Tuesday, July 29, 2008

china dispatch #14 - christi

My first day in third grade, my first day at a new school in a new district, knowing not a single person in my class, I looked over and saw Christi Cunningham, and was drawn to her. She had a book called Judo Boy. It looked interesting. I asked if I could borrow it. She said sure, after she was through with it.

Christi was one of those people who drew people to her. We were members of a generation in which girls could show up in traditionally girly clothes one day, rolled-down socks and Mary Janes and high-waisted dresses, and jeans and red-striped Izods and sneakers the next. I passingly note how glad I am that the sneakers of our youth are again recognized as cool.

Christi did just this, but mostly kept to the jeans side of things. She showed up in the parade of hairstyles available to African-American girls of the seventies: giant zeppelin pigtails, tight braids, bows here, barettes there. In the eighties, she went for the styled look that Janet Jackson (girlfriend on Diff'rent Strokes) brought back modified from its sixties form. African-American women know best that there's no such thing as apolitical hair. Every choice makes a statement, and there's no such thing as no choice. One day, in high school, she showed up with a simple fro, not too closely shorn, and it mirrored an awakening, in her and in our society, regarding beauty and identity. I smirked. Then I liked it. Several years ago after one of our periodic catch-ups I checked her out online and noted her dreadlocks. Coolest prof at Howard Law. Recently I saw her, and noted that her simple not-too-short-not-too-long fro underlined the fact that she hasn't aged a bit since high school.

She branded herself as a Brain. Children of a media age, we all had logos in elementary school. Chris Besch had a cartoony kick-butt animal of some sort; mine was a stylized clock showing midnight (which within a decade would become, as it is to this day, my most productive hour); Christi's was a light bulb burning bright with the legend CC THE BRAIN. It was with a shock that I first heard, in middle school, someone synecdochizing that word as an insult. (Yes, I used the word "synecdochizing," because I, too, am a Brain.) So she went from Christi to CC, one of the first people I knew who insisted that she got to decide what you call her. Now she answers to e. christi cunningham. I got frogged in sixth grade for pointing out what only I and Chris Besch knew: that the E stood for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Christi Cunningham! Has there ever been anyone so aptly named? Queenly, Christlike, whip-smart, and never out of the spotlight if she could help it, she lived up to every part. She beat me to a spot in the talent show (already a pretty dang good player, I tossed out a killer version of "El Choclo,") by playing an original song that was not much but a series of arpeggios — played, though, with such theatrical flourish, hand over hand, who could resist? The crowd loved her. They always did, and she loved them back, and they loved her back-back.

I remember sitting with her at lunch as I always did. The cafeteria was, with the perversely abusive logic that was School, placed directly next to the music classroom, and the cafeteria's inhabitants were made to be silent as they ate together. Between that and McDonald's, it's a wonder any of us ever grew to desire the Feast of the Lamb. Christi and Chris and I regularly ran afoul of Mrs. Schaeffer, the enforcer of the Silence Rule.

In fourth or fifth grade, she broke her arm. For an entire week during Christi's rehabilitation, she forced me, with physical pain as a threat, to eat left-handed as she had to do, frogging me (left-handedly, but still), every time I descended into mockery.

Well, I was a mocker. It's a wonder I never got beaten to a pulp in grade school; I certainly asked for it. I certainly mouthed off then, saying things I now recognize as overtly and covertly racist, displaying attitudes I now blanch at. Christi — christi, I apologize. I mentioned that she was Christlike: she certainly was, and remained, a model of grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. I remember once in tenth grade when I made a ten-dollar bet against our football team in a game every one deep-down knew we'd lose. I figured there was no way not to win, because if we beat 'em after all then I'd be happy our team won, and if we lost then I'd at least get ten bucks. I was verbally (though, thankfully, not physically) flayed for this when word got out; I realized that I had neglected to calculate that there was also no way not to lose. I got called things, I got threatened with stuff, I got blamed for and demanded of, I got called more things. In general, I had a crappy day. (We lost.) That afternoon, I was alone in my room when I got a call. It was christi, who had engaged in some of those words. She said she was sorry, and that she'd been wrong to be so publicly harsh, and that I was a dear friend, and that she wanted me to know that. I choked out a thank-you and burst into tears. She was the only person who called that day.

So. Why do I tell you these things? Because I wanted you to have a small catalog of knowledge when I mention a lightning-quick flash of the synapses I had the other evening. I was sitting there in our little noodle place near Dawanglu station eating gorgeous thick ribbons of food in a richly meaty bouillion, for a buck-fifty — miraculous! — and, as always, having a bit of trouble negotiating the noodles with chopsticks. I tried to hold them the real way instead of the just-getting-along way I usually do. They slipped out. If you'd been a Beijing resident sitting in that restaurant fooping away at your noodles without a care, you might have looked over and seen the only white guy in the place (maybe you'd been staring at him all along), awkwardly and comically poking around with his food; then stopping, looking up at nothing, smiling asymmetrically — and switching hands. More comical and awkward than ever. Continuing left-handed through the rest of the meal.

You'd have no idea why he was in Beijing, or how he was gently and not-gently taught to see things through the eyes of the other, or how those lessons had fermented in him. You'd have no idea that he was actually proposing a toast, though with a bowl rather than a cup, or whom he was toasting.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

china dispatch #13 - movies

We've mentioned our comical DVD adventures before. You get a beautiful DVD with a gorgeous picture and sound, and menus intact, and then every ten minutes the phrase "FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION" appears onscreen. More often, though, you get television series with partial episodes, or Chinese subtitles that you can't turn off, or wacky English subtitles when you do turn them on.

Naturally, you can find out a lot about a movie from looking at the back of the cover. For instance, if you see an intriguing title or a familiar star but you're not sure whether to watch the DVD, you might turn it over and read this:

Story background hypothesis in 1957 cold

war time. This time Dr. Jones and old love

Mary raised · the auspicious article Wood
s son already to grow up. Kate · Buland Chet a

cts cold blood Soviet Union military officer, to fi

nd in the fable the alien to keep on the Earth "th

e crystal skull" , raised unexpectedly take Mary a

s the hostage intimidates Dr. Jones. But, Dr. Jone

s and the son have stepped travel of together

the treasure hunt.

Absolutely true. Of course, the movie in question, the newest Indiana Jones flick, was available on DVD in Beijing the weekend it came out in theaters. Those are the most entertaining ones to get.

Why? Well, in this one, the picture was neither full-screen nor true letterbox but instead a subtle trapezoid caused by the fact that the person filming it in the theater was over to the side. There were indeed subtitles but the translator was either incompetent or computerized. And throughout the movie, shadows appeared across the bottom as people came and went and shuffled across their aisles. Further, I suppose in an effort to get packed up before getting busted, the cutesy denouement is unfinished. They're in the wedding chapel, the door opens, and ... what happens? WHAT HAPPENS?

I'll never know. At least, not until another version of the movie appears — for my consideration.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

china dispatch #12 - worship

When we first set down here in Beijing, our friend Cathryn set us up with her friend J-Bryan and his wife Cathy, who offered us a place to stay while we found our bearings. Really nice!! That first couple of weeks, we went to church with them, on the upper west side of town, a good forty-five minutes from their way-up-north apartment, and now a good hour and a half from our lower east side place.

I enjoyed it quite a bit: it's a large congregation of internationals that meets in the meeting room of an office building, and is filled with casual, friendly folk from all over. I mentioned that I'm a musician and worship leader at home, and the people there mentioned that summers are always hard when it comes to finding music leaders for church. So, I got volunteered. I'm playing or leading several times throughout the summer. It's a bit of a hike (especially seeing as the church we usually go to is only three subway stops away), but it feeds the soul.

Whenever there is any musical performance of any kind, I always want to be in on it. It's hard to be an audience member, even if it's a pleasure to watch or hear. And that's especially true in worship. I know it's a hardship for Catherine to constantly be a Band Widow in worship services, but it's so hard for me to sit still when someone else is doing the music. I want to be there, laying down a solid bass line or filling in on aux percussion, or doing some keyboard work, or whatever.

It's one of those things that they always tell you about What You Do. I'm really talented in a lot of areas, but music is my zone: that place where your skills and abilities and talents line up perfectly with your passions and desires.

So, I've been the bassist at this church, and a couple of weeks now I've been the worship leader, leading from the keyboard, having consulted with the other service leaders and speakers about the morning's themes, chosen the music, and put together the charts for the band. So nice!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

china dispatch #11 - voicework

I've been doing some voice work lately. Every so often I look into doing this in the states. I have a nice radioey voice, and can do everything from Golden Age Announcer Voice to Present-Day DJ Voice to compelling character voices. But I've never scored a gig back home, even after repeated inquiries and submissions of my reel to agents and studios.

Here, though, it's different. Catherine spotted an ad looking for voice talent, and we answered it. A few weeks later, I was doing some English language instruction tapes. Fun!

It's actually not always fun when you're doing it, depending on the material. Today, for instance, I went in for a few hours and did some pretty pleasurable advanced stuff for upper-level English speakers: magazine articles and dialogs, all at normal conversational speed. However, there are times when the material is for beginners, and then you have to say things like, "W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . s o c k ? . . . W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . t a b l e ? . . . W h a t . . . c o l o r . . . i s . . . t h e . . . s t r e e t ? " for hours on end. Stultifying.

On the other hand, you do have to remember that a lot of this stuff is written by non-native speakers. So, you and your (always opposite-sex) partner get to read, with a straight face, stuff like this:

M: "Are you driving this machine?"

F: "I love the driving of machines in the day."

M: "So am I."

Try that, at 130 words per minute, with exaggerated inflection, and you'll get the picture.

The gal I started partnering with is of Asian descent, and fluent in Chinese, but an American from Chicago. She's pure magic: one of those beautiful voices, with perfect inflection, and a real talent for character voices that have a Saturday-morning sheen to them.

By chance, I met another voice person, an English girl named Bex, who has a perfect RP accent. That's the classic BBC sound: not haughty or posh, but perfectly crisp and clear and Londonny. She mentioned she needed a Brit to partner with — remember that Beijing wants to hear British English as well as American English — and that her studio guy, Mr Wang, wanted a native speaker. So we went in and I pretended to be English, speaking with an English accent (mainly floating around London's various districts and classes, I'm afraid), and he bought it. I soon settled into a semi-tongue-in-cheek approximation of Deryck Cooke, the genteel music commentator who burrowed his way into the in-jokes of several of us who can't help but collapse into tearful laugher remembering his placidly civil evocation of "the Rheinmaidens' cry of 'Rheingold, rheingold; Heiaia, heiaia.' " After the session, Mr Wang mentioned he was looking for an American male voice, and I put on my best American accent and told him I could do it so well that even native-born Americans couldn't tell.

Heh. He knows the truth now. So I'm doing Brit and American voices for him, and for the other studio guy Bex introduced me to, Mr Yang, who lives in the building next to Mr Wang. I brought her to the one I'd been working with, now referred to as The Other Mr Wang, and introduced her over there while the Magic American Gal was on vacation.


I've been gigging at a really nice intimate little jazz club for Serious Listeners, with an excellent couple of musicians, as well as a few private things here and there with my friend Billy and others, and occasionally at a drop-dead-amazing club designed by Philippe Starck — a hedonistic pleasure to play in — and August is filling with gigs as well. But every so often I head over across town to Yang or one of the Wangs and exercise my other talents.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

china dispatch #10 - peony pavilion

We just got back from a perfect evening. You might recall that we had planned on going to a Beijing Opera on May 15th, my birthday, but were thwarted. So glad we were! We'll still do one of those soon, but tonight we went to a Kunqu opera and had a truly good night.

Beijing Opera is less like what you think of when you think of opera than vaudeville. As I mentioned before, don't picture Hildegard Behrens in a viking helmet and braids: picture Ed Sullivan in a red silk dress. It's a hybrid of several different stage traditions that melded over the centuries, and Kunqu opera is one of them. Highly stylized singing and balletic movement, gorgeous costumes, and a chamber group playing the music, all very high-culture.

The crown jewel of Kunqu opera is The Peony Pavilion, a 16th-century story of love, death, redemption, war, and restoration that runs well over twenty hours. To give you some perspective on this, think about the Western tradition of opera. It had a few golden ages, one in the late nineteenth-right-up-to-the-twentieth century; one earlier in the age of Mozart and Rossini; and the first big bloom of operas by Purcell and Handel. Beyond that, it begins to sound pretty primitive. Monteverdi's Orfeo is wonderful, but really just outside what we consider the classical tradition. And that was in the 17th century. A hundred years before that, Tang Xianzu was writing China's Ring Cycle.

I'm afraid I've probably missed my chance to see the 20-hour version (which, I've been informed, was significantly truncated) that cropped up in New York and I think one other place in the US about ten years ago. There's currently a nine-hour version that's touring several major cities. Tonight's show was abridged to two hours, and only covered the love-story portion of the plot, ending about halfway through the full story, at a nice ending where boy and girl are united in love.

(At the end of the show, the woman of my dreams, the life-love of my destiny, said, "What! It's over? It feels like it should be intermission!" Ahhh. No measly two-hour opera for my girl.)

It was staged at the Royal Granary, newly restored as an arts district, with beautiful, subdued art galleries and bars and restaurants, as well as this performance space. The granary itself was built around the same time as the opera came along, so it made for a beautiful synchrony of Tang Dynasty culture.

Beforehand, they served a spectacular meal, with thinly-sliced summer squash sauteed with similar disks of mushroom, tender beef with red and green peppers, a deliciously spiced chopped green leafy thing wrapped in a thin egg crepe, perfectly spiced shrimp-and-potato thingies, peanuts roasted in seaweed (I loved, Catherine didn't), cashews in a sticky-spicy glaze, peanuts glazed with sesame-seed, garlic chicken, hot-sour soup, pea cake, and that's just what I can remember. To drink, there was unlimited red wine, cucumber juice, kiwi juice, and tomato juice. But, as far as I could see, no tea. Weird! Of course, right next door was a tea place that offered several varieties that ranged from 900 to 1400 dollars a pot.

The show itself was just about perfect. The orchestra consisted of six musicians: koto harp, shakuhachi (I don't know what the Chinese names or varieties of these instruments are, but close enough), percussion, two-stringed fiddle, flute (whose player switched between several types and was a magnificent performer, with the easy and playful confidence of a true master), and a mouth organ. When I say "mouth organ" don't think harmonica. Instead, picture a miniature pipe organ held up to the mouth, with ten or fifteen pipes sticking up and controlled by the hands, with a sweet, accordiony sound. The gal who played it must have been exhausted.

Later I went up to see what their musical notation was. Not a single note of Western-style notation. Instead, it was all Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, which means they were just writing out the pentatonic Chinese traditional melodies by degree), surrounded by various diacritical markings that no doubt indicated rhythm and dynamics and other performance specifics. Fascinating! Certainly not the original Tang Dynasty notation, though.

Placed around the hall, which seated around fifty, with Catherine and me on third row center, there were huge bowls with water and several goldfish swimming around, spotlighted dramatically. At various points in the play, the bowls were receptacles for falling rose-petals (during the spring rhapsody aria), and water (beautifully evoking a rainy afternoon). The lighting and set design were, therefore, distinctly modern. Though "traditional" in taste, it would have been utterly unrecognizable to anyone in the fifteen-hundreds — mesmerizingly so.

The costumes and staging were highly traditional. We couldn't help but know that there was tons of material we simply missed: facial expressions, movements, little things they did with their hands, stylized makeup — no doubt it was all as laden with meaning to anyone familiar with the tradition as a scene from La Boheme would be to a Westerner, even one who didn't think they knew much about opera. At several points the Chinese people in the audience laughed, apparently at something that didn't translate into the subtitles.

After a brief time of getting used to the movement and vocal tones (falsetto for both men and women), and odd ornamentations and so on, you could just enter in to the story and let it overwhelm you. The very first moments of the piece literally knocked the wind out of me. That's something that happens when I respond to art, for some reason. If you've been around when it hits me emotionally, you've probably heard me go Hhhhhhhhhhhhhh at some point. Utilizing costume, drama, dance, music, poetry, and — gorgeously — calligraphy, which was done live on stage by a calligrapher to announce separate sections of the story, it was a stunning gesamtkunstwerk. I can only imagine that the full production had the same effect on audiences as Der Ring des Nibelungen and its modern-day film ripoff have had in western opera houses and movie theaters.

What a night! Afterward, they invited audience members to have pictures taken with the stars. I'd have liked to take a picture with the musicians as well, but by that point they were gone. The musicians, by the way, were dramatically costumed, as were the four men who served as chorus, extras, props, and, at times, scenery. One of the opera hostesses asked us where we'd found out about the production. I had two answers: the first was that I'd chanced on a notice about this particular performance in an issue of one of the several free entertainment mags found around town; the second, that I'd heard about The Peony Pavilion when I was young, and then later in the nineties had longed to be able to see it staged, and have always wanted to experience it, I was unable to utter without choking into tears.