Last night had all the makings of a great night out in Asia – a good mix of foreigners and locals, a cheery, dingy bar, and the vague promise of crashing a penthouse party later at the Hyatt. I daresay that if we had been in Tokyo we would have managed enough audacity to pull it off but somehow, in Taipei, we didn’t quite manage enough momentum to make it past the small platoon of hospitality staff. Everything fizzled. We satisfied ourselves with lukewarm 7-11 beers in the lobby and then called it a night.
Quick question: if terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center on 11 July, what would we call america’s favorite 24-hour convenience-store franchise today?
There was some confusion today about music rehearsal. I had heard that the Taiwanese musicians performing in our show were rehearsing tonight so I figured that I would stop by to introduce myself and hear some of their music. They greeted me with a lot of enthusiasm and then sat down, wide-eyed and attentive. They asked me what instrument I played in a mix of Chinese, English, and Japanese.
“Guitar,” I replied in Chinese.
“What do you want us to do?”
“Well, just hold your rehearsal like normal; I want to hear the music you normally play.”
They exchanged some confused glances and discuss matters in difficult Chinese that I did’t understand. What followed is a cursory exhibition of Taiwanese taiko drumming and three-piece arrangements for shakuhachi, guzheng, and yangquin and more expectant wide-eyed, attentive sitting. I filled the blossoming awkward silence with applause, but it’s difficult to muster a lengthy ovation when you are the only audience member in the room.
Finally they ask me, “So why did you ask us for this rehearsal?”
Evidently, they thought that I was going to be running their rehearsal. I was shocked to find out that they had cancelled their normal troupe rehearsal for the night just so that they could work on the music of the new production. A miscommunication had occurred, and after a flurry of useless phone calls and discomfort, I went to my room to fetch my ipod and started playing them the music from the show.
It is a phenomenon that I am starting to recognize as an attribute of Taiwanese artists. It is a sort of silent genius that builds up some steam and eventually swallows you whole.
I was talking with Christian about it last night – I proposed that since the performing arts are held in such low regard here, Taiwanese performers never build up that patina of showiness and affectation that plagues Western artists (myself included). I was reminded of the night that I helped audition a seventeen-year-old hip-hop dancer for a role in our show. I asked her to dance hip-hop in slow motion like she was playing angry in order to hide how sad she was. “Impossible,” she replied. “Try,” I said. She shrugged. I pressed play. She danced. It was beautiful and honest and it made want to die. She stopped abruptly: “Like that?” she asks. I shrug dismissively and twist my mouth into a half-frown. “You need to work at changing up dynamics and working at multiple levels,” I say. Inside, though, she made me cry. Now she is the leading personnage.
I have worked years to try and get back to a sort of honesty on stage that these Taiwanese geniuses have never lost. The tragedy is that most of them have accepted that there is no future for them in their art – that they have to leave it behind with other trappings of their abandoned youth.
Today, classical Chinese instruments played with complete mastery and abandon that gave me goosebumps. We rehearsed each song for about 15 minutes. They would listen to it for about 30 seconds and then jump in altogether, alternating between reproducing the original note-for-note and off-the-cuff riffing. Any commentary I gave them after a first run-though (we need to follow the dynamic range of the piece a little more so that we don’t blow everything we have before the climax; hit the accents more; let’s be a little sparser in the chorus; can you try to switch into a higher resister when the distorted guitars enter?) were flawlessly integrated into the second. “OK,” they tell me: “Next song, please.”
We’re not asking for easy things. Improvisation is not the rule in Chinese classical musical training. To complicate matters, we are asking them to cover Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Michael Jackson; to simulate a tribal beat with monochromatic taiko drums; to write a hard-rock guzheng solo; to reproduce an industrial sonic landscape with traditional acoustic instruments.
They are reluctant – worried that their Chinese instruments will ruin the rock feel. Perhaps they are a shy, too. Ultimately they abandon their concerns and improvise freely. The result is covers that, in my opinion, are vastly superior to the originals.
We are done with rehearsal, but before they go they want to play me some more of their music. I am treated to two short taiko duos that put a Taiwanese spin on the steps towards the Japanese theatrical taiko style. I would call it sexy and aggressive and animal. It is even more effective that it is played by a man and a woman in a sort of alternating synchronicity. When the duo finished, she extinguished the internal fire that was blazing inside her, puts on her glasses, and transforms back into an unassuming and timid philosophy student.
I can never look at her the same way again.
The duo is a perfect transition to the final scene that we worked on last week – I propose it to the director tomorrow.
Rehearsal finished. I now know that when Taiwanese artists are excited about a project they will mill around nonchalantly after the first rehearsal to chat. Today, they invited me to go training with them at the gym where we are, coincidentally, all members. I learn that Jacky, who is the leader of the taiko group, requires all his musicians to stay in shape with daily strength training. After two and a half years of dealing with the complacent attitudes of Japanese twenty-somethings I find this sort of passion and initiative refreshing.
Black Pig (the philosophy student) confides in me that she is happy to work this way. “This freedom. It is a great way to work. I’m very happy to play music this way. I hope to be able to perform in all ways, not just as a musician.”
And people ask me why I believe that Taipei is the future of artistic innovation in Asia.
“This is your chance,” I tell her. “Pig’s music is one thing, but in this show we want to see everything everything that makes Pig Pig.”
One more bite of beef fried rice and we head off to the gym together.