Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Among the musicians

The apartment complex I've just moved into is still government-owned (well, I guess everything in this country is still government-owned, but in the last few years a lot of residential accommodation has shifted to 'private' ownership on long - but rather tenuous - leases), and dedicated to one of the classical musicians' unions. A lot of the original tenants, like my landlord, have chosen to sub-let to make some extra money for themselves, but the majority - it would appear - are still living here, free or on a heavily subsidised rent.

Hence, I am surrounded by music for much of the day.

On one of the first occasions I walked over here, carrying some of my things to begin moving in (it's only half a mile or so away from my old apartment, and I didn't trust my movers with some of my delicate possessions - computers, cameras, and so on), I was greeted by the sound of someone in my block playing a bamboo flute. That was quite beautiful.

Unfortunately, I haven't heard that again. Most of my neighbours seem to have pianos. (My apartment was supposed to have had an upright piano, which I considered a very attractive feature. I have a few friends who play a little, and might have appreciated the opportunity to practice for free round at my place. And I was seriously tempted to try to learn myself. I am more than a little miffed that my landlord and his wife made a last-minute decision to remove it, so that their 10-year-old daughter could start learning - without telling me, or making any adjustment in the rent!) Not all of them are piano-players. There's a guy over to my right somewhere who knocks out some decent Chopin once in a while. But the neighbour to the left appears to me to be an exponent of some other instrument who is just trying to work things out on the piano - he obviously knows music, but doesn't play at all well (on one of my first days living here, he spent a couple of hours or more hacking away at Lara's Theme, again and again nearly-but-not-quite nailing a passage - it was a strange torture, indeed).

And on the floor below, for two or three hours in the late afternoon and early evening almost every day, we have someone practising who's really not much good at all. I think it must be a kid. I suspect, in fact, it is the kid who threw a 40-minute hysterical, abusive tantrum at his parents the other day. There hasn't been any more piano practising from that apartment since. I wonder if the kid has won his battle to give it up? Drama in the hutong.

Although being surrounded by this - often not so musical - plink-plink-plink can occasionally get a bit irritating, it's not really one of the more annoying neighbour noises one might be exposed to. Often, indeed, I find the sound of a piano strangely restful, even when it's not being played well. And at least it's not happening (much) at night, or in the early morning, only during the day (when I ought not to be in that much; but work has gone dead at the moment). And the noise is relatively muted, even from my closest neighbours (my letting agent told me that the building was specially designed with sturdier walls to improve sound-proofing - I was sceptical of that, but maybe there's something in it).

I am starting to feel awkwardly out of place, ashamed, guilty in this environment. I feel I don't really qualify for residence among such talented and dedicated people. I have a guitar and a harmonica which I hardly ever play - daunted by the difficulty of mastering the instruments, despairing of ever being able to become as good as I'd like to be (it doesn't help that I know so many guitarists in this city, six or seven really excellent players, people I know I could never begin to emulate). I'm starting to think that I should start to make a serious effort with them again, start trying to play regularly. Just to fit in, you know. Peer pressure.

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