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The Scrivener: The Upper Level

“Well, I’ve never before stood in the middle of a large shopping centre with tears running down my cheeks…’’ Brian Barratt hears Chinese music and enters a country of the soul.

Do visit Brian’s enchanting Web site, The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Yesterday, I waddled up to our largest local shopping centre, to have a look at Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English. The TV series is superb. The book’s nice, too. It has lovely coloured plates. But it’s $55, so I’ll just have to wait until the paperback comes out. I could almost hear my mother’s voice from over sixty years ago: ‘“I want” never gets’.

From the bookshop to a delightful shop which sells Asian and African furnishings and artefacts. They must get tired of me wandering round, because I rarely buy anything. ‘Just looking, thank you.’ Gazing at silver and gilded Buddhas, bronze and resin Ganesas, while savouring the aromas of exotic timbers and sweet incense.

When I emerged, the sound of exotic music met my ears. This was quite interesting, because it’s a noisy shopping centre. I switch my hearing aids to their second programme which reduces background noise, and I turn the volume down. The music was treble toned, but it reached my brain.

Carefully negotiating the marble staircase from the upper level — which isn’t too easy when you have a shopping bag in one hand and a walking stick in the other — I descended to the floor below. And entered another country, a country of the soul.

They have various types of entertainment at these places, as you know, and it’s usually raucous and eminently avoidable. But here was a Chinese gentleman playing a two-stringed musical instrument, accompanied by a young Chinese girl on a sort of cembalo. A spiritual magnet drew me closer. I stood, rapt.

Passers-by didn’t bother to stop and listen. Perhaps it was a bit too exotic for them. I got chatting (as one does) to a beautifully dressed Chinese lady who seemed to be part of the ensemble. She explained to me that the player was once a professor of music in China and now teaches at schools in Melbourne.

I went closer, watching his hands caress the strings with such diligent grace. There was a complex sound system on their little podium, so that the otherwise quiet violin-like music could be heard clearly, and that’s why I became aware of it while I was still on the upper level of the shopping centre. And now I was on the upper level of sensory experience.

If traditional Chinese music is an acquired taste, I probably acquired it through working with Chinese students, getting to know their families, and also watching Chinese films on our wonderful AustralianTV Channel 28, Special Broadcasting Service.

Perhaps rediscovery of the music of the French composer Messiaen has helped. After listening to his Turangalila Symphony several times, I asked a musically knowledgeable friend why I felt so attracted to Messiaen’s music when I couldn’t handle the discords and dissonance of other 20th century composers. If I recall aright, he responded that maybe the dissonances combine to create a unique consonance.
So there was no ‘strangeness’ in listening to Shen Pangeng play the erhu. Indeed, like a Gypsy violinist from Eastern Europe, he made his instrument speak. There were times when, like a cello, it seemed to have a human voice which spoke to the heart.

When he paused, I approached for a chat. He offered to play a piece of Western music. Perhaps ‘Memories’ from Cats? I wasn’t too sure about that, so he suggested ‘The Swan’ by Saint-Saëns. Oh yes please! The girl, one of his students, went to the sound system at the back, and turned to track five, which was the keyboard accompaniment. Shen Pangeng played the violin part on the two-stringed erhu.

Well, I’ve never before stood in the middle of a large shopping centre with tears running down my cheeks. Other people heard, stopped, listened, and applauded when he finished. I bowed deeply and shook his hand. And I bought one of the CDs he had on sale. He signed it for me and, in true Chinese custom, gave me his card which I accepted with both hands.
Since then, I’ve played the CD many times, and have been gently absorbed in the transcendence of ‘Song of flowing waves’, ‘Delight in flowers’ and ‘A journey to one’s beloved hometown’. Yes, perhaps to Western ears these titles sounds ‘foreign’, but this is a journey through the senses, beyond beauty, behind the tears, to the home of the soul.

© Copyright 2005 Brian Barratt
Adapted from an article first published in Bonzer!


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