[-empyre-] Hearing and Listening / unreasaonable effectiveness of ritual

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Mon Jun 23 08:21:49 EST 2014


thanks to Roger Malina for his quite wonderful commentaries on the "the unreasonable effectiveness of instruments"
and fine tuning, and I wish to apply my sense of such an instrument,  vaguely metaphorically,  to an early week "topic" regarding the collecting
(not othering / or othering) of sound and what some, not archaelogists or energy or brain connectome data collectors,  but perhaps collectors of cultural
heritages or dimensions of transmitted ritual performance might consider a form of recording.   Maybe I am still hoping for more discussion on Kevin deForest's post about
cross-cultural hunting and gathering; though my brief story is not about that but about someone's return to the village.

Last Tuesday, the university where I work hosted an annual gathering ("Researching the Arts") of doctoral students, and
one of the participants of the gathering, Peter Ran Guangpei (Contemporary China Center, U of Westminster), an ethnographic researcher and filmmaker, 
presented his film "Xiansheng: Passing down the Tradition".

I thought it was a riveting yet quietly sensitive and very poetic evocation of a rural tradition –  performance chanting and sound making during funeral rite –  that was, at one point 
forbidden and repressed (during the "Cultural Revolution") and now recently rekindled and reactivated, largely due to an elderly man who seemed to remember the "scriptures"
for the chants and wrote them down and now, as shown in the film, teaches the sound of the chant to young Peter Ran who had returned to the village where his grandparents lived.
The old man calls the music "scriptures", and says he remembers them with "his stomach"  (written scores had to be destroyed during the "Cultural Revolution").

Peter described his film in this manner: > Xiansheng is a group of local ritualists, who perform funerary ceremonies in southwestern China. This practice was previously condemned as superstitious and were thus strictly forbidden
during the Cultural Revolution. Mr. Tian Yongdi first learned to practise Xiansheng at the age of 16. He has not only witnessed the survival of the tradition through different historical periods, but also involved in its eradication and revitalisation himself. His life story interweaves with the fluctuation of the religious practice as well as the history of contemporary China. Engaging in chant learning from Mr. Tian, the director tried to uncover how the tradition survived
radical political campaigns, how it is passed down through generations and what kind of future is ahead for the newly revived traditional practice.>.

What I found most interesting and moving were the scenes where the young man listens to old Mr Tian Yongdi who chants, at the kitchen table, near where he cooks daily soup for the family's pig which is carefully tended to, fine tuned, even receiving smart treatment via injection by a vet when it develops a fever; and while remembering the sound, he chats and points out the meanings (barest glimpses of such) as his fingers trace  the characters of his notebook (he says there are 50,672 verses in toto) and perhaps throws in an anecdote or two, who knows.   From the scenes of the instruction (and the "scriptures" are characters, not musical notes), one cannot tell whether Mr Tian Yongdi is "correctly" remembering the sound of/in the stomach. Increasingly, I found myself amazed, and then attracted to the idea that the old man is making up the chants, inventing them.   In very brief glimpses of the ritual performance (as such), and they seemed to interest Peter much less, one also sees the villagers joyfully banging on cans and pots, a delirious percussion orchestra of current day Xiansheng, perhaps doomed to disappear again, when all the local youths have left, or to be re-remembered and collected again by younger/older generations, from the stomach.


Johannes Birringer

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