I nothing to do today, and I wanted to get out of my apartment. Being that it’s Sunday--the one day you can actually get a parking space in Manhattan--I figured the best thing to do was to take a drive. My plan was to park on the East Side of Central Park (The Metropolitan Museum of Art side) and walk across to the West Side, so that I could check out The Rose Center at The American Museum of Natural History. I hadn’t seen a planetarium show in a while, and the Rose Center has amazing planetarium shows.
I was walking across the park and passed by the Bethesda fountain, and suddenly, out of the many, many musicians that play in Central Park, I heard one that really stood out. It was a Chinese guy playing one of those two string cello like things. If you ever saw the film “The Last Emperor,” you heard it at the beginning, and come to think of it, you’ve probably heard it at some point in just about every Hollywood film that has to do with China in any way.
I gave the guy a buck, and then gave him another. I didn’t want to go away. Because I was standing there so long I only felt it right to add a five to what I’d already given him, and I found a place to sit nearby and just stayed there, listening.
Occasionally, I would show him the results of my research as I tried to figure out the name of the instrument he was playing (and thank you, Wikipedia, for including the kanji for the instrument names). I’m not exactly sure if it’s an erhu or huqin, but when I showed him the kanji for huqin, he nodded, and gave me a thumbs up.
It’s just such a beautiful, haunting instrument. Though technically the range is three octaves, it’s really more of a ten note instrument, because anything outside this limited range doesn’t sound that great. Consequently, when he played something that sounded a bit like “British Grenadiers,” he had to keep adjusting the melody so that the notes would fit inside the range of the instrument.
And it just sounded wonderful. I found myself thinking about Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, who each had a range of only a bit more than an octave, but managed to do so much with such a limited tonal palette. This guy was doing much the same, creating these haunting melodies that just kept me sitting there listening.
I had started listening to him close to the end of his daily busking session, and when he was done and I shook his hand. Then, when I grabbed my pack, I heard him call me. He had given his cell phone to a woman, and was motioning me to come over in that way Chinese folks do, where they hold out their hand, turn their palm down, point their fingers so that they're perpendicular to the ground, and then move their fingers back and forth, which of course, amusingly, is quite similar to the English gesture of shooing someone away.
The woman took a couple of pictures of the two of us, and then I gave her my phone so that she could take one for me. He gave me his number, and because he spoke no English, I used Google Translate to say hello to him and send him the photo the woman took on my phone.
So much life affirming stuff within a range of ten notes...and the planetarium show was awesome, too.