Resident in NJ: Shanghai Quartet

shanghai quartet

Dazzled by a Shanghai Quartet concert, A Night in Ancient and New China — more about what that means in a sec. Proud it’s our “quartet-in-residence” at Montclair State, the university down the block. (“Resident” artists in Beijing and Shanghai too…OK, we’ll share.)

shanghai quartet the men

Their playing gets called “pitiless,” “ferocious,” “charged,” “aggressive.” We heard the intense premiere of a new “Raise the Red Lantern“(1991)  film score (trailer here; it’s got everything: historic setting, sex and violence, Gong Li) revised by the composer Zhao Jiping’s son. (The father also scored “Farewell My Concubine.”) That was China new. Ancient: traditional folk pieces featuring pippa (lute) virtuoso Wu Man, pictured at top — two members knew her, as children in a Beijing music boarding school. She played Kazakh folk tunes, apparently popular in the ’60s; ancient Central Asian nomads are believed to be the original source of the pippa. You hear hoof beats, feel the openness of the steppe, as in Mongolian folk music (China’s bluegrass — having its moment when we lived in Beijing).

The Shanghai Quartet cross genres and geographies. My favorite piece was a shamanistic Tan Dun composition, “Ghost Opera (Chamber Version)” — more on Tan (his latest work puts musicians knee-deep in an ancient canal) soon. Meantime, have a listen or a watch:

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Editors Take Note: Amazing Youth-Culture Stories

Carlotta, who lived in Cuba, fluent in 3 languages, covered migrant street musicians.


Writers Workshop today, my grad students shared final pieces. Wow:
–Black-market drivers’ licenses, China’s deadly, open secret. Great police sources.
–Part-time heavy metal rockers, because being full-time counterculture is a luxury in a nation where the single child is obliged to care for parents, and if married, two sets of parents. Subtle, fascinating. Written by Qu Song, who’s here:

China’s rockers must meet family obligations while pursuing music.


Of note: one of China’s first (if not the first) rock band was out of this university, Beijing Foreign Studies U., mid-’80s.
–My Buddhist Week-end. A student experiences Buddhism during a retreat at a nearby temple, nearly destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, reopened 7 years ago and thriving, especially attracting young Chinese. Written by Celina, who’s a true skeptic, so it feels like something when she reads about lighting incense at the end.

–The rise of China’s English interpreters. Though demand is exploding, and there’s a sense their lives are glitter and glam, it’s really the opposite. They’re the bridge, the middlemen China’s boom would be impossible without. Yet they’re treated like — well — crap, mostly. Dong does a masterful job on it.

Dong covers the woes of simultaneous interpreters, lynchpins in China’s high-flying business deals.


–Young intellectual elites, desperate to leave China. We’ve heard about the Party children granted the privilege of study abroad. But not so much about the highly-educated yet ordinary Chinese youth, an intellectual elite, who are tired of the bribery to get ahead, the need for constant flattery, the uncertainty if you’re not well-born, the lack of rules. Chen Lin boldly dissects the trend of those desperate to go somewhere else by focusing on young Chinese expats and would-be expats to Australia.

Cheng Lin (L) and Pu Ge (R) during our last-class workshop


We also heard fabulous stories on the lomography cult, how electronica sets Beijing youth free, on Chinese young people going to live in Seoul as K-Pop groupies, on the African minority community and the discrimination they experience in Guangzhou’s so-called “Chocolate Districts,” on young graduates seeking the “Iron Bowl” (government jobs).

Jean explained how Beijing electronica parties every night (+ a festival each summer) set young people free.


Sophia did a profile of an impoverished rural girl with 3 years of schooling who heard on TV (at age 21) about a Beijing boarding school for rural girls, applied, got in, was the star, got a college scholarship, and how is the head teacher there, inspiring young women to follow her. We heard from Ashley about the hard life of China’s geriatric care aides, untrained, unlicensed, yet relied on by working families–including her own–who can’t give their elders round-the-clock care.

Rhine, a member of the Lomo subculture, covered it beautifully.


I am so goddamn proud of them. I teared up. Hate to have to go…

One group of about 20 down, two more to go.