30 July 2013

Chisel Music

I'm vacillating between two facing hole-in-the-wall Sichuan restaurants in Jiefangbei recommended by the Chongqing chapter of my guidebook, when I realize there's a minimalist process concert happening all around me. Men with hammers and chisels are splitting the pavestone sidewalk piece by piece behind the partial cover of temporary construction fences, their hammers ringing against mortar with ear-splitting force on the leading tone, tonic, and dominant. I record for the next twenty-six minutes, hypnotized into feeling as if only fifteen or so have passed.

Afterwards I try to take surreptitious photographs of the workers. The one nearest me gestures for me to photograph as he works, and cheerfully checks out my results. " 很好听 " I tell him appreciatively in my elementary Mandarin, wondering if he also thinks their hard physical work sounds hypnotically beautiful. The grandmothers who have been sitting under a tree the whole time eye me with bemusement, or perhaps understanding.

25 March 2013

e-action: important but sometimes illusory?

After hosting an incredibly productive New Media Working Group session on the topic of the hidden (in plain sight) infrastructure of digital communications, I resolved to wipe out at least a few emails from my webmail inboxes in order to decrease my remote data center storage carbon footprint. Out went 300 thank-you emails for signing online petitions. 300? I always get the vague sense after contributing my online signature to a dozen different petitions every week that some clever NRA lobbyist or Fox executive is chuckling at the energy expended that could've gone into posting a single paper letter or showing up at a single protest for a cause and perhaps thereby making a greater if narrower concrete difference. There's no disputing that online action is tremendously powerful; hence the GOP's decision last week to start taking cues from the Obama campaign's online presence. But how much of the flurry of activity is keeping people at their desks under the illusion of making a difference in the world? Should I be patting myself on the back or berating myself?

07 March 2013

the ethnographer's subject position

Having a discussion with TR about fieldwork was just about the most productive action I've taken since being in China itself investigating those new concert halls and opera houses! She had lots of practical advice, insights about how to frame questions and my answers, and how to plan ahead. It's not uncommon for ethnomusicology students to do language programs etc. first to take that time to get acclimatized, so maybe I should't rule out that possibility.

Since TR had once asked me in passing how I position myself relative to my ethnic heritage, I mentioned how being in China had changed my relationship with that heritage. She noted that some ethnographers keep a separate journal about that personal experience, and I'm realizing that this could indeed generate insights rather than be a distraction to be shunted aside from my work. How could my being Chinese be a distraction when it's part of my subject position and I bring it to my every interaction with Chinese culture?

The military surplus store shopkeeper along the way from Xinjiejou station to Ping An'li  immediately came to mind. "But you have a Chinese face," she said wonderingly at least three times, unable to come to terms with my being so thoroughly American. While certain Beijingers pay money and time and attention at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) for ownership of a piece of Western culture, here is a woman who expects that ethnic Chinese simply cannot own any large part of Western culture, or perhaps believes that one should be physically altered by that ownership to somehow have a less Chinese face. Perhaps she and the concertgoers hold different opinions. Or they share the opinion that highbrow Western culture can be purchased and cultivated, while "Americanness" cannot be.

Even the fact that the outside world is so inhospitable in Beijing (you can't breathe the air without feeling your expected lifespan shortening, the broad lanes of traffic are terrifying, the neighboring hutongs have such bad plumbing that residents use public toilets) makes the highly protected interior of the NCPA, surrounded as it is by a moat of clear water and guarded by a ticket fee, seem like a more luxurious space, and its isolation a value-added element. Perhaps that's the reason I always found myself to be the only one admiring the sky through the water-covered ceiling. Everyone else was inside to be inside, and the windows were for people outside trying unsuccessfully to look in or imagine the interior--rather than for people inside to admire the Beijing outside. My incomprehension of people's disinclination to look outside is the same incomprehension manifested by tour guide writers who bemoan the Chinese love of new indoor shopping malls--we've constructed ourselves to like the chaos and the vagaries of outdoor shopping areas as a sign of our distance from architectural machines of mindless consumerism and our connoisseurship of the kind of historical authenticity that new urbanism seeks to produce anew. But the moat, the metal detectors, the tickets, all these elements establish the interior of the NCPA as a kind of inner sanctum that protects from rather than frames the exterior world. Paul Andreu's curtain metaphor depicts a curtain closing, not opening, on a national stage where the construction of a cosmopolitan public and an "international city" is unfolding with an elite acting troupe, and that's why the curtain metaphor is readily perceived only from the outside. Inside, we are all unwitting actors, even me, the Western ethnographer.

Of course the Forbidden City Concert Hall is isolated and inaccessible, to the point that you can't even find the ticket office unless you've been shown where to look. That isn't poorly thought-out urban planning, although it would seem so by Western standards. The FCCH is also an inner sanctum, in this case of Zhongshan Park, and stands in deliberate shiny contrast to the traditional landscape design. The park's monuments to Sun-Yet Sen look to a nationalist past, and the concert hall to a project for a nationalist future.

The world outside the concert hall does matter. Beijing is a city of grand spectacles and mind-boggling vistas. It feels like it takes half a day just to walk around the block, let alone make a subway connection. The government is represented by everything from the Soviet-style Great Hall of the People to the Forbidden City (its name, "city," says all) to the several-football-fields-large Tiananmen Square to the hulking CCTV tower, miniaturized and trivialized in local parlance as the "big underpants," to the Olympic Green. No wonder the NCPA's opera house only stages grand opera spectacles, and its advertising sells visual spectacle rather than experience, emotion, meaningful moments, or music. What else in the Western canon would compete with the thousands of years of history writ large right outside the NCPA's front door?

Now I'm thinking back to that odd bluegrass concert that Patrick, Su-Yee, and I happened to stumble upon next to Aimo Town. None of those audience members looked like they'd be caught dead at the NCPA, although that might be my expectations speaking. Are they seeking a different kind of cultural capital, and if so, how is it different? Where and for what is it useful?

I lived off a street with 86 musical instrument shops. That was the outdoor shopping mall for Western music. I thought it was irrelevant to my understanding of the NCPA, but in fact it's strongly related. Those are probably the shops to which all those mothers with young children whom I saw at the NCPA take their kids shopping in order to begin their executive (as opposed to listener) musical literacy. I've analogized performing arts centers in China to massive educational machines before; Xinjiekou street is an arm of that machine.

Now I've wrestled with the elements exterior to the NCPA. What about my own interiority and how that affects my subject position, affects how I interpret data, affects how the people I interview interact with me? Being a self-declared twinkie hardly makes me a dispassionate observer in China, and instead of insulating my work from my self, I should understand how my work is a product of that self. In college, I deliberately disassociated myself from fellow Asians because I was frustrated by a lifetime of not being Asian enough to fit in with the Asians I hung out with (language fluency being the first hurdle, familiarity with Chinese pop culture being another), because of my developing belief that making associations along ethnic lines was superficial, and because I didn't understand what in particular Asian student associations could possibly want to value or preserve or foster together. I also resented people's assumptions that I was performing my Asian identity rather than my inner drive for success; no, it was me who wanted piano lessons, and no, it was only me that wanted straight A's and to go to some Ivy League, while my parents at various times discouraged both activities and told me to take a break. It's worse in a post-Amy-Chua world. No, there was no tiger mom. No high expectations. I may have led a model minority life, but it was my idea, I insist to others, although of course that is only my version of the truth.

And then here I am in China, and Chinese rather than westerners expect me to perform native Chineseness based on my appearance, or to at least perform a fluency with Chinese language and culture, merely based on my physical appearance. I longed every day to look like a foreigner in order to excuse myself from their expectations. And then I'd go several nights a week to watch Chinese people perform the actions of Western classical music listeners, even in traditional Peking opera spaces where my expectations that the historical use of the opera house as a place for social interaction lived on were shattered. I was in the ultimate position they sought--I have native ownership of the western classical music tradition and a doctoral-level mastery of it--yet my position was invisible to them. There is an irony I can't quite pinpoint about having that invisible native mastery of western music and the way my appearance belies how I developed it to both westerners and Chinese, and the fact that I'm studying Chinese people seeking to gain that mastery. I'll articulate it better someday.

Today, though, I'm at the end of my soul-searching abilities. This is not something I'm accustomed to doing as academic work.

06 December 2012

the media parade

I was relieved last night to discover that there was a resource for learning about official China that I'd been missing -- an entire CCTV television station devoted to English news. Why hadn't I encountered it the last time I'd flipped idly through the channels, not intending to break my sixteen-year record of not watching television? (Compulsively watching the entire Battlestar Galactica series on Netflix does not count. ;) I'd have seriously missed out otherwise.

The world news segment was interesting enough, but the real fascination came with the feel-good stories. (On a side note, although the segment served propaganda purposes, I think that the dearth of positive news stories in America decreases our mental quality of life and that we'd benefit from similarly themed news.)

The first segment featured the acclaimed reception of a photography show of works by blind people.

The second featured an attractive young woman who has volunteered for several years at a school for the blind, reading stories to the children. It was a heartwarming story, but it ended on a surreal note. After each storytime, the children give a performance. As an example, a blind boy is shown doing a perfect gangam style dance.

A feel-good volunteerism story ending with a visually impaired boy doing gangam style on national television?

I can't wait to see what else the "big underpants" building (which is rapidly clouding from my hotel room view under the increasing pollution) has in store.

A darkened Beijing Concert Hall

My first opportunity to see the inside of the Beijing Concert Hall came after learning that the Great Hall of the People was closed and both showings of the new Peking Opera "Red Cliff" at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) were already sold out two days in advance of its brief two-day run (impressive, but perhaps a little less so because many politicians probably have reserved seats). The concert hall seemed pathetically stranded across 10-lane (?) traffic directed by city guards and nearly hidden from view behind its own parking lot and high iron fence, and behind a mostly-shut traffic barrier. Seven large posters hung over its front parking lot, including one grand photo of the organ that unlike the rest didn't actually advertise an organ performance but merely the presence of the instrument, which seems to be the organ's primary contribution to many Chinese concert halls. The front windows were inexplicably covered so that it seemed dark and deserted, but a security officer pointed me to an unassuming side entrance. From there I discovered that the inscrutable lobby was indeed lit, but surely this awkward setup wouldn't lure passerby in. Two hefty full-color concert schedule books were there for the taking, much more luxurious than the NCPA's, but probably far less frequently taken home. I browsed the posters and the flyer stand, a bit reminiscent of Euge's and my "concert shopping experience" at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and asked the cashier what concerts were happening before Dec. 19. Besides tomorrow's orchestral concert, which I can't make, she said there was nothing. I held up a children's Christmas concert flyer and she was startled into remembering it; tickets were 200¥, she informed me, even children's tickets! I was astonished at how expensive this would be for the average Beijinger, and what a lavish expense it would be here to educate one's child about… Christmas carols? But I suppose I have just one chance to go at this point in my research.

A ten-minute walk from the concert hall, I found myself in old Beijing, where traditional shops and theaters used to line the hutongs south of Qianmen West Street. I located the Temple Theatre Beijing Opera House along an unassuming back alley advertising its "Mei Lanfang Classics" production with beautiful brochures and high prices. Beyond that, I followed pedestrians to Yanshou Street, lined with public bathrooms hinting at the poor plumbing of hutongs. The near silence of the narrow alley, isolated by dint of its winding shape from most city noises, made it an unexpected surprise when I turned onto Liulichang East Street and encountered foreign tourists roving the fake antique shops. A saleswoman at the only shop with musical instruments noticed my admiration of two large sho's, which employed shiny tin pipes like an organ, and tried to sell me smaller ones without knowing how to instruct me to play the things. Disappointed with the inept sounds I made, I demurred (they began at 800¥ anyway), and she suggested Tibetan singing bowls as if they were somehow related to shos (in being at a lower price range and thus an easier sell, I suppose).

Thus I wandered from Beijing's newest and most buzzing high art musical landscape to a Western music beachhead of the previous century to one of the only remaining relics of Peking Opera and finally into the sheltered soundscape of a historic hutong on a freezing December day.

27 November 2012

Morning lessons from Beijing

The young woman always ironing at the front of the cleaners is my favorite person in the neighborhood, kind and patient as she always is with my broken Mandarin and always ready to return my smiles with polite words I don't understand. To my surprise they've taken excellent care of all of my clothes, despite their seemingly dilapidated facilities. My Benetton down jacket is cleaner than I've ever been able to wash it myself. So there is a great, affordable solution for stained clothes that elude your own washing capabilities--visit China!

On my way home, I see that the cute mini-drugstore cat that Su-Yee and I petted is on a loose leash tied to a stool outside -- China offers me a first in every category, leashed cats included. I discover a coffee place down a narrow hutong alleyway (the alleyways always lie open as if public, but I always presume they are private) that must be a night hangout, since it's closed this morning but large empty bottles of beer sit on the stoop.

As I continue strolling it occurs to me that the reason the name Mei Lanfang was so familiar when I started reading the Peking Opera introductory guide I purchased yesterday is that the memorial at the end of my hutong that I'd planned to check out on a rainy day is the Mei Lanfang Memorial! Patrick put me in the perfect neighborhood for my study of the intersection of Western and Eastern concert hall culture. My hotel is flanked on one side by almost 90 musical instrument shops selling Angry Birds ukeleles and erhus next to each other, and on the other by a museum to the world's greatest Peking opera singer.

Gnawing chocolate cravings as I experienced last night can be slightly appeased with chocolate "French bread" at the Taiwanese 85C bakery chain, although the loaf has nothing to do with French bread; the Chinese use preexisting Western labels to classify baked goods that have no equivalents in English. I think the bemused middle-aged couple in there is speaking French, but they leave before I can listen closer and venture to exercise my long-defunct French language skills.

Note to self: return to second-favorite breakfast place sometime for lunch or dinner since they have photo menus.

As I type this, a hefty but well-kempt pigeon coos outside my window, and I realize from the bands on its feet that it is a pet. It soon returns to the kitty-corner window from mine. Thirty days in China, and it only visits me for the first time today.
The Forbidden City is grander than I ever imagined, although the sights Chinese people clamber to photograph seem to depart sometimes from what interests foreigners. "Another big yellow chair," an Eastern European woman told her friend with an eye-roll tone of voice, and they wandered on, while Chinese tourists impatiently waited their turn to glimpse another Chinese imperial throne. I for one was delighted at the vast expanses of crumbling bricks below the throne rooms and found it easy to photograph desolate landscapes nearly devoid of human figures in an attraction undoubtedly filled with thousands of people.

Tonight I had lotus root with dry red peppers for dinner at the second- or third-to-last restaurant in my hutong that I haven't already tried or ruled out (example of ruled-out restaurant: donkey meat specialist). An occasional hot pepper slice added a surprisingly hearty depth to the rice, but afterward my ear felt like it might burn off.

22 October 2012

Bells hanging from spirals between towering lumbers, sounding John Cage's "Litany of the Whale" in an echoing submarine wharf warehouse strewn with white feathers fallen from the Dutch bicycles that visitors and even the security guards use to ride around the carillon installation, a UFO-like living pod, an opera-inspired boat sculpture, and a table on which visitors have left the mysterious detritus of their lives. Carillon art as it happens only in the Netherlands, this time sponsored by the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in a special installation by Sarkis.

14 October 2012

My concert on the Maas-Rowe at NC State went quite all right, and afterwards Matt Robbins plugged the Finish the Belltower project to the audience and got them excited about the prospect of a cast-bell carillon too. I'm particularly gratified that people believed I'd manipulated the volume knob throughout the concert (indeed I had once to fade out, but that was it), indicating that my stop changes did produce a kind of expressiveness. Moreover, cookies were given out to 150 audience members (plus two for me), which dovetailed quite nicely with finishing off the concert with a Kermit the Frog song!

05 October 2012

The best projection installation I have ever seen: Michal Rovner's "Current" with ghostly figures gliding along and seemingly into the walls in the monumental Zollverein cokery (coal washing plant).