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Stanford Today Edition: March/April, 1996 Special Section: Creative Writing WWW: Stanford Today - A Dream of Western Music


A DREAM OF WESTERN MUSIC

BY LAN SAMANTHA CHANG
Illustrations by Jeffrey Smith


Following her emigration to the United States in 1965, Vivian Huang fell into a strange illness, a melodic preoccupation from which her new surroundings, her husband and children were almost forgotten as she struggled to hear faint, imagined strains of music. The origin of her illness lay in memory. She did not listen for the symphonic boom from Carnegie Hall, or the smooth sounds of the American stereo cabinet, but for the faint and wistful strains of the gramophone that she and her friends had played when they were barely teenagers, at her family’s old house in Beijing. Strauss waltzes and Beethoven sonatas hummed so quietly in her mind that Vivian had to lie very still in order to hear them. When she closed her eyes, scenes from the ancient walled city spun against her lids, vivid and fleeting, as if she were watching from a plush seat in a movie house.

These reveries were shattered each evening when her husband, Ming, came home from work and directed their sons’ practice sessions on the violin.

“First your turn, Ben,” she heard Ming’s firm voice say. There was a long pause. Vivian imagined Ben dragging his feet away from the television set and into the practice room. He stood ready to play like a sad little cricket, his tiny instrument drooped under his chin. After a few scratchy notes he began to howl. “Ma . . . Ma, Mama!”

“Mama doesn’t feel well.” Ming gritted his teeth.

Aaaa!”

Despite Ben’s refusals and cries, it was half an hour before Ming gave up. “All right,” he said finally. “Now, Charles.”

Charles tuned his strings. Vivian opened her eyes and saw Ben’s small shadow in the doorway. He had tiptoed in so that Ming wouldn’t hear. Now he stood and stared, terrified at the sight of her lying in bed.

Vivian said, in Chinese, “Little Ben. Come on in. What is it?”

She was breaking a household rule. Ming had made a rule that they speak only English to the children because the household, in America, should become American. But the familiar language worked like magic on Ben, who had begun rejecting English from the minute they had landed at Kennedy Airport. Sniffling, he crawled up onto the bed, where Vivian stroked his head and murmured in mutinous Chinese.

Together they listened to Charles practice. Charles was eleven years old, and talented. He had just begun to learn the first movement of the Mozart A-major concerto.

Ming sounded its simple opening on the piano; Charles echoed the melody in true, clear notes. Ming detected a trouble spot, a difficult finger shift. He ordered a repetition. And another. And another. Charles obeyed. Somehow out of this relentlessness a pattern of sound was born. Ming’s verbal directions receded until there was only a duet between the piano’s orders and the violin’s response. Charles’ playing became smoother, more confident, until the piano stopped entirely and Ming allowed his son to continue on to the joyous, leaping notes of the second section.

"Yes!” Ming cried when Charles had finished the movement. And even more surprisingly, “Very good!” After an hour, he said, “I think your new American teacher will like you this fall. You can put away now and watch TV.”

“Right in time for Batman!” Charles shouted. But he “put away” carefully, Vivian knew, because his father would detect any act that betrayed disrespect for the instrument: if he forgot to loosen his bow, for example, or to wipe the rosin dust off the strings and body. The violin had been one of their first purchases in the States: a “three-quarter-size” of brilliant sound, harder to find than a full-sized instrument, but essential at this stage because Charles’ limbs and fingers were growing at their own pace and to put him on a violin too large or too small might ruin his technique.

Vivian heard Ming’s footsteps approaching the bedroom.

“How are you doing?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Vivian replied in Chinese.

“You don’t know?” Ming’s dark eyebrows came close together. Then in English he said, “Ben, go watch TV.”

Wo bu dong,” Ben said, and burrowed into the pillow.

“I know you understand! Now go and watch TV! Go!”

Reluctantly, Ben slid off the bed. But he lingered for a minute in the hall, kicking one of the moving cartons.

“He won’t listen to me,” Ming fumed. “He’s so immature for seven. When Charles was seven, he was already on the Vivaldi, and here Ben can barely play a scale.” He sat down on the bed. “Vivian, what is the matter with you?”

Vivian said nothing.

She felt as if she were watching the room from far away. Two people, husband and wife, locked in battle. The husband used words, but the wife used silence.

You should at least make a gesture, she thought. Touch his sleeve.

But she did not. In the end, she did not say a word to him. Ming left to prepare supper and Vivian did not stop him. She couldn’t move; she felt weighty, dense, as if she were crushing the bed. Her body and mind refused to function.

As a girl in mainland China, Vivian had loved western music more than anything else. She remembered herself at Charles’ age, rushing home from school to play a precious foreign record she had borrowed from a friend. She listened to symphonies, operas, solo performances; classical, jazz and folk music. In those days the tunes of Stephen Foster were popular among young Chinese. Vivian would bend eagerly toward the gramophone and stare into the turning record as the sweet, dim song filled her ears: sorrowful, beautiful and filled with longing, like a dream of faraway places.

She and Ming had met after the war, at a Taipei concert hall. She was sitting in the balcony with two friends and he had come alone. She and her friends boldly allowed him to lend them his opera glasses - Vivian, next to him, had used them the most.

After the second act, they talked. Both had been born on the mainland, had come to Taiwan for college, and had decided to stay when the Communists closed the mainland for good. Ming worked in a pharmaceutical company. He had bought the opera glasses on a visit to New York. He told her about the great performances there, and the building of Lincoln Center. He spoke of his love for music: “How lucky a person would be, to be born in another time, a stable time, and to have the opportunity to be a musician.” The longing in his voice attracted her. Then the lights flickered - intermission was over. They sat back in their dark seats, and the music began again.

Now, in America, she felt chagrined at where this longing had taken her. Every night, she listened to Ming drill Charles. “Elbow out! Wrist straight! Slower now,” or “faster.” Ming had changed. The American Ming had only one goal: that his sons excel as violinists. Every day he rushed home from work to direct their practice sessions. He walked quickly and purposefully like other New Yorkers. He had caught sight of his dream in Charles, and he followed it with all of his will and strength.

As she lay in bed listening to the A-major concerto over and over again, Vivian felt as if all the resonance and luster were being stripped away from the Mozart. And if longing was what she loved, what did she think of action, striving, competence? How could she love this new Ming, who was determined to leave nothing unachieved?

In time, Vivian decided the problem could not be solved. She got out of bed and began her new life. Ming was promoted at the pharmaceutical company where he worked. Ben went to school and started speaking English. Charles became a prodigy.

Intelligent, swift-fingered, with a true ear and a voracious appetite for achievement, Charles leaped into his studies with the ease of the naturally gifted. The sounds of his violin filled the apartment. On the back of the boys’ bedroom door, Ming taped a long sheet of computer paper: Ben and Charles made a mark for each hour practiced. By the time Charles turned fifteen, the entire door was covered with computer paper, dominated by the tiny signs of Charles’ work.

That year, Charles took extra lessons with his teacher, Luigi Piazza, to prepare Mendelssohn’s E-minor concerto for the annual youth solo competition at the Y. The audition coincided with an important business meeting of Ming’s, so it was Vivian’s job to take Charles to the audition.

“He’s ready,” Ming told her. “He will win this year. Oh, I wish I could come along.”

“I’ll call you at work when the results come out,” she said.

Vivian took Charles and Ben to the Y in a taxi. As the Checker cab dipped through Central Park, she glanced cautiously around Ben’s head to see how Charles was doing. Charles, at sixteen, had reached a stage where he didn’t want his mother looking at him. He sat erect in his jacket and tie, staring out the front window and holding his violin case against his shoulder like a rifle. He seemed, thought Vivian, more like a young soldier going into combat than a violinist.

Ben sat close to Vivian. He often clung to her when Ming was not around. He was meek and private compared to Charles - much more like herself, Vivian realized. For a minute she recalled the time she had spent in bed, immobilized by some inner refusal to adapt to change. She wondered if Ben had been transplanted to America at too young an age, when his sense of confidence had not yet been formed. Vivian patted Ben’s hand. She tried to give him a little extra attention to make up for Ming’s interest in Charles. Charles practiced obediently and well, flourished at school and at home, and had found it so easy to put their Taiwan life behind.

Vivian wondered if all the differences between her and Ming had been transferred to their sons. These differences were usually hidden by Vivian’s silence - a silence that had only grown stronger after Vivian got out of bed and began her American life - but what became of silence in an unhappy marriage, she wondered? Surely that silence would someday make itself known? It would emerge, show itself, some brilliant, scaly-headed creature that had been growing in a deep cave.

The audience consisted of the four judges and a scattering of young competitors with their parents. Vivian examined their faces as she and Ben walked into the small auditorium. They were serious, focused, private faces. A young blond girl wearing patent leather pumps sat near the door between her mother and father. She was sobbing quietly over her flute case, her face buried in her hands. Vivian looked away, in time to see Luigi Piazza enter, ruffling his thick dark hair.

Charles walked onto the stage. He raised his violin with absolute poise; the accompanist began the brief, wobbling introduction to the first movement, and although she had watched him practice a thousand times, Vivian was suddenly terrified that her son would forget how to play. Her fear, she realized, was directly related to Charles’ astounding air of confidence.

But Charles did not make an error. He stood planted on the stage, his body swaying pliant and strong as young bamboo, his bow moving smoothly through the haunting first movement, the sorrowful second movement, and finally leaping and bouncing through the joyful third. His left hand was precise and sure, his notes "like diamonds," as Luigi Piazza had once said in a moment of praise. Vivian sat transfixed in the audience. In moments like this, she felt that certainly she must be happy, they must all be happy. How could she fail to be proud of her son, of Ming?

After his performance, Charles bowed deeply to the applause, then stepped into the audience, where he conferred for a few moments with his teacher before hurrying up to Vivian and Ben.

“Let’s go,” he whispered.

Vivian motioned for Ben to get up. They walked out into the hallway.

“Don’t you want to stay a while and watch the others?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Piazza’s staying for Sarah Whitehead. She’s last on the schedule. He said he’d call and let me know.”

He was not interested in the other contestants. And after such a performance, Vivian thought, perhaps he did not need to see the others. She paused. She was curious about the others; she wondered if Ming would want to know.

“Well, if you don’t want to stay, of course we’ll go home,” she began. Then she looked at Ben, his narrow downcast face. “Do you want to stay?”

He nodded.

“Oh, come on,” Charles said, tracing the floor tiles with his toe. “You can stay and watch when it’s your turn to enter this contest.” Then no one said anything. They all knew Ben might never be good enough to enter the contest.

“Well, maybe Mr. Piazza can give him a ride. You can run and ask,” Vivian said to Ben. He hurried into the auditorium. This plan arranged, Vivian and Charles took a taxi home.

It was evening when Mr. Piazza brought Ben back to the apartment. Vivian scanned the teacher’s face; he looked satisfied, but she could not tell what he was thinking.

“Well, my boy, you did a good job,” he said, sitting down on the couch. “I thought your performance was excellent.”

There was a moment of silence.

“But did he win?” Vivian asked for her son.

“Well, not this year.”

Vivian looked at Piazza for a minute. His plump red mouth was contented and relaxed; he was obviously happy with the results. She felt oddly relieved, and knew that the Chinese part of her was less concerned with winning and losing than that the teacher be pleased.

“I didn’t win,” said Charles.

“No,” said Luigi Piazza. “But you made an excellent impression on the judges. They said you show great promise of maturing into an accomplished player.”

“What does that mean?” Vivian asked.

“Well,” Piazza touched his chin with his fingers that were long and flexible, so different from his face and body. “They - recognized your technical accomplishments. They noticed your strong left hand and good bowing work. They remarked on your precise intonation and good tone. The drawback to your performance was not technical, but instead - how did they say it - spiritual. This, I think, may come as you grow older, my boy. As you live, and suffer in your life.”

There was a moment of silence.

“What kind of suffering?” Charles asked.

“It is hard to say. There are certain kinds of suffering that we hope never to experience, such as war or famine. Then there is the suffering that overtakes us even in the time of peace, such as the suffering of memory.”

“Who won?”

“Bernard O’Keefe, a very talented young cellist.”

Charles leaped off of the couch.

“Bullshit!” he shouted. “I was really good, I bet I was better than him.”

“Now -” Vivian began. But her son had flown the room. He ran lightly out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. Vivian stared at the door for a minute, then realized that she was neglecting her guest. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He is young, still. I think I understand what you mean. Charles needs to put more feeling into his music.”

“Yes, that is what I mean.”

“You think that he will be able to do this?”

“If he continues working, I believe he will begin to understand. This feedback is good for us, it gives us a goal for next year’s contest. We have a point to focus on.”

After Luigi Piazza left, Vivian sat on the couch, thinking over what he had said. She knew he had told the truth. But she also knew, with a mother’s knowledge, that suffering would only hinder Charles. Charles was best as he was now: thoughtless and vigorous, laughing and hot-tempered. Suffering might twist and burn him. She sat on the sofa as the spring evening faded around her, until the room had become almost dark.

She stood and went guiltily to the boys’ bedroom. “Ben,” she said, opening the door, “what do you want for dinner?”

He had not turned on the light. She made out his shape on the bed, where he lay staring out the window at the dim brownstone building across the street. “I don’t care,” he said. “Mr. Piazza bought me three candy bars at the vending machine. Is that okay?”

“You’re not hungry, then?”

“No. Where’s Gege?”

“I don’t know,” Vivian said. She noticed he had used the Chinese word for “older brother.” How had this escaped Ming’s relentless drilling? What other old words, what memories, ran through him? She studied his narrow wedge of a face, wondering as she had many times what he was thinking about.

“He shouldn’t be unhappy, Mom. He was good. I heard the rest of them, that guy Bernard who won was amazing, but Charles was really, really good.”

Vivian thought about the difference between “really good” and “amazing.”

“Dad’s going to be mad,” Ben said.

“Well, I’m not mad.”

“I know you’re not, but he’s going to be.”

She began to reply, but then the telephone rang.

It was Ming. “What happened? Why haven’t you called me?”

“I’m sorry, I just forgot.”

“How could you forget?”

“I’m sorry,” Vivian repeated. She paused, wondering how to tell the news. “Charles did a very good job. He played excellently, no mistakes.”

“Did he win?”

“No,” Vivian said. “But Piazza is encouraged.”

Encouraged? What could have encouraged him?”

“The judges think Charles is good, that he should just try to play with more feelings.”

Feelings?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And Piazza? What does he say?”

“He agrees.”

“I wonder about Piazza! Shouldn’t he have taught these things to Charles before the contest? Shouldn’t he have noticed?”

Vivian struggled with her answer. “Ming - perhaps he did know, but he could not teach Charles.”

“What?”

“Maybe -” she began. Then she fell silent.

Ming found a new teacher for Charles, a professor from Juilliard who charged forty dollars an hour. Ben, he decided, would stay with Piazza, “until he needs a better teacher.” (TM) Ming bought a new stereo system with movable speakers and a graphic equalizer. He collected recordings of the Mendelssohn: Heifetz, Milstein, Isaac Stern, and instructed Vivian to play the Mendelssohn whenever Charles was at home. “This way he can see how others do it,” Ming told Vivian in private.

It was not until later, as Vivian studied the intricate switches on the stack of equipment that had replaced their old wooden stereo cabinet, that she wondered about Ming’s method. Piazza had said that Charles would understand as he grew older - had he not implied that the emotional content of the music must come from Charles himself?

The concerto pumped relentlessly through the house. Vivian felt sometimes as if she were drowning in it. She began taking the laundry downstairs in the evenings in order to escape the constant wailing of the violin, the rush of the orchestra. The music drove Ben from the house; he began to stay at school, late into the evenings, where the orchestra teacher let him have a practice room.

In between recordings, Ming and Charles fought.

“Again!” Ming said, as he always had. “Again!”

But this time, Charles would not obey him. From the kitchen, Vivian sometimes heard Charles stop playing, defiant, and sit down, his bow skittering off the strings.

“Stand up!” Ming’s deep baritone drove through the wall. Silence. Vivian pictured Charles slowly getting to his feet and tucking the violin under his chin, his arms drooping, his nostrils flaring with anger.

“Now, try it again.”

Some scattered notes. “Again!”

“No!” Charles yelled, and stamped his foot. Vivian’s tea quivered in her cup. There was a stinging sound of her husband’s slap. Charles shouted, “I don’t want to practice! You’re making me! You’re making me!”

“Ungrateful!” Ming shouted back. “You’re so young and stupid, you don’t understand anything!”

The telephone rang; it was the neighbors calling to complain about the noise.

On the night after his second failure to win the contest, Charles flung out his arm and hit the music stand, snapping his bow in two. Ming made a decision: Charles would pay for the new bow by forfeiting his trip to Tanglewood music camp that summer.

“I know you can afford it,” Charles accused his father. “You’re just trying to punish me! And do you know what? I don’t care. I don’t care about Tanglewood, anyway.” He stood straight, glared at Ming.

Ming looked away. Watching from the doorway, Vivian felt a pang of remorse.

“You might try to be more thoughtful with your father,” she said to Charles, late that night. She had gotten up, unable to sleep, and headed for the kitchen, where he and Ben sat drinking Coca-Colas, gearing up to study for their exams.

“Does he ever think about what I want?” He met her eyes; he had become quite handsome with his high-bridged nose and angry expression.

Ben sighed and looked into his soda; Vivian realized she had again forgotten about him. Next to his brother he seemed stunted, his eyes unfocused in his oddly shaped face. “Don’t be upset,” she told him. “Your father didn’t say you couldn’t go to Tanglewood.”

He looked at her, helplessly, and Vivian realized that he was terrified to go to camp without his brother. “Come on,” she said. “You can do it by yourself. You can’t stay with Charles forever.” The minute she said the words, she knew the truth: None of them would stay with Charles forever. Soon Charles would leave home for college, and without him, the silence would overtake them completely.

Vivian made her way through the dark hallway to their bedroom. Her breath caught in her throat; she thought she might cry. When she opened the door she heard a coughing sound. She came further into the room and realized that it was Ming who was crying, hunched into a painful curl on his side of the bed. Vivian stopped. Then she got into bed.

“It’s all right,” she whispered. “He didn’t mean to be rude to you. He’s at that age, you know.”

Ming’s body tightened in a spasm of dry sobs. “It’s not me,” he choked out. “It’s the bow. How could he be that careless of his instrument?” Vivian waited, listening to the faint sound of traffic on Riverside Drive. After another minute, Ming said, “He doesn’t like music. He doesn’t want to be a musician. He doesn’t like me either, his own father. What has happened to us?”

“You’re upset,” she said.

“It’s true, and you know it. What has he been hearing, all these years? How could we have raised such a monster?”

The word “monster” snagged on a memory of hers. Vivian knew, she knew the answer.

And then it was time for Charles to leave. He insisted on his choice: not music school; not anywhere close by such as Yale, which had a fine conservatory. Charles chose Stanford, out in California; his grades were good enough. (TM) On a hot September afternoon, Vivian helped him pack. Sheets, socks and underwear collected in a pile by his bed. As she folded and refolded his things, she smelled fear in her own perspiration.

“I’m keeping these here, Ma.” Charles pointed to his winter clothes in the closet.

“All right.”

“No winter coats, no boots, no scarves, no gloves, no mittens, no sweaters!” Charles spread himself on his old twin bed and smiled at the ceiling. Then he chanted, “Roller skates, skateboards, palm trees, frisbees!”

The front door slammed - it was Ming, who had picked up Ben from school. A minute later they heard the opening to the Beethoven violin concerto start through the bedroom speakers. Charles slid off the bed and went back into the closet.

None of the family wanted to admit that the records were no longer necessary. The music covered the fact that nobody spoke as Vivian and Charles finished packing; as the four of them ate their final dinner; in the car, the next day, as they listened to a Sibelius concerto on the way to Kennedy Airport.

In the flurry of Charles’ leaving - some of his things had to be shipped separately, some of them had been misplaced - Vivian never lost sight of where he had put his violin. Now, in the car, she turned to make sure it was sandwiched among the boxes and suitcases.

A traffic jam delayed their leaving Manhattan. On the freeway, Ming took the fast lane toward the sprawling, modern airport where six years ago they had entered the country.

“You two help him check his luggage,” he told Vivian and Ben. “I’ll park the car.” He helped them unload and joined the line of cars headed for the vast parking lot.

It was not until they were standing in line that Vivian realized Charles had left his violin in the car. It made sense, she decided, calming herself. Ming would bring it to the gate and Charles would carry it onto the plane. But half an hour went by as they checked the luggage and found the busy gate. Where was Ming?

A woman announced that passengers could begin boarding now.

Ben tugged Vivian’s sleeve. “Do you want me to run and find him?” he asked. “Maybe he’s waiting for us in front.”

Vivian searched the crowd. “No,” she said. “I think we should stay in a group.”

“But Charles can’t leave without his violin,” Ben insisted. His face reflected her own terror.

Vivian looked at Charles. He edged toward the gate; he didn’t seem concerned. His eyes held a glint of discovery. Vivian imagined him getting on board and taking off - shedding this burden the way he had shed his winter clothes, light on the wing, leaving them. And wasn’t it how they had brought him up: to forget the past and move forward, always?

The woman announced the final boarding call. Vivian made up her mind.

“You go,” she said. She turned to Charles and hugged him. He waved goodbye and went out the door.

Vivian and Ben stood together and watched him walk to the plane. Standing on the ladder, he turned and waved again. Then he disappeared inside. The plane waited a minute on the runway and moved slowly away.

As the plane rose into the sky, Vivian heard a commotion behind her.

“Wait!” Ming shouted. “Tell them to wait!” She turned from the window and saw him struggling through the crowd, gesturing wildly. In his other hand he carried the violin.

That night Vivian sat in the living room and watched Ming read the paper. He had not spoken to her since their return from the airport. It was very quiet, so quiet that Vivian felt as if their apartment had risen, or floated, above the noisy city, away from the earth.

How had this happened? Vivian wondered. She, who had once cared about her husband, found that she could not offer him words of comfort. It was as if the words, or the time to say them, had simply disappeared. And Ming, who had had such dreams and worked so hard, had created a stiff and painful life for himself where the things that should have helped the most gave him only grief. They were each alone, numb and wandering in a foreign place.

“I’m sorry, Ming,” she said. “I have been terrible, terrible to you.”

For a minute, he did not reply. Vivian felt his careful hand on her arm. “Not you,” he said.

Then they stopped speaking and listened.

As they sat very still, they heard a lovely sound rise into the evening, sweet and pure as a melody from childhood, but so new and particular in its emotion that it was several measures before Vivian recognized the Mendelssohn’s second movement. The notes lingered until she could hardly bear to listen to them. They sang of loss, of sadness and grief. They sang of long regrets and aching loneliness. Vivian and Ming sat together on the couch, listening, until the movement was over and Ben put his violin gently away. ST


WHEN SHE CLOSED HER EYES, SCENES FROM
THE WALLED CITY SPUN AGAINST HER LIDS

HIS FATHER WOULD DETECT ANY ACT THAT
BETRAYED DISRESPECT FOR THE INSTRUMENT

VIVIAN FELT AS IF THEIR APARTMENT HAD
RISEN, OR FLOATED, AWAY FROM THE EARTH

MING BOUGHT A NEW STEREO SYSTEM WITH
MOVABLE SPEAKERS AND GRAPHIC EQUALIZER