A Proustian Moment

Ironically, it took Alex Ross, a white person, to get me curious about Chinese classical music (a music which is supposedly part of my culture, since I was born and raised in China for some 11 odd years). Of course, there are many things that a discerning mind can point out: for one, besides the obvious irony, this is such a desperate attempt on my part to “reconnect” with my culture, a quest for “authenticity” that reeks of “multi-culti” which I’ve mocked to no end before.

But enough about that! Onwards and forwards—to the music itself.

That song is from this album, which I guess is a collection of songs primarily played with the jinghu (the instrument with the highest pitch), and the songs themselves are representative of music you would hear in a typical Beijing opera.

Structurally, the song is pretty simple, it’s basically the jinghu leading two other stringed instruments on the same melody, although the other two stringed instruments each have successfully lower pitches. On a side note, it is kind of sad that after having heard this kind of music while growing up, I can no longer even identify what the two other stringed instruments are. The percussion is in turn provided by the guban.

For those of you who are interested in knowing about the musical aesthetics of a Beijing opera, read the Wiki page, and if it is to be trusted, the aesthetics are fairly standardized and structured.

The Proustian moment, which I speak of in the title of this post, came when I first this music, because my aunt in China used to (I don’t know if she still does) be an amateur Beijing opera singer of some renown in my town where I grew up. She would receive regular invitations to sing at amateur productions staged by the city or by other hobbyists, and she took genuine joy in singing too. I remember, who knows how long ago, that I’d sit in the park and watch her sing at one of those amateur productions. These things were usually staged in a little pavilion in the park by the river. You can see the exact location of the river that I’m talking about (courtesty of Google Maps), and look, there is even a picture of the very same park!

And yes, that park looks exactly like it does in the picture: willow trees lining both sides of the river, sometimes so full that they are bending nearly into the river itself. And during summertime, all the locals would come out and sit on their little stools by the river, talking, telling stories, and in this case, staing amateur Beijing operas. And there I would sit, watching my aunt put on these ridiculous costumes and sing to her heart’s content. My aunt was a fairly big woman, not quite Aretha Franklin big, but fairly close, but man, she had some fucking lungs and could belt the words out.

Like I was saying, I would just probably spend most of the day at the park, if not watching one of her amateur productions, then just messing around the park, like all little kids do, riding the slides, climbing the children-sized obstacle courses, and otherwise just running around. When I was thirsty, I would buy some cheap junk soda (the first time I had Coke in a bottle, it was an eye-opening experience; remember, this was in fucking 1992), or use my allowance to buy popsicles. And my aunt has finished singing, she would take me, my cousin, and my uncle, and we would all go to one of the countless street food vendors and eat.

Listening to this music just suddenly brought all these memories back: and although it is extremely cliched to say it, but I do feel like I was transported back into another time and place. It was quite a rush, but the coming out of it inevitably made me feel melancholy to some extent, due to my realization that everything that I had just experienced exists only in my mind. And it reminded me of the fact that I haven’t seen my aunt, uncle, and cousin since the last time I went back to China in ’99, forever ago. I mean, I talk to them on the phone about once a month, but I wonder how they have changed; whether my aunt is still singing as a hobby, or how my cousin have turned out.

But this Proustian moment also made me glad of the fact that I do some good memories, that if triggered, can still bring back some wonderful feelings. And although I cannot even come close, I mean not even fucking remotely close in a thousand years, of putting how I felt on paper in the same way that Proust could, I think it just demonstrates how good of a writer Proust really was—to be able to adequately describe something that seems ineffable, and have that description truly resonate with some Chinese kid nearly a hundred years later.

To end with a side note: I fucking love technology. I was able to piece together the geography of my childhood using nothing than Wikipedia and Google maps. I spent an hour just playing around with Google maps to figure out where all my childhood places were, and I must say, it is a lot of fun and brought back some long-forgotten memories.

But ah, I can already hear it from the peanut gallery, and most of the time, I would have been right there with it: What an incredibly self-indulgent exercise in shameless nostalgia! This is after all nothing but a mental masturbatory trip for Mike to go on and on about his childhood, which no one gives a shit about and which no one else can possibly understand! This is the type of bullshit, in its attempt to mix personal narrative, musical criticism, and technological commentary, is exactly the type of stuff that any third-rate Columbia MFA drop-out would churn out on toilet paper while interning at some niche publishing house.

Well, I’d have to agree with that: but don’t knock masturbation—it’s sex with someone you love.

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