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Laurence Picken

From The Times
March 24, 2007

Laurence Picken

Scholar of catholic pursuits who was equally at home with invertebrate excretory systems and 8th-century Chinese music

Laurence Picken

Laurence Picken was one of the great Cambridge scholars of the 20th century. He was accomplished to such a degree that few even in the university could appreciate the range of his achievements in fields that were united in him as in no one else.

One of his undergraduate pupils, Roger Scruton, described him as “a bachelor don of the old school, an established scholar in the fields of biochemistry, cytology, musicology, Chinese, Slavonic studies and ethnomusicology, world expert on Turkish musical instruments, Bach cantatas, ancient Chinese science and reproduction of cells”. He added: “You could pick up from him an amount of knowledge on any number of subjects — from Baroque keyboard ornamentation to the vinification of burgundy, from the wave structures of the benzene ring to the translation of the Confucian Odes, from Frazer’s theory of magic to the chronology of Cavalcanti — and the very irrelevance to the surrounding world of everything he knew made the learning of it all the more rewarding.”

Laurence Ernest Rowland Picken was born in Nottingham. From Waverley Road Secondary School, Birmingham, he won a scholarship in 1928 to Trinity College, Cambridge, the first from his school to do so.

His musical talents had been fostered by a local organist, and in his teens, already a fine keyboard player, he had composed songs. In his first year at Cambridge he embarked on the study of Chinese. With a double first in natural sciences, he began research on the mechanism of urine production in invertebrates, taking his PhD in 1935.

He held a Rockefeller Studentship in the Geneva School of Chemistry for two years, working on the X-ray crystallography and thermoelastic properties of living muscle and of long-chain polymers. Here he became fluent in French and German, and translated a monograph on high polymers, as well as publishing papers of his own on his return to Cambridge.

He spent his summer holidays travelling, notably to Lake Ohrid in Yugoslavia, where he studied freshwater ciliates. Meanwhile, in the mid 1930s, he composed a song-cycle and some piano music.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1939 found him laid low with flu in Yugoslavia. He returned to the UK in the last sealed train from Geneva to Calais. In the early war years he was officer-in-charge of the eastern region blood transfusion lab, developing better methods for the filtration and drying of blood plasma.

His techniques were considered so valuable that he was trained by the British Council in Chinese, so he could join Joseph Needham’s scientific mission to China, flying to Chungking from India in 1944. His contacts in China were not merely scientific, though: he learnt to play the seven-stringed zither ( qin) to such effect that he was the first European to be made a member of the Chungking qin society.

Back in Cambridge in 1945, he took up a fellowship at Jesus College, and in 1946 he became assistant director of research in the zoology faculty (until a magnanimous gesture by the retiring professor transferred his post to oriental studies in 1966).

He had also begun to publish musical papers, the earliest on Bach, identifying an unknown fugue. By the 1950s he was contributing articles on Chinese and Japanese music to Grove’s Dictionar y and The New Oxford History of Music. He also edited the journal of the International Folk Music Council briefly in the 1960s. With the closure of Communist China, his fieldwork shifted to Turkey and his collection of instruments grew to fill a further set of rooms in college.

Picken’s last work for zoology was his essential contribution to the new courses on the biology of cells (1965). He devised equipment and techniques to train freshmen as skilled microscopists within four weeks, and in 1960 he received the Trail Medal of the Linnean Society for his work on microscopy.

His book, The Organization of Cells and other Organisms (1960), was reviewed by some as outdated, but came to be seen as a landmark in the study of the relationship between fine structure and function in living matter. Its final page quotes from the Guanzi of the 4th century BC: “Reality is the embodiment of structure; structures are the embodiment of properties; properties are the embodiment of harmony; harmony is the embodiment of congruity.” This fundamental notion of structure was the hinge on which Picken’s academic life turned, from zoology to musicology.

Fifteen years later he published Folk Musical Instruments of Turkey, a monumental work. In it he synthesised detail of the biological fine structure of the materials of which the instruments are made with constructional details, acoustic data and performance techniques, as well as giving musical transcriptions, linguistic notes on instrument names, and contextual material of a historical, ethnographic, economic and domestic nature.

In the foreword to a series of papers by his pupils and himself which he edited under the title Musica Asiatica (1977-84), Picken wrote that he believed “that the musics of Asia and Europe constitute a single, historical continuum” — a swipe at the burgeoning discipline of ethnomusicology. He was increasingly frustrated by the move towards sociology, gender studies and popular music, which left him in later years somewhat academically isolated. But for a man who did not have a telephone until his late eighties such isolation was relative only.

From the late 1960s he had been blessed with a succession of brilliant pupils. His exacting teaching did not make for easy relationships, but the resulting doctoral dissertations were often outstanding. With these pupils, and Professor Noel Nickson of Queensland University, with whom he had been collaborating since 1970, Picken embarked in 1981 on what he saw as the most important work of his life: Music from the Tang Court,a projected 25-volume reconstruction and transcription (by brilliant detective work) of the entire corpus of Chinese Tang dynasty entertainment music of the 7th to 9th centuries, as preserved in the Japanese Togaku tradition.

For many years, especially on a sabbatical tour in 1972, he had been collecting original and photocopied manuscripts of this repertory in Japan. But by 2000 only seven volumes had appeared, and although there had been some spectacular achievements, such as a performing version of the complete three-movement suite The Emperor Destroys the Formations,the project had attracted some criticism, most notably in Japan itself, where scholars found it hard to accept that Togaku had slowed the lively drinking and dancing songs of the cosmopolitan Tang Court to one sixteenth of their original tempo.

In 1977 Picken swapped his rooms in Jesus College for a small terraced house. Some 700 instruments went to the University Museum of Anthropology, and a large number of musical books and manuscripts became the nucleus of “Class Picken” in the University Library.

Like many academics he never retired: by the turn of the century his research work had spanned 70 years. The honours flowed in: emeritus and honorary fellowships at Jesus, Trinity, SOAS, and Paris; particularly gratifying were his fellowship of the British Academy from 1973, and his receipt of the Curt Sachs Award in 1995. Exceptionally, he was offered the Walker-Ames Professorship at Washington University twice within 20 years, the first time for zoology (1959), the second time for music (1979); but due to a perceived slight by a US Embassy official in London over his visa application, the trip was cancelled.

A visit to Shanghai in 1990, however, culminated in a performance at the Music Conservatory under Nickson’s direction and Picken’s supervision of transcriptions of Tang and Song dynasty pieces.

The death of his sister — his only close relation — in 2000 and the sale of the family home in Birmingham hit him hard. Yet even at this time he took pleasure in the first performances and recordings of his youthful compositions, and in the rekindling of academic fires through his involvement with the Ancient Asian Music Project at the Library of Congress.

Generations of undergraduates and colleagues remember Picken’s stimulating and conscientious work as tutor, his generous parties and his fine cooking.

Laurence Picken, scientist, musicologist and polymath, was born on July 16, 1909. He died on March 16, 2007, aged 97