Fri Nov 19, Lijiang: Attended a concert for the Dayan Ancient Music organization this evening, the Naxi Orchestra.
It's an interesting situation. Yunnan, like Taiwan, has been at the backwaters of Confucian organization, the hinterlands. Certain traditions can stay alive longer in such situations. In this case, musical instruments, scores and playing styles have been preserved like nowhere else in China. Specifically, when Kublai Khan swept down through Sichuan to Yunnan, attempting to flank the remaining Han forces from the west, he dropped off a bunch of captured Tang instruments and scores, as well as some of his bandmembers. This became the nugget of "Naxi Ancient Music", which I believe preserved some of this material in the Dongba pictographic script.
At least that's the official storyline. In practice tonight we also heard Bai folk songs (which still remind me of Appalachian string/singing traditions), regional opera, and other non-ancient tunes. There's a big influence from Taoist music too, and I hear similarities to current Taoist bands on the east coast. Seems accretive, but not syncretic, but there certainly does seem to be a living link to Tang music.
If you're near Flickr, do a search on "Naxi Ancient Music" to see photos of the band... "The Three Olds" are old tunes on old instruments from old players, and many in the band are over eighty years old. They dress real fine, in brilliant Taoist silks... really should check it out. (There's also a Naxi shaman dress style which reminds me of nothing more than prime Gris-Gris New Orleans... plenty of funk to go around.)
Main instruments are flutes, plucked stings, bowed strings, harps and cymbalums, Taiko-sized drums and plenty of gongs. Voices, both solo and choral unison. Playing style is general Chinese monophony, where all instruments play the melody although each in its own way, its own pace (gongs are usually whole-notes, flutes might be eighth-notes, others in-between, ie). Scales are usually ionian pentatonic, although there is sometimes a sharpened-fourth or flatted-seventh, and some pieces have startling temporary modulations of a fifth. Most striking stylistic identifier is the quarter-note tremolo on some held whole-notes... "I left my heart-art-art-art-art-art-art-art-art, in San Francisco-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh", eg.
I had heard of them while researching this trip, found their Nonesuch (?) CD on Amazon, listened to it often. Was grinning a lot during the concert. Still grinning now, but there were a couple of rough spots along the way.
Biggest problem was that the lame-ass bars two streets over had their dumb-ass beats drooling over into the Naxi concert hall. How distracting to perform or listen to one thing when there's a competing oblivious beat coming in unnecessarily. Amplified music is the anti-music... music perhaps in its own space, but in its insane encroachment where it's not wanted it defeats other music which might otherwise be taking place.
A year ago I was fortunate enough to cruise down the Yangtze, and after the Hubei Provincial Museum's day-trip to the Marquis of Zhou's gongs, was very very happy to be alone on the boat's upper deck, swinging poi in the dark in the middle of China's longest river, listening to a recent recording of those ancient gongs playing ancient tunes. Had hoped to have a similar experience tonight. But on the river outside Wuhan there was no competition from oblivious beats. Tonight, there was a constant oppression.
Other problems included the cold of the unheated hall, down to 43F by 10pm with moist air on a slight wind, although I was bundled up. In front of my seat was the tallest guy in the place, and at my side in the connected row was a hyperactive guy with a jiggle foot. Was easy enough to move further back after the first tune.
The unwanted amplification was the biggest issue. Oddly, though, when the band was playing and in a groove, they blew away the fake beat which had only a Fender knob to support it. The people playing, the musicians, had a heaviness far beyond that of the Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom-you-can-find-your-ass-with-both-hands-even-if-you're-a-lamer beat.
The band's driving force, 82-year-old Zhuan Ke, was apparently imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Some of the instruments had been buried to hide them from attempted destruction by self-righteous teen gangs.
The Cultural Revolution was late in Mao's career, after their horrible failures of centralized agricultural planning, at a period when he may have been toppled. There was therefore a clampdown on heretical thought, and as an afterthought gangs of youth were given the A-OK to go out and destroy older cultural artifacts. Humanity lost some of its history during this psychosis. Mainstream Chinese thought now brands it as a mistake, but I always wonder about all those people now in their 60s who had taken part in what was now called a mistake.
The Naxi Ancient Music has been preserved by humanity for 1300 years. That's like half-a-million nightly recitals. During a claimed aberration forty years ago we lost it, but fortunately those interested brought it back. Tonight it was nearly taken away by other arrogant youth, who had their own idea of what was proper but did not think to look around to see what effects their actions would have on others.
Forty years ago they smashed and burned instruments. Tonight they just overwhelm The Other by turning a switch louder than necessary. Same arrogant failure-of-imagination, failure to look at other people, failure to focus on making things better.
Provides a parallel to the car-honking, the pedestrian collisions, the overly-loud speakers. The arrogance of constrained views.
The title? A riff on Philip K. Dick's "The Empire never ended", which I understood as the power networks among humans never actually just vanishing when their named epoch is over... PKD realized that the influencing networks behind the Roman Empire evolved into those behind the Church and later evolved into those behind states and financial markets... goes beyond looking at individuals and dates and into the longterm patterns within history.
"The Cultural Revolution never ended"... the period is labeled an aberrant mistake today, but the same psycho-dynamic of "my car is bigger than your bike so I must have the right of way" is still quite alive. Thankfully the pitchforks and torches are back in storage. But similar types of damage still occur.
What can I do about it? I don't know, but it seems a very useful thing to try to improve. San Francisco has the same types of problems -- mindblowing how high-IQ Adobe employees can't stack dishes without shifting their lazy-ass costs onto others -- more a difference of degree than of kind between the two cultures.
I believe that improving digital publishing can help, just as people who created books a thousand years ago helped improve our condition. It's not a direct effect... just a reasonable hope that making it easier to see the creative viewpoints of others will help new people learn faster that other people really do have different perspectives, and increase sensitivity in their own actions.
Maybe having a mordantly benevolent sense-of-humor is the most direct contribution I can make, even though it's very limited in range. I'd sure like to make things easier for the people a couple of generations down the line, though... that's my main goal.
Afternote, next morning, light rain, under 50F. Up early to take a walk before it got busy. Siefang Jie, central square, a dozen Naxi women gathering. Most were over seventy years. After enough have arrived, join hands, slow circle dance, chanting... the morning's work, keeping the balance of the world in order.
Meanwhile, one of the narrow djumbok shops has light-rock-less-talk... limpid BossaNova-inspired pop, breathy young female voices singing of their repetitive wistfulness. They'll be playing that tape throughout business hours... wouldn't've killed 'em to turn it off while the Naxi elders were actually making music, the music the shop's customers had actually come to hear.
And the tourists pushed themselves into line, turning the whole thing into a photo-fest. Some of them had genuine fun, true, duplicating the steps. But I also saw the lead dancer continually brushing away linked arms who were too unobservant to notice they were trying to link in front of the head of the line. The photos usually had one of the group posed in front, the actual subjects of the photo, the culture just exotic background.
The Cultural Revolution never ended. Just changed its clothing. It's something we'll always have to deal with, until we finally all grow beyond it.
After-afternote: The elder women did their thang again in the square that evening. With very loud speakers. Around a bonfire, in the dark. Totally blew away the shop which still had its autofeed on. Competed rather well with the evening's 72bpm thumpers from nearby bars, but still....