City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Shanghai Diary 2005 #2

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The second part of yesterday’s opening entry of Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary 2005 continues to explore the sense of difference between Shanghai and the West but also between Shanghai last year and Shanghai this year. There are echoes here of Rem Koolhaas’s conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, around speed of development, which I noted before. Koolhaas thought that the “Chinese city is for me a city that has built up a lot of volume in a very short time, which therefore doesn’t have the slowness that is a condition for a traditional sedimentation of a city, which for us is still the model for authenticity.” Justin’s writing goes beyond architecture and urban form and illustrates the sense to which cultural production and consumption is developing apace in Shanghai, beyond the slow, stratified sedimention that Western culture has developed. Last year Justin noted that the private property market in Shanghai is being constructed rapidly without that sense of a sedimented strata of taste, value in design, and the “hidden codes” that define a ‘des. res.’ in London – which in some ways is a more democratic process, if largely centred around the permanence of meaning that money possesses. Now, Justin explores how part of Shanghai’s culture is also redefining itself around, or reacting to, a different aspect of the West’s symbolic capital – Beethoven, Mahler and the experience of classical music.

Coming to a place a second time gives you the comfort of the familiar, though you may barely understand it more than the first time. But you have enough points of reference for the full existential shock to diminish. You have space to look around. But the familiar is not always the comfortable, like the way the waiting crowd mows you down as the metro door opens, or the sweat drips down your back after five minutes, or one more taxi blares its horn as you cross the road on green. Concert audiences here, I’d forgotten about.

One week ago I was at a Beethoven concert in Manchester. Being the Ninth it was treated as an event in the way the others in the series had not been. I went to all of them. That early concert of symphony 1 and 3 was half empty; the Pastoral and the 7th had been quite full. But the Ninth always packs them in. I was reading about it in Lewis Lockwood’s book on Beethoven and it’s clear that this has always been the case. The Ninth is a civic occasion, as highlighted by Leonard Bernstein’s concert before the Brandenburg Gate in 1989. The Ninth transformed the idea of the symphony (again) and set a definitive seal on the idea that music, symphonic music at any rate, was for a ‘public’. Of course bourgeois, but by implication open to all. It was the French composers during the revolution who first thought about public music, music with a public function. Music that would stir hearts and minds. Music that would communicate in a new way. But it was Beethoven who first did this with real musical integrity (John Carey’s latest book would say this was a meaningless judgment; I would say his book is mostly nonsense from beginning to end, but I’ll return to this), molding the details and structures of the musical language into one that could perform this public work using an inner musical logic rather than external ‘sound effects’. In 1824, Europe – from a revolutionary’s perspective and Beethoven was a bourgeois revolutionary – was a place of gloomy counter-revolution. The ancient regime was back in power. Beethoven set out to make a statement – in that special way music can – about freedom and joy and human brotherhood, not as an easy idealism but as a memory of a vision of liberty in a dark place. Once, in St Petersburg, I asked a senior figure in the Arts Council North West who had just come from a performance what she felt about listening to the Ninth – could she bring herself to believe in that final vision? She said she did not intellectualise music and let the violins just wash over her. This is not a sneer – well, OK the Arts Council bit was – being washed by violins is fine. It made me wonder what on earth classical music audiences are thinking about – what is this ‘public’ at all? Is there any sense that Beethoven’s music still speaks to a public? The audience in Manchester, or that bit around where I was sitting, were all turned out well for the performance. There is an idea amongst people who never go to classical concerts – which is the majority of the population – that it is full of people in tiaras and cummerbunds. Maybe the opera still has a bit of this in it, the high prices and emphasis on connoisseurship – you don’t need to know about the music, it’s the timbre of the voice – give plenty of opportunities for displays of taste and distinction. But your average symphony orchestra concert attracts a much less ‘arty’ crowd than the theatre, or slightly quirky art exhibition, even a season of sub-titled films. Less arty means they dress up. But these are Marks and Spencer not Armani. Beethoven’s Ninth is a spectacle – once the first bits are got through and the big tune comes along. And it is something people want to go to to do something cultural, and something to which they bring their kids because it’s ‘educational’.

When ‘pop’ music (read modified African American music) began to challenge the codes and the language of European art music (and also popular music, which derived from it, not vice versa) one of the key charges against it was that ‘classical’ music repressed the body. It was about the head not the hips. And the most obvious example of this was the symphony concert. The new public space of music was – more or less from Beethoven on – still and silent. You sat still, you did not nod or tap to the music. You did not eat or talk or pick your nose. Only loud repeated coughing was allowed. Accounts tell us of how new audiences were ‘civilised’ into this strange new behavior. The uproarious bun throwing and surreptitious chatting up of 18th century public spaces gave way to the hushed cathedral of the 19th century concert hall. (Maybe the opera house still kept some of that rough and tumble – at least until Wagner came along). It’s a learning process that has to be passed on from generation to generation. Small children are told what is in store for them if they misbehave; as they wriggle, a life long hatred of classical music begins to form. But there are grown ups who missed out on this education. Coming in from the chocolaty user-friendly tones of Classic FM; encountering the bright young things and customer-centred atmosphere of the British concert hall (in Milan, ushers in suits viciously police the concert venue, which has let you in for a couple of hours as a very great privilege) it can come as a shock to be told to be quiet by the woman behind. I sat next to a woman who had a bottle of water which she screwed and unscrewed through the concert. Slowly, so as not to bother anyone. Orwell once said something about a tooth ache taking priority over a Beethoven symphony (or was it a Shakespeare play?). A crumpling plastic bag does the trick just as well.

The ‘civilizing’ process is now, of course, seen as another example of ‘discipline’ in western techniques of power and domination. Which I’m sure it was, in part. But the music was written for it – it has to be heard in silence and stillness. The bottle-opener next to me was listening to music in her own way – I don’t think it is the way Beethoven meant it to be heard, but does that matter or not? – but it was a way that pissed me off. Behind me was a wriggling boy – feet gently kicking my back, sniffing very loudly – really suck that snot right up, get your throat into it, yes, that’s right all the way – through the whole thing. Especially in the very quiet bit. At the end – ultimate embarrassment for the English – my partner complained to his father, that you shouldn’t bring kids to the concert if they can’t act properly. The father looked sheepish. The bottle-opener (no relation to the boy) jumped in, “Excuse me, but that little boy might have asthma”. Complaining about our complaint. How horrible that we should deny an asthma sufferer the right to go to a concert. Typical classical music snobs.

Shanghai concert hall

Little did I know it but exactly a week later I would be sat in another concert hall half a world away in Shanghai. It was Beethoven (though 4 not 9) and Mahler. The Shanghai concert hall was built in 1930. I’m not sure where the money came from – the Brits trying to make up for their uncultured rapaciousness of the previous eighty years? Auden and Isherwood had made the trip out there, maybe the post-Bloomsbury Brits had decided that culture – rather than the race course which lay just across the road – was now required. Or maybe it also involved the new Chinese bourgeoisie. They now owned most of the new department stores on Nanjing Road, they owned the film studios – Shanghai had the most dynamic industry in Asia – maybe they wanted to prove their cultural rather than entertainment credentials. Across the other road lay the Great World, a music hall-circus-dance hall-casino-pick up joint famous across China. It’s built in neoclassical style – only the presence of a man with a movie camera suggests a touch of modernism in the Greco-Roman frieze across the front. What happened to it during the cultural revolution (a subject of my next entry) I don’t know. But since the ‘opening up’ it has become central to Shanghai’s claim to be an international city of culture. It was in the path of the great elevated expressway that goes to the Bund; between 2002 and 2004 they moved it 66.42 metres (it says on the wall) to its present location. All re-gilded and polished it now welcomes the cultured bourgeoisie of Shanghai.


If bourgeoisie is the word. A visit to the concert gives a glimpse into the civilizing process in action. Not just the introduction of classical music, of ‘culture as worthwhile leisure’, but how to conduct yourself at a concert. This is new to the Chinese. The Chinese market for classical music is the fastest growing in the world (but then, isn’t everything?). This, along with the explosion in music lessons, relates to a symbolic vacuum where markers of cultural distinction are seen to relate almost exclusively to the ‘West’. This also relates to the fact that people have new apartments and have to put in a music system for the first time and need to buy music as part of the outfit, so classical music selections, preferably in posh red boxes, are shifting quickly. A classical concert is expensive – between 8 and 16 quid, or the cost of a very good meal for four with drinks in a restaurant. The hall was full. It was hard for me to read the audience. Well-to-do certainly, and much younger than here. My partner tells me most people will have got free tickets in some way. Such tickets, like vouchers for restaurants, are part of the lubricant of everyday business connections. It is less formal than our heavily sponsored concerts – you can always tell these because large sections of seating are empty after the break – just different individuals, families, friends taking advantage of some tickets to go see some culture. The public announcement told people to turn their mobile phones off, to not talk, to not eat or drink in the concert. This was in English. The Chinese announcement also added, ‘Respect others’ and ‘Don’t rustle plastic bags’. I could see the first audiences at a Beethoven concert, being told this was high seriousness when they’d paid good money for a night of music and were bloody well going to enjoy it. I read last year that in Beijing an usher and a female customer got into a fight because the woman wanted to take a whole roast duck into the concert. There was none of this bad behaviour here. During the concert those on mobiles talked very quietly, as did the others – probably one per row – who had lengthy discussions throughout. A woman in the next row had lost something in her plastic bag, which she looked for for around 20 minutes. The same woman waited until the delicately poised last chords of Mahler’s slow movement to get up and leave. She tripped over the slight stair and her friends rushed out to pick her up whilst she shouted ‘you should have reminded me it was there’. Of course people came in between movements, making people stand up to let them pass. And they left early – whilst the singer was doing her stuff.

But I sort of enjoyed it. I gave up listening to the Mahler. What on earth did a rustic Austrian dance written by an intellectual Viennese Jew mean to the Shanghai bourgeoisie of 2005? It made me think about how specific such ‘universal’ music is. Not just in its ‘meaning’ (if such there is) but in the very musical language; Mahler’s music never seemed so strange – and so difficult. Fragmented themes moving around a blaring trumpet, quiet woodwind, separated strings. At times the music simply fell apart. All I could think about was the Great World and maybe the Shanghai Film Studio where East met West to create a ‘Shanghai Moderne’, a chaotic, energetic, popular culture intrinsic to Shanghai but utterly modern. All there was here of that was an unruly audience – but not an exciting energetic audience. Just the new not-quite-yet-a-bourgeoisie coming to a concert because the government tells them culture is good leisure activity and shows Shanghai is part of a new international cultural mainstream. If only they would stop acting like bloody uncultured peasants all would be well.



2 responses to “Shanghai Diary 2005 #2”

  1. Micah Avatar

    Your experience at the opera sounds like every other stage show I’ve been to in China, no matter of local or foreign origin.
    I can’t remember where I heard this (so take it with a large grain of salt) but I heard that the gongs and yells in Beijing opera were meant to cut through the din of a Chinese audience. Apparently, it’s along tradition.


  2. mondom Avatar

    a köh és a városképi bizottság szíves figyelmébe, höhö

    Egyszerű napi klikknek indult… Well, ha már itt a kulturális tőkéről irkáltam, nézzük ezt a verziót. Szokás mostanában a kínai-kelet-ázsiai nagyvárosokat figyelmezni, hiszen a következő évtizedekben arrafelé fog eldőlni nagyjából minden – mégiscsak bej


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