Where ‘Nao’ Is

(thoughts on the SF Symphony tour to China in 2006)

Don DeLillo said “the future is crowds”. The future is also high-tech ports filled with Chinese products in shipping containers stacked ten high, stretching to the far horizon, waiting to go to eager shoppers in the West. It’s endless freeways, suspension bridges, factories, apartment towers, shopping malls and hotels, stocked with products made in Asia, playing ubiquitous Disney tunes. It’s a Starbuck’s on every corner and a bamboo-strutted construction site where the old flea market used to be.

If you want to see the future, take the 50 minute bus ride into Shanghai from that city’s gleaming, impressively efficient and gargantuan new airport. Sail along on a spanking new super-highway past miles of tract houses and apartment buildings, places that look like they were ripped out of any suburb in the US heartland. Then pass miles of crumbling communist blocks draped with laundry, their narrow streets choked with motor scooters, taxis, buses and light rail.

You’ll see the sun dimmed by smog, search for dim-sum by blog, peer through windows spattered with acid rain, and confront a free-for-all of snarled traffic circles, motorists and pedestrians who move when they get a chance and not when the new signs turn red or green. There’s a policeman at the ready with a finger locked on a machine gun trigger, but he doesn’t care either. If you don’t blink, you might see a maglev train blast by at about 400 miles per hour. It gets from Shanghai to the airport in 7 minutes.

In the center of Shanghai, Western eyes encounter an amalgam of skyscraping hotels and office buildings, many still climbing, that seem to represent a lost evolutionary line that one can only witness in science fiction. These buildings are the bastard children of Art Deco and ‘Toon Town’ nuclear reactors. 40 million people are commuting every morning doing calisthenics, singing the company song and creating the 21st century.

One gets the impression that classical music will be processed in the same way. Asia has a huge and very appreciative audience for what we do and they are eager to absorb it and make it their own.

At a master class at the Shanghai Conservatory, high school and college grads and two generations of faculty were instant messaging each other and listening to Beethoven on their cell phones even as their colleagues played Strauss and pasted digital photos of my reeds on their lap-tops. The oboists exhibited a range of talent and accomplishment, from the mediocre to the potentially inspirational, that one hears in young players all over the world. But, in this environment, the distance between language and the rhythms and nuances of our different cultures still present huge barriers to understanding. Technical analysis is well focused, but the artistic message is often remote.

MTT addressed that confluence of craft and expression through a buffer of simultaneous translators by asking the conducting students to think about what our different notions of “now” might be. Is “now” the steady tick of the baton or the loose rubato of the orchestra’s collective unconscious?

Or is it both?

Certainly, the concept is Western and Eastern in its scope. I started to call it “Nao”.

It’s a long way to Hong Kong and back from Shanghai…4 movies in coach, even when you fly over Siberia. We left Shanghai at 1:45 pm on Valentine’s Day, flew for 16 hours and arrived in San Francisco at 8:18 a.m., 5 1/2 hours earlier, with plenty of time to celebrate the day with our loved ones. Which is ‘nao’ and which is then?

My first trip to Asia was on a Symphony tour in 1988. I have returned five times, three times with the orchestra and twice as a soloist and teacher. I hadn’t been to Hong Kong in almost a decade and I hadn’t seen Shanghai for fifteen years.

On this visit, the wistful homogeneity of globalization was my ‘nao’. In 1988, I was stunned by the sheer volume of neon, the national addiction to nicotine, the hustle and flow on the commercial streets, the strange language and the graphics, but also impressed by the river of black bicycles and simple clothes, the bright colors in the traditional art, the distant vocalizations of an erhu, the sights and smells of the back alleys and the dark corners: merchants selling thick black snakes in baskets, men eating fresh turtle and monkey brains, markets teeming with sea life that isn’t even listed in encyclopedias. Everything was alive and edible.

‘Nao’, the bicycles are disappearing and fashion is replacing them with McDonald’s, sunglasses, Gucchi, Lang Lang, and even the San Francisco Symphony. There are nightly fireworks, even more cigarettes and homeless country folk who get their 3 year olds to chant ‘Happy New Year’ while they beg for hand-outs. These destitute farmers remind you that ‘Then’ is still in force. But, it gets harder to find. And, who can blame anyone for wanting the comfort of ‘Nao’?