Shanghai, Day 1: Schmelzer

Utter helplessness sets in when one is faced with the inability to read or verbally communicate. While Western expat cafes along Yongkang Road are all staffed by helpful and friendly Anglophones, upon stepping out, my attempts to order food are reduced to pointing, smiling and confessing on no uncertain terms that I am in this situations, totally ignorant. Indeed after one day in Shanghai, I’ve learned to recognize precisely four characters in Chinese (I think): I can read now read prices in yuan (元), and can identify chicken (鸡), fish (鱼) and tea (茶) on a menu. (Next step, road signs and/or directions to the metro.)

In talking with other members of the Shanghai Camerata, I learned that Chinese takes an exceedingly long time to learn, simply due to the fact that the innumerable characters take years to memorize. And even then, once they are memorized, linking them with appropriate context and using them to express ideas from another language takes even more time and experience. Diligence is necessary, of course, but also patience and openness to the potential for error.

The sense of unfamiliarity with a new language is a relatively common phenomenon when delving into new genres of music either. While one can perhaps enjoy the aesthetic sensation when listening, the act of performance can demand memorization of different modes of communication. One learns harmonic conventions, rhythmic grooves and the overall rhetoric which takes lumps of sonic material and turns it into music.


British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley began his 1953 novel The Go-Between with the famed words “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In this intricate tale of an adolescent’s attempts to navigate the significations and affectations of the upper class, the moral of the tale is that one’s sincerity to connect with fellow humans is only as their ability to communicate and listen. By the end of the tale, the book’s protagonist has been through so many failures of communication that he is unable to process any information except facts alone, effectively isolating him from ever forming deep relationships.

Isolation and communication can be problems in Baroque music, as performers are confronted with rows and rows of notes in succession with few complimentary symbols or directions indicating volume or speed. And yet, we know this music ought to be interpreted somehow, as it’s unlikely that a work of music is devoid of either of internal logic or interpretive license. As such, in the historical performance, there’s an element of translation that has to take place, looking at groups of notes on a page to find out what their grammatical meaning might be.

Fortunately for us, some musicians of the past not only wrote their ideas down but compiled them into dictionaries and other lexicographical volumes. For instance, one can easily learn from Johann Gottfried Walther’s Musikalisches Lexicon that rhythmic repetition (anaphora) serves to explicate, demonstrate or augment the meaning of an idea.

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The anaphora (from αναφέρωoccurs when a phrase is frequently repeated in a composition for greater emphasis. (Musikalisches Lexicon, 1732)

Johan Adolph Scheibe, another eminent musical lexicographer and composer when even further.

It is important that repetition not be ignored, but differentiated at every opportunity through well devised neighboring or intervening passages. (Critischer Musicus, 1737-1740).

But other figures and symbols are more ambiguous. In Schmelzer’s Sonata Quarta for Violin and Continuo, violinist Ruiqi Ren and I came across a brief section dominated bombus, which occurs when a note is repeated four times in a row in relatively quick succession.

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At first such a figure would appear to carry some militaristic or showy affekt. But Walther says something sheds light on the way a figure or a phrase might change over time:

The bombus formerly signified an artful movement of the hands which resulted in beelike humming. Nowadays, the figure merely indicates nothing more than a trillo. (Musikalisches Lexicon)

From here, one can set off on any number of roads of inquiry. One might start by asking how it was that bees were perceived in Walther’s time a place. Was the sound of a swarm of bees something irritating? Ominous? Soothing? Or is it perhaps based in one’s own perception of what a bee represents?

Past a certain point, one can fail to differentiate forests from trees (or indeed the metaphysics of a bee’s existence from four bars in a short piece of music). But in learning any new language, one learns to determine context after learning snippets of vocabulary. Why should we assume that a bombus ought to be aggressive, when we can learn that the opposite might be the case? It’s the act of questioning and trying things out that help internalize a new language.

As I’ve learned in the last few days, it is of course not enough to learn single words but to take a look what’s around it. My first meal in Shanghai, I ordered a dish with fish (鱼) but failed to look at the character beforehand (鲶). I ended up ordering catfish (鲶鱼, which I generally despise) but which is not uncommon in Cantonese cuisine (and yes, I ended up at a Cantonese restaurant my first night in Shanghai without realizing it). But such is the nature of trial and error. Whether it’s food, language or music, one need not be scared to try something new.

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