Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Mid-Autumn Crisis

Last Friday marked my double debut on erhu and violin in Hong Kong. Sitting onstage before the concert, I felt like the obvious black sheep as the only non-Hong Konger in City University's Chinese Orchestra. I anticipated the audience members' thoughts as they ogled me: "Who does she think she is, holding an erhu and attempting to play Chinese music?" Or even more simply: "White girl with an erhu? This is gonna be good."

While no one in the orchestra had been unkind (and I made good friends with some of the players), they had been standoffish and aloof at first--not sure how to regard the random outsider who had showed up with an erhu a few weeks before their concert. They all seemed to mean well, but even though nearly all of them were bilingual in English they avoided using it at all costs, leaving me in the dark except when absolutely necessary. Not that I expected them to change the language of the rehearsal or go out of their way to include me--but in any case I was a de facto alien. I couldn't tell what they thought of me, and while I didn't care about being out of place linguistically, I felt the isolation acutely as I struggled to keep up playing music that wasn't "my own" on an instrument that wasn't "my own." Which leads to a question, or perhaps comment, I have received multiple times since starting to learn erhu and practice Chinese music: "Since you are not Chinese, can you play Chinese music?" People don't ask to be insulting, though some do have firm opinions on the matter--they are genuinely curious, as am I, if the ability to learn and play Chinese music relies upon membership in a community with some shared experience of culture, history, and region. From my erhu teacher telling me that Guangdong style is just too hard to teach if you aren't familiar with it, to one of the players in the Chinese Orchestra telling me that he didn't think it was possible for non-Chinese to play Chinese music, recently I was really questioning whether my efforts--and this year's project in general--were misguided and inevitably pointless.

Photo compilation by one of the CityU Chinese Orchestra players
While I previously mentioned my excitement to be asked to play solos on violin with the Chinese Orchestra in addition to playing erhu with the ensemble, after I eagerly agreed, a general feeling of unease set in. They had asked me to play a solo violin piece ("Play Czardas! Play Ziguenerweisen!" they asked, naming two flashy crowd-pleasers from the violin repertoire) but given that the rest of the concert featured traditional Chinese music played by an ensemble, the prospect of me playing a Western classical showpiece by myself seemed very out of place, and even somewhat profane ("Don't worry--it's fusion!" they said when I voiced my concerns). I also didn't really know what place I had playing a solo--there were plenty of talented performers in the ensemble, why not feature one of them? Nonetheless, I wasn't going to turn down their request that I play violin in the concert, so I told them that I would come up with some solo piece to play, and that I also wanted to play a Chinese piece on violin. (They seemed a bit baffled as to why I would want to do that, but went with it.) At the very least, I figured the casual concert was a good chance for me to test out the solo Kreisler piece I had been working on, and wasn't combining multiple music traditions the exact theme of my Watson Project? 

We rehearsed the Chinese piece for the first time a few days before the performance. Rehearsals with the Chinese Orchestra were a stark contrast with my rehearsals with the MIT Symphony--I don't think there was ever a moment the players weren't chattering away happily as the conductor tried to keep everyone's attention. Everyone had amicably ignored me until that day--when I started playing the Cantonese opera piece on violin, the room became noticeably quieter as the players came to grips with the fact that the non-Chinese girl was playing a traditional song they knew well on violin. I had 'studied' the piece the day before, listening to recordings of singers performing the piece and notating their embellishments and slides to incorporate into my own playing. When I finished, the room burst into applause, and I breathed a sigh of relief. "Sounds great!" my erhu teacher told me. "Play freely! You can improvise naturally--we will follow you!" I guess I had emulated the Cantonese singer well-enough to convince him that I knew what organic improvisation in Cantonese opera style would sound like. This point was lost on him--he continued to encourage me to add ornamentations to my liking. I was terrified by this prospect--at least half of the time, my own musical add-ons sound more like psuedo-country music drawling rather than the falling sighs of erhu sliding.

From that day on, the players started to talk to me, and I came to realize that they weren't discouraging my erhu and Chinese music pursuits, but just curious and even gratified by my interest in the music. A percussionist told me she was so excited to meet a foreign player of Chinese music, and an erhu player played me some Paganini on erhu and told me about a Xinjiang-style erhu piece whose title he translated as "Grape Grows Up" (I later found out the more commonly accepted translation is "The Grapes are Ripe," but isn't "Grape Grows Up" so much cuter?)

The concert was highly casual. It was held at a covered outdoor performance space at City University of Hong Kong in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the performers wearing orchestra tees-shirts and jeans. The atmosphere was very laid-back (if immensely hot and humid), and sitting onstage, I wasn't nervous because I could sense how low the audience's expectations were (I mean this in only the best of ways--it was the perfect environment for me to make my onstage erhu debut!) The performance itself was hardly flawless--perhaps a little less talking in rehearsals would have addressed that--but the players' enthusiasm was palpable, and more than compensated for shortcomings in execution. (A few of my new pals, international students from Hong Kong University who had never heard Chinese music before, kindly came to the performance and stayed to the bitter end, proving themselves true friends. "It was really...interesting!" they said.)

Here's an abridged video of the concert--

As I got up for my Cantonese opera violin solo, I wasn't nervous at all, but after the applause, when my solo Kreisler moment arrived I was met with a wave of nerves and adrenaline, combined with sweaty hands and shaking knees. (Video of my solo parts below.) Knowing the only way out was through, I launched into the piece. At the time, I was sure it went terribly, but looking back, though it was far from perfect it actually went quite well under the circumstances, and was well-received. My one regret is that in my mortification I didn't give a proper bow and instead went power-walking off the stage, defying my life mantra to "fake it 'till you make it." 

A quick photo interlude--pictures from a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration in one of Hong Kong's neighborhoods:

Chiu Chow opera performance
If you didn't know any better, it could be the Austin City Limits Music Festival

My friend said these were "priests reading aloud the Taoist bible," so that's the best I can do to describe this scene

Later that weekend, I went to the premiere performance of Alexis' new work, Shadow in the Moon, a Peter and the Wolf-like narrated chamber work for Western and Chinese instruments that tells the story of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The ensemble consisted of a pianist, a violinist, an erhu player, a clarinetist, a dizi (Chinese flute) player, a guzheng (plucked zither) player, a cellist, and a Chinese percussionist--so definitely not the typical octet. Alexis had partnered with a writer, Christina, who just published a children's book about the Mid-Autumn Festival story, and used the book's text as inspiration for the piece. Since the performance was geared toward children, I wasn't sure what to expect of the music, but the two times I heard the piece in the dress rehearsal and the actual concert, I teared up--the music Alexis composed is gorgeous and moving, and highlights the instruments' similarities and contrasting timbres flawlessly. (Also, seeing all of the families together enjoying the music got me a little emotional, too...) It was striking how she combined the instruments--for instance, the sounds of the violin and the erhu complemented each other, but were in no way interchangeable substitutes. Similarly, it was interesting to hear the guzheng player pluck a passage, and then hear the cellist say, "I liked how you played that--let me try that interpretation for my part," adding some lyrical slides to his own version of the same melody. There are moments in the music that conjure the sound of Chinese folk songs, and others that bring the passion and lyricism of Romantic era serenades--and it all works. While I had come to the performance wondering whether the music and text would resonate with the audience (myself included), watching the children literally dance in the aisles and feeling myself moved by the music, I was truly wowed by what Alexis had accomplished--a true cross-cultural masterpiece. It was so well-received that I think there's talk of turning it into a perennial Hong Kong performance for the Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as part of a larger musical project about Chinese festivals and legends.
Alexis addressing the players at the dress rehearsal
Alexis and Christina at the premiere
I talked to Alexis later about my concerns about being an "outsider" when it comes to Chinese, or more generally, non-Western classical, music--I figured that as her compositional career and own erhu study center around the notion that non-Chinese can approach Chinese music, she would have some insight and opinions on the matter. "You know, when I was in music grad school, Yo-Yo Ma was still new in the music world and making a name for himself, and people said that there was an 'Asian' way of playing classical music--that you could hear it in his playing," she said. "No one says that anymore. Thanks to globalization, Chinese music is all around the world--Chinese music is the world's music." She talked about the difference between trying to distill Chinese music to a formula ("like bad Hollywood music--I'm not trying to be a fake Chinese musician") and studying it and understanding it enough to be influenced by it. As for learning erhu: "I think that anyone, if they put in the time and practice, can learn to play in the style at a high level." It was encouraging to talk with her, and especially seeing how successfully she has created cohesive musical from multiple cultures I am convinced it is not time for me to throw in the towel on my own project just yet.

Hard to beat this commute, eh?

Flashing our matching Wellesley bling
A few final photos and a story--I got together for tea with a Wellesley alum, who was totally lovely to hang out with. It turns out that her son plays violin and is in a chamber music group with some other seventh grade boys, so I offered to coach them. In case you haven't been around seventh grade boys for a while--it's crazy, I tell you. A few were constantly talking and easily distracted, while others were immensely shy--and it was my job to get them to play an arrangement of the highly passionate Intermezzo from Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana. My work was indeed cut out for me, but knowing that they would spiral out of control if they sensed any insecurity from me, I balanced positive encouragement with sass and condescension to keep them on task and amused. Having  been in a chamber music group with my friends as a seventh grader and been the recipient of hundreds of hours of chamber music coaching over the years, it was fun to have come full circle--preaching about the importance of eye contact, clear cues, and bringing out the viola melodies.

"Do I have to cue, too?" the cellist whined.
"Yes, and you're going to do it right now. Feel free to cue at any time. We'll all wait for you."
"My hands are sweating!"
"I'm sorry, that must be very stressful for you. You still have to cue. And you with the pizzicato!" I addressed the extremely timid second violinist, who hadn't said a word. "You need to play it at least three times as loud. Everyone's relying on you for the beat, so don't actually break your string, but get really close."

Just call me "Cadet Kelly." Or "Quartet Kelly"--too much of a stretch?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

S'merhu (some more erhu)

I figured it's about time for another video to mark my erhu progress, so here we go:

The piece is called 江南春色 or "Springtime in Jiangnan," and was written by composer Zhu Changyao pretty recently (not sure of the exact year, but within the last fifty years, if not the last twenty--he's still alive and performing, if that tells you anything). Jiangnan is a region containing Shanghai and Hangzhou, where I visited a few weeks ago, and the area has its own characteristic erhu style that I find quite lyrical. It's also difficult to pick up from the score, as there are lots of semi-improvised ornaments and embellishments (such as trills and slides) that aren't written in. As someone learning the style from scratch it's hard to anticipate unless you have someone telling you where to put all the add-ins! My trills are still a work in progress--they are too Baroque and not Jiangnan enough. A huge highlight from my Hangzhou trip was getting to see one of the local erhu masters we met perform the piece--a Jiangnan person playing a Jiangnan piece in Jiangnan!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Aloha from the Big Island (the other one)

Tuesday was a public holiday (Mid-Autumn Festival--more about that soon!) so a friend and I took a hike on Dragon's Back, a trail that runs along a mountain peak in Shek O and ends at the beach in Big Wave Bay. It's hard to get in the mid-autumn mood with views like these:

Monday, September 08, 2014

Getting in cars with strangers, or: "Come for the music, stay for the turtle"

While my trip last week to Shanghai and Hangzhou did not mark my first steps into Mainland China this year, it was my first legal foray into the mainland this year (see previous post about accidentally crossing the border into Zhuhai a few weeks ago). My dear friend and former fellow State Department intern at the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou last summer, Haley, is the winner of a Fulbright Scholarship and is currently undertaking intensive Mandarin language training in Harbin, China, right now. We had talked for a while about meeting somewhere in China while we were both here, and her fall break was the perfect opportunity—however, as her language program is located in far northern China (Harbin is known for its ice festival and beer, if that gives you a sense of how north we’re talking) and I have been basking in sub-tropical Hong Kong, we had to find a way to literally meet in the middle. [Sadly, that meant staying in a yurt and riding horses in inner Mongolia was off the table this time.] 

After careful consideration and purposeful deliberation [read: cracking jokes over Skype] we ultimately settled on Shanghai—neither one of us had spent time there, it’s a major global city and center of culture, and it’s also within striking distance of the smaller but culturally significant lower-tier cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Also, tickets were cheapest—what’s not to love? We bought flights, booked a room for the first two nights, and figured we were set. Things went mostly smoothly until I boarded my flight from Hong Kong, emotionally prepared myself for takeoff, and then heard the announcement: “There are four flights to Shanghai in front of ours—we will be delayed until further notice.” I silently gave thanks that the flight time was just two hours and not fifteen—and after sitting for two hours on the tarmac and watching the grown man next to me cry very audibly at the live-action film “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” things went off without any further hitch. 

Haley and I reunited at the airport, and eagerly anticipated a week of putting our Mandarin to the test while fumbling around Shanghai, as well as the common phenomenon of being mistaken for twins. We resemble each other inasmuch as we are both fair with bangs, brownish hair, and have incredible senses of humor (aka we are quite self-amused) but that’s probably where the resemblance ends. [Yet, as predicted, I quickly lost track of the number of times we were asked if we were sisters.] As for the Mandarin—while there were certainly many moments where I has no idea what was being said (partially because Shanghai and Hangzhou have their own separate dialects in addition to Mandarin), after a month of constant Cantonese, hearing Mandarin around me felt like I had had the mufflers taken off my ears, or perhaps like I had emerged from an aquarium of ignorance. Either way, it was refreshing to feel like my years of Mandarin language study weren't entirely for naught. 
Shanghai's Jingan Temple
On our first night in Shanghai, we caught up with Wilson, my high school classmate who spent a year of high school living in China and since then has basically never left. The last time I had seen him was two years ago in Beijing, and it was great to hear about his current endeavors in China--launching a pie and taco business aptly named "Rager Pie" out of Beijing. We went with him and a few of his friends at a variety of nighttime venues, most memorably "Shelter," an actual underground bomb shelter that has been converted into a bar and music stage. They have done nothing to alter its appearance, and the atmosphere became even more authentic when a fuse blew and the electricity went out, killing the too-loud music and leaving only the emergency floodlights. We all thought it was an improvement, and enjoyed shooting the breeze (and occasionally letting out a blood-curdling scream) in the darkened tunnels.
In the tunnels of "Shelter"
Whatever we were looking for those first few days, we didn't find it as we wandered Shanghai's wide streets and monolithic public squares. Part of the problem is that Haley and I hadn't put any time into researching what exactly we should be doing in Shanghai, and our tactic of "just showing up" in various parts of the city had so far only gotten us hulking financial skyscrapers and dingy alleyways. So, we decided to apply the technique elsewhere, and booked high speed train tickets to Hangzhou, a second tier city known for its scenic West Lake and tea fields. We checked into our hostel that evening and then wandered around the area, encountering a handful of temples that had closed for the day, a bunch tables of elderly people playing card games, and no lake. Feeling depleted and defeated, we went for blind massage, and then on the suggestion of our masseuses went for dinner to Hangzhou's "Food Street," a street that becomes a pedestrian road full of open air tables and stalls where you can select your own meats, vegetables, seafoods, and insects to be cooked before your eyes. Although the chef at the roadside stand we chose to patronize was very chatty, Haley secretly condemned the fish with Hangzhou specialty sauce he had pushed on us: "I'm pretty sure that's just barbecue sauce."
Selfie at a closed temple in Hangzhou.... 
This man did not move an inch for the entire while we observed him

Hangzhou's "Food Street" by day

Hangzhou sunset

"Food Street" by night
Bug skewers for a late-night snack, anyone?
As we walked back toward our hostel, searching for something to cleanse our palettes of the Hangzhou BBQ sauce, I heard a sound that had recently become quite familiar--the mournful wail of an amplified erhu. As I've become somewhat of an erhu homing pigeon as of late, I insisted we discover the source of the sound, expecting it would be a souvenir shop blasting a traditional music soundtrack. Instead, we stumbled upon an ensemble of Chinese instrument players set up outside a restaurant patio, putting on an informal concert for the small group of bystanders who had stopped to listen. We stopped to listen to them, and they invited us to sit down and have some tea while enjoying the music. Turns out they were some of Hangzhou's top musicians. I explained to them that I am a violinist studying Chinese music and a new erhu student, and they enthusiastically told me that if I came back the following evening they would bring a violin for me to play. They also invited us for some outing the following morning (this was all happening in Mandarin, and Haley and I didn't really catch much besides "seeing our former teacher,"going up to the mountain," and "family reunion"). We didn't really know what was going on, but figured we would show up and try to get more details before committing. 

Our new pals jamming out

When we met them the next morning, they had already loaded up a car with instruments. There  was no time for deliberation: "Come on! Get in!" We had no idea where they were going, or even their names, but against all common sense, we got in. I don't know what it was--a mutual trust forged by shared musical interests? Two hours later, we were driving through a rural village well outside of the city and without paved roads, fairly certain we were going to die there, when we started following a seventy-year-old man on a motorized tricycle--back to his house. Turns out he was the musicians' former music teacher and a quite well-known performer in his day. They make a pilgrimage to visit him each year, and we just so happened to catch this one. The old teacher's house was full of photos and instruments from his performing days, art and artifacts from bygone dynasties, valuable rocks and minerals--truly a live-in museum. He and his wife served a heaping feast in honor of the visit, telling us that they had slaughtered a cow and a chicken especially for this meal, and that the cuisine was particular to their village ("You won't find this food anywhere else!") After the hours-long meal, the musicians pulled out their instruments and played with their old teacher and his grandson, and some of their wives sang along in the traditional, extremely nasal and high pitched, style. They encouraged Haley and I to sing along, but we resorted to smiling and nodding--yes, we had been daring up to that point, but we drew the line at singing high-pitched regional Chinese songs whose lyrics and melodies we didn't know. After more show and tell ("There are over 100 types of flowers in my garden, and I planted every single one!" the old teacher declared, showing us his scrapbook) we took a family photo and parted ways (although the musicians did say that if I liked it so much, I could stay in the village forever...) 

Out in the boonies of Qingshan, outside of Hangzhou

Traditional Chinese bed covered in other relics in the old teacher's home

"L'Chaim!" At least I think that's what they said...
Post-lunch music hour(s)
Checking out the old teacher's scrapbook of his flowers 
After all of the excitement of the day, we finally arrived back to the original Hangzhou restaurant where we met the musicians. Haley and I were eager to return to our hostel and reflect on the day's adventure--when the musicians told us they were treating us to dinner. They sat us back outside in front of the restaurant, and pulled out a large cardboard box containing an enormous tortoise. The purposefully-slaughtered cow and chicken (as well as snails) at lunch had already tested my culinary limits--and now a tortoise? They had taken the tortoise out of the box and put it out on the ground next to their token foreigners, and a small crowd was gathering to ogle all of the bizarre creatures how sitting outside the restaurant. 
"Are you going to cook this turtle?" I timidly enquired. 
"No, this turtle is too old to eat!" I guess it should have been obvious. "This turtle is 300 years old. Won't taste good."
Toi-tle gets a rare moment out of the box
The food was finally ready, but there was a final hurdle: "No dinner until you play violin." They handed me a violin and set up a microphone. So that was the time I put on an impromptu concert in a Hangzhou public square. The program was unconventional, in a word: Edelweiss, Ashokan Farewell, a virtuosic Kriesler piece, some solo Bach, "Meditation" from Thaïs, a Chinese piece I learned on erhu...after running through this bizarre selection, the musicians ruled that I had played enough for the meal. By this time we had spent over twelve hours with these people (whose names we still didn't know, I will remind you). Haley and I were fried after a day of nonstop Chinese music jam sessions ("This is what purgatory must be like," she moaned) and so excused ourselves at earliest opportunity. It was absolutely amazing and surreal day--and by that point we had just hit our limit for overwhelming and unbelievable adventures.
A thirteen-year-old girl we befriended in Hangzhou snapped this shot of me in the midst of my
impromptu pre-dinner violin spectacular
The rest of our time in Hangzhou and Shanghai was punctuated by other highlights: having a cup of tea in a teahouse in the middle of the famous Longjing tea fields, having a cup of tea in a beautiful patisserie in Shanghai's old French Concession, having a cup of something slightly stronger on top of a Shanghai skyscraper overlooking the city skyline (in case you haven't picked up on it, the theme is "beverages with a view.") [cue possibly too many photos of tea fields]

Haley is all 'tea-ed' up
Longjing tea fields

One huge highlight for me was visiting the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, an unofficial, albeit government-sanctioned, hidden museum in the basement of an apartment building. It's a private collection of over 6000 propaganda posters from 1930s to the 1990s; it also includes original "large character posters" used to criticize intellectuals, landowners, and other accused opponents of the Cultural Revolution as well as "Shanghai Lady" advertisements from the first half of the twentieth century (advertisements for luxury products featuring elegant Chinese women painted in an art deco influenced style). It's the only exhibit of its kind in China (and the world, I believe)--the posters are particularly rare because, if I remember correctly, Deng Xiaoping banned the production of propaganda posters in the 90s. It was fascinating to see the artistic styles become less cartoonish and themes of the propaganda evolve over the years--the posters reflect political purges, regional relations, and the shifting focus of domestic policies. There were a handful that called for the Chinese people to "Support the struggle of black people against American imperialism" in the years leading up to the civil rights movement in the U.S., and others that encouraged the Chinese people to work hard with to surpass Britain within a decade. Pictures were not allowed in the exhibit, but I did pick up a lovely postcard of a scene from The Red Detachment of Women, an opera/musical show created by Chairman Mao's wife Jiang Qing. It was one of the eight "model plays" permitted to be performed during the Cultural Revolution, and bizarrely infuses Communist ideology with Western orchestral and dance elements. But it's gorgeous in it's own way, no?
Entrance to the elusive Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre

Scene from the Red Detachment of Women
The only downside of the trip was having to deal with terrible air and aggressive mosquitoes, which tore up my lungs and legs. I am currently combatting "secondhand smoker's lung" with herbal medicine while furiously applying very pungent Tiger Balm to my lower limbs--so I'm feeling a bit worse from the wear from the trip, and have the newfound ability to clear a subway car with my hacking cough. It's a huge shame, but I really don't think I can spend any more time in major Chinese cities  (Shanghai, Beijing, even Guangzhou) because of the intense pollution. (Hong Kong can have its polluted moments as well, but this summer it's been lovely, albeit hot and muggy.) I'm a bit worried about my next stop, Urumqi, which has historically been notorious for its bad air quality from burning coal--but I think they've worked to clean it up a bit? I guess can't really know until I'm there. I will say, it was such a relief to fly back into Hong Kong from Shanghai and descend onto the islands from a clear blue sky.
Shanghai skyline at night