One of the many delights of my trip last month to the 11th International Daoist Studies Conference in Paris was the music.
I had heard a fair amount of Daoist music before going to the conference, but I had never heard a full band live.
In fact I had heard these very musicians playing in a film by Stephen Jones before attending the conference: "Li Manshan, Portrait of a folk Daoist."
To be honest, in the words of my wife, "it is always weird and it is sometimes like nails scratching on a chalkboard." I am more attuned to weirdness than my wife, but I will admit that something about recordings of Daoist music made me think, “it all sounds the same.”
That’s why it was so stunning to hear it live. Let me try to describe it.
They played many different pieces, perhaps 20, and none of them sounded the same. The word cacophony seems appropriate, even if it is not quite the correct word. The gongs and the wind instruments all vibrate. A particular property of high pitched vibrations is that they can be aimed around a space, they move and bounce especially if the musicians are moving them intentionally. That is a huge part of Daoist music, and a property which I never noticed listening to recordings. The first part of the concert was a procession that twisted around campus and the second part was in a room that held about 100 people. This music is spatial, it interacts with the space. It also has some strange properties live that I never noticed in recordings. The faster pieces kept putting me in a hypnotic state, I kept falling asleep. At the same time they were frenetic. The rhythms are not dance music as far as I know, but if you were to try and move to this music you would be shaking, jumping and flailing, it is a bit like punk rock. It reminded me of a six hour Noh performance I saw in Japan where I was fighting to stay awake because it was so interesting but I had already entered the dream state. This Daoist music was pulling me between two poles of existence, totally undifferentiated chaos and serine dream-like ease.
I attempted to listen to individual instruments and to follow melodic lines, but the band wouldn’t let me, or the music wouldn’t let me. My mind would try to focus on something and then it would be pulled away to something else. I simply could not focus. It was as if any melody I was focused on for more than 15 seconds would suddenly move to another part of the room and get swollowed by something completely different. Wow.
And knowing anything about Daoism, that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I didn’t know how important music was to Daoist rituals until I was physically inside of it.
Having spent time hanging out with composers who use field recordings in their compositions, I know that you can record sound moving around space very accurately. But you need at least two things: microphones set up specifically to do that, and high quality play back equipment, preferably headphones. I don’t have a good set of headphones so I don’t actually know if these recordings capture the effect, my computer speakers are less than useless. If you have a good sound system, give a listen and let me know how good the recordings are.
In the right sidebar of Stephen Jones’ blog you can listen to twelve distinct Li Family Daoist ritual music clips. Thanks Stephen for opening my ears!
Stephen Jones also has two books, reviews to come...