dear Steve,
Some further ruminations on that mysterious term faqu. I am reminded of the hypothesis (first adumbrated in my alas-as-yet-unfinished “Preliminary proleptical remarks proving beyond Reasonable Doubt that Li Bo [aka Patrick O’Leary] was the earliest Irish poet”) that faqu is a rough-and-ready transliteration of the greeting shouted at tax-collectors in the medieval Irish countryside, and also commonly exchanged by rival drivers of donkey carts involved traffic accidents. The etymology of its common form in Chinese is obscure; under the Liao dynasty a folk etymology suggested that it meant “May the Law twist [your private parts]!” It should not be confused with the alternative writing (found in non-Buddhist contexts) fa-k’iu 發具 (explained by Karlgren as “Get out your [ritual] implement!”). This is quite distinct from the forms fakefu 法可夫 or 伏軻䮛 (the latter writing mistranslated by Legge as “Kneel by the hubcap of the Prince Consort”), meaning, according to Admiral Ting (first Chinese to be trained in the Royal Navy), “Be on your way, Jack!”

“French pieces” were surely more normally written in Tang Chinese as faji 法伎 or more colloquially as fashi 法式 “French models”. The title of the well-known Song-dynasty work Yingzao fashi 營造法式 is now attached to a rather boring work on architecture which explains how to construct yourself a baroque dog-kennel without mod cons. This work, however, is clearly a forgery by a Ming author, horrified to the depths of his neo-Confucian sensibilities by the original contents of the book, originally a Song DIY handbook “Make yourself a French model”.

The French presence long predates the Tang, and surely explains Zhuangzi’s Frog in the Well (a fine metaphor for the petty self-interest of the French). This also explains the title of the Tang Li Wa zhuan 李蛙傳, “The story of Froggy Li [the French model]”, and how the word wa “frog” came to have its other meaning “lascivious” or wanton”.

A funky address

A very different kind of oeuvre of that époque—less verité—is Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film Céline et Julie vont en bateau.

One abiding memory is my favourite address, where much of the “action” (if that’s the mot juste) takes place:

7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes

We often used this a forwarding address.

What an age—Rafaelson, Bertolucci, Godard, Chabrol… At the time [historical note—Ed.], the way to see all these films was to do something called “going to the cinema”. Late-night Marx brothers films at the Arts Cinema were a rite de passage too…

In my imagination I tend to reduce my student years to the Tang dynasty, violin, and Adnams, forgetting how important—and how modern—my wider education was—film, art, literature. But the gaps were remarkable too. Meanwhile, Li Manshan and his fellow Daoists were languishing in silence and hunger (my book, p.133):

“We just sat around at home, but we could never feel at peace”—always fearing a knock at the door.

Money money money

The term emoluments is suddenly enjoying a dubious revival with a clause in the US constitution that is among many currently battening down the hatches.

The term, while not constantly on the lips of the rap generation, evokes fond memories from my days studying Tang history.

True, this is scant consolation for the current Destruction of Civilization As We Know It.

Another namby-pamby term used in academia that always makes me giggle is honorarium. But since I very occasionally get one, I mustn’t bite the hand that feeds me.

Musos are more straight-talking. One day our Mozart recording sessions in St John’s Smith square were interrupted by deafening building work outside. Reluctant to send us all home, the conductor discussed with the record company whether they might offer the workmen some kind of bribe to knock it off. Meanwhile the orchestra, aware that we would still have to be paid even if the session had to be called off, wondered whether we might make them a better offer to get them to keep going.

This was around the time of a dispute between a certain conductor and the brass players about overtime. A trumpet player (legendary for many touring exploits besides) put their case with the classic remark,

It’s not the principle, it’s the money!

This actually goes back at least to Eisenhower in 1959.


Some may (wrongly) imagine folk cultures as a kind of “living fossil”, but in China, thankfully, few yet seek to recreate the performances of the past in arid concert halls. Or at least it’s still a small industry, such as attempts to recreate Tang music… And so far it’s been an exercise performed, with little or no concern for historical style, not by folk musicians but by urban educated pundits and conservatoire performers, trapped within their modern preconceptions. [1] Folk musicians, like symphony orchestras (at least until recently), are quite happy working within their evolving tradition, without agonizing over “preserving” some supposed “authenticity”.

Scholars of Daoist ritual aren’t necessarily seeking to “hear a centuries-old piece of music as it was heard when it was composed”. What they may do, though, is silently equate living performance with that of the Tang or Song dynasties. From my book p.369:

While Lagerwey’s fine accounts of Daoist ritual in Taiwan occasionally suggest clues to changing ritual practice in modern times, “our primary interest […] is less to give a complete description of actual practice […] than it is to analyze the deep structure of that practice” (Lagerwey 1987: 91)—an influential perspective that tends to lead to the noble yet arcane goal of studying texts as evidence for the ritual structures of medieval times.

And Daoist scholars do sometimes seek to recreate rituals from the memory of elderly Daoists, as in Shanghai—evidently a worthy “salvage” project, albeit without reference to the changing social context since their youth.

Context and style have changed far less than with WAM—but they have changed. Apart from more general social changes, early music studies influence me in noting all kinds of changes in the Li band’s performance practice since the 1930s (my book pp.358–60):

Recently they have reduced the personnel from seven to six, discarding one guanzi, and the dizi has hardly been needed since the 1990s,

Turning to rituals, since current practice is dominated by funerals, this might at first seem to be their tradition. But they clearly recall a tripartite system of funerary, earth, and temple rituals; even if the latter two are now virtually obsolete, it is clear from their manuals. Thanking the Earth, once their most frequently performed ritual, has been lost since 1954; people can now afford to commission it again, but don’t. Though some temples have been restored, those holding fairs are fewer, and ritual sequences have been simplified along the lines of funerals. Three-day funerals are less common; and when they are held, the old sequence has become simplified and homogenized.

As to ritual segments within funerals, some were already largely obsolete by the 1940s, while others could still be performed in the 1990s but weren’t. Some, like Communicating the Lanterns and Judgment and Alms, have been radically simplified into mere symbolic tokens since the 1990s. Some—such as Dispensing Food or those from the “outer five rituals” like Crossing the Bridges—have become virtually obsolete since the 1950s; Li Qing and his colleagues could perform Opening the Quarters and the Pardon, but his disciples have hardly needed to do so. Yet others were probably rare even by the 1930s (Presenting the Memorial, Roaming the Lotuses, Smashing the Hells) or already lost by then (Offering Viands). Though segments have been adapted under Li Manshan’s leadership, his elders were already doing so long before.

As for the ritual manuals, we must take care to avoid some timeless ideal depiction. As the repertoire shrinks the manuals are not needed at all, but even before the 1950s many segments were performed without them. Li Qing probably didn’t know how to perform some of the rituals whose texts he copied in the 1980s. The lengthy chanted scriptures—around half of the total collection of manuals—were indeed placed on the table during performance, yet Li Qing and his colleagues could recite them so fluently that they barely needed to glance at them; now they are no longer expounded.

Along with the reduction in ritual repertoire, all three performance styles have been reduced—vocal liturgy, percussion items, and melodic instrumental music. The current repertoire of hymns is smaller than that in Li Qing’s score, so where there is a choice (as for Delivering the Scriptures and Transferring Offerings), that choice has become smaller. The “words of blessing” for Thanking the Earth are no longer performed, and fewer shuowen recited introits and mantras for offering paper are used. As the rituals that require them have been lost, instruments like the chaoban tablet, muyu woodblock, and qing bowl have fallen silent; and the dizi flute is no longer part of the melodic ensemble. The lengthy instrumental suites for Thanking the Earth and temple fairs are hardly performed, and the old variety of scales has been reduced. The repertoire of percussion items has also diminished.

But I don’t seek to lead the Li band towards reconstructing the practice of the 1930s, still less that of earlier ages.

Two small examples. Chatting with Li Manshan, I have mentioned how the “classic” instrumentation of the melodic ensemble that accompanies Daoist (and Buddhist) ritual around Beijing, and elsewhere in Shanxi, includes a ten-gong frame of yunluo—like Wutaishan further south, and Tianzhen (adjacent to Yanggao), where they still use a seven-gong frame, the lowest row missing. If Li Manshan felt so inclined, he could order a ten-gong frame, and “restore” it to the ensemble.

“But we don’t know how to play it!” he comments, reasonably.
“Even I could teach you!” I point out impertinently, adducing the common folk saying,
“A thousand days for the guanzi, a hundred days for the sheng; you can learn the yunluo by the fifth watch”.

But one reason I won’t press the idea is that, despite the Tianzhen yunluo, even his father didn’t recall a ten-gong frame. I may surmise that it must surely have been part of the band at some stage before the 20th century, but I don’t interfere. Li Manshan isn’t in the business of recreation, and neither am I. I describe, not prescribe—except when I transplant them to the alien context of the concert hall, when my subliminal influence, and their own perceptions of the demands of the situation, seem to prompt them to perform with somewhat more grandeur than in the casual current conditions of rural funerals.

Another instance: in my book I note that since 1953 there have been hardly any patrons commissioning the two-day Thanking the Earth ritual. Li Qing’s colleague Kang Ren (b.1925) described its sequence to us before his death in 2010; Li Manshan and Golden Noble were interested enough to take notes, but can’t mobilize their local patrons to invite them to do it. Most of its components could be recreated, if there were demand. But there isn’t. This is the kind of thing that Daoist scholars might commission specially as a worthwhile salvage project, but my gentle suggestions lead nowhere. Some other obsolete or rarely-performed funerary rituals (my book ch.13) could also be restored, just about. But local patrons wouldn’t welcome it—it’s inconceivable, until such time as they suddenly do request them.


[1] A rather different, if minor, case is recreations of obsolete rituals at the behest of local Bureaus of Culture. Such initiatives feel artificial, and scholars should take care both to point out the conditions under which they are made and to avoid silently equating them with some “authentic” folk practice. See e.g. Overmyer, Ethnography in China, pp.287–95.

Gems from Chinese history

Some quotes from The Cambridge history of China:

What is the use of a stele? —Sui emperor Wendi (“Just call me Wendi”) (vol.3, p.62). Cf. my book p.374!

The Cheng sisters were captured and decapitated. Mopping-up operations continued till the end of 43. —(vol.1, p.271). Messy business eh.

The “director of records for the empress” may have kept a record of the emperor’s cohabitations with the empress. This cannot have been a great burden. —(vol.1, p.503).

Hierarchies are an essential part of a well-ordered society, and they must be accepted voluntarily. —(vol.1, p.705). So there.

Yet more French letters

Further evidence that my taste for drôlerie chinoise is far from recent: a spoof I wrote while helping Laurence Picken with his extraordinary research on Tang music—which I elaborated with another mentor, the great Tang historian Denis Twitchett. The genre of faqu 法曲 (“dharma pieces”) has indeed been the (serious) object of scholarly attention. Reading this now, I find the fluency of my affectionate pastiche of academic style somewhat disturbing…

Informal communication with Dr T.H. Barrett[1] has suggested the possibility that faqu may actually mean “French pieces”. Study of a recently discovered and as-yet-untranscribed score from Dunhuang for “hand-wind instrument” (perhaps a kind of manually operated keyed chordophone) entitled Dunhuang shoufeng qinpu 敦煌手風琴譜 reveals a colophon dated 1st April 895 (lunar calendar) which contains references to a certain “Master Ma” (Mashi 馬師), or as we might say, “Chevalier”. The authenticity of this score is no longer in doubt. It includes many faqu, besides one title, Zhena legelede li’a 柘拿樂葛樂德篥阿,[2] evidently a transliteration from a language of the Western Regions (xiyu 西域), but otherwise unattested in Tang sources.

The contacts between the Tang court and the Western world are by now well documented. We find frequent references in Tang anecdotal sources to “strings of onions” (congchuan 蔥串),[3] often in connection with men with a certain type of moustache that became highly fashionable under the emperor Xuanzong, riding carts described as “self-propelling” (zixingche 自行車),[4] and clad in close-fitting garments with black and white stripes (a variant of the yinyang symbol?), as well as floppy caps known as beilei 鞞儡.

The French letter: a rejoinder
Further evidence of the Gallic influence on early Chinese musical culture is to be found in the ancient institution of the fashu 法書 (more recently faxin 法信) or “French letter”, a kind of prophylactic talisman deployed in ancient Chinese households in the hope of avoiding unfavorable consequences.

Traditionalists[5] might evoke the sacred power of music and the jiefa 節法 or “rhythm method”,[6] but more pragmatic counsel, favouring foreign and commercial expansion, and under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, gave rise to the “French letter”.

This popular device was available as early as the Tang dynasty in the form still to be found in temples today, the fawu liutong chu 法物流通處 or “Durex machine”. Although nowadays more innocuous material has replaced the original merchandise, the original meaning of “French thingies” (fawu) is clear. The phrase liutong is somewhat arcane: liu implies dissemination, and tong some kind of intercourse, so one might expect tongliu as an early form of resultative verb—thus, perhaps, “French thingies for penetration and ejaculation”.

Faqu tu
Yet another Gallic connection appears in the instrument fajue 法角 “French horn”, often supposed to refer to a kind of conch sounded in ritual.[7] Recent scholarship suggests that jue was often used metaphorically in the Tang, having once been associated with the debauchery of the notorious Zheng and Wei 鄭魏 kingdoms—the latter also known as “Wei-Hei”. Thus it had the connotation of “horny” or “lascivious” music, as in the term jueshi 爵士, once “gentleman of rank” but by the Tang, “jazz” or “jazzer”. The term dejue 得角 “obtain the horn” is also found in the Dunhuang MSS, apparently referring to a desire for imminent fulfillment; not can this be limited to exclusively religious fervour.

The well-known notational technique of denoting rhythm by means of dots to the right-hand side of the note (again referring to the above jiefa “rhythm method”) is also found as early as the Dunhuang pipa score. Known as pangdian 旁點 “a bit on the side”, this practice is thought to have been inspired by the ancient French penchant for extra-curricular activities, or gewai shi 格外事.

Moreover, the ambiguity in Tang scores between jue 角 and yu 羽 modes (Aeolian and Dorian respectively, differing only in the sixth degree of the scale) may also be traced to the innovative cultural influence of the French. The term yu is in fact an abbreviation of yulong 羽龍 or “feathered dragon”, a mythical beast said to appear upon rendition of this mode (cf. Hanfeizi), and this was soon formalized into what we now know as the “feather boa”, and used in the celebrated Huntuo 褌脫 or “Removing the Drawers” dance, itself remarkable for its ambiguity between jue and yu modes. Thus the apparel used in this ancient French ritual dance gave its name to the mode most often used to accompany it.

[1] In the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, 14th October 1985. Just before closing time.
[2] For the reconstructed Tang pronunciation of this enigmatic title, see Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa. Can the resemblance to Je ne regrette rien be fortuitous?
[3] Alternatively, some commentators have construed this phrase as indicating the Congling 蔥嶺 range in Central Asia. Indeed, the recent excavation of a large hoard of 7th-century snail shells from this very region makes the siting of a French colony there highly plausible.
[4] Thought to refer to a mystical “journey of the spirit”: see H. Maspero, “Le voyage dans le monde intérieur et la difficulté de trouver un endroit pour le parking”, T’oung Pao 27 (1913), pp. 856–979. For a similar view of the spiritual propensities of this means of conveyance, see Flann O’Brien, The third policeman.
[5] On the conflict between rival factions under Xuanzong, see The Cambridge history of China, vol.3.
[6] See Jones, “Time gentlemen please: the bell as colotomic indicator in Chinese ritual music”.
[7] Cf. the hujia 胡笳 “barbarian pipes”, another import from the Western regions.