Shanghai Journal #4: In Which Time And Pianos Bend


Still here in Shanghai. It’s been 4 weeks. Sometimes it feels like months.

The feels-like-months isn’t because time stopped. Nor is it because we’re in land that time forgot. It’s definitely not because things aren’t working well—living in the dynamo of Shanghai is exhilarating with new adventure lurking, literally on every corner

Feels-like-months—issign of culture-shock-extremis, a syndrome driven by many competing sources, some of which are things we’ve done, some of which we’ve seen, some of which we’ve only vaguely glimpsed.

But the thing is, they, the many competing sources and experiences, come one after another. Each one is a first time. They’re all adding up to something larger from which we’re learning a lot.

Or, as Jenna Hilbert, a friend who recently completed a year-long trip around the world, observed—and succinctly and to the point at that:

Often the most difficult part about travelling is travelling. And then once you get the hang of things, it’s time to leave!

 What Should Be Mundane.

A doc office, nothing special. Except finding the office with an address that’s hidden on the map, at least to us, and printing directions in Chinese (for a taxi driver)—neither of those things happen instanteously or easily.

And then there’s the choosing of whether or not travel on the Metro where we’ve previously gotten lost past all reason and understanding—not that we possess either while trying to find our way from here to there!

So we took a taxi to the doc office using our directions printed in Chinese. At the destination a  well-dressed doorman opened the car door and said:

Welcome to the Ritz-Carlton.

Who knew a doc office would be in the Ritz-Carlton complex? Meanwhile, about our choice of transportation—Metro or taxi.

We’ve learned—experience teaches—that all things in our early days in Shanghai are best accomplished with a Plan A accompanied by a Plan B, a backup as it were.

A Bank Account

It’s possible after our four months here that over the next three or four years we may return to China. Therefore, a bank account, along with with our newly-minted Chinese phone numbers—they’re necessities we’ll likely need and use over the next several years.

To that end into a bank we went with documentation. We brought

  • visas
  • passports
  • additional photo IDs
  • a memo on official letterhead explaining why we’re here.
  • our lease
  • and more.

Alas, those credentials didn’t qualify us for an account. To a second bank we went—yet another example of why plan A and B are necessary.

The irony is the first bank we visited was the one we were told would open an account for us. Whereas the second bank, the one that let us open the account, was the one we were told would never do so.

Now, to be fair to banks, if we were here for longer than several months ….

A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

During yet another taxi ride the driver SUDDENLY pulled over to the side of the road for some urgent texting. That was AFTER he growled because we communicated our destination slowly. Slow, in this case, means not instantly immediate.

To make up for lost time, or perhaps he was just a fast, agile driver, he zoomed off from his roadside texting perch—a proverbial bat from hell heading right into a heart of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Respect the Bus

Soon thereafter, we came as close as I’ve ever come to hitting a a bus. That happened because the driver turned a dedicated bus line into a two-part path.

His idea, best as we could tell, was to squeeze the taxi in which we were riding alongside of the bus that was goin in the same direction.

So bus on the left. We were on the right. Inches separated us from sparks and grinding metal.

We were so close to it that were sure we were scraping up against the bus. Of course, taxi versus bus only has one possible outcome.

Maybe there was inch between us and the bus. Possibly. While there were no sparks and metal didn’t touch metal it was all palpable as it those things were there and happening.

Chinese Lessons

Having realised some knowledge of Chinese can only help, a few days ago we had our first Chinese lesson with Shasha. I learned that each word in Chinese is composed from two sounds—they’re called an initial and a final. The final is modified with one of four tones.

Well, it may or may not be quite that simple and but’s that’s my understanding for now. About tones:

  • One is flat, meaning no accent or stress applied. —
  • Another rises, as if asking a question. But the rising sound doesn’t doesn’t indicate a question as might in English. /
  • Another descends and immediately comes back up. \/
  • The fourth one is a fast, sharp accent. ! It sounds like anger—it is an angry sound—but anger isn’t what it indicates.

But all of the above has to do only with speaking. Reading is another story.

Four Months Isn’t Enough

We, and everyone else, know our four months here isn’t enough time to learn how to speak Chinese. But, if by the end of our stay we can order a meal politely in a restaurant —If we can ask the fundamental questions—If we can understand answers to simple questions—Then we’ll have made progress.


As we endevour to progress we also need breaks. Therefore, I was sitting in a glittering mall—and let there be no doubt—in Shanghai glitter means G*L*I*T*T*E*R.

I was drinking a Starbucks Reserve—who knew coffee would acquire the nomenclature of cognac or single-malt Scotch?

Here’s a Shanghai Starbucks (Reserve).

Let it said: at a Starbucks Reserve, the quality of coffee, simply, completely, utterly, totally blows away the product one usually associates with a regular, normal Starbucks.

Is Starbucks Reserve elsewhere, other than China? I haven’t see it nor heard of it in the UK. Is it in the US?

News From Pianoland

With our rented piano delivered and tuned, I play every day, Some more concerts are scheduled and I’m really looking forward to them all.

Therefore, I’m working up some of this, a little of that, and playing scales curiously and experimentally.

Scales curiously and experimentally: For me, right now, that means improvising with scales, first in one hand and then the other and then with both hands to get counterpoint, textures, and what not.

This is a different process than using a scale to improvise a melody or just playing scales. It’s worth explaining in more detail—if only so I understand what I think I’m doing … What it’s going to lead to is, well, it’s obvious: improvising with scales.

And things like this make an impression.


Next month in Taiwan I have a concert. Afterwards, I’ll give a presentation to music technology students. My inner (post)-academic jumped out when writing a description of what I’ll speak about.

Dr. Mark Polishook will demonstrate a new generation of musical instruments from consumer-level Roli Blocks to a contemporary modular synthesiser to iPad apps to the Haken Continuum. Common to all of these instruments is an approach to music technology that eschews the binary on/off switching mechanism of MIDI and instead turns to the possibilities of continuous control.

The model for continuous control in electronic instruments began with the Theremin, an analogue instrument that doesn’t require physical contact or touch from a performer. The advantage of continuous control is it encompasses the binaries paradigms of MIDI without being constrained by them.

Meanwhile, the future of continuous control is far from certain. Experimentation and innovation is ongoing. But, consolidation, such as occurred when the MIDI standard was adopted by the music industry, is yet to come.

On the other hand, maybe that description isn’t academic, not even a bit.

For Example

The Haken Continuum: I’m in very early stages of learning how to play it. It’s an instrument I met in Berlin.

The Continuum has an abstraction of a piano keyboard silk screened onto a foam rubber surface. It’s a keyboard abstraction because, first of all, the keys that would be white on a piano are red on the Continuum. Second, there are no raised or recessed keys in between the white keys as on the piano.

The image makes it clear:

Mark Polishook Skype jazz piano lessons

The foam rubber surface of the Continuum attaches to sensors which, in turn capture magnitudes of sensitivity and nuance far beyond anything MIDI offers. That might even be understatement.

What we do all of that sensitivity is up to us, of course.

More electricity

In contrast to the Continuum, here’s a screen shot of a humble, little app. It lives on my iPad.

It’s called Quantum. It’s a digital simulation, a recreation as it were, of a beast known as an analogue step sequencer.

Think Tangerine Dream—I love their soundtrack, especially the music that runs in the closing credits, for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, a classic film that’s a remake of the French film The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur)—also a classic—here’s a snippet from the soundtrack by Georges Auric.

Step Sequencers and Ernst Krenek

A step sequencer, as opposed to piano roll sequencers that are more common in the beast known as a DAW—a digital-audio workstation— is a retro thing, something from the olden days.

I find it to be interesting: on the one hand, a step sequencer invites its users make music in prescribed styles such as existed in the 60s and 70s. On there hand, there’s really nothing with or about a step sequencer that limits style or idea to any one or two or three conceptions—just as the piano comes to us without limitation.

Or are the limitations of step sequencers and pianos precisely what fuels the creativity such beasts offer?

Ernst Krenek, the composer owned and experimented with a modular Buchla synthesiser. I’m fairly certain his experiments with electronic media aren’t well known—if they’re known at all.

Happy New Year!

The Chinese New Year, The Year Of The Dog, it arrives on Thursday evening. It’s a weeklong celebration, perhaps it’s two weeks long.

The answer of how long exactly depends on who you ask. Shanghai is already shutting down.

Shops that are open all the time aren’t. Streets are less crowded. But the electricity remains on!