Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Shanghai, China March 1-June 19 Week 3

On Monday, March 13th, I had my first pipa lesson. A faculty member at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Shun Yi speaks English very well and was so patient with my technique. I suppose at my age it will be difficult to pick up new instruments easily, but I’ve tried to make clear that my purpose in studying these instruments is not to become a performer, but rather “to acquire a base knowledge of the idiomatic capabilities and strengths of Chinese instruments so that I can continue to compose for them upon my return to the U.S.A. for a network of Chinese colleagues whom I expect to cultivate professional relationships with during my time in Shanghai.” This is how I began to acquire fluency in composing for Japanese instruments nearly ten years ago, and I believe it is by the most effective way to learn how to compose idiomatically for non-Western instruments.

My pipa teacher, Shun Yi
After my lesson, I stopped by Chen Chunyuan’s studio. It was full of students and a wash of erhu sound. George Gao, a famous erhu player based in Toronto, and colleague of Chen’s, was in Shanghai for a couple of days and had evidently stopped by to share his new invention with Chen and her students, a volume resonator for erhu called the shaochin. Without quite knowing what the difference was between a normal erhu and George’s invention, I simply listened and compared. The one with the shaochin attached seemed to have more volume and presence, without the unnatural tone that often accompanies amplified sound. This is evidently achieved by cupping the sound around through the back so that more of the sound vibrations travel above and  in front of the performer rather than escaping out through the back of the instrument. A remarkably example of ingenuity in the world of Chinese music. 
Erhu (side view)

Erhu w/ shaochin extension (side view)
In the afternoon, Chen took me to a rehearsal of the university Chinese music ensemble. They were rehearsing a piece composed by a young Chinese woman, a composition student at Shanghai Conservatory who had won a composition competition and was therefore having her piece rehearsed for performance later in the semester. I was overtaken with the volume and richness of sound emanating from the ensemble. I hope to attend more rehearsals with a score in hand.
Chinese music ensemble
In the late afternoon, I enjoyed Japanese shiatsu and a foot massage at Dragonfly, my third visit since arriving in Shanghai. For dinner I finally had a chance to try out El Gato Verde, a Mexican Restaurant located just around the corner at 66 Fenyang Rd. The beef burrito was a bit spicy but quite delicious. Complemented with a small cup of homemade yogurt with honey, it made a quick but filling dinner. Afterwards, I participated in my first group exercise class at the Johnson Club. I was so afraid that the group exercise space would not be finished as promised, but it actually was! The floor that they laid down is simply gorgeous, a light brown, soft, supple wood, complete with Korean style ondol, or underfloor heating. I was not only the only foreigner, but also the only male in a class full of Chinese women! It was not a problem following the instructions in Chinese, I just used my eyes and imitated what my neighbors were doing.
Since March 11th I’ve been preoccupied with contacting Japanese friends and colleagues in the wake of the unprecedented wave of natural disaster that has befallen Japan. The sheer scope of the disaster is difficult to comprehend. I received responses from all of them within 24 hours, and although Tokyo was spared the brunt of the damage, many Japanese are worried about the future and are quite uneasy. To date the aftershocks still rock the capital. Colleagues and friends of mine in Japan have told me that they have been so impressed with the Japanese people during the last few days, a model for composure and fellowship in the face of adversity. When the earthquake struck and the trains stopped in Tokyo, there was no widespread panic, and commuters calmly lined up to make the trek home by foot without being told what to do. Vendors appeared along the road giving out free tea and miso soup, and the vending machine companies sent workers to open up the vending machines for everyone to have free drinks and snacks. For those that couldn't make it home, they were welcomed with food and a warm place to spend the night by local community centers and other establishments, and many private homes had signs posted on their doors that read, "Please feel free to come in and use the toilet."
On March 16th the US State Department issued a travel warning to Japan, which means that my summer study-abroad program TAMU in Tokyo is at risk of being canceled. I am confident that the Japanese people – with the help of international relief efforts – will come together in solidarity to overcome the hardships they now face as a result of this natural disaster. I wish to remain positive that the program will continue as planned, but we’ll have to see how the recovery efforts pan out over the next few weeks.
Perhaps this is the reason I’ve been having difficult composing this week. I began working on a duet for Yoko Reikano Kimura and Hikaru Tamaki for their summer performance in the USA and Japan entitled 鳥が舞う(‘Birds Dance’), but somehow it is just not coming. Perhaps it is better if I reflect on the disaster that befell Japan last week and compose a Requiem piece for 25-string koto, another piece that I have to complete with the next couple of months. 
On Tuesday, March 15th I took my first lesson on the dizi, the Chinese bamboo transverse flute. I had difficulty producing a stable sound for pitches in the second octave, and it seems like the technique I’ve refined over the last few years on the shakuhachi may get in the way just a bit for my dizi studies. I must remember why I am studying these instruments. It is not because I wish to become a performer, but rather because I want to become familiar enough so that I can compose idiomatically for them.
On Wednesday, March 16th I had my second erhu lesson. My teacher Chen Chunyuan was running late so she sent a student to teach me in her absence, which is just fine for me at the level  I am. In the evening I embarrassed myself at my fitness center when I slipped off the elevated platform in the step aerobics class. Although my gym is a bit “local,” I have been so impressed at the effort that the staff puts into communicating with me to make sure I know what is going on. And believe me, there is always some sort of change! Nothing quite goes on as scheduled. For example, the first day I was taking the “hot” yoga class the portable heater wasn’t working, so the staff desperately searched for someone who could speak English and transmit to me that the yoga class would be conducted at room temperature. There was another time that class was delayed for 30 minutes. It was clear to me that it was delayed but again the staff ran around and found someone who could tell me this. The interesting this is that the communication kept coming. In the 30 minutes I spent on the elliptical trainer, I had no less than four people come up and tell me that class was starting at 7:30PM instead of 7:00PM!
One thing I really like about where I live is that music can be heard from all corners of the apartment complex. Just next door a junior high school practices the violin for hours upon hours a day. Across the way, there is the sound of a saxophone, and around the corner someone is practicing Chinese folk songs on a dizi. This really enchants my daily life. 
On Friday, March 18th I finally registered for a Beginning Chinese course at the Xuhui campus of Miracle Mandarin Language School. It is a ten-week class that meets for two hours twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays. I’ll have to miss a few class because of short trips to Tokyo and Taipei in the upcoming months, but the course consultant graciously will allow me to make up these classes in exchange private lessons. In the afternoon, Jing accompanied me to the South Bund Fabric Market where we attempted to negotiate for a silk duvet cover and pillow/sham bedding set.  I researched online that these should run about 200 RMB ($30). I was prepared to pay up to 300 RMB ($40) but her initial asking price was a staggering 1,050 RMB ($160). Jing attempted to negotiate for me but the lowest she’d go was 700 RMB ($106), so we decided to forgot about it. These types of products can be bought just about anywhere. 
South Bund Fabric Market
In evening, I found an okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) restaurant on South Xianyang Rd. The waitress spoke Japanese, which I found reassuring, and the food was quite tasty. I never thought a day would come where I’d actual feel relieved to be able to speak Japanese, almost as if it were my mother tongue!

The weather has been dreary and cold this weekend, but on Saturday I managed to make some progress on “Birds Dance” for koto and violoncello and take part in a “spinning” (i.e. exercise bike) class at my gym. The instructor was an enthusiastic, fit 20-something who really pushed us hard. The class did have a balanced pace to it, but for the routine he expected us to do to the songs at a relatively fast tempo, it was difficult to keep my legs pumping for 4-5 minutes at the same speed of rotation without rest. When he saw one of us lag behind, he yelled something impossible to understand not only because it was in angry Chinese, but also because the music was blaring! Nonetheless, I did get an intense workout. My heart rate was up for 30+ minutes and I was sweating profusely. Afterwards I searched for a new place for dinner, and happened upon Noodle Bull at 291 Fumin Rd., where I enjoyed cold vegetarian noodles, seaweed salad, delicious Yuzu iced tea and Japanese style kakigōri, with azuki beans and an array of unidentifiable Chinese sweets for just 64 RMB ($9.70) in total. I will definitely be going to this restaurant again!

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