Monday, 28 February 2011

the proverbial fool

Nobody likes to be thought a fool, although this may be in part because the word has developed increasingly negative connotations over the past four centuries. I suspect a religious influence. In the Middle Ages, ‘fool’ was another name for the court jester, who was the mediaeval equivalent of a professional comedian, a man whose job it was to make his employer laugh.

In fact, there were two types of fool: the natural fool really was an idiot, and his humour would have been of the unsubtle, slapstick variety, much like the general buffoonery of the modern circus clown; the licensed fool, on the other hand, was not merely permitted to criticize and poke fun at his employer and his or her guests, he was expected to do so, in the process providing a social commentary in a series of short, witty phrases.

This can be seen most clearly in a dramatic portrayal of the relationship. The fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear repeatedly reminds the king that he made a mistake in renouncing his throne:
Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away; that
      thou wast born with. [Act I, Scene 4]
He is also a master of stating the obvious in a humorous way:
Fool: …The reason why the
      seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
Lear: Because they are not eight?
Fool: Yes, indeed: thou wouldst make a good fool. [Act I, Scene 5]
However, Shakespeare was not the only influence on the English language at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The first officially sanctioned translation of the Bible, the Authorized Version, was published in 1611. It was based largely on William Tyndale’s 1526 translation, which had been unauthorized and for which the unfortunate translator was burned at the stake for heresy. It quickly became apparent to the new audience that the biblical writers did not suffer fools gladly:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. [Proverbs 1:7]

How long…will…fools hate knowledge? [Proverbs 1:22]

It is as sport to a fool to do mischief…. [Proverbs 10:23]

…it is abomination to fools to depart from evil. [Proverbs 13:19]

A fool hath no delight in understanding…. [Proverbs 18:2]

Speak not in the ears of a fool: for he will despise the wisdom of thy words. [Proverbs 23:9]

He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool…. [Proverbs 28:26]
Note that some of these examples define rather than describe a fool. Clearly, the greatest of all follies was to reject the word of God. However, the early Stuart monarchs (James I and Charles I) continued to employ fools, and it was only with the ascent to power of the Puritans in 1649 that the practice was finally abandoned. One can surmise that these po-faced killjoys (they also forbade the celebration of Christmas) put an end to the role of official court jester because they disapproved of such frivolity, but it can be seen from the quotations above that there was substantial scriptural authority for such a move.

On the other hand, none of the many aphorisms in the Book of Proverbs can be regarded as widely used. The two best-known English proverbs about fools come from other sources:
…a foole and his money is soone parted.
Dr John Bridges, Defence of the Government of the Church of England, 1587.

Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709.
These are statements that have attained the status of folk wisdom, but they are merely statements. Their Chinese equivalents tend to have a story attached. They also follow a set formula: four characters that summarize the story (they are often referred to as ‘four-character idioms’, or chengyu).

One example that deals with apparent folly is yú gōng yí shān [‘foolish old man moves mountains’]. As with most chengyu, there is no standard text of the story, but the general thrust is as follows:
In ancient China, there was an old man who was annoyed that every visit to the provincial capital entailed a lengthy detour because the direct route was blocked by a substantial mountain range. He resolved to remove the mountains. He was aided in this endeavour by his sons and grandsons, but there were many scoffers. They asked the old man what he expected to achieve, given that he was already old and could not expect to succeed in his lifetime. He replied that after his death his sons and their sons, and their sons, and so on, would continue the work, while the mountains would grow no higher [he clearly hadn’t heard of plate tectonics], so in time the job would be done.
There is no agreement on how the story ends. In some versions, the old man’s neighbours, impressed by his diligence, join in and the mountains are eventually removed; in others, the immortals are moved by the old man’s perseverance, and they move the mountains for him. This chengyu would be used in the same way that an equivalent English proverb (such as ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’) would be used: to encourage someone who is daunted by a seemingly impossible task to persevere. It should not come as a surprise to learn that this was Mao Zedong’s favourite chengyu, used to exhort his fellow citizens to greater efforts, although if he used it during the Great Leap Forward his efforts must be judged a failure.

My own favourite chengyu is yān ēr dào líng (‘cover ears steal bell’). The story goes like this:
One day, an itinerant beggar was passing through an isolated village when he spied a beautifully polished bronze bell hanging above the outer gate of one of the houses.

“A-ha!” he said. “That’s a fine bell. I shall steal it and sell it in the next village.”

“Wait a minute,” he thought. “When I take down the bell it will start ringing, and that will alert the villagers.”

He pondered this dilemma for a few minutes before coming up with a solution.

“If I cover my ears while carrying the bell, I will not it hear ringing,” he proclaimed confidently to himself. “And this means that I can make my escape in silence, because the bell will not be ringing.”
Needless to say, the beggar’s plan didn’t work. The conventional explanation of how this chengyu should be used (to describe someone who thinks they are clever but aren’t) is incorrect. I was taught to use it as a comment when someone does something that is unutterably foolish.

A similar chengyu is kè zhōu qiú jiàn (‘drop sword mark boat’), which relates the story of a man who loses his sword while crossing a river in a boat. He cuts a notch in the side of the boat to indicate where he lost it. Again, it would normally be used to admonish someone who has just done something inconceivably stupid.

Chengyu were routinely taught in Hong Kong’s schools in the 1960s and 1970s, but this no longer happens. I have only one comment for the nameless official who thought it would be a good idea to drop this important aspect of Chinese cultural tradition from the curriculum: yim yee doh ling, which is the local (Cantonese) version of ‘cover ears steal bell’.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

atom heart mother

When I compiled some of my musical memories last month, I deliberately left out Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, from the 1970 album of the same name, which has been my favourite music track since I first heard it in 1971 (having spent 1970 in the Australian outback, where the opportunities for keeping up to date with the contemporary music scene were severely limited). It was the longest continuous piece ever recorded by Pink Floyd, and it featured a brass ensemble, a choir and a wide range of sound effects to augment the band’s performance.

Actually, it is possible to argue that it was the band that augmented the brass and choir, and there is no doubt that the band was not particularly impressed with the result:
Atom Heart Mother is a good case, I think, for being thrown into the dustbin and never listened to by anyone ever again! It was pretty kind of pompous….
Bass guitarist Roger Waters, speaking in 1985.
Atom Heart Mother was a good idea, but it was dreadful. I listened to that album recently: God, it’s shit, possibly our lowest point artistically.
Lead guitarist David Gilmour, speaking in 2001.
The album was not well received by the critics at the time, which is a good reason for attempting to escape responsibility for its creation. Pink Floyd were never to attempt anything quite so grandiose again. However, although the tracks on the second side of the album cannot be ranked among the band’s finest work, the title track, which occupies the whole of side one, deserves a better reputation.

Unlike similar attempts at the time to fuse rock with more ‘serious’ elements, such as Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, in which the orchestral contributions almost seemed irrelevant, Atom Heart Mother is a fully integrated suite of six ‘movements’. The way the band, the brass and the choir complement each other throughout the piece marks it out as much the more successful of the two.

The first movement opens with a long, droning chord on a Hammond organ that grows slowly in intensity. Then the brass section comes in with a series of short competing fanfares, rasping trumpets on the one side, blaring trombones on the other. Finally, the conflict is resolved: there is one last fanfare before the drums and bass join in for the first appearance of the anthemic main theme. This feel-good melody is suddenly interrupted by a return of the argumentative brass, and everything else falls silent, to be replaced by intermittent background sound effects: first, a whinnying horse, then several explosions, a rocket taking off, and a train rushing through a tunnel. But as a motorcycle roars off into the distance, discipline, and the main theme, is restored.

The main theme segues seamlessly into the second movement, which opens with a series of bass and organ arpeggios while a cello reprises the main theme. The accompaniment increases in tempo, and the drums come in; the cello is replaced by a slide guitar, and for the first time there is some limited embellishment and improvisation around the main theme. As the movement builds to a climax, the organ is replaced by a piano echoing the main theme, and the brass section lays down an understated backing.

The second movement ends suddenly, to be replaced by a slow, dramatic organ riff and the first entry of the choir. But there are no words, merely voices, soaring sopranos at first, then the contraltos provide a counterpoint, the organ reworking the main theme as the voices intermingle. Slowly, the tenors arrive, and the tone immediately becomes more menacing. Finally, the bass voices trigger a sense of urgency and, after a short crescendo, in come the drums, mostly tom-toms with the occasional cymbal, to bring whatever primitive ritual was being enacted to a resounding climax before petering out and leaving quietly.

The fourth movement is the most obviously rock-oriented of the six. It begins with a conventional guitar solo backed by staccato organ, bass and drums. Suddenly, the mood changes. The choir is back, and this time there are words. But it is a language that you cannot understand, although you feel that you should. An exotic ceremony is taking place. It builds to a climax that reintroduces the main theme, again played by the brass, which leads into a sequeway identical to that closing the first movement.

However, the following movement is a shock: relentlessly discordant, pulsating electronic noise that changes key erratically and builds remorselessly, through a background of yet more noise, although it could be voices, to the most stunning climax in the entire piece. This is scary stuff if you’ve recently ingested mescalin or LSD, which I did more than once in 1971 and 1972. Just before the end, a disembodied, distorted voice declares “Here is an important announcement”, a steam train rushes by, and the entire nightmare comes to a sudden, juddering, explosive halt.

Immediately, there are signs of a reawakening: optimistic tinkling notes, played by striking the strings of a piano with tiny hammers, a few tentative brass riffs. But they all appear to be out of phase. Sections of the brass try to establish the main theme amid competing riffs, and gradually the fragments come together. After a couple of false starts, the disembodied voice announces “Silence in the studio”, and the brass launches enthusiastically into the main theme, driven on by pounding drums. There are short repeats of the cello and slide guitar solos, this time with brass accompaniment. Finally, the choir provides ethereal background harmonies as the main theme builds towards its final crescendo.

And my personal memory? In 1971, I joined the staff of Eskdale Outward Bound School as a temporary instructor. The mainstay of Outward Bound in those days was the 26-day ‘standard’ course. The daily routine on such courses included an assembly at 9 o’clock each morning (unless everyone was out on expedition). The format of the assembly was simple: the warden made any announcements that were required, then an instructor gave an ‘inspirational’ reading and led a short prayer.

On my second course, I was asked to perform the second and third parts of the ceremony. I decided to interpret ‘reading’ in the widest possible sense. I rigged up my two large speakers to a recently acquired stereo cassette deck containing a tape that had already been cued to the start of the final movement beforehand. Before pressing the ‘start’ button, I explained to the capacity audience that the music symbolized the symbiosis between different levels of consciousness (I’d recently been reading Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy). I sat down and started the music. The warden didn’t look too impressed, but he said nothing.

After what seemed like a lot more than the six minutes that the final movement actually takes to play, the music stopped and I stopped the tape. The reaction was so far beyond my expectations as to be halfway to the outer reaches of the solar system. All 108 students (all male, all between the ages of 16 and 20) stood and gave me a standing ovation. Even the warden admitted that he’d ‘appreciated’ it, and he appeared not to notice that I skipped the prayer. Several students sought me out during the day to tell me that I’d made them think.

This may have been the single most personally uplifting experience in my entire life. If you’ve heard Atom Heart Mother and still agree with Waters and Gilmour, all I can say is that it is your loss. If you haven’t heard it, then ignore Waters and Gilmour and give it a listen. I don’t think you will be disappointed.