Monday, October 11, 2010

The Second Fortnight!

The Death of the Gehu

On my third Monday, I visited the Taipei Chinese Community Orchestra. It was 50% senior citizens and 50% college-aged students. The former were bored and using the orchestra to fill up free time. The latter, including my friend from the Taipei Mandolin Ensemble, were pressured into playing with the group because either their former teachers or grandparents were playing and needed the youngsters to fill out their ranks. I introduced myself to the players and they welcomed me with applause for some reason. I hadn’t brought my zhongruan, but they found an old one lying around the rehearsal room and told me I could join in. Woot! I was playing with my first, full-sized Chinese orchestra! The only problem was that the scores switched between WuXian Pu, five-line score (the one that Westerners use) and Jian Pu, the Chinese score that uses numbers to represent each pitch. I’d never played zhongruan with Western score so it took awhile for my brain to switch over.

There were tons of erhus and it seemed that they were the problem section. The conductor frequently stopped us to make the erhus go over difficult passages.

Behind me sat both cellos and gehus. Gehus are a dying instrument. In modern Chinese orchestras they have been replaced with the Western cello. All of the Chinese traditional instruments were modified in the early 1900s so that they could play Western music. For example, zhongruans and pipas were both given many more frets in order to be able to play chromatic scales. Somehow though, the gehu did not have as much success being transformed into a Western-music compatible instrument. The issue lies primarily with too many wolfs and pythons. The wolfs are pitches that, for various reasons that I don't understand dealing with physics, just sound nasty on the instrument. The gehu, according to the lady behind me, has 3 or 4. Yikes! The cello only has one. The other practical issue is that you have to kill a lot of pythons to make a gehu. A gehu is really big and like its baby cousin, the erhu, it uses snake skin to resonate. There are artificial alternatives, but they have not caught on and almost every erhu player in the world uses real python skin, which is a problem when going through airports, because python products are on a banned list for international transport.

The very chatty gehu player behind me, who also was extremely aggressive about giving me pieces of chocolate during rehearsal, told me that her gehu was 50 years old and that “Today no one makes them.” I’m not sure that’s accurate, but I do believe that makers are few and fare between. She also mentioned that the skin becomes loose frequently and has to be tightened or even replaced.

The pieces they played included traditional Mainland pieces, Taiwanese folk tunes, and some relatively modern popular songs. I was amazed at myself when I saw their repertoire. I knew every piece. Holy crap, I thought, I’m starting to get a grasp of this thing!

After being force-fed more Dove chocolates, I left the rehearsal in a glow and crossed the street to the Ximen Pedestrian Area, where my favorite street food is. I treated myself to spicy roast corn and a fried chicken steak with Chinese broccoli.

The Day of Pleasant Surprises

The next Saturday I awoke to what I thought was several people kicking me from underneath my bed. After 5 groggy seconds, I realized it was a small earthquake. Wow, my first tremor! The next 20 seconds of shaking would have been fun if I hadn't been afraid that the building was going to collapse. Do people ever get used to these things?

That day I got my first package. I received a slip in my mailbox and spent 2 hours trying to find the right post office to go pick it up from. Eventually I got to the right area with four new facebook friends. It takes me forever to get anywhere when I'm asking for directions because I have to tell my life story to everyone I ask. Even when I order coffee, the questions are usually, "Ni yao he shenme?" What do you want to drink? "Rede, bingde?" Hot or cold? "Ni lai Taiwan dushu ma?" Did you come to Taiwan to study? "Neiyong, daizou?" For here or to go? So after four long conversations and email exchanges, I entered the building.

A lady with unevenly drawn on eyebrows behind the counter marked courtesy took one look at me and barked, "Third floor" in Chinese. I went up the stairs to the third floor and showed the clerk my slip. She laughed and said, "No, you want the third floor." I asked, "Isn't this the third floor?" She thought hard for a moment and then giggled. "Well, yes, BUT you want the third floor." Huh? I was missing something. I asked if she spoke English. She repeated in English the exact same thing she'd been saying in Chinese. What am I missing? I asked her if she could give me directions to the third floor. She told me to go outside and I would see it. Okay. . . what? I went outside and asked a man in a little shed-like building next to the post office if he knew where I should go. He said, "Yes, of course. Go to the third floor!" What! I asked him how I could do that. He told me not to be stupid. I looked around. I was outside on the side walk. How was I supposed to magically ascend to this third floor they all spoke of? Just then I realized that there were English-only signs EVERYWHERE saying "Third Floor This Way." and "International Package Pickup Is On the Third Floor. Please Tread Lightly On the Elevator!" I didn't see the signs because I was only reading the Chinese. DOI! There was no door except an elevator. I walked inside, read the sign pictured here, and pushed 3. 15 minutes later I was home with my care package: a lone GRE prep book fell out of the box. Thanks, Mom. I groaned and began reading about triangles.

That afternoon I ate lunch in my favorite cafe. They have amazing pie! I walked in and there was only one seat open but it was at an occupied table. I hesitated and the waitress/owner say my dilemma. She went up to the young woman at the table and asked in Chinese if I could join her. She replied with, "Uhh. . . sorry I don't speak Chinese." It turns out she was born in Chicago and came to Taiwan to teach English. Her parents are Taiwanese but she doesn't speak her mother's mother tongue. Over coffee and key-lime pie, we swapped funny stories about misunderstanding things in Taipei. I told her about how waiters and waitresses often run away from me in restaurants to find a friend with better English. She told me about how people just can't believe that she doesn't speak Chinese. Ahh, racism.

That night at the National Concert Hall I attended the best concert I've been to in Taiwan. It was the state-sponsored Chinese Orchestra. Not only did they play amazingly well, they brought on soloists that gave me goosebumps. There were erhu and dizi solos. The finale involved a new composition with narrators and a full choir. It was epic! I sneaked these photos before a watchful usher swooped down on me. People shouted encore afterwards but they hadn't prepared anything so they played the classic, "Good Flowers, Round Moon." I was so proud that I knew it!

After the concert, which was only half empty (or I guess I should try to be optimistic and say full) I stepped out into a free outdoor jazz concert. Chang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Plaza was packed! After enjoying "Fly Me to the Moon" I walked to the MRT station. On my way I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was following me. I slowed down to force the would-be thief to pass me, but when I turned back I saw that I was still being followed. I held my hands close to my pockets and hurried toward the station. The culprit got closer and I noticed he had grey hair. This old guy is gonna pick my pocket? I decided to pretend to tie my shoe. When I stood up again I was greeted with, "Hello! Where are you from?! Sprechen sie Deutsch?" But it wasn't an old man. In the dark, and probably because I am colorblind, I thought this young guy's green hair was grey. He was wearing shoes that didn't match and a heavy green chain instead of a belt. But I noticed that he also was carrying a dizi case. I told him in English that I didn't speak German. Not wanting to continue the type of racism Kristine had faced in the cafe today, I asked this Asian in English if that was a bamboo flute case. He didn't understand. I asked in Chinese, "Can you speak Chinese? Is that a dizi case?" I had so many questions. Why did he ask me in English when he doesn't speak English? Why can he speak German? Did he buy those mismatched shoes that way or did he have to buy two pairs or does he just collect spares?

15 minutes later I was digesting food from the night market along with my new friend's life story. His name is Boshu, which means cypress tree, so his English name is Tree. Perhaps this helps to explain his hair color. He went abroad for high school because he hated the memorize and regurgitate teaching style in Taiwan. So, when he was 15, he went to Germany without knowing a word of German. 6 years later he is fluent. So he hasn't had much chance to play bamboo flute in ensembles, but he is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to Chinese music and has mastered most of the bamboo flute solos. He told me he lives in Taizhong but came to Taipei for a composition lesson. We immediately took out our mp3 players and played each other our compositions. Tree and I decided to meet the following Monday at 6am to play in Great Peace Forest Park and see if we could improv together.

Andrew Terwilliger: Jazz Trivia Master?

On Sunday I went to the second day of the free jazz concert. We all sat on the ground in the plaza between the National Concert Hall and the National Theater. Between jazz ensembles they asked trivia questions to stall while they set up the next group. The first question was "Who sings What a Wonderful World and what instrument is he most famous for playing?" I shot up my hand and a microphone surfed its way through the crowd to me. I hoped saying Louis Armstrong in English was good enough because I sure as hell didn't know his name in Chinese. It was and I won a free CD. Sweet! Then they played a music clip and asked if we knew what the pieces were called. The first one was Route 66. After 2 minutes of noone responding, I put my hand up again and won a free T-shirt. The second listening test was Caravan. What a coincidence. I wouldn't have known that one if I hadn't played it in middle school jazz band. Another awkward pause. I put my hand up for a third time and got another CD. The same thing happened when I knew Benny Goodman's main instrument was clarinet. They stopped the trivia after that. I hope it wasn't my fault. . .


By the second half of August, I was no longer twiddling my thumbs in cafes or taking long walks around the city. My schedule was packed! I had meetings with professors and music students and rehearsals to attend all the time. My one free day was Monday, but now I had to get up at 5 in the morning to make it to the park to see Tree. We found a quiet spot between various groups of senior citizens doing yoga and taiqi. The music we made was really cool. It took me about 3 seconds before I realized that Tree seriously outclassed me musically, but since this was his first time attempting to improvise he felt self-conscious and was apologetically playing amazing music. But soon we both became more confident and amazed at our own abilities to read each others' minds. Soon a large mob of elderly Taiwanese had gathered around us to watch the cross cultural exchange. They applauded loudly every time we took a break.

At 10, I accompanied Tree to his composition lesson. There I met Tree's classmate and composition/recorder major at Tainan Conservatory, Nadine. The teacher's name is Algy; he is ethnically Chinese but from the Philippines. He is a really amazing person and extremely talented. I played him some things I had written on the piano and he gave me some helpful feedback and some good ideas for what to fix. Tree told me that he had composed the music to a Taiwanese movie called When Love Comes Along And I just found out that he has been nominated for a Golden Horse Award, the Chinese language equivalent to an Oscar, for the score. Wow!

Next, Tree's friend Nadine joined us for lunch, which was followed by more chilling with music in the afternoon. I recorded Tree playing flute solos so I could become more familiar with the traditional solos. I made Nadine pretend to play my zhongruan for this picture since she is a musician, but she had left her recorder at home. I think she really sold it. Behind Tree you can see his flute case where he has a bamboo flute in every key!

Eventually we headed out for adventures through the night markets and KTV (karaoke).
There Tree belted out some Taiwanese folk songs and I countered with that KTV's entire English catalogue. There were only 5 English songs: True Colors, Take Me Home Country Roads, I Believe I Can Fly, Alicia Keys' Fallin', and Bad Romance.

New Composers

I went to a really amazing concert which featured the music of two new composers on the rise. The music was sooooooooo cool! The first half was all music written by a lady composer who went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was spectacular. She didn't shy away from modern pop froufrou but there was also some sort of respect for traditional sound that could be heard. There were yangqin, Chinese hammered dulcimer, piano, drumset, a string quartet, bass and accordion. My favorite was a piece called 1949. It was epic and sweeping and seemed like a more like a movie score than anything else.

The second half was equally as impressive. The ensemble consisted of 6 erhus, a daruan, zhongruan, liuqin, 2 cellos, bass, 2 dizi, 2 sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and tympani. The sound was perfectly represented by the conductor's attire. He wore a Western penguin suite with a traditional blue Chinese shirt underneath. The music was traditional for the most part but would sometimes riff into 1950s rock territory. It sounds bizarre, but somehow it all melted together into a wistful and sentimental sound.

Out of Taipei

I finally left the sanctuary of Taipei and headed to Tree's hometown of Taizhong. I took the Gaotie, or High Speed Rail, to Taizhong. It's this really cool train that zooms across the west side of Taiwan from Taipei in the north to Gaoxiong in the south. Instead of a 3 hour bus ride, it took just 45 minutes. The best thing about riding the Gaotie though is that the stations seem like they are really fancy airports from the future. They are minimalist metal and glass structures and brand new. Also, the signs at the exit declare, "Kiss and Ride," which of course is where you either pick up your loved ones or park and kiss your loved one goodbye. Many foreigners have tried to explain that in English this sounds like a prostitute pick up area, but the Taiwanese have refused to adjust the sign. The stations are all slightly outside of the city to promote development on the city outskirts. This didn't work very well though because everyone immediately walks from the Kiss and Ride area to the free bus to the city. Sadly there is not much kissing or riding in outside the Gaotie station. . .

Tree's mom picked me up in her car. (While there was riding, alas, there was no kissing.) She dropped me off at the Confucius Institute where she works. There I saw a group of senior citizens practicing Nanguan music. Nanguan music is similar to silk and bamboo music except that the instruments are not the standard ones used in the Mainland.
But there is something that resembles the pipa, suona (Chinese oboe), erhu, shao, and something called sikuai four sticks which was four pieces of wood that are held in the hands to create cool rhythms. All the players were relatively new to their instruments, picking them up after they retired, but they played well together and asked me to join them for rehearsal. I played my zhongruan along with them. The parts were divided into plucked, bowed and blown. Tree joined in with the wind players. At the back of the book I found a Chinese pop song "The Moon Represents My Heart" as well as Eidelweiss and You Are My Sunshine. They said they didn't know how the English ones were supposed to sound, so I took out my mandocello and played and sang them for them. After two times through, they were playing along with me. It was soooo much fun!

At lunch, which was both vegetarian and Chinese medicinal, I talked to Tree's mother for a long time about the importance of teaching Confucionist thought to young children and how it can serve as a foundation for their character. She told me that she thinks religions all boil down to one word: forgiveness.

After lunch Tree and I headed to a really cool music store. The clerk was chill and let me try out an erhu that cost about the same as my Watson Fellowship. I also perused music scores and bought some new pieces as well as some Japanese piano scores. I really want to figure out what it is that makes those pieces sound so distinct.

Later we did what everyone does when they come to Taizhong: eat! Taizhong is known for its night market's delicious foods. I had sweet 'n' salty sweet potato fries, bread cakes filled with molten vanilla, red bean, and chocolate, egg cakes, stinky tofu, pizza crepes, and roasted corn. I also sampled a rosemary milk tea because a crazy or perhaps awesome, I haven't decided yet, lady threw a rosemary branch at me. Tree saw what was about to happen and decided to let me handle it on my own. Thanks, Tree.

She decided that she would teach me Chinese. She threw the branch back in my face and repeated slowly in Chinese, "ROOOOOOSEMARRRRRY." I repeated back and she was delighted. Then she sloooowly said, "PLEEEEEASE ENJOOOOOOOOOY OUR ROOOOOOOSE MARRRRY MIIIIIILK TEEEEEEEA!!!" I repeated back, mimicking her slow and extremely loud speech. She looked dangerously happy. It seemed like something was about to burst but I wasn't sure what. I turned around and saw Tree contorted in a fit of laughter. I realized the thing that was about to burst was his bladder.


The next day I rode the Gaotie back to Taipei for a guqin concert. I was very eager to see how it compared to the one I saw by the master in Beijing. Unfortunately I was late because Tree is always late and makes every around him late too. I bitterly thought to myself as I waited outside, Thanks for making me late, Tree. But, this turned out to be an amazing bit of good luck because I waited outside next to a guqin maker and the show's producer and got both of their contact information. The producer told me that the guqin maker doesn't usually talk to people at concerts and that I was very, very lucky! Thanks for making me late, Tree!


  1. Nice blog! I like your writing way. I'm doing practice GRE here: . I hope it's useful for GRE test takers.

  2. I enjoyed reading about your musical adventures in Taiwan.
    You always seem to be in the right place at the right time.
    I can't wait to read your next entry.

  3. Hahaha oh my god this post is amazing. I'm both incredibly envious and happy for you. Good thing you didn't knock out Tree's teeth because you thought he was gonna mug you.

  4. The MARTA station near my house has a kiss ride section, too (as in that's what the signs say), so you can tell them it's the same as America! :)

  5. Yeah, I'm seconding that Kiss and Ride is in the U.S. too. I think they had Park and Ride first and then wanted to come up with a catchy name for the drop-off zone too.