Monday, 5 October 2009

Asparagus Ice Cream


Ok, it’s time to tie up the rest of the weeks’ blog, as it is 2 months later right now and that isn’t really the point of a blog…So I will attempt to summarise as I realize I’ve been writing mini essays that I’m sure no-one will read.

Of course the whole point of the Shanghai trip has been to pave the way for the creation of ‘When The Pictures Came’, a new piece by Terrapin Digital Puppet company from Hobart, Tasmania. I’ve been commissioned by Shona Powell of Lakeside Arts in Nottingham to write the music for the piece which is a 3-way collaboration with The Childrens’ Art Theatre of China. It’s a novel way of working for all concerned so it was a momentous day on the Tuesday when we all met at the CATC for the first time. We were treated to an amazing umpteen-course meal including the freshest fish I’d ever tasted served in a sumptuous room by white-gloved waiters. It must have cost each person the equivalent of at least a weeks’ dining in restaurants.

Then there were the first round of auditions by Frank Newman of Terrapin for the Chinese actors for the show, and it was interesting if rather frustrating for Frank to see what odd pieces had been prepared. Most were rather twee, one could say cute, smiley dance routines and panto-like physical comedy routines. The CATC has a standing company of around 50, which is rather hard to imagine in the UK, and the style of teaching, not to mention performance is very fixed and traditional in the unimaginative sense. Not all the auditionees had prepared anything, and they all seemed to be the youngest, least experienced, so it appeared there had not been an attempt to enthuse them with the fact that a really exciting international tour was in the offing.

Frank ended the session and went off to consider his options whilst I went over to look for music shops on Fenyang Road, around the Music Conservatoire. There wasn’t a great deal of choice as regards traditional Chinese instruments as most were large glossy music stores speacialising primarily in violins rather than the Chinese-Magic-shop-in-Rupert-the-Bear types that I had hoped to find. After quite an embarrassing non-conversation in one of the biggest shops in which neither of us could understand the other I ended up buying the cheapest Chinese instrument I could find. Apparently it’s called a hulusi and it comes from Yunnan in the south. It looks a little like a snake charming pipe but sound sweeter. As I left the shop I embarrassed myself further by failing to find the exit – in my defence there were a lot of glass walls and doors; the staff had a good laugh anyway.

On the Wednesday I had a chat with Frank in Costa Coffee in the morning in which we thrashed out how to proceed and I burned him a DVD of hundreds of pieces of music I’d written. There had been an idea for the Shanghai Conservatoire to be involved in the project and for me to act as mentor to a young Chinese composer, but that had now fallen through due to the difficulty of getting them to a meeting and was probably a collaboration too far anyway. In its stead we decided to push for some budget for session musicians in China to record the final score for ‘Pictures’.

The afternoon was spent in a second round of auditions. Frank began by doing his very best to explain just how exciting the project could be to the five remaining hopefuls and proceeded to take them through status exercises and impros. They mostly did pretty well, though it was clear that they had never done anything like it before – it seems the method here is to be shouted at loudly. I played accordion to some commedia exercises. That evening we were treated to a meal at a Manchurian restaurant – Hu He is from that region – where the waitresses shouted their orders and greetings to each other in perfect call and response and meat was served in the form of whole legs of lamb which otherwise staid businessmen ate with transparent plastic gloves. We ended the evening in an ice-cream parlour/bookshop where I tried asparagus ice-cream, which was surprisingly tasty.

Thursday was my last full day in Shanghai and I took myself off to Dongtai Lu, the antiques street – I took a taxi and had some trouble explaining where I wanted to go; I was obviously putting the wrong stress on the word ‘Dongtai’ and it seemed an odd conversation with me saying it and him repeating it back in some slightly different way that I couldn’t deduce. In the end I had to point to the characters in my Shanghai guide. The street itself was full of obvious reproductions of martial characters and ming vases in baffling numbers. Occasionally there were overpriced – and unplayable – musical instruments that they were mostly unhappy for me to try. In the end I bought a wooden flute and some strange metal instrument with an enclosed reed (like a bagpipe chanter) decorated with little metal dragons; for this I handed over a British twenty pound note, which felt like a fortune at the time, and I have to say made the woman very happy and her friends curious. I then carried on walking through the old town and towards Pudong, the area that’s being continually filled with skyscrapers, some with LED films and displays all along their many floors. It was certainly a day chock-full of shanghai old and new and if I go on about it now I shall never get to the end of this blog…..The day ended with a final meal on Barry at a Cantonese restaurant which was very different to Cantonese eateries in the UK – mostly vegetable-based and certainly not full of msg.

And finally to Friday morning – dropped off at the maglev (magnetic levitation train) and whisked away at 400kph to Pudong airport. On the plane somewhere over the sayan mountains equidistant between irkutsk and Ulan Bator–– is that Mongolia? There’s a huge lake next to Ulan-Ude– it’s massive – distance to destination 4035 miles tail wind 10m/h 3500feet –51degrees C – Novosibursk – Urumqi – ust-kamenogorsk- kansk – bratsk – krasnojarsk. Somewhere over the Russian plain I bumped into an old college friend who was returning from another Chinese city with 12 young actors from Plymouth who’d just performed Romeo and Juliet with 12 young Chinese actors who were in the plane behind on their way to a reciprocal trip. Small world.

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