Composing and Conducting in Beijing Update

Composer George Holloway completed his PhD at Southampton in 2012 and is now pursuing postdoctoral work in China. Here George provides some further insights into his life in China following his  his previous blog post in October:

On campus Today I suddenly found myself caught by the festive feeling in the air, and was reminded of how it feels just before Christmas, when everybody is returning home, preparing for a celebration, or just happy to have some time off work!  I realised just how much I’m being sinicized (that means, of course, to be made Chinese)!  Sinicized, because Christmas for me passed with hardly an acknowledgement (see below to find out how I spent Christmas), and yet having yesterday finished a rather stressful task (for which also see below) I felt very much in the holiday mood, oddly voluble, and willing to talk to strangers about where they were going to spend the Spring Festival.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of what is known in Chinese as the “Spring Movement”, when most Chinese people return to their family homes to celebrate the Spring Festival; you may also have heard that the Spring Movement is the biggest annual human migration in the world.  In the midst of all this traveling and excitement, I’m staying happily put!  The dormitory’s almost empty: we are just seven hangers-on, an Irishman, a Macanese, a Norweigan, a Montenegran, a Belarussian, a Korean and I.  It’s nice and quiet, and I’m looking forward to an undisturbed February composing music.

Main conservatory buildingI have been back in China since September (my “China 2.0”), five months already. There have been moments when I felt I was living my dream- studying in a foreign country, and what’s more, studying conducting in a music college!  There were other moments of absolute exhaustion when I couldn’t manage to do a single thing.  Adapting to studying conducting would have been enough of a task, I’m sure; studying conducting in a foreign language, and what’s more studying conducting according to Chinese pedagogy, just made the adapation all the more arduous.  I tend to feel that the last thing I’ve just done was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life: doing a PhD in composition was harder than studying Classics, learning mandarin felt like it was harder than my PhD- and now I seem to have found something even harder!

Baton and case

In my first week in the conservatory I made a mind-map of my visions for this year.  The central vision was to become a conductor that could comfortably face any musical situation I might be likely to encounter in the future.  That gives you an idea of the wild and unrealistic ambition with which I approached my studies here.  I quickly revised that down to, “Thoroughly assimilate and master conducting technique as they teach it here” (this technique originated from the Soviet Union during the 50s and 60s).  I’ve even had to revise that vision downwards yet a second time, to “Learn the fundamentals of the technique they teach here”.  That vision I might just manage to make a reality by the end of next semester.  You could say, then, that China 2.0 has helped me to become a bit wiser and more mature (viz. realistic about my abilities and the goals I might reasonably set for myself).

A conducting class in the conservatory typically involves three students, one who conducts while the other two play on two grand pianos, representing the orchestra or ensemble of the work being conducted.  There’s a big mirror on the far wall so you can see how you look as you conduct empty space, imagining that there really are violins to your left and ‘cellos to your right, and all the other instruments in their respective imaginary places.  The students here never get to work with actual ensembles, which is of course extraordinary, and a big disappointment, but I’m managing to find ways to ameliorate this situation: next semester I and two other students shall organise a concert of Stravinsky, Copland and Wagner, and my teacher has agreed that the conducting department can support us financially in this!IMAG1721

We’ll give three performances, hopefully in Peking University, Beijing Language and Culture University, and finally in the Central Conservatory itself.  We had a meeting today and came up with a name for the group: The Listen Chamber.  It’s just going to be a small chamber ensemble of no more than 20 players, and we wanted to emphasise the notion of listening, not just that the audience would be coming to have a new auditory experience, but that we the players too would be listening all the time, to each other- just as the late and very great Abbado (RIP) is said to have often instructed his players.  Let me know what you think!

The other way I’ve managed to get some actual practical rehearsal experience is by assisting the chorusmaster at the Central Opera House.  So now I can tell you how I spent this week: from Tuesday to Friday I went there to rehearse the chorus in Handel’s Messiah!  I’m very happy to say this week I had my first paid work as a conductor.  It all came about because my teacher was doing a production of the Magic Flute there last November, and she got me to accompany her, principally to listen out for problems with their German pronunciation (not that I’m an expert, but I knew enough to be useful).  But then at the end of the first day of rehearsals, when I gave her a list of places where I had spotted tuning problems and also suggested, in terms of vocal technique, the causes and solutions to the issues, I could see she was starting to think I might have other uses.  On the second day she announced to all the singers (without warning me first!) that I was there to help coach them in any musical issues I might spot, and that they should all listen to what I have to say!  On the third day she told me the chorusmaster was looking for an assistant, and she’d recommended me, and asked if I would like the job.

So this week was my first “trial week”, four sessions everyday from 9.30-3.30 with two breaks and lunch.   I’ll be going back regularly in the coming months to continue coaching them.  The first rehearsal was hair-raising, as I had no idea what pace I could work at, or how quickly they would learn the music (as is entirely typical in China, the chorusmaster had not bothered to prime me as to what to expect); by about the third session we’d found a successful modus operandi, and by the last session of the first day, I started to feel they actually liked me.  I rehearsed the women on the first two days, while the chorusmaster rehearsed the men, then we swapped on the third day, so I could check the men’s English pronunciation.  I was a bit scared about how the men would react to me, but they turned out to be perfectly friendly.  One of the tenors has invited me to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family!  I am also quite pleased that I managed to rehearse a choir of sixty or so people for four days, speaking Chinese all the time (albeit a kind of pidgin Chinese, probably terrible Chinese, but it got the job done).

This *might* all lead to an actual contract and full time employment… but as with all things in China I don’t allow myself to believe they’ll happen until they already have.  Nothing every turns out the way you think it will here.  In fact, if I had to add another newly-acquired piece of wisdom to the one noted above about having realistic ambitions, it’s that one has to be ready for any eventuality, and in fact assume that things won’t be at all how you thought they would be.  That brings me on to the story of how I spent my Christmas Eve.

IMG_0483In December I’d been working on Monday nights as a pianist at a hyper-posh Wine Club- so posh in fact, that I only saw about six clients in the entire month.  I hated that work.  In any case, the guy who organises the music at this place asked me if I could go and sing Christmas songs at another bar on Christmas Eve.  They wanted a foreigner to sing Christmas/pop songs in English.  They asked if I could bring a female singer too, so I got a friend from the Conservatory on board, and we made a list of the songs we could sing, karaoke-style, so the manager of the bar could organise the backing tracks in advance.  Because I wasn’t willing to sing pop songs all night, I quite stubbornly made a list of Christmas carols plus a few more classic pop songs (John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas (War is Over)” and “White Christmas”).  I was actually looking forward to giving the Chinese punters an authentic taste of some traditional English-language Christmas Carols, but it became ever clearer that the boss didn’t like my choice of songs, from the fact that she couldn’t be cajoled into sending me the list of backing tracks she’d found.  Chinese people agree to do things to avoid conflict in the moment, and then simply don’t do what they agreed.  I was so angry and upset about the way I felt I was being treated disrespectfully by these people, that I almost pulled out of the performance two days before, but because I knew that this performance mattered a lot to my friend Chunlei, and if I didn’t go she probably couldn’t go too, I grit my teeth, abandoned any hope of controlling the outcome of the situation, and just went with the flow.

IMG_0472In classic Chinese fashion, half an hour before the performance was supposed to start we were still sitting in the gloomy bar on the manager’s laptop trying to find backing tracks we could sing to.  We didn’t have a chance to practise with the backing tracks, which meant that in my case there were a couple of songs where I had no idea how many verses of the Christmas carol I was actually supposed to sing!  I sang an excruciatingly embarrassing six Christmas Carols to a bar of about 4 customers, and I could hear I was out of tune and the balance was wrong, because we’d neither warmed-up nor sound-checked, and I had no idea what was going to happen next with any of the backing tracks.  I sat down, and then Chunlei went up and sang six songs (and did a much better job than me, it must be said).  When Chunlei was done, I was thinking, “Oh God, it’s me again.  This has to go on all night, doesn’t it?”  But instead the manager called us over, invited us to sit down, gave us both a huge glass of beer, and smiling, said, “Hey, just relax, we’ll get the Chinese karaoke machine out in a minute.  Can you sing in Chinese?”  The rest of the evening consisted of my friend, plus an number of increasingly drunk punters, PLUS an increasingly drunk manager herself, merrily singing Chinese karaoke and standing on the benches waving glasses of beer around.  I hardly had to do anything.  I joined in some of the Chinese songs when I could read enough of the Chinese subtitles to bluff my way through, and twice went up to sing solo, to a rapturous and inebriated reception from the massed revellers, Elton John’s Sacrifice and John Lennon’s Imagine.  At about 1am we got a taxi home with 50 pounds in our pockets, having hardly done anything to earn such a huge (by Chinese standards) sum of money.  I would never EVER have guessed the evening would have turned out that way.  I simply have no idea how anything is going to turn out here, so I’ve just given up trying to guess.  In that respect too, you could say I’ve also become a little more “sinicized”!

How did I spend my Christmas day?  At the invitation of my teacher, I sat in on six hours of end-of-term conducting exams.