Autumn in Beijing

I should talk about our setlists during this time.  A typical setlist at Bookworm consisted of a couple of Amy Winehouse songs, “Valerie” and “I’m No Good,” Kylie Minogue’s “Cant’ Get You Outta My Head,” Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots Were Made For Walking,” The Beatles’ “Across the Universe” and “From Me To You,” a couple of country songs like “Vaya Con Dios” and “Tennessee Waltz.”  I talked Lulu into adding songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,”  and then I’d do some solo numbers like Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.”  I hadn’t been doing anything like this in New York, so it was pretty fun and definitely helped me get my bearings in the key nightlife hotspots of Beijing.  When we added  Jasmine we created some really tight harmonies on Mama’s and Papa’s “California Dreaming” and the Eagles’ “Desperado.” Kirk joined us at BeerMania.

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Halloween murder mystery at Matt & Kaci’s was huge fun, as well as a Halloween-day-2 visit to the DRC with Jason Hagberg and Julie Makinen.

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Epic birthdays this first month included Alejandra’s and Amelie’s.

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Flashback – a minor rock star is born

After getting settled down at BNDS and starting to compile contacts from my amazing colleagues, it occurred to me that I could have a bit of a social life outside the job.  I had already met up with Susan, who Josh had put me in contact with, and I suddenly remembered that Christophe had passed on the contact info for his cousin Imre.  I promptly called him up and before long, it was evident that we could offer each other something: he had a wine bar that needed some live entertainment, and I was a musician looking for a venue.

Rob Wendt - Jazz concert.jpgIMG_0630.JPGNot even a month in a new country and already headlining a swanky wine bar – not bad!  BNDS friends came to show their support and a good time was had by all.  I even have the original set list around here somewhere.

Little did I know that a chance meeting from the night before would lead to a more enduring musical project.  I went to the Bookworm to check out an act that had been described in the Beijinger as a “burlesque performer,” but when I got there, a Chinese girl was singing covers with a guitarist friend as accompaniment.  She had the gift of gab between numbers, and when the set was done, she came over to my table to say hi and ask if I was enjoying myself.  She introduced herself as Lulu, and when she heard that I was performing the next night in a wine bar on Nanluoguxiang, she suggested a collaboration.  She was not happy to hear that I was getting paid in wine!  “C’mon Rob, you’re just going to make it harder for the musicians who have to make a living doing this.”  We had a couple of rehearsals at her place near Dongzhimen, and a couple of gigs at Parlor in early October.  Early November we played Beermania, then Pandabrew with Gabriel and ET.

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To revive a blog, better late than never…

Soon after arriving in Beijing, this blog went by the wayside.  Time to resurrect it!  Above, Eric, Sharkey, and Gar with me on the Great Wall, and Lloyd ready for me to serve him some roast lamb off the spit.  These were both April 2016.  I am now in Gimpo airport, waiting for my connecting flight back to Beijing, after having visited with family the last two weeks in NJ and experienced the horror of the US under Buzz Windrip.  My Chinese reading is making very good progress; I’m learning very useful phrases like “commutation of a prison sentence.”

September in Beijing

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I followed Karl to his Tuesday night Go club.  This game confounds me.  But I think I didn’t get beaten too badly.  Says Wikipedia, “the number of possible games is vast (10761 compared, for example, to the 10120 possible in chess).”  I think that is pretty interesting.

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Spent some time in the Sculpture Park last Saturday.  I was reading “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.  If he’s trying to get me to change the way I make decisions, he needs to try harder.  I’m going to stick to crazy.  I dig how the trees in the background of the left photo seem to be aping the figures.

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When I walked by the Forbidden City, Pavement was playing in my headphones, “I’m the only one who laughs at your jokes when they are so bad, And your jokes are always bad.”  I wouldn’t be surprised if every Pavement song, in its own warped way, could explain some oddity about this world we live in.

Sept 13

Busy day!  Met my friend Susan for Brunch at the Rug, just across the road from Chaoyang Park south gate.  I asked if they did Bloody Marys, but the waiter said they discontinued them after numerous complaints.  Apparently people cannot deal with fresh tomatoes in their brunch cocktails.  Then headed over to Matt and Kaci’s place for our first rehearsal.  We harmonize pretty well!  “More Than Words,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and “Nowhere Man” all sound solid.  “Timshel” by Mumford and Sons needs some work.  I went to the Silk Market to pick up my shirts and ran into Claire; she invited me to tag along for steak dinner in celebration of Gar’s birthday.  The restaurant sign reads “Probably the Best Steak in Beijing” and they’re probably right.  We then went for drinks and I pulled out the guitar for some Clancy Brothers songs.

Sponge Bob Square Pants Cappuccino.

Sponge Bob Square Pants Cappuccino.

Brunch with Susan Kwang at the Rug East - yummy omelet with Bolognese sauce.

Brunch with Susan Kwang at the Rug East – yummy omelet with Bolognese sauce.

Welcome to my Beijing

AUGUST 21 – When my Aeroflot flight neared Beijing, I looked out the window to see mountains unlike any I’d seen before, not terribly large, but completely covered by plant life, almost vertical in many places, misty clouds nestled between them. A Chinese teacher by the name of Tiger picked me up at the airport and took me back to my apartment in Haidian district. It’s a pretty comfy 2-bedroom, lightly furnished, on the first floor of a massive housing complex. I had just been traveling through the Balkans and so was ready for any sort of craziness, but Beijing takes some getting used to. Crossing the Yuquan Rd. felt like sprinting across a football field for dear life. The good thing about the traffic here is that while a car can come from any direction at any time, they don’t drive terribly fast, so you have time to run for safety. My first night here I headed out for dinner on my own with no idea where to go, and not another westerner in sight. I picked a place on Beitaiping Rd. and the waitress was simultaneously amused and flustered at the language barrier. I knew how to order a beer, and to explain that I don’t speak Mandarin, but when you say that, they just keep on speaking Mandarin to you. The manager came over with a translator app, and that helped a bit. When I pointed at various dishes, asking if they were any good, they took it to mean I was ordering it all, and I got a rather large dinner. No problem, they wrapped the rest and it was good leftovers for a few days.

AUGUST 22 – I left my flat and ran into some other expat teachers on the way to take care of our residency visas, new bank accounts, and SIM cards. We made fast friends. Li Ang is our Chinese liaison, and has done a great job shepherding us through the bureaucratic weirdness. Matt, an English teacher, has been living here for a few months with his wife over in Chaoyang, and they took us to a place in their neighborhood for dinner and drinks. Eric, Alejandra and I checked out their place afterwards. Matt makes a very drinkable gin and tonic. They have a one-eyed dog.

798 Art District with Hank, Doug, and John.

798 Art District with Hank, Doug, and John.

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Lunch after the silk market.  View from the dining room.

Lunch after the silk market. View from the dining room.

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Yale in New York Champions the Legacy of Hindemith

Despite this concert having been anticipated in The Wall Street Journal and these pages), it was not particularly well attended, with the lion’s share of seats empty. Indeed, Paul Hindemith remains unknown even among some who consider themselves classical music fans. A reappraisal of his work and influence is thus always welcome, and this well-curated program shed new light on the composer, his pedagogy, his protégés, and even his personality. Yale School of Music brought faculty, students, and alumni to Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall to forge a direct musical link to this master of theory, melody, form, and fugue.

In Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24, No. 2, the composer captured the frenetic pace of industrial growth that characterized the inter-war years. No one would call this musical language atonal, but it contains humor alongside a tongue-in-cheek dark, dissociative pensiveness and sense of disturbance not usually found in the romantic tradition. At the same time, there is something very primal and peasant-like in the bouncy tough rhythms.

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Paul Hindemith

In the opening movement, Lustig, phrases of urgent square rhythms are separated by recit.-like laments of the oboe (Timothy Gocklin) and flute (Jacob Mende-Fridkis). Hindemith does much with just 5 instruments, able to combine three distinct musical ideas, like larger orchestral layers stripped down to the bare essentials. The Walzer movement is clearly not for dancing feet! Rather, this is a waltz of dancing light and quantum energy. In Ruhig the horn player (Philip Browne) was able to produce very high timbres more characteristic of trumpet. The flexible timing of the players did not at all compromise their neat ensemble sound. In the final Sehr Lebhaft the players delight in making all sorts of strange harmonic intervals take flight.

Trills, anyone? Alvin Etler’s Suite for flute, oboe, and clarinet turns the venerable ornamentation into a musical motive in its own right. The melodies of each instrument often inhabit the same small range, brushing up against one another, sometimes sensually, but often discourteously. They say that a dog and its owner gradually, over time, begin to resemble one another, and that strange effect is discernable in the Pavane, as the players approach each other’s timbre so that we are hearing a conversation between siblings. The piece’s Finale employs great dynamic range, and then a trick ending.

Performers stood for Mel Powell’s Woodwind Quintet (1985), and the oboe (Hsuan-Fong Chen) and flute (Christina Hughes) were like birds of paradise both in their playing and in their charming red dresses. The musical action here is compressed into short bursts that either die out into a lucid silence, or sustain one note; either way, there is a conscious effort to arrest time. We hear five travelers, each speaking a different language, trying to strike up a conversation and being very expressive to make themselves understood. Upon hearing Powell’s first essay into twelve-tone composition, Hindemith is alleged to have said, “So, you’ve gone over to the other side.”

The composer Yehudi Wyner (84!) played piano in his Concordance for piano and strings (2013). This quartet opens with an explosive major seventh stretched out over several octaves. Like the previous piece, the subtle juxtaposition of different timbres is treated in an experimental way. The slow decay of piano notes against sustained pianissimo violin bowing resembles parallel lines eventually converging in the deep curve of space.

After the intermission, jazz musician and scholar Willie Ruff shared a remembrance of Hindemith and a testimony to his influence. When Ruff heard that Charlie Parker’s unrealized dream was to sit at the feet of Hindemith and study music, Ruff decided to do the same. He auditioned at Yale, and to his surprise, was accepted. He recounted how Hindemith would have his students play and sing through the music of all eras from the middle ages to the present, including the opening chord of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, “the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
Ruff shared his undiminished awe at how Carl Sagan contacted Hindemith to help translate his fascination with the astronomer Johannes Kepler into a “Sound of the Earth” for the golden record now aboard the Voyager spacecraft about to exit our solar system.

The opening movement of Hindemith’s Sonata for four horns demonstrates the composer’s love of fugue. A rising fifth, the most fundamental partial on any brass instrument, calls our attention to its subsequent spinning out into a beautiful tapestry. The Variationen are difficult to follow explicitly, but easier to feel, to intuit.
Bill Purvis (Yale faculty) and the students with which he played this piece seemed quite at ease with the material, even devotional in their measured approach to this exploration of musical space. The final modest chord was a quiet genuflection to the timelessness of consonant harmony.

Lukas Foss’s Three American Pieces for violin and piano initially seem more influenced by Satie than by Hindemith. In the last movement, Composer’s Holiday, very simple ideas are developed into lively acrobatics. As in the first movement, the interval of a third hops up and down the range of the violin against varied harmonic contexts, never getting dull.

The concert ended with Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24, audaciously scored for string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, piano and harmonium (for which a synth was employed. I would’ve preferred to hear the optional accordion; during the sound-check, the amplifier screamed and terrified the audience). During the Quartett: Sehr Langsam und mit Ausdruck, conductor Bill Purvis simply dropped his head and his hands and allowed the clarinet (Eric Anderson) and flute (Isabel Lepanto Gleicher) to conduct their slow, somber dialogue, punctuated by the sounding of a celestial F# on a tone chime. The final movement begins with a primordial rumble swelling and eventually attacked by machine gun shots from the snare drum. Virtuosic piano runs by Henry Kramer, trumpet lines full of pomp by Jean Laurenz, and a final ambulance wail helped the ensemble lay down the composer’s road map for a 20th century of messy but exciting democracy.

What, then, was the influence of Hindemith on his Yale students? Clearly, they seem to have resisted the pull of minimalism and post-minimalism. Their music does not seek to induce a trance-like state, but rather places gripping demands on the musical intellect of the listener. The essential considerations of his Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity) from the 1920s (structure, accessibility, and independent lines, according to program annotator Dana Astmann) seem to have survived throughout the century in the work of his students. They made do quite well without his characteristically strict rhythmic organization, but indulged in the harmonic possibilities unleashed by his bold theoretical ideas. Much as theoretical physicists seek a unified theory of everything, the Hindemith school honors the formal considerations and rhythmic impulses of the tonal era while expanding the range of harmonic and melodic possibilities to encompass effects that approach the disorienting sounds of serialism, the clash of modernity with the tradition, even the beauty of birdsong.