Dynasties Fall


Dynasties Fall is our first try at recording words on top of our own instruments.  Way back in 2001 when we put out Huhnandhuhn, our first CD, we did include two songs recorded with our guitars and Indian drums, but singing with a conventionally tuned instrument is altogether different from what we tried here…..

Dynasties Fall
Part of “Dynasties Fall”
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 Dynasties Fall

dead leaves rustle across the gravel,
with it, the wind carries a hint of winter.

merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.

growing older contradictions surface,
problems long unfixed swell and bloom.
frost burned leaves flutter from the trees,
freezing water rips potholes in the road.

merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.

one more time those who never work
come home from vacation,
turn around,  go out to grab a bite to eat
that’s cooked by someone else.

merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.

stunted by too easy lives,
those at the top are shallow, weak, and fearful,
sucked dry by their ungrateful children,
who impatient wait for them to clear the way,
while ready to strip their still warm corpses,
their wives dance with bloody hands.

merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.

but while the top’s been busy rotting,
the bottom’s been big ground down,
and everywhere a terrible sameness.

can one doubt that soon a cold stone wind
will roar through the bare branches,
and clean quiet snow
will cover all with white.

merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.
merit is exhausted, dynasties fall……

For several weeks we sweated over the words to this song, but before recording it, I never practiced singing it on top of our music, not even once.  So the version we have posted is our very first take, and before I had the mike in my hand I actually had no idea of what I was going to do, of how I was going to fit the words to the music.  I did sing it a second time, and that take too turned out lovely and was more than good enough to post, but we liked the wildness of my first try, so that’s the one we went with.

Thanks to clean power of our M-Audio preamps, we were able to use one of our Shure dynamic microphones for my voice, but since we prefer the sound of our voices when we’re singing softly, I still had to stay very close to the mike. Fortunately I banged into it only a few times, and with micro-deletes we were able to eliminate these noises plus my few explosive “p’s” and “t’s”.

The underlying music is a different section of the recording session from which we crafted bbqq.  We did it this way, rather than recording our first song on top of some completely different music, because we are overloaded with far too many projects that must come to completion simultaneously.  At the same time we are learning to use our new recording equipment and software, getting back into musical shape after a summer wasted knocking on the doors of a million unresponsive translation agencies, and using complicated software to put together our new website and blog….

Struggling to keep these different balls in the air has already pushed our poor little brains well past the red line, and often by the time we finish our day we can smell the sizzling neurons.  So when we realized we could reduce our work load by using underlying music from the same session for our first song, we jumped at it.

To get in the right mood for singing Dynasties Fall, I’ve been reading the the Chinese “Book of Songs”, the classic collection of odes dating from the very dawn of Yellow River Valley Civilization.  Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, they come from a time when the contradictions of civilization had not yet become so evident, when it was still possible to hope that the technological advances which were ripping ancient society from its stable rural mode, would also lead to a more profound understanding of the world, richer culture, and better lives.

They also come from a time in Chinese culture when poetry and music had not yet become separate art forms.  (Until the late Han dynasty, 1,000 years later, Chinese poetry was always sung.)  So I felt the odes would be a good thing to have running through my mind as I was looking for a way to sing words on top of our music.  This was in line with my suspicion that what I had to do was to find my way back into a bardic mode….

But while this implies that both the Book of Songs and Homer are in some sense innocent, it would certainly be a mistake to consider either primitive.  In fact the the characters in them are bigger more aware humans than us modern folks.  One could even say they were more sophisticated since they fooled themselves less.  When they were angry, they knew it. When they lusted, they knew what to do.  When they were hungry, they were under no illusion that it didn’t matter.

In part this must have been because they lived closer to nature (even a rich person had to be physically together enough to ride a horse, whereas self-indulgent moderns can just plunk their fat butts down on automobile seats), and also since everyone had to do many different types of things, they were able to accumulate the rich experience one needs to grow.

Not to mention that since they weren’t hung up by trying to be “clear thinkers”, they tended to communicate with strings of images rather than with so-called logical arguments, and therefore did a much better job of expressing themselves. Back then almost everyone was a poet, and professors hadn’t yet been invented.

I’ve been enjoying the Songs in Robert Payne’s anthology of Chinese Poetry, “The White Pony”.  Previously I’d only read Arthur Waley’s translations, but those in the White Pony feel somehow realer and less processed, perhaps because they were all done by native Chinese speakers.

I used to believe that poetry was best translated by native speakers of the target language, and I still feel that this often produces more gracious sounding finished words.  But in a case like the Songs, where the source language (ancient Chinese) is so different from any currently existing language, and where there is not a single important word in the entire book whose meaning has been definitively agreed upon, I’m starting to suspect that the translation is better done by native Chinese speakers.  Because writers who have Chinese culture in their bones, even when they too are unsure of a meaning, can at least follow clues thrown up by their intuition to help them penetrate to what the ancient singers were trying to express.

By contrast Waley brings his western mind to the job of translation, and so his rendering makes the singers sound more primitive even as it makes their songs sound more like western folk music.  I say this although for years I’ve read with great pleasure Waley’s translations of the “newer” Chinese and Japanese classics.  I first met Po Chu I, the great Tang dynasty people’s poet through Waley’s work, and to the best of my knowledge his is the best English translation of “The Tale of Genji”, the wonderful proto-novel written by Lady Murasaki in the spoken language of ninth century Japan, when all her contemporary male Japanese writers were still composing in warmed over Chinese.  (Before tackling Genji, the western reader might be well advised to peruse Ivan Morris’  ”The World of the Shining Prince” for background information on the very peculiar ancient Japanese society in which Genji is set.)

But I’ve come to suspect that translating The Book of Songs was a stretch too far for Waley, that he just could not find his way into that vanished world.  And I guess I feel the same way about his translations of Confucius and Lao Tsu, that again he just could not feel in his bones what it was like to be a writer in the dawn of Yellow River Valley culture.  I mean the dude knew an enormous amount about China and Japan, but his relationship to them was merely respectful clear understanding, rather than the involuntary appreciation felt by a sufficiently old fashioned native of these countries.  So Waley’s translations of the songs don’t quite come alive.  They read like great ancient Yellow River Valley poems, whereas the translations in Payne’s anthology just read like great poems…..

Indeed one has to suspect that there was something not quite right about Waley’s entire relationship with the Yellow River Valley world.  That he never dared visit either China or Japan, strongly suggests he was afraid to test his insights, afraid to compare his mentally constructed vision of that world with its actual reality.

In any case the subject of my song, “merit is exhausted, dynasties fall” is the core concept of classical Chinese written history.  Whenever a new dynasty took power, one of its most important initial tasks was to use court and other records to write the definitive history of its immediate predecessor, and these histories always ended up by concluding that the previous dynasty had been established by big humans, and that when their descendants had become decadent (i.e., had exhausted their merit), it had inevitably failed.

One can see this motif not just in the Chinese histories, but also in the two greatest of the classic Chinese novels.

Shui Hu Chuan, the older of them which was translated into English in 1938 by Pearl Buck under the title “All Men Are Brothers”, grew from a collection of robin hood tales set in the chaotic end of the Sung Dynasty.  It tells of a band of Confucian bandits (Confucian because they respected their elders, bowed to true moral authority, and never stole from the poor) who were forced into lives of illegal conduct by the unjust actions of various local rulers, and who subsequently defeated all the forces massed against them by the corrupt government.  Its not so hidden message is that when their merit is exhausted, dynasties fall.

While “The Story of the Stone” (there’s a good 6 volume penguin translation by David Hawkes and his successors), traces the playing out of this same cautionary tale in the rise and fall of a great Chinese family.

Not surprisingly it has been suggested that this notion that dynasties fall when their merit is exhausted, occupies a territory in Chinese consciousness similar to the territory occupied by the idea of karma in the Indian mind, and the idea of heaven and hell in Western thought.  Which sounds quite reasonable to us…..  Relevant too, since clearly we’re living through one of those “merit is exhausted, dynasties fall” periods.  Like I sing in my song, the top of our society is rotten, while those who dwell there are shallow, weak and fearful.

But I’ve blabbered on quite long enough, so let me end this post by sharing with you Mitsuko’s reaction to my song.

“It sounds like some sort of strange yellow blues,” she said.

And this I take to be a gigantic compliment.


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