Sunday, November 14, 2010

Formosan Farewell: Zaijian Taiwan, Bonjour Paris

Behind the Scenes

September 25th, the big day finally arrived. My mandolin troupe performed at the National Concert Hall! The last rehearsal before the concert we had five new players come in from a small group in the south of Taiwan. One of them was a mandocello player!!!!!!!! He told me that he had made his own mandocello because he couldn't find one to buy. I could relate. His 'cello was really beautiful. I saw that he had personalized it with a Christian fish. After chatting some more he handed me a pick. There was a hole in the middle. When I looked closer I realized that he had stamped a cross out of the middle of it.

He told me that Jesus helped him with his tremolo. I suspected it was the increased flexibility of the pick but I didn’t press the point.

I arrived at the Concert Hall at 1PM for the 8PM concert. I had a special pass to get in which the guards carefully scrutinized before letting me in. To prove I really was TaoWeiAn they wanted me to write the Chinese characters. I had to explain that I studied in the Mainland when I wrote the simplified version of Wei instead of the Traditional version, or as they say in Taiwan, the correct version.
Backstage I was impressed with the facilities. We had our own changing room and green room, complete with food table! Everyone was excited but also oddly quiet. I suspected it was nerves. We were sold out.

We ran through the program once and then took a ridiculous amount of photos in every possible combination. The photographer wanted me to move to the back at one point (since in Taiwan I am ridiculously tall) and the way he referenced me brought up his fear of being called a racist. He was calling everyone, “That girl with glasses,” or “The man with the green tie.” When he wanted me to move, he began by saying, “That white. . . uh. . . that foreign xiao pengyou.”

Readers let’s pause for a moment. He called me xiao pengyou or "little friend", a term which teachers use to call their students in elementary schools. Why couldn't he call me the awkward tall kid? Do I really look like an elementary school student? Ok, don't answer that. True, my friend Becky did accuse me of looking exactly like a British lesbian after my haircut, but I liked to think I at least resembled a British lesbian who had mastered her times tables.

Backstage while waiting, one of the stagehands told me that my friends were here. I asked how she knew they were my friends. She told me that an American couple and a Taiwanese guy with green hair had come in and gotten tickets. I repeated my previous question: how did she know they were my friends? Apparently Tree, despite not having a ticket, was trying to get in by inquiring whether the tickets were really sold out and if he knew a certain foreign performer if that would make any difference. The answers were yes and no, respectively. But, in an amazing stroke of luck, a woman passing by told him that one of her friends was sick and he could have her ticket and that ticket was right next to my two less conniving guests, Becky and her boyfriend, Jubjub. For some reason this was interesting to the staff working the event and word had spread backstage. Bizarre.

Backstage there were lots of posters announcing "It's Hogwood!" which I found hilarious at the time but now I'm not sure why. Nevertheless, I have about two dozen photos of the various posters and I feel obligated to share at least one with you.
Before the performance I took a break from pacing anxiously and sat down in an empty chair. Immediately I felt the dynamic of the room shift to utter terror. I looked up from my scores in time to see our conductor/special guest/master Japanese mandolin player storm out. I had sat in HIS CHAIR! The nerve! I immediately lept up and caught him in the hallway where he was shaking with a)nerves b)rage c)embarrassment d) all of the above? I apologized in my atrophied Japanese. Fortunately the surprise that I could speak a little Japanese mollified the situation. To the slack-jawed awe of my fellow mandoliers I returned laughing with our guest of honor, or as I learned to call him from then on Aoyama Sensei.

Two minutes before the performance the woman from Japan in our group politely excused herself. She calmly walked to the hallway, I heard her retch into the garbage can. She returned with a nervous smile, popped a breath mint into her mouth and then we went on stage to raucous applause.

I was only in half of the program so I got to watch from backstage. It was extremely interesting to see the near perfect performances but even more interesting to see the performers come off stage and immediately start apologizing to the Japanese-special-guest-artist-conductor. Their onstage prowess was only rivaled by their backstage professions of inadequacy.

At intermission I attempted to go out and greet my friends but while straddling a red velvet rope I was assaulted by an usher and retreated backstage with my tale between my legs. Fortunately I was in plain sight of my friends during the scolding and my look of fear and confusion and awkwardness in deciding which direction to dismount the rope was far more entertaining for them than I could have been had I made it within earshot.

When I was looking at the program I realized that two of our pieces were not listed. I pointed out the oversight and everyone sighed exasperated. Those were obviously the encore pieces. Sure enough, after our final piece people began shouting, “Encore!” though as Becky and Jubjub pointed out later, with the Chinese accent it sounded an awful lot like, “UNCLE!!!! UNCLE!!!” So for a moment they thought the other audience members wanted us to be merciful and stop our playing.

El Diablo

The next day my posse and I rode the High Speed Rail to the southern city of KaoHsiung. We arrived at the Concert Hall just as the Chopin concert we wanted to see was starting. We hadn’t even bought tickets yet so we resigned ourselves to missing the first piece and opened our wallets in preparation for forking over large wads of cash for our tickets. But just as we got to the ticket booth a girl ran up to us and said, “Don’t buy! I have extras!” And she handed us free tickets, saving us over 200 USD. Sweet. The saved time also allowed us to sneak in before they sealed the doors. Double Sweet!

The concert was interesting. We had front row seats and from where I watched I could see individual beads of sweat form and drip down the pianist’s face. I noticed people were much more dressed up for the Chopin concert than they would be for a Chinese concert (the mandolin concert fell somewhere in between). As you might expect there was no introduction to the pieces from the performer to explain their meaning. There were no anecdotes about the songs' history. Is this a good thing? Should a performer be allowed to shape the listeners’ perspectives so strongly or should the performances speak for themselves? I prefer the folk concert etiquette, but I think there are definitely merits to letting the audience have more freedom in their interpretation of a concert. Let me know what you guys think.

The pianist, Dang Thai Son, was from Vietnam and there is currently a documentary being made about him called The Man Who Loved Chopin. He played the pieces with mechanical precision, but after he played I realized I hadn’t learned anything about him personally. Chopin’s piano pieces are so emotional and the way he played was pretty, but somehow he managed to be completely removed from it. Very strange. Tree made us all laugh when he reviewed the player as having, “. . . physical precision with the emotional depth of a dumpling and musical comprehension of an egg. That’s Mainland style for sure.”

Outside the concert we ran into the most amazing Diablo master. He said he had been playing (Is that the right verb?) for 5 years. It showed. You can watch the video here:

This was possibly more entertaining than the concert we’d just seen.


The next day we bused to the quaint touristy beach town of Kenting. The weather forecast was 30% Typhoon so it wasn’t a great day but it was hot. We rented bicycles and biked 12 miles to a beach famous for its white sand. The landscape and people we saw on the way were so cool! Completely different from the sights of Taipei. We saw some areas considered very poor by Taiwanese standards though not by Mainland standards. At one point we all got stuck in a sort of dead-end quicksand path and several people pulled over to help which I appreciated. But it took them about 15 minutes to stop laughing. That last bit I did not appreciate.

The big difference between beaches in Taiwan and beaches in America is that Taiwanese people are AFRAID OF THE SUN!!! I looked around at the beach and it looked much more like an archaeological dig than Venice Beach. There were white linen tents all along the shore where people were “enjoying” the beach safe from all UV rays. Of course young kids ventured into the water but many wore shirts and hats and looked much more like Brits on Safari than Taiwanese prepping to brave the surf. The thing I wanted to do most at the beach was build a sandcastle but that is apparently forbidden. When I scoffed at this, Tree countered with, “Would you just dig a hole in the middle of the highway?!” Touché???

Interesting fact: 12 mile bike ride=excruciating gluteal pain the next day.

The Flute Maker

The last day before Tree left for Germany, I went with him to see the only bamboo flute maker in Taiwan. All other flutes are imported from the Mainland. Tree was going to order a flute and I was going to try to learn more about instrument production.

I found out while I sipped my tea and listened to the flute maker that most flutes in the Mainland are made by people who are not flute masters like he is. He asserted that he had special secret techniques which made usual intonation issues less severe. The guy had about 5 minutes of information to share but he was on repeat and talked for nearly 90 minutes. Eventually we had to tell him that Tree had to go to the airport. The flute maker seemed almost hurt. What?

Before we left he told us that upstairs he had a special studio and that there would be a concert in a week at the end of October. He said I could come and be the guest of honor if I played some American songs on my mandocello. I was ecstatic though completely clueless how I was to represent all of American music in two songs.

I said goodbye to Tree as he headed to the airport and I went to meet Becky and Jubjub. Also I just found out Jubjub's real name is Chris and apparently I’m the only one who calls him Jubjub. Okay, one more time, Jubjub. Now I'm done, but I really thought that was his name. Huh. We went to an all winds band performance of movie music. They played Schlinder’s List, Avatar, Up, and many others but the highlight for me was the new Star Trek music where they brought out an erhu! The erhu is featured in the score to sound alien and other worldly whenever they show Vulcan. This is also my favorite random fact and I obsessively tell people about this all the time, so when the erhu came out my friends laughed and rolled their eyes.

The next week I opened up the concert at the flute maker’s studio by playing Take Me Home, Country Roads and Desperado. There were about 40 people there but they were all musicians or music students so the pressure was high. I talked a lot about what little I know about music in America and finally they let me sit down and watch the rest of the performances.

There was a rather famous bamboo flute player. He also played the shakuhachi and the xiao. While he played there was a video on loop of rising incense smoke. The pieces were very good. And you could see him disappear within himself before he began playing. He told us that the emotions must be right before such pieces can be played. It reminded me much of the shakuhachi players we saw in Japan.

Next a pipa player, whom I had seen in concert already, played many great pieces.
The really interesting thing about her performance was that a sculptor was carving a block of clay in her image while she played. After 3 musical pieces, the sculptor’s piece was finished. You can check out videos on youtube. I'm having issues uploading but here's one of the pipa player and the sculptor for now.

Random fact: At intermission we were served sweet, dried olives.

I left after taking many photos with people and getting a couple of free DVDs and CDs. While waiting for a taxi, I heard a jarringly familiar accent. Someone from Iowa was talking behind me. I turned to see a Taiwanese woman. I asked her, “You speak English?” She told me she did her PhD at University of Iowa. I wanted to concentrate more on what she was saying but I was racking my brain trying to think of a way to make her say barrrrs. I wanted to hear her dig into one of those word final Midwestern r’s. Instead of bars though, she offered me a free ticket to see another Chinese orchestra concert at the National Concert Hall.

Familiar Faces

Whenever I go to meet a supposedly new group of musicians in Taipei now, there is inevitably someone there I have already met. I went to a fusion concert the other day and I had already seen all of the members playing in traditional groups. I even have begun to recognize audience members. At 7-11 sometime people say, “Hey, weren’t you at that concert last week?” or “When did you get your haircut?” And I just want to ask, “Who are you and why are you tracking the growth of my follicles?” People add me on Facebook saying that their friends told them about me, and now when I explain my strange situation as not exactly a student, not exactly homeless, people tell me they've heard about me already.

Au Revoir Taipei

Au Revoir Taipei is a cool movie that does a really good job of showing a slice of life in Taipei. Though during one of the chase scenes I noticed several geographical inaccuracies. I mean, come on, Xiaonanmen is not within sprinting distance of DaAn Park!!!! It also features many scenes in Taipei's famous 24-hour bookstores which has been one of my favorite places to go when suffering from insomnia, bested only by McDonalds. I took this photo in Eslite Bookstore because it bothered me that this book was in English Literature.

Leaving is so hard. I really feel like I could live here. The last week in Taiwan I didn’t go to any rehearsals. I didn’t meet with my regular language exchangers, I didn’t even go to my usual 7-11’s or Bubble Tea places. Though cowardly I know, it seemed easier to just disappear from people’s lives than to say goodbye. . I took long jogs in the park to collect my thoughts. Taipei is so safe, even at night. The closest thing I saw to a flasher was a guy jogging with a baseball jersey that read Wang. Taipei has seemed like a home in a surprising number of ways. Leaving is so hard.

Change in Itinerary

Surprise trip to France! I realized that I actually had made many connections to musicians studying in Europe. I thought this would be an incredible opportunity for my project. Paris is sooo different than the other places I'm going. One of my friends asked me why I wasn't going to go visit her and I suddenly couldn't come up with an answer. So, with an offer of a couch for a month and permission from Watson, I bought a ticket to Paris. I packed up my things into my backpack (the CDs and DVDs and newly bought winter clothes literally made it burst at the seams), sealed up my zhongruan and mandocello cases and left my apartment and my neighborhood one last time.

Pictured here is my favorite cafe which makes the bold assertion, "We are not the best, but we are one of the bests." on their store window. The last photo is a dummy wearing a hard hat and he is presumably used to scare away youths during construction workers' lunch breaks. Do scarecrows work on people and if so are they more aptly called scarepersons or is the irregular plural incorporated into the plural as scarepeople(s)? These were the deep thoughts that troubled my mind as I hopped 6 planes to get from Taipei to Paris.