In old Shanghai, not only could one find all kinds of delicacies on the streets but the countless vendors all had their own special local colour. The ones from Shandong sold steamed buns, those from Northern Jiangsu “tiger paws” and “sesame seed rolls”, the locals plied sugar plums and the Cantonese olives and water chestnut flour cakes or linggao. Of all these hawkers the ones which stood out most were the olive sellers. They wore a big bag across their shoulders, which in itself was nothing special, but on the other hand the Erhu they played was very peculiar. Why? The belly of the instrument was twice as big as normal Erhu. It was made from a petrol can. Because of this, the seller could not get any complex sounds out of his instrument but only a KANG KANG LI KE KANG KANG sound. The monotonous music was certainly not easy on the ears, but it had a distinct flavour of the Yue country.
(Translated from cent vieux metiers du vieux shanghai by He Youzhi, editions de l’an 2). This book actually has 90 drawings by the artist and short texts describing the trades of old Shanghai. I have a distinct memory of bad erhu playing and I can summon it up if I imagine someone trying to play an irascible cat with a bow. Once I convinced some people to go to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven at 7 in the morning. We went past the people doing ballroom dancing in the open and one of my friends exclaimed “Wonderful!”, we saw all the kites being flow in front of the temple (I particularly liked one which represented an octopus) and again he said “Wonderful!”, we went past the people doing taiqi with swords, another “Wonderful!”. And then we came to another place and he exclaimed “What a nightmare!”. It was an enclosure about the size of a small room where a dozen or so men were playing jinghu‘s or erhu‘s . The thing was each one was playing a different tune. Personally, I found it quite appealing. The American composer Charles Ives had a father who performed musical experiments, one of which was to have two bands playing different tunes march around in circles in opposite directions to investigate the effect it would make when they crossed. This is supposed to be one of the major influences on Ives’ music and in Three Places in New England there is a part where he reproduces this effect. Think of what his music might have been like if his father had been able to take him on an early morning stroll around the Temple of Heaven.
Perhaps in twenty years’ time there will be a Chinese composer who will write a piece for thirteen soloists each performing a different tune. If you hear it you’ll know where they got the idea.