Indian and world fiddles

The other day, just before my alarming rendition of Bach on the erhu, I went to an enthralling concert of Carnatic violin by the sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini at the Bhavan Centre in West London, a lively centre for the Indian community.

How mesmerizing Indian music can be, unfolding naturally with grace and fluency! Learning such oral traditions is aided by memorizing sargam solfeggio. Tuning the strings in open fifths (like G–D–g–d, often used in world fiddle styles— actually, here they commonly have five strings) lends the violin a wonderful sonority (cf. Keef’s excited epiphany).

The ideal in many cultures is for instruments of all kinds to imitate the voice—I love the way Wu Mei decorates the vocal liturgy of the Li band on the guanzi oboe, for instance. It was by chance that I ended up playing the violin in WAM, but we can all appreciate the link between the voice and bowed lutes (or should I say friction chordophones? No you bloody shouldn’tThe Plain People of Ireland) by extending our interests to other world genres. OK, for us WAM fiddlers embarking on Mahler 5 there may be no clear benefits to this, but why don’t we all learn the rudiments of Indian style and technique too? However rigorous a training in rag may be, it can’t be as arid and painful as ploughing through sodding Ševčík studies—it’s amazing we didn’t all give up.

The Bhavan audience was sadly thin on the ground, but it’s the magic of the rapport that counts. It reminds me of a Mozart Requiem tour of Italy with John Eliot Gardiner in the 1990s. For some reason we ended up at a dingy cinema in the sleepy town of Terni on a Sunday afternoon, performing for a tiny audience that barely outnumbered the massed orchestral and choral forces. Nonetheless, with stellar singers like Barbara Bonney and Anne Sofie von Otter, it was one of our most moving performances.

At the risk of sounding like Away from it all (“the one thing that Venice truly lacks is leprechauns“), here’s a random but inspiring sample of some further riches of world fiddling—needless to say, it’s all about technique at the service of the music, which in turn stems from its social use…

Still with the exquisite gamak styles of India, here’s a Hindustani female dynasty:

And then there’s the wonderful sarangi (fine website here).

I won’t try and cover the various bowed lutes of China here, and I only mention the erhu (least traditional among them) to remind you of this astounding playing.

Irish fiddling can be irresistible:

Some unaccompanied Bach (on violin instead of cello, for a change):

And Transylvanian bands:

Some amazing kamanca playing from Azerbaijan:

(BTW, just in case there are any romantic purists who are even holier-than-thou than me, I do like the filming and the scene—without fancy fakelore costumes, but with naff yet tasteful accompaniment, and the mobile phones. All good authentic visual anthropology…)

In related vein, for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (useful site here), besides the ghijak, the soul of the muqam is the plangent long-necked satar:

http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMTQ5NzM2MzY1Mg==.html?from=s1.8-1-1.2#paction

And they use “our” violin just as expressively too, as on this track— from a cassette by the renowned singer Abliz Shakir in the early 1990s:


Some of these genres are explored in the fine projects Growing into music and The music of Central Asia.

That’s a start. I’ll leave jazz fiddling to another post…

Ashiq: the last troubadour

Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨 is an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, the four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion.

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the youtube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms. The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut.

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures.

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.

[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

Festivals: the official—folk continuum

The upcoming CHIME conference in LA (29 March to 2 April), presided over by the excellent Helen Rees, looks like a fine event, though I can’t make it. The theme this time is festivals.

Gansu miaohui FKTemple procession, Xincheng, south Gansu, June 1997. [1]
Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Of course, festivals and pilgrimages all over the world are a major theme of ethnography: not just Uyghur meshreps and Tibetan monastery festivals, but Indian melas, Sufi festivals, Mediterranean (Andalucian festas, south Italy…), Moroccan ahouach, you name it. Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s 1994 book Musiques en fête is charmant, with wise and vivid words about Morocco, Sardinia, and Romania (¡¿BTW, why do French books put the list of contents at the back?! ¡¿Typical Gallic contrariness?!)

To adopt the metaphor of “the whole dragon” again, there is a long continuum between folk festivals, based on ritual (often calendrical) observances, and secular events for a largely urban audience.

So I too am going to link up diverse themes like temple fairs, ritual, famine, village names, Eurovision, and propaganda. It does make sense, though—you can trust me, I’m a doctor.

Traditional events in China`
Funeral rituals have been my main topic in China for thirty years, but of course it’s not easy to plan visits much in advance. The calendrical dates of temple fairs (often known as miaohui) may seem easier to anticipate. Again, scholars of religion tend to home in on their specifically religious elements, as in the great jiao Offering—though note Ken Dean’s fine film Bored in heaven. But like funerals they are multivalent, embracing all kinds of activity: ritual, opera, folk-song, pop, commerce, “hosting” (Chau!), socializing… Apart from my 2007 and 2009 books, names like Zhao Shiyu, Guo Yuhua, Wang Mingming, Stephan Feuchtwang, Adam Chau, and Wu Fan spring to mind. The knack is to detail both sacred and secular aspects of temple fairs.

But the dates of calendrical rituals, like temple fairs, may not be easily vouchsafed to the outsider either. The temple fairs on the Houshan mountains in Yixian county southwest of Beijing, mainly in the 3rd and 7th moons, are much less well know than those of Miaofengshan, but they also draw huge crowds, both local and from further afield.

To work all this out you have to spend time around the villages of Liujing and Matou in the foothills around Houshan, and then observe who goes where when and does what. Although Chinese villagers are a rich source of ritual and musical information (far more than any silent library), they often speak prescriptively rather than descriptively, telling us on what occasions a jiao Offering ritual should be performed, whether or not is has been performed since the 1940s. They don’t necessarily volunteer information on change, preferring (like some officials and scholars) to present their traditions as constant, eternal—even if contexts and repertoires have evidently changed in their lifetime. On our first visit to Liujing we rather assumed that villagers’ descriptions of ritual pilgrimages related to “the past”— but we soon found that they were very much alive.

The Songs-for-winds associations: propaganda and catastrophe
What got me “thinking” (I use the word loosely) about all this was that 1950 visit to Tianjin of the “Songs-for-winds” band from Ziwei village, in what later became Dingxian county.

The Central Conservatoire (as it was then) was then still based at Tianjin, of course. The work of Yang Yinliu and Cao Anhe on the Songs-for-winds may be considered a prelude to that on the more solemn ritual style of the Beijing temples that Yang undertook from 1952, a topic that was to expand vastly after 1986. But the Songs-for-winds groups, more popular than the ritual style that is my main focus, are worth a little detour here.

We should bear in mind that such wind ensembles were quite unfamiliar to southerners like Yang and Cao. Having invited the Ziwei band to the conservatoire, they recorded their repertoire on a Webster wire recorder. The band went back some six generations, and under the leadership of the celebrated Wang Chengkui, they had invited the great wind player Yang Yuanheng  to teach them in the winters of 1945 and 1946. Yang Yuanheng, a former Daoist priest in a little temple in Anping county, was himself appointed professor of guanzi oboe at the conservatoire in 1950. [2] Yang Yuanheng, like the Buddhist monk Haibo, was a major influence on many shengguan ritual associations in the area: we would hear their names from many village associations.

Yang and Cao’s monograph on the Ziwei band, published in 1952,  consists mainly of transcriptions, with little of the social detail that they covered for the Wuxi Daoists or Yang’s 1956 Hunan fieldtrip. Ziwei would go on to supply wind players to many state troupes for decades to come.

Langfang huahui 1991

Secular New Year’s huahui parade, Langfang city, 1991.

Xushui
Adapted from my Folk music of China (p.196):

During the 1958 Great Leap Forward (or Backward, as it’s known), Dingxian and particularly Xushui counties became model counties for the relentless drive to full communization. [3] Notable for its revolutionary fervour at this time was the “Great Leap Forward Songs-for winds association” of Qianminzhuang commune in Xushui.

The propaganda of the Leap makes a stark contrast with the grim realities of the period, with villages throughout the area suffering from crop failure, famine, and social disruption.

Our visit to Qianminzhuang in 1993 was the only time I’ve ever had a police escort—to take me there for a change, not to drag me away! Predictably, such an effusive welcome for me as a “foreign guest” indicated close supervision and censorship of our fieldwork.

QMZ band 1993

QMZ pose 1993

Striking a pose with the leaders, Qianminzhuang 1993

In 1995 we visited some of the senior musicians independently, with much more useful results.

At the height of the Great Leap back in August 1958, Chairman Mao had visited communes in Dingxian and Xushui. In Dasigexiang district just southeast of Xushui county town. Dasigezhuang village was now renamed the 4th August brigade. As part of the nationwide campaign to smelt steel in village furnaces, they had to melt down waterwheels, woks, door hinges.

“Waterwheels are made of steel,” observed one villager caustically, “what’s the bloody point of melting them down to make steel?”

Some village ritual associations had to sacrifice their yunluo gong-frames in the campaign. When Zhou Enlai visited Xushui he was shocked to see the destitution that communization was bringing.

(BTW, in South Gaoluo in Hebei, erudite Shan Fuyi explained village names for us. Among many terms for “village”, two are common in that area, cun and zhuang (or gezhuang). Only villages with a “great temple” (dasi) could be called cun; villages which lacked a “great temple” were called by the less numinous term gezhuang. So going back to Dasigezhuang (“Great temple village”), that clearly contradicts the Hebei rule! That may seem just a  curious little detour, but it was precisely the villages with a “great temple” that held temple fairs.)

Xushui’s favoured status did nothing to prevent many starving to death there in 1960—but just near Qianminzhuang, the Gaojiazhuang ritual association still managed to restart in 1961. Religion revived in China precisely at moments of political crisis such as the famines of 1960 and the Cultural Revolution, albeit with great difficulty. It may provide solace, or a focus for resistance—both against Maoism and later against the insecurities ensuing its demise.

The Gaojiazhuang ritual association was one of many in Xushui villages that used, and use, the older more solemn shengguan style. Ritual associations throughout the area commonly claim transmission from either Buddhist monks (heshangjing 和尚經) or Daoist priests (laodaojing 老道經)—the Gaojiazhuang association is Buddhist-transmitted. In another common taxonomy, the association divides into “prior altar” (qiantan, the shengguan instrumental ensemble, and “latter altar” (houtan, vocal liturgy).

Despite its revolutionary image, Xushui county has remained a hotbed for religion, notably the cult of the sectarian creator goddess Wusheng laomu. Associations there commonly hang out ritual paintings, like the Ten Kings (Shiwang) or Water and Land (Shuilu) series, and they use “precious scrolls” and other ritual manuals. They too are within the catchment area of Houtu worship—they used to make the pilgrimage to Houshan. Even the revolutionary Qianminzhuang band told us that their former tradition was to recite the scriptures, performing only as a social duty for funerals, not for weddings. And certainly not to accompany mendacious parades to report a bumper harvest…

In 1994 the Gaojiazhuang association built an Ancestral Hall to Venerable Mother (Laomu citang, a rather rare use of the term citing in this region), occupying about one mu, stylish and grand. It cost around 60,000 kuai to build; the stele lists 132 donors, who gave from 50 up to 3,000 kuai. The altar has Wusheng laomu in the centre, Wangmu niangniang and Songzi niangniang to the right, Can’gu niangniang and Houtu niangniang to the left.

Gaozhuang citang

The village Party Secretary told us that sources of support included incense money from the Great Tent Association (dapeng hui, a common term in the area for a ritual association) and from the temple, and money from fortune-telling and curing illness. He reflected, “A dozen or so women kept on coming to see me about building a temple. I had no choice—the brigade couldn’t refuse, so I gave them a plot of land. Believing in the gods and having a temple is no bad thing, it’s not as if you stop production if you believe in it!”

In all, the flamboyant (and readily secularized) Songs-for-winds style remains a common image of wind bands on the Hebei plain, but since all our fieldwork through the 1990s it is clear that ritual practice, with its more solemn shengguan instrumental style, is both older and more common. It is resilient too. This persistence of tradition, both in religious and musical practice, is all the more striking in such a once-revolutionary county as Xushui.

Mao was impressively modest about his limited success when he admitted to Nixon in 1972:

“I haven’t been able to change [China]—I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking.”  [4]

But he wasn’t modest enough: in some ways even a county so near Beijing, such a focus of the revolution, has remained resistant to Maoist ideology, predating and outliving it. Still, disruption was severe.

Official festivals in the 1950s
Meanwhile, the new government, in its own way, was promoting local culture through the medium of regional folk festivals (diaoyan, huiyan). First, local festivals were held to select representatives for major performances in the regional capitals. Some laicized priests were even assembled to perform as “troupes“, sometimes for the first time in many years—such as Baiyunshan Daoists (1955), Wudangshan Daoists (1956 and 1957), Wutaishan Buddhists (1958). For such performances, inevitably, their shengguan instrumental music was plucked out of its ritual context.

These festivals served partly as auditions for the state song-and-dance troupes then expanding all over China. Daoist and Buddhist ritual specialists had a deserved reputation as outstanding instrumentalists. Many, like our very own Li Qing (my book pp.113–25), were recruited as musicians to state troupes around 1958—and then sent home again as the state apparatus collapsed in 1962.

While such festivals stimulated the collection and documentation of folk music, we must balance this with the ongoing assaults on its traditional context. The background ( beginning from the 1940s) was campaigns against “feudal superstition”, terrifying public executions of sectarians, and the destruction of temple life.

The reform era
Urban festivals featuring rural groups—perhaps related to a conference—make a convenient recourse for busy academics into whose holidays they fit nicely. From the 1980s, the secular arts festivals of the Maoist era were remoulded into more glossy events. By the 21st century the new ideology was confirmed in the regular staged “living fossil” presentations of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The latter project, with its whole bureaucratic workings, has now become a major research topic on its own, at the expense of studies of the local traditions that it is supposed to assist (my book pp.331–3).Note also the Qujiaying bandwagon.

I tend to steer clear of conferences, but in May 2016, as a pretext for going to hang out yet again with Li Manshan in Shanxi for a couple of weeks, I accepted an invitation to take part in a conference celebrating the 80th birthday of my esteemed teacher Yuan Jingfang in Beijing. It was a déjà-vu experience. Apart from a sequence of eulogies, the event also featured staged performances from three representatives of Yuan Jingfang’s long-term research areas: the Hanzhuang ritual association from Xiongxian in Hebei (near Xushui), the Zhihua temple group, and a ritual band from near Xi’an.

Hanzhuang 1993

Filming the Hanzhuang association in their ritual tent, 1993 (photo: Xue Yibing). Rear centre: two frames of ten-gong yunluo.

It made me feel my age, reminding me of all our visits to these very groups between 1986 and 2001. Taking time out of the conference to chat with the Hanzhuang group outside by the lake, we recalled their kindly association leader Xie Yongxiang 解永祥, father of the present leader, and another of those wise sheng masters. We had learned a lot from him in 1993 and 1995.

Xie Yongxiang 1995

Xie Yongxiang, 1995

But returning to the conference—the object of admiration, inevitably, was their “music”, detached from its enduring social context. I already missed hanging out with Li Manshan in the scripture hall.

All the glossy stage presentation has many Western parallels—flamenco on the Terry Wogan show (remind me to do more on flamenco in due course), WOMAD, Songlines, prizes, urbane discourse explaining its “cultural value” to outsiders… The fancy costumes and dry ice of many Chinese events are reminiscent of Eurovision; they may seem like a Disneyland version of the Chinese heritage.

That photo comes from a recent ICH “performance” of the Baiyunshan Daoists, no less.

Now, I adore opportunities to present the Li family Daoist band on the concert platform (see this post and a whole related series of Vignettes), but while it is of course a compromise, we take care not to tart them up—we can hardly do otherwise, so solemn is their demeanour.

Hberg 2012

The Li family Daoist band in concert, Heidelberg April 2013.

And their regular “rice-bowl”—day in, day out— is always performing funerals for their local, not global, clientele.

What is dodgy is when people begin mistaking the staged events for the Real Thing, or some kind of ideal. Urbanites may do so, but villagers know better. Of course those staged events are themselves a legitimate, and popular, object of scholarly analysis. But I worry that it creates a fait accompli, like the way that in old-school WAM musicology the Great Composers were the main story (as deconstructed by McClary, Small, Nettl)—“this is what we find, so it must reflect the real picture, and so this is the object of study”. As always, “modern” secular performance doesn’t replace traditional activity: they co-exist.

The CHIME conference in LA will doubtless turn up many instances of what I’m struggling not to call “contested negotiation”. Anyway, staged events can give us a lead, rather like using the photos in the Anthology, otherwise flawed, to draw us towards folk activity.

Hey-ho.

 

[1] For more, see Frank Kouwenhoven, “Love songs and temple festivals in northwest China: musical laughter in the face of adversity”, in Frank Kouwenhoven and James Kippen eds., Music, Dance and the Art of Seduction.
[2] For this whole section, see my Folk music of China, pp.48–52, 195–203; “Chinese ritual music under Mao and Deng”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 8 (1999): 27–66; “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003): 287–337. See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, pp.166–7, 183–4, 188–90.
[3] As correctives to all the Xushui propaganda, see e.g. the brilliant works of Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, Chinese village, socialist state and Revolution, resistance, and reform in village China—describing a commune not far from Xushui. Note Chinese village, socialist state, pp.215–20; Dikotter, Mao’s great famine, pp.40, 47–9, 68–70; and estimable analysis online in Chinese, e.g. http://mjlsh.usc.cuhk.edu.hk/book.aspx?cid=6&tid=184&pid=2269. For the model commune of Greater Quanshan in Shanxi, precursor of Dazhai, and temporary “home” to the Li family Daoists, see my book, pp.122–3.
[4] Also reported by Henry Kissinger in Newsweek, 3rd March 1997, p.31.

Headgear: a tough choice

Just when you thought these jokes couldn’t get any more niche, here’s one from the so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region in west China, where ethnic tensions are intense. The indigenous Uyghurs (who are Muslim) and the immigrant Han Chinese are often at loggerheads; there’s also a milder minority population of Hui Chinese Muslims, who wear a distinctive white cloth cap. After one recent wave of ethnic violence, this story did the rounds:

A young Hui guy in Urumqi is desperate. “What am I supposed to do? If I wear my cap, I get beaten up by the Chinese. If I take it off, I get beaten up by the Uyghurs!”

Bach, alap, and driving in Birmingham

It was Yoyo Ma who put me onto playing the Preludes of Bach cello suites as a kind of alap. Actually, that’s how he introduced the Allemande, the second movement of the 6th suite, playing it as thanks for our group of helpers at the amazing Smithsonian Festival of the Silk Road in 2002 (which he was curating).

As I now adapt the Bach cello suites for violin, I consider how to play the opening two movements of the 6th suite on their own. Should I play the Allemande first, as a kind of alap? Or else take Bach’s opening movement with majesty rather than virtuosity, at an exploratory rather than hectic pace, as a kind of prelude to the alap of the Allemande… Either way can work.

My brilliant friend Paola Zannoni likens the bariolage of the Prelude to the marranzanu Sicilian jew’s harp.

The 6th suite, of course, was written for a five-string cello, but in the current spirit of austerity I make do with four.

While learning Bach (or indeed shengguan music), one has to take care not to take a wrong turning. Like driving in Birmingham, if you take the wrong exit then you can find yourself going round in circles for hours.

For wiser words on, not to say wonderful renditions of, the cello suites, we can turn to Steven Isserlis.

Anyway, free-tempo movements (known as sanban in educated Chinese) are more commonly associated with solo genres like folk-song and qin—unlikely bedfellows. Apart from alap, one thinks of Middle Eastern taksim, or the Uyghur muqaddime (the singing of the latter ideally accompanied by the wonderful satar long-necked bowed lute). In these genres, the term free-tempo isn’t precise, since they do indeed have a regular pulse.

Slow ensemble preludes called pai’r are also an exquisite feature of the lengthy suites of Buddhist and Daoist ritual shengguan ensembles. As with shengguan suites altogether, the pai’r in Hebei are best heard with a small ensemble, like the fantastic group of Gaoqiao village in Bazhou (audio playlist track 7, from Plucking the Winds, CD track 14; this movement actually follows the opening pai’r, but itself opens with its own lengthy sanban prelude), where the heterophony of the four melodic instrument types can be best appreciated.

Such preludes are strangely absent from the suites of Daoist ritual repertoires in north Shanxi like those of the Li family—which are otherwise clearly related to the suites of old Beijing, still played in Hebei.