A few weeks ago, I was playing music on the street, when a Chinese girl came up to me and asked, in broken English, if I would play in her concert. I didn't quite get her drift about the details, but it was going be a selection of Chinese traditional music, contrasted with American traditional music; myself to supply the latter. It seemed odd that she would ask a total stranger, and my first reaction was to decline the offer.
The next day, I got a follow-up email from her, that confirmed my first impression; something about it didn't quite make sense. So I wrote a polite letter of refusal. But I didn't send it. The idea did seem interesting; it was just that she didn't seem to have a clear idea of what she was doing, organizing and producing a concert.
But I thought about it for a day, and I changed my mind; I decided to do it. For one thing, I wanted to hear her "Chinese cultural music," and for another, there was something indefinable about the whole thing that intrigued me. But there were a few details that needed tweaking.
Runyu, the girl, must have thought that the Callioforte was a traditional American instrument, because after all, it was right there on the street in America. She knew she had never seen one in China. But I didn't think her audience would be of the same opinion, because, in fact, the instrument is a homemade little pipe organ, a gizmo I made from plumbing parts and coat-hanger wire. So I made the executive decision to bring my guitar for the first set, which was fine with Runyu. (She's never even heard me play that! I was thinking.)
The mystery finally got explained just before the concert, and when I learned the whole story, I was very happy that I had decided to do it. An older woman, a teacher, showed up and performed the introduction for the concert, which is when I found out that the girl, Runyu, is just turning 15; she is a high school student from China on a trip to the US, with her music camp group. She had been assigned a daunting project: to present a concert for the people of Cambridge, and she had had only minimal help organizing it. Because of her youth, and her imperfect English, she hadn't made any of this clear to me, and her confident demeanor had made her seem much older.
So I was still in the dark about these details, on the day of the concert when I arrived early to the small art gallery in Cambridge. Runyu was there, all stressed; there were still a lot of things to do. I helped her and her assistant, to set up the room. Then she changed into an elegant red gown and high heels, put on a little makeup, and there she was, transformed into a beautiful elegant lady. The small house filled up; maybe 50-60 people, some of them her friends and group members, and the rest of them, people from the community that had seen the flyers.
Runyu was very good, she played piano and sang Chinese songs, and there was also a violin player and another pianist, and me. I did two short sets: some old-timey American folk songs with my guitar (she had taken it on faith that I could do that), and some rags and Russian folk music on the Callioforte. Runyu had performed some Italian opera in her set, so I decided I could take some liberties with mine.
The concert ended up being a great success, and I felt honored and pleased to be a part of it; to help a visiting student get through a challenging project, and to leave her with a positive experience for her big trip. Runyu was practically crying as she was thanking the audience after the performance. Afterwards, I asked her how she knew I would be able to do what she wanted, and she said, "When I first heard you, I knew."
After the concert, one of the community people who had showed up, asked me if I was getting paid for this. I said no. She said, well then, here's my contribution, and she slipped me a $20. Since I wasn't expecting anything, the gesture made me very happy.
So, despite my misgivings in the beginning, it was a great experience.
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A person was asking me how the key of the bellowphone is determined. He noted that it seems to be happiest in D, which is correct, except it is actually a few cents shy of D: flat, you know, not the other thing. The bellowphone can also play in A to some extent, and by dint of extreme coercion and contortions, it can be made to play in F# and others. This is entirely due to the chaotic arrangement of the pipes, which were added as required for specific pieces, not from any coherent plan. As the repertoire grew, I would either add notes, or just try to work with what was there.
The kazoo has nothing to do with determining the key of the music, as my friend erroneously suggested; the kazoo is limited only by my singing ability. With my voice alone, I can theoretically sing in Harry Partch's 43 tone scale. In fact, I usually do sing that way, although not on purpose, I can assure you.
So the theory of the Bellowphone, is in fact, lack of a theory.
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