Mechanised Shawms in China: Suonas in the modern Chinese Orchestra
2. Going to China is harder than I thought... The Challenges.
Let's face it, I didn't expect to get any funding to go investigate shawms in China. I'm not sure I would have asked for the money if I had known anything about what such a trip entails. I never thought that it would take me over a year to organise it. But now that most of the trip is organised, let me reflect on some of the challenges I have encountered on the way.
1) I don't speak Chinese
Having previously only done research in Europe and the US, I have always been fluent in any of the languages spoken in the museums I have visited. Organising a trip to Barcelona or Edinburgh is relatively simple with an EU passport, Easyjet and multilingualism. I often have local contacts or relatives and I do little planning because I can sort out appointments and travel on the day. None of this has been true for China.
With no particular knowledge of Chinese language, culture, museums, academia - or music for that matter - I wasn't sure where to start looking for instruments. I contacted a number of Western academics who were mostly sympathetic but rarely very helpful in terms of local contacts. It was only after about 6 months that I finally found an email address through an email that came through a musicology mailing list, and I was able to make an appointment at the Oriental Music Museum in Shanghai. Which brings us to...
2) I'm shy
Emails should be a godsend for shy people. If the idea of making a phone call to China makes heart skip a beat, sending and email should be fine, right? Well, I am equally terrified of sending an email to a stranger. Without going into deeper analysis of this now, this means that it took me a few months to reach out the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. The same goes with the Oriental Music Museum in Shanghai. I felt that my request was too vague because I didn't have a travel date yet, but the only way to establish a travel date was to actually contact people! Thankfully, both replied quickly and positively. I'm hoping that this experience might cure my fear of emailing strangers a bit...
3) You need a VISA
I'm a child of the Schengen Agreement. Apart from growing up only tens of miles away from the village of Schengen in Luxembourg, I have never known a time without freedom of movement in Europe. While I was aware of needing a Visa to travel to China, it never occurred to me that it would be so time-consuming and expensive to get!! Long story short, it will take two passports, a trip to Manchester and close to £300 to acquire. I appreciate my two European passports all the more today.
There are many types of Visa and the easiest one to acquire is a tourist Visa. I will be travelling under a tourist Visa as my 'research' will not take place at academic institutions but rather in museums and concert halls. This still requires proof of your plane ticket and hotel bookings. Having to book all this before applying for a Visa is terrifying but is still easier than attempting to get a research Visa.
4) There is danger everywhere
I have just received my Hepatitis A jab and will go back for Rabies. The travel nurse has talked me through all the things to avoid while in China and the list of potential ailments is truly terrifying. I plan on being smothered in sunscreen and insect repellent for a solid 10 days. To conclude, this is a list of things that I'm scared of now:
- Open waters, water streams, tap water. Any water really.
- Pigs, Chickens, Cats, Dogs, Insects. Any animals really.
- Japanese Encephalitis. Ew.
- Big crowds.
- Bonus: Ticks. Unrelated to this trip but I discovered that my childhood was lived in great danger of getting tick-borne Encephalitis in Europe!
1. I got money to go to China - how and why?
I secured funding to visit China and Hong Kong to explore Chinese shawms and will be travelling to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong at the end of June 2018.
So what is a modern mechanised Chinese shawm and why am I bothered?
A shawm is a conical double-reed instrument which is usually played in traditional and folk music. You will recognise it for being very loud and piercing. I like to call it an outdoor oboe...
I have spent a number of years researching Catalan shawms specifically. During the American Musical Instrument Society Annual Meeting in 2016, I was half listening to a paper on Chinese instruments, and when I glanced at the slide, I saw an instrument that looked exactly like the tenora that I had been working on! I quickly realised that a similar instrument existed in North Korea too! Have a look for yourself below: the Catalan tenora, the Chinese tenor suona and the North Korean jangsaenap.
The fascinating story of the mechanised shawms encouraged me to further pursue the question. I received a Royal Musical Association small grant to visit SOAS in London and the University of Oxford to explore resources in the UK. I was lucky enough to see Keith Howard's jangsaenap, which must be one of the only, if not the only, example outside of North Korea.
I presented a paper comparing the three instruments' histories and constructions at the 2017 Annual Meeting in Edinburgh and won the Frederick R. Selch Prize for best student paper too! You can read the paper in the Sonograma magazine.
At this point, I had exhausted the resources in the UK and the next logical step was to travel to see the instruments in their 'natural' habitat. In fact, suonas and jangsaenaps are difficult to find outside of China and North Korea for a number of reasons; not least because for political reasons and a reticence among some music scholars to consider this 'invented' or 'artificial' tradition... As far as I'm concerned, it is still very worthy of study even if it might not be considered 'traditional'. This is only one of many issues that I will need to disentangle during my research.
If you have made it this far, reward yourself with a performance by a very talented North Korean boy on the jangsaenap.
Thanks to generous funding by the American Musical Instrument Society and the Roland Levinsky Memorial Fund, I will finally be travelling at the end of June! In the next post, I will discuss the challenges that I have encountered so far in organising this special trip, other than securing funding.
So as a summary of funding and prizes I have received so far, here is a list of very worthwhile funding sources:
- American Musical Instrument Society:
American Musical Instrument Society Publication Grant and Frederick R. Selch Prize
- Royal Musical Association:
Small research grants
- Galpin Society (no funding for this particular project but for other research, and published my article on tenoras!)
The Galpin Society Research Grant