City in C Minor
By Stephanie Ye
The evening of the concert, Emma's father left Uncle Lee in charge of the pub before they took the bus to Victoria Concert Hall. Her father had already been working for a couple of hours and reeked of cigarettes, his and other people's. Emma herself smelt of the baby powder rubbed into the back of her neck and the joints of her arms, though the equatorial heat meant she still ended up sweating as they crunched across the manicured lawn towards the lobby.
Her father presented the ticket to the usher, then handed the stub to Emma. "I'll be waiting outside later. Now, enjoy yourself," he instructed.
The cost of this concert by the world-famous cellist had already been subsidised by the national arts council and the main sponsor, a local bank; but tickets were still pricy enough that Emma's father had only been able to afford one, and only in circle at that, though he had made sure the seat was as central as possible. Anyway, he did not really know what classical music was like and had no burning desire to find out. He had never even heard of the world-famous cellist whose large, beaming visage fluttered from the hall's neo-classical faηade, until Emma had shown him the full-page advertisement in The Straits Times a month ago.
He had been a little surprised at his 11-year-old daughter's interest in classical music, coming seemingly out of nowhere. A widower with the attendant anxieties on how to mother a daughter, he vaguely worried that he was not paying enough attention to her. But in fact, Emma herself would not have been able to explain what had drawn her to the photo of the cellist in the concert advertisement, as she leafed through the paper looking for articles for a social studies assignment. Perhaps it was the glamour of the young man's bowtie and shoulder-length mane, artfully tousled by an off-camera fan, that appealed to her; or the mere fact that this was a Chinese person, like them, but also someone who was world-famous, who was paid a lot of money to play in London, Paris, New York City.
What Emma's father did know was that appreciating classical music like having an English first name was part of being educated, something he strongly desired for his child. Hence, he had bought her a ticket and kept it in the safest place he knew: the strongbox in which he kept petty cash for the pub. The smell of dollars, coins and the oil of anonymous hands wafted from the ticket Emma clutched as she joined the crowd ascending the carpeted stairs.
She thought being allowed into this beautiful hall was in itself already a magnificent experience. Years into the future, having earned enough of her own money to visit Europe and even attend a few concerts there, she would realise how the plaster pilasters of this British colonial-era building, their carvings indistinct under sloppily-applied layers of whitewash, were but crude simulacra of the architecture they were meant to resemble half a world away. But on the night of the concert by the world-famous cellist, as she matched the number on her ticket to the number on her seat, she gazed down at the crowds milling below and thought she had never been in such a grand and antique place, with its chandeliers and plush seats, its air-conditioned wintry chill, its olfactory swirl of paint, dust, wood and perfume.
Also smelling all this is the world-famous cellist in fact, the smell is somewhat more pungent in the confines of backstage. However, being a musician, it is the sounds that interest him more, especially in an old hall like this one where there are no doors separating the stage from the wings. To him, the chatter of an audience has the same anticipatory effect as the sound of an orchestra tuning up has on most classical music lovers, and the sound of each city is always unique so much so, in fact, that the cellist has secretly assigned different keys to different cities. Take New York, where the cellist is based and where he owns an Upper East Side apartment with his publicist and girlfriend: its halls, stuffed with tourists and conservatory students, hum to the key of A major celebratory, jovial, confident of having a good time even before a note has been played. Or Vienna, with its blasι, dour spectators who attend already assuming they will be unimpressed (and where the cellist suffered a particularly unkind review in his younger days): definitely F sharp minor. As for his native Barcelona for despite his Chinese face, which had so appealed to Emma, the cellist is a Spaniard by birth and at heart it is D major: warm, appreciative, prepared to be delighted.
Singapore is a new city for him, and in its rumble he thinks he hears tenseness, a certain uncertainty. It is an audience that lacks confidence as to whether it will be able to appreciate the impending performance, a crowd all too aware of its lack of sophistication. Yet, piping up every so often are notes of pure exhilaration: of having the privilege to attend such a recital, even a sense of collective pride in having managed to lure such a world-famous performer to these remote shores, to this place so small that its capital city is the whole of the country. Some of the hundreds who now sit in the hall awaiting his appearance will have spent the past month listening to his recordings, "studying" for tonight; many now bow their heads over their programmes, scrutinising the concert notes so they will know what to think when they hear the music. C minor, thinks the cellist: the key of Beethoven's Fifth.
The stage manager approaches: it is time. The lights dim, the murmur dies down, the applause starts up. The quality of the quiet just before the cellist begins is always the same, no matter where he is in the world.
Later in life, Emma would not remember much about the programme performed during her first concert, though she gave a voluble account to her father on the bus ride home, and kept the concert booklet for years until it was tossed out during a Chinese New Year spring cleaning operation. But she would remember craning her neck to gaze down into the abyss at the cellist, feeling the distance between herself up above in her numbered seat and him down below at the centre of the stage, separated only by air with specks of dust that danced like fireflies in the spotlight. His tiny figure appeared hallowed, even pulsing, as she squinted at him through her plastic-framed glasses, the lenses not yet corrected for her astigmatism. Yet the notes that reached her ears were loud and pure and resonated through her entire being, as if she were the hollow body of the cello itself, filling her with a swollen longing for a world she had never seen.
Her request to take cello lessons was initially met with incredulity by her father, then anxiety, as he berated himself for not having the money to buy her an instrument if he knew where to get one in the first place. But luck sometimes visits even those who have gotten used to coping without it: a regular of the pub, a Norwegian shipping executive who relied on its ice-cold beers to bolster his Nordic constitution in the sweltering heat, heard of Emma's aspiration and, recalling his own satisfying boyish romance with the instrument, bought her a student cello, made in China but well-constructed. It was then only a matter of a bit more scrimping on her father's part, including a short-lived attempt to quit smoking, to hire a teacher to come by the flat on Wednesday evenings to give Emma lessons, held in the living/dining area as that was the only room with enough space for both the cello and the teacher. This teacher was from the local Chinese orchestra the cello being one of the few Western instruments used by the ensemble due to the limitations of Chinese instruments in that range but he was trained in the Western syllabus, having in fact only taken a place with the Chinese orchestra after having failed the audition for the national, Western, one.
Being a diligent student, Emma persevered at her cello lessons as she did for all her subjects in school and, as in the case of those subjects, did well at her music, acing all her exams with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. She played with her school's string ensemble and then with the national youth orchestra, even performing once on the same stage where the world-famous cellist had played. The audience included Singapore's top politicians, who congratulated themselves on how the mastery of Western classical music by the nation's youth displayed how cultured this newly independent, South-east Asian, mostly Chinese, one-time British colony had become. Also in the audience was Emma's father, finally finding out what classical music was like, amazed and proud of the intense look of concentration on his daughter's face, of how her fingers vibrated on the neck of the cello like flower petals under the weight of raindrops.
True, Emma never became good enough to be the section leader, but her artistic accomplishment added flair to the good grades she sent in with her college applications, helping her gain a place at a prestigious university in New York City as well as a government scholarship. She did not study music, of course, but economics and statistics. The long plane journey there and the mountains of winter clothes, cheap textbooks, toiletries and Singaporean snacks that took up her check-in allowance meant her cello had to be left behind; she considered purchasing another one in New York, second-hand, so she could continue playing, but never got around to doing so, distracted by her studies and the other attractions a big American city has for a young foreigner.
This is not to say that she has abandoned music entirely. Though mindful of the need to budget her scholarship allowance, she manages to attend a few concerts on student discounts and rush tickets, taking the subway to Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall, carrying in her coat pocket tickets printed with the names of the soloists her music teachers have always spoken of with such reverence, mixed with a tinge of regret.
She even sees the world-famous cellist perform one more time, in the winter of her junior year. An older friend, a former student musician like herself who is now at the university's graduate school of journalism, has a freelance gig writing classical music reviews for one of the major dailies, and he invites her to attend the cellist's latest concert with him. Though Emma senses that the tall, somewhat ungainly white American has (unwelcome) romantic intentions, she cannot resist the offer as the review tickets are for very good seats, in fact the best seats Emma has ever had, right in the centre of the stalls and close enough to the stage to see the gold lettering on the Steinway.
The cellist is, at this point in his career, still very much a headliner, though he has lost the sheer youthfulness that made him such a dazzling star 10 years ago. Now mellower thanks to age and a nasty divorce, he has become interested in East-West fusion music, the Spaniard finally sentimental about his Chinese heritage. With his global reputation, it was not difficult for him to persuade various music practitioners from Asia to join his band; many of the instruments wielded that night would have been very familiar to Emma's first cello teacher, the cellist with the Chinese orchestra.
It is also not difficult for the cellist to sell his latest project to a Western audience. Epic, swooning, laden with hints of ancient sorrows from a myth-shrouded continent, the music is lapped up by the New York crowd. Emma herself privately finds it hard to enjoy the sound she thinks the strings thin and whiney, the primitively-constructed wind instruments give her a headache with their coarse blares, while the cellist keeps playing his cello like it is some other instrument but she does not have a chance to mention this to her date, who spends supper verbally drafting a glowing review over tapas as she sullenly watches tears of wine streak the inside of her glass.
When they emerge onto the street it is almost midnight, and a light snow is falling. She watches the snowflakes as they arc through a beam of light from a lamppost; they seem to slow as they fall through the glare, as if the brightness is made of something molten, viscous. She thinks of how, somewhere far, far, far beneath her feet, clinging like a stalactite to the underside of the globe, is Singapore. It is noon, the egg yolk sun suspended beneath this upside-down city ringed by upside-down waters. Inside one of the millions of upside-down flats, her father is just waking up after another night of managing the pub, shuffling in his rubber slippers to his desk to get a cigarette before going to the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. She feels, for the first time since she arrived here, the vast distance she has travelled from home.QLRS Vol. 9 No. 3 Jul 2010