Sunday, March 24, 2013


Laurence Picken

Dear Mr. Gilleland,

I was delighted to read the extract you have quoted from Roger Scruton's memoir, about the late Laurence Picken; and I promptly ordered the book (to add to some others I already possess by Professor Scruton).

Laurence Picken was one of the most inspiring men I have ever known. I first made his acquaintance as a student at Cambridge in the later 1950s; and he made me aware that there were whole worlds of music outside the European tradition, with their own long history, instruments and musical forms. His Cambridge Asian Music Circle, the offshoot of one created by Yehudi Menuhin in London, brought Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and others to perform in Cambridge; as well as occasional visiting speakers. More particularly, holding court at Jesus College, where he occupied beautiful 17th-century rooms, he would discourse learnedly on Japanese, Chinese and other non-Western music, surrounded by an exotic array of instruments which he had collected from around the world, and which now belongs to Cambridge University. There was even an 18th-century English chamber organ (which on one occasion he used to demonstrate the Javanese scale system); later, as a result of field trips to Turkey and elsewhere, he was to add many other instruments. His library of books on music, in many languages, included the complete Bach Gesellschaft edition; and he was to acquire an important archive of manuscripts on Japanese music, which formed the basis of the studies he edited on Japanese and Chinese court music. The theoretical basis for his work is best seen in the lengthy postscript to his Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey (1975), and in the essays contained in Vol. 7 of his Music from the Tang Court (2000). He brought to the classification and description of musical instruments the mind of a trained scientist, as well as an acute eye for detail; at the same time as he would make original and sometimes startling historical generalisations about music across Eurasia.

In case you have not seen it, here is the link to a short memoir which was put together by Laurence's former graduate students, in celebration of the centenary of his birth. It sketches his life, and itemises some of his scholarly achievements: I was not myself a student under him, and I was at King's College, not Jesus. At that time there was no academic programme in Oriental Music, within either the Faculty of Music or the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Later, Laurence advised me when I was thinking of leaving England for the United States to study ethnomusicology: I stayed the weekend as his guest at Jesus, and he warmly recommended the University of Washington, where he had been a visiting professor of zoology, and where I was to spend two happy years, before coming to Toronto. We continued to correspond in the years that followed, and I visited him from time to time in Cambridge, almost up to the time of his death. I treasure my many letters from him, as well as most of his publications on Asian music.

David Waterhouse

David Waterhouse is Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto. I'm grateful for permission to publish his email.

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