Beijing, 9 March 2013
Whenever my wife and I come across a CD section in a store, we’ll normally spend a happy half hour browsing through the offerings. My wife only begins to nervously look at her watch and comment loudly on the rest of the shopping we have to do when I drift into the ethnic music section. You know the type of music I mean: songs from the Nenet and Orok peoples of Siberia, Traditional Samburu Warrior Songs from Kenya, laments of the Cherokee Nation and so on.
I have a strange fascination for this type of music. I always feel that I am about to find a music that will speak to my soul. After all, I have read that music has played a central role in our development as human beings. Music is deep, deep within our psyche, it activates the most primitive parts of our brain. Surely, then, the music of our remote past is the most “authentic” of musics, and these ethnic musical forms must be closest to the Real Thing. In my enthusiasm I have bought some of these CDs, normally when I am not with my wife, and they now languish in our CD collection, unlistened-to after the first go around. Because they’re always a crushing disappointment. Normally, they’re just plinkety-plonk and wailing voices. The most glaring example of this was not actually from a CD but from a live performance which we attended many years ago in Paris. With much fanfare it was announced that a troupe from Korea would be performing traditional Korean music in the French capital. We decided that we had to take part in this Cultural Event. As the house lights dimmed, we could see three traditional-type instruments sitting on the stage, starkly beautiful under the lights. Three elderly gentlemen dressed in traditional Korean garb silently walked on and slowly settled down in front of their respective instruments. After a pause, they leaned forward, played plink-plank-plonk (I kid you not; literally three notes), and then leaned back, leaving us in dead silence for what seemed an eternity. My wife and I got the giggles, which I’m sure those around us did not appreciate. The rest of the show was all downhill thereafter. We left at the break.
The problem is, classical music is one of those things that society strongly suggests is Good for You, like cod liver oil. So when I was young – and indeed not so young – I instinctively rejected it. I had the same reaction to all those classics of English literature that society keeps pressing upon you as Good to Read. As a result, I have read hardly any of the Canon of English literature: some Shakespeare plays, normally the ones that I have acted in, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (after I’d seen a theatrical version of them; wonderfully ribald stuff), one novel by Thomas Hardy (I had to do it for O-level English, I hated it; his poetry is better by far), half of Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (because there was absolutely nothing else to read and it was raining outside), and that’s about it. Oh yes, I read Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” after I saw the film (wonderful, wonderful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is certainly a truth acknowledged here in China). My wife is the same with Italian literature. Mention Dante to her and she will rant on about the hellish hours spent at school analyzing every single word in the Divina Commedia.
But to come back to music. Until I was in my third decade, my instinct was to head for the door any time one of the Greats of classical music was put on the record player (still no CDs in those days). And I hardly ever went to a concert hall, much to the despair of my mother-in-law who had a season ticket at the Scala and lived for music. I was constantly on the look-out for alternatives. When I was a boy, I enthusiastically followed the Beatles and then as a teenager the more intellectual of the Rock ’n Roll groups – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and a smattering of others. But I soon tired of what was on offer. I keep telling my children that it’s been downhill ever since the mid-seventies in the world of Rock ’n Roll, but of course they deny this self-evident truth.
And so I fell back on ethnic music, with the disappointing results I have just described.
But all is not dark and dismal. I have sometimes stumbled across pieces of music that have really spoken to my soul. I mentioned in an earlier posting a Christmas carol by John Tavener. On the strength of that one piece I bought a CD of his music. I have never had cause to regret it. I have always had a fondness for Benjamin Britten since as a boy singing his Missa Brevis in the school choir. So I snapped up his “War Requiem” when I came across it during a visit to Coventry Cathedral. It has been a joy in my life. What else? For my wife’s fiftieth birthday, we decided to spend a few days in Paris. On the long drive there from Vienna we played a new set of CDs my wife had just bought: eight CDs from Harmonia Mundi France – a sort of summary of Western classical music; only the French would have the guts, or maybe the intellectual arrogance, to try that. I fell in love with the first piece on CD 1, a piece of very early Church music sung by the Lebanese Sister Marie Keyrouz, of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. On the strength of this one piece I later bought a CD of her songs. Wonderful, all of them. We got to CD 2 round about Linz, and out floated the haunting Kyrie from the thirteenth Century Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. I’m still looking for the whole set of music contained in that Gradual. One day, I read a review in the Economist of a “Passion according to St. Mark” by the contemporary Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. I was intrigued. I managed to find the CD in a specialist music shop in Vienna. I was hooked. He weaves Spanish musical forms together with more traditional classical forms and musical forms from his Romanian Jewish heritage. On the strength of this CD, my wife bought his CD “Ainadamar”, a musical reflection on the life of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by Nationalist militia during the Spanish Civil War. More Spanish, this one, which feeds into my fascination with flamenco, an absolutely fantastic form of music. Now that is an ethnic music which speaks to the soul! I have several CDs of flamenco music, and if I could be born again I would want to be born a singer of flamenco. Or maybe a dancer of flamenco. Flamenco’s roots are in Muslim music, and some people in Spain are exploring the links. When my wife and I were on a holiday in Spain a few years ago, I came across a CD in Toledo which was a medley of Muslim, old Spanish, and Jewish songs. Two of the Muslim songs in particular were ravishing; I can’t give you the titles because the CD is sitting in our storage boxes in Vienna. I could go on – certain pieces of Indian music, one or two Jazz songs which are absolutely bewitching, Bob Marley’s “Jerusalem” … Even some of those classical music pieces that I ran away from when I was young! For every piece of plinkety-plonk I’ve fallen for, I’ve stumbled across a piece of music that truly comes from heaven.