Cai Yan: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute

Here is Cai Yan’s entry on Wikipedia.  She appears as number 3 on Wikipedia’s list of female composers.  Cai Yan was born around 170 AD in China.  The daughter of a famous scholar, Cai Yang, she also studied calligraphy, poetry, and music, and was married off at the age of 15. Her first husband died, she returned home, and was subsequently captured by nomads during civil wars.  Cai Yan lived among them for twelve years and had two sons.  It seems there are three poems that she wrote detailing the sorrows of living among barbarians.  Eventually, she was ransomed by a chancellor in the name of her father.  He wanted her back because she was the last surviving member of her clan and he needed to appease the spirits.  I managed to track down three of her poems that were translated and published in 1983.  (Cai Yan and the Poems Attributed to Her, Hans H. Frankel Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews Vol. 5, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1983), pp. 133-156)).  A search on youtube for her works yielded two versions of Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, which is today’s piece. If you scroll down below it you’ll find a translation of the “Eighteen Songs.” The article said the text was in Creative Commons. Here is the Youtube performance of “Eighteen Songs….”

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September 10, birthday of Henry Purcell (1659)

I first heard Henry Purcell‘s music on the sound track to an X-rated film. It was Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” It was 1971; I was 16; and I was under the influence of one of the smartest people in my high school, who was captain of our swim team. You had to be 18 to see an X-rated film, so I and a few others on our swim team read the book.

Life magazine had a photo spread about the film, which stoked with our desire to see it, and when it finally reached the backwaters of South Bend, Indiana, where I was born we had to go. Of course, I couldn’t because I was under age and my friends said not to worry, they would tell the cashier at the box office they were my chaperones. The woman wouldn’t budge, and I didn’t see it. They did, and we all started acting like Burgess’ “droogies.”

On weekends we’d get drunk and engage in our own acts of “ultra-violence” like blowing up mailboxes, throwing rolls of toilet paper on the trees of cheerleaders’ parents’ houses, doing donuts (driving onto the lawn of a cheerleader’s parent’s house, spinning our wheels and turning the car in a circle).

It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 35 or so, that I got a chance to watch it on VHS tape (what we used to watch in the olden days before Netflix and youtube.) It actually disgusted me. Maybe because now I had two daughters, I did not find the scenes of rape choreographed to Rossini’s overture to “La Gazza Ladra” artistic. True it was a dark satire on the police, politics, education, school caning, and class of the UK and how that system created the main character. When the opposition party discovers that Alex has been brainwashed, they use him as a tool of propaganda and make him a celebrity. This still happens today–politicians only care about the down-trodden when they can blame their lot on the other side, as we’ve seen in many global elections.

Since I was underage, I could only enjoy the film through the book and its soundtrack. It was created by the composer Walter (now Wendy) Carlos (of Switched on Bach fame).

The piece that probably haunted me the most was Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary,” which Carlos had heavily modified. Below is Carlos’s version besides a more traditional one. Which do you like?

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