Tuesday, December 23, 2014

X(ian)-mas Party

I hosted a Christmas party for my friends in Xian, which ended up being a wonderful night of dancing (Uyghur dance, Viennese waltz, the Macarena, and the "Little Apple" dance), singing carols in three languages, and exchanging Secret Santa gifts. My friends took some wonderful photos (and even put together a terrific video!) that I thought I'd share here.

Xian respite

A view of Xian (hazy)
While it was difficult making the choice to leave Urumqi earlier than I had planned, in these last few weeks seeing the connections as well as musical and linguistic progress I have made in Xian has affirmed that this was a good move, literally.

(Yusi and Liu Zhang are on my right)
I am currently unofficially affiliated with (read: loitering around) the Xian Conservatory of Music thanks to Liu Zhang, a faculty composer who has gone above and beyond to connect me with students and resources at the school. He has been incredibly generous, driving me to and from the airport multiple times, finding me housing in Xian on about one week's notice, and connecting me with many of his own students who have quickly become my good friends (as well as erhu teacher and violin student). For the first time I have been having a complete Chinese immersion experience, as around here I don't encounter anyone who speaks English beyond basic greetings. It has been exhilarating to experience my own Chinese proficiency increase daily; my Chinese is probably not becoming more pleasing to the ear, but my ability to interact verbally with unabashed confidence continues to grow while any shame I have about speaking a language I'm not fluent in is certainly shrinking. And everyday situations and obstacles are definitely expanding my vocabulary—when I sprayed myself in the face trying to get the washing machine to work I learned the hose is called a guǎnzi (管子), when I helped my beginning violin student with her bow technique I learned to tell her that her pinky finger should be wānqū (弯曲) and not straight, and when my friends in Xian went out for dinner and marveled at our good fortune to have met, I learned the word yuánfèn (缘分)—destiny.

I’ve been taking regular lessons with Zeng Chu, a petite girl who is a terrifyingly fierce erhu player (she’s come in second place in national competitions and played erhu for stadium concerts with pop star Wang Leehom). She has proven a tough but wonderful teacher—our first lesson was an hour and a half of playing open notes while she corrected my bow technique. By our third lesson, she remarked that I had made some improvement: “Finally it looks like you’re playing like an erhu player, not a violinist!” Zeng Chu pays attention to the smallest details and is enthusiastic about making sure I grasp the fengwei, or distinct local flavor, of the music. She also draws comparisons between Chinese musical ornamentation and regional cultural and linguistic variations, likening the relatively lyrical and melodic Jiangnan musical style to the lilting accent of the region and asserting that Mongolian music is more brusk and forceful because of their fatty meat-based diet. Still, I find that musical interpretation is becoming more intuitive. Once she had me pull out my violin and play the same passage I was practicing on erhu.
“Show me how you Western musicians would play this part.”
I obliged, not only putting in the requisite trills and slides, but also taking liberties with dynamics and phrasing—intense vibrato one moment, a breath before reentering the phrase much quieter.
“See!” Zeng Chu exclaimed. “How you naturally play this piece on violin is not so different from how you should play it on erhu!”

In addition to working on Chinese erhu music (and staring at my bow arm in the mirror while playing long open notes), I have also had a blast with Zeng Chu playing baroque duets for two violins on erhu and violin. I showed her Telemann’s Gulliver’s Travels Suite, which portrays the giants, tiny people, and other characters from Gulliver’s Travels through creative musical methods (for instance, using outlandish time signatures such as 24/1 to render “giants” as whole notes in the written music). We sight-read the duets for fun, and actually didn’t sound half bad! She had such a good time that she asked me to bring more duets for us to play. I’ll try to record us next time!

These days I have been both student and teacher—I have a beginning violin student, Yusi, who is another student of Liu Zhang at the conservatory. She is a pianist and singer, and apparently a desire to become a violinist as well. Although she has a musical background she has never played violin before, so we started from square one: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I am a product of the Suzuki Method of teaching music, so I’m doing my best to draw upon my own experience to teach Yusi. It has been enjoyable and nostalgic to hear such blasts from the past as “Lightly Row” and “Long Long Ago,” since the last time I played them I was preschool age. I’m lucky to have Yusi as a student—she is completely focused and extremely diligent about practicing, and she already has an ear for music. In other words, my job is more to teach her violin technique than to impart the overall concept of music-making (though I certainly enjoy the latter).

One thing that has been fascinating and a bit disturbing to learn about through my now two unofficial affiliations with conservatories in China is the extent to which under-qualified students make up the student body of music schools. Because admission standards to good universities in China continue to increase along with the exponentially growing number of applicants, students sometimes look to music conservatories as easier routes to obtain a college degree. The gaokao (college entrance examination) standards are much lower for music schools; even more than that, money talks--families with financial means often pay hundreds of dollars for lessons (and thus to develop guanxi, or connections) with conservatory teachers to ensure their children's admission. Music schools in China are notoriously expensive with very few partial scholarships awarded annually, and so the schools' faculty members view students as veritable cash cows. Even after admission, teachers sometimes encourage students to take expensive "supplemental" lessons with them or to give them lavish gifts to guarantee high enough marks on year-end tests. A faculty member at the Xian Conservatory (who estimates about 20% of his fellow teachers financially exploit their students) told me his sister, a current student, was pressured into purchasing a 2000 RMB (around $325) necklace for her teacher before her final exams last year. Trying to break into the arts world also subjects students to other vulnerabilities; I have also heard firsthand multiple anecdotes about exploitative or even nonconsensual personal relationships between teachers and students at conservatories from friends at three arts and music institutes in China. 

To add insult to injury, musical standards are apparently dropping annually at the Xian Conservatory. The same professor told me that many students enter not knowing how to read musical notation, while another current student told me that about 60% of her classmates paid their way into the school. I heard a similar figure describing demographics at the Xinjiang Arts Institute--my friends there estimated that half of the student body had paid their way in. I have attended a handful of student recitals at the Xian Conservatory these last few weeks, and while some players have blown me away with their high-level performances, others were frightfully mediocre. It's hard to conceive of committing four years of your life entirely to music if it is not your passion; it's also difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that a music conservatory (theoretically a place specifically devoted to students honing their musical talents) would allow, and perhaps even promote, a non-meritocratic admissions environment.

With Helen and Yuting in Shanghai (again...)
I have gotten behind on writing my blog as of late. I can partially attribute it to being in a transient state--I took a weekend away to go to Shanghai (I used getting a Japanese encephalitis vaccine as an excuse to go see my dear friends Helen and Yuting again)--but also a deeper sense of impermanence and lull as I confront my next big move for my fellowship. I haven't been practicing as regularly for the last few weeks, and have found myself somewhat unmotivated to "do" anything productive. My one daily guarantee is that I'll be speaking a lot of Chinese, whether teaching my violin student, doing Uyghur dance with old women in the nearby public square, or roaming around the outdoor nightmarkets as I have been frequently.
Xian nightmarket
I'm not too worried--I had a low week or two like this in Hong Kong, and ultimately came back from it more energized than ever. Still, it's bittersweet and frustrating to feel like I am passively observing the end of the year, and even more imminently, the end of my time in China. Nonetheless, I can appreciate the significant strides I have made in Xian--in these last few weeks, it has been incredibly rewarding to find confidence in my Mandarin language ability, and to develop meaningful relationships with people with whom I can't speak English. I no longer feel constrained by my vocabulary--it's by no means expansive, but now I don't fear that it will inhibit my ability to express complex thoughts and opinions. In particular, I marvel that I have been able to discuss how people make and experience music and the world using a completely different vocabulary, and therefore think about my own process differently as well. Being able to talk with Zeng Chu about relaying musical expression and hearing her marvel that our ways of thinking about music are so similar is a huge affirmation that we can understand each other, despite our apparent cultural differences, in terms of language and in terms of music.
Dinner with Xian friends (Zeng Chu is on my left)
Catholic Basilica, Sheshan, Shanghai

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Accidental montages

My camera, bless its heart, has an endearing tendency to, from time to time, simultaneously record and juxtapose a series of short videos when I take pictures. The unintended effect is a series of bizarre brief films merging scenes from each of the places I have been. In a way these accidental montages are perfect encapsulations of my experience of a place--they show what I wanted to capture but add a second, human layer and perhaps a little context beyond the still image--the security camera by the cathedral, the dress rehearsal before and the tour bus after the roaring applause, the music trickling out of the snow-covered Xinjiang Arts Institute, the construction heard resonating in the bamboo forest. They are mostly silly, but maybe also a little bit poignant. I thought I would share some of them below.

Monday, December 08, 2014

When cultural barriers become cultural barricades

Snow on the ground at the Arts Institute
I left Urumqi about a month earlier than I had planned. It was a decision I grappled with for days. At first leaving felt premature, like I was giving up, like throwing in the towel because things got hard. Indeed, after the cushiness and glamour of life in Hong Kong, Urumqi was a stark contrast—gray dusty buildings against gray skies, freezing weather (coupled with a broken heater), a diet that consists primarily of starch and oily lamb dishes.

(Here's some listening for the rest of the post--first, a recording of a Uyghur music troupe touring in Urumqi; second, the Hami ghijak, a now-rarely played Uyghur instrument; and third, a muqam performance).

What struck me far beyond these superficial adjustments, however, was the unease that permeates the city and infects the populace. From my first day in Urumqi the divides that estrange the Han and Uyghur ethnic populations were tangible; for one, armed military police and tanks omnipresent at bus and train stations, shopping centers, mosques, and other major public areas were blatant reminders of past violence that has erupted as a result of tensions.

As a third-party observer, I was privy to the racism and xenophobia coming from both Hans and Uyghurs. I heard the rampant discrimination against Uyghurs, whether it was the Han taxi driver telling me that “Uyghurs are bad in the head,” implying that they have psychological predilection for being evil people, my Han acquaintances warning me that Uyghurs were backwards and to watch my belongings and guard my safety around Uyghurs, getting evicted from a predominantly Han nightclub for “dancing while Uyghur,” or hearing countless instances of police intimidation of Uyghurs, often arbitrarily through late-night “house calls.” Uyghur men are by default assumed to be terrorists, and are disallowed everything from the right to grow facial hair to privacy in their own homes in the name of counter-terrorism. Perhaps the most disturbing is what we don’t hear—the ongoing incidents outside of the city that don’t make the news, whispers and rumors of the clashes whose true catalysts and body counts we will likely never know.

Uyghur musicians lecture on muqam performance 
At the same time, it became increasingly clear that the Uyghurs around me were extremely disdainful of Han Chinese people, who they consider to be haram, or culturally and spiritually dirty (opposite of halal), because they are secular and eat pork. I found that Uyghurs tend to self-segregate, often only eating in restaurants run by Uyghurs (or at least Muslims) even when they travel to other cities. The Uyghurs I encountered didn’t consider themselves to have any Han friends (or even seem open to the possibility), and avoided speaking Mandarin except as necessary—even mocking the language among themselves. There’s even a term, mínkǎohàn (民考汉), that refers to Uyghurs who have studied at Han-run schools and speak Mandarin as their first language (sometimes better than, or instead of, Uyghur language)—they are often looked down upon by other Uyghurs, viewed as traitors to their own people, for selling out to their cultural oppressors.

It’s harder to fault the Uyghurs for this disdain—they are largely unwilling participants in the manipulation, and some argue diminution, of their own culture and customs. It’s not that Uyghur culture isn’t without flaws—for example, being a woman in Uyghur society is extremely oppressive in its own ways, including being valued based on one’s virginity, having to forfeit a career for a marriage (that almost inevitably will be marked by the husband’s marital dalliances), or hearing a lifetime of Uyghur idioms proclaiming the stupidity of the female sex. Beyond that, more conservative forms of Islam that prohibit music and dancing, for instance, are entering certain Uyghur communities in Xinjiang (much to the dismay of the musicians I spoke with).

Regardless, the current relationship between the Han and Uyghur populations, fraught with suspicion and mistrust, seems seriously flawed. “You could hardly find two more different groups of people,” a researcher told me. (This particular researcher speculates that at this rate Xinjiang could devolve into a Chechnya-like situation). I don’t think that the cultural differences between Hans and Uyghurs are actually the root of the problem; instead, I think that ignorant and rigid approaches toward multiculturalism (in particular an increasingly segregated education system) are supplanting efforts towards the mutual understanding that would lay the foundation for a success relationship.

It would be wrong to say that there is no future for Xinjiang Uyghurs musically; however, the traditional ways in which musicians have created music and thrived as artists certainly seem in jeopardy. Musical evolution that deviates from traditional modes of expression is a phenomenon arguably seen in all music cultures; the fact remains that artists will continue to be exposed to outside influences and new techniques and want to use them to create new, distinct modes of expression. In the case of Xinjiang, however, musical evolution is largely manipulated by overarching political motivations, and music does feel like it’s being used as a tool of mass distraction and pacification. To quote an earlier post:
This politically-informed gauge of what will be well-received, what’s appropriate, and what sends the “correct message” is shaping the Uyghur musical canon….It is degrading when an entire group of people is reduced to a few token songs and dances with funny hats.
Limitations on the content of songs and the size and number of Uyghur music concerts, as well as the dominance of state-sponsored platforms for musical performance (such as national “ethnic music” competitions and the annual nationally televised New Year’s Gala), artificially control the market for Uyghur music. (For instance, a Uyghur musician was severely punished for writing a song called “Mother Tongue,” which encouraged Uyghurs to learn their native language.) Illegal downloading of music de-incentivizes musicians from recording their work, and musicians scratch together a living working the wedding, club, and restaurant scene, which these days is hardly lucrative. Piracy and the difficulties of making it in the music industry are issues facing musicians in the States as well, the difference being that the government doesn’t control one’s ability to produce and consume music. Maybe one’s electro-grunge cyber-folk band that sings exclusively about promoting an agrarian society won’t gain traction with the mainstream public, but it won’t be because local officials are threatening the audience base or publishing dictates about permissible music tastes.

I write this post as a critical observer. I won't be so bold as to assert that I have clear-cut solutions (indeed, I would be skeptical of anyone claiming she did); however, I would argue that music doesn’t mask the unease in Xinjiang, but rather, upon close inspection, exposes the tensions pervading every aspect of society in the region. Perhaps the only suggestion I’ll make here is that in terms of the Han-Uyghur relationship, as with music, there should be a lot more listening and a lot less conducting.
A muqam ensemble