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The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations Paperback – Mar 1 2012
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About the Author
Zhu Xiao-Mei was born in Shanghai, China. She began playing the piano when she was a young child, and by the age of eight was performing for Peking radio and television stations. She entered the Beijing Conservatory when she was ten years old, but her education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. After five years in a labor camp in Mongolia, she returned to China, before moving on to the United States and finally Paris, France, where she has lived and worked since 1984. She teaches at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique and has performed for audiences on six continents. She is one of the world’s most celebrated interpreters of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
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I was so moved by her description of her beloved Goldberg Variations that I downloaded her first CD. I find it truly inspiring. I wish I could directly communicate my admiration and appreciation for her courage and the music she has left us. This book provided me with considerable insight into her extraordinary life, and I am grateful for her fascinating autobiography.
Born in Shanghai into a creative middle-class family during those turbulent years following WW-II, her family moved to Beijing when she was very young. Her first encounter with the instrument that was to shape her life is movingly remembered in her own words:
"I didn't know what it was, a piano. I was barely three years old, and I had never seen anything like it. I was fascinated. I wondered where it had come from, this object that spoke when you touched it. Strangely, my mother never played the piano. But every morning, she dusted it: her first act of housework. `Such dust! In Shanghai, there wasn't so much dust. Why did you bring me here?' she would add, turning towards my father."
And that curiosity sets the pace for this book in which she takes us on a journey in which we witness first hand a side that is usually veiled to most Westerners. Learning the piano during those young years, she was a prodigy who played the piano in radio and television in Beijing when she was only eight, and at ten, she entered into the Beijing Conservatory of Music in a program for unusually gifted children.
As a teenager her studies there were putting her on the path for a brilliant musical career, but that was stopped cold by Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution. As it took hold, even music at the Conservatory faced the consequences of the time, as we witness through her eyes:
"Everything was burning. Today it was the bodies; tomorrow it would be the spirit. I imagined the bonfire where the Red Guards were melting down our records and burning our scores...a thin veil of smoke lifted towards the sky. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven vanished into the air. But in the end, the Red Guards were right: it had to be done. As Mao said: `The Revolution is not a dinner party. It is an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.'"
Through her eyes we see her family split apart by forced relocations. We observe the five years she spent in a work camp in Mongolia, her own political indecisions, the sometimes painful memories, yet where despite many difficulties she managed to practice the piano in hiding... the Secret Piano.
Zhu Xiao-Mei's story reads like a novel, with all of the color and dimension that keeps the reader glued to her words, page after page. She left the work camps in 1974, after being `assigned' there for five years. During her stay in Beijing, her life again changed as through her music she began to explore ways to get to America, a dream that she realized finally in February, 1980, thinking of Jonathan Livingston, "the seagull who wanted to fly higher than all the others."
It was during her flight to Los Angeles that she learned of the Chinese philosopher Laozi, and this from an American woman, a teacher in a university. This was the profound beginning of a new philosophy for her, and one that with her music would help to guide her. Xiao-Mei's sojourn to California resulted in her living with friends and relatives and working menial jobs to survive. She went to the New England Conservatory in Boston to complete her music education, then beyond, dealing as she went with problems with her English pronunciation. She paints a sometimes witty picture of her experiences, such as a waitress job in Boston's red light district. It's a fascinating tour of what the US looks like to someone from China, and the adversities that one must overcome to just survive, right down to a marriage of convenience just to stay in the country.
And in December 1984, Xiao-Mei's odyssey led her to Paris, starting over again, with a diploma from the New England Conservatory that meant little in France. Yet it was during a return trip to Boston that she truly blossomed with her first attempts to tackle what she became so well known for: her interpretations of the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach, the musical encounter of her life:
"Buddhists always depict Buddha smiling. There are always two aspects to everything, to every being. There is no single truth--everything depends on the way in which one wants to see reality. That is life, and that is the Goldberg Variations. Through it, I also now understand why polyphony, Bach's in particular, affects me more deeply than any other type of music. By means of its various voices, it alone is capable of simultaneously expressing multiple and contradictory emotions, without one necessarily taking precedence over another."
And Xiao-Mei lives those words, as can be heard in her J.S. Bach: Variations Goldberg. She teaches at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in France, and has performed for appreciative audiences on six continents. She is one of the world's most renowned interpreters of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" as one can hear on this album.
Zhu Xiao-Mei is also the inspiration behind and subject of Andre Leblanc's book for children, The Red Piano, a touching work of fiction in which a young girl stuck in a Chinese Cultural Revolution Camp where the Communist Party conducts "learning through labor and self-criticism."
It's also worth mention that the translation was beautifully done by Ellen Hinsey, whose own works as a poet and author include The White Fire of Time. Her expertise shows through in this beautifully-formatted Kindle edition.
This book is more than an autobiography; it's a moving story of the human spirit prevailing over incredible odds. It's highly recommended not just as a beautiful autobiography, but as a background to those who enjoy Xiao-Mei's interpretations of the Goldberg Variations.
The problem is, that much in the narrative is jumpy or poorly explained. I'm not saying that she's lying but, like another reviewer I would LOVE to know how she smuggled a piano into a labor camp (a camp clearly stated to be 'a prison') .. and then journeyed to dozens of near-by wire factories (how convenient!) to replace the broken strings. And how the piano stayed even remotely in tune.
She writes about her mother being diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live ... but her mother is still alive several decades later.
She writes about how she struggled for admission to university in China, and then never mentions anything about her time there except that she was able to meet some Chinese intellectuals. It isnt' even clear that she attended the university.
She writes about how she moved to the U.S. to attend music school in California, then changes her mind and attends in Boston, but makes no mention of how she filled the 9 months in between, and how she supported herself after quitting her first job, or what she had to do to get her scholarship.
She writes about her 'marriage of convenience' to a man who was presumably, but never stated in so-many-words as being in a gay relationship -- and then her husband is never mentioned again. (Did this 'marriage' cause her NO difficulties when she applied for a French visa and then French citizenship?)
She writes about being diagnosed with cancer and refusing chemo -- but a few pages later she is recovered.
An editor to help smooth out these awkward sections would have been very welcome.
Zhu Xiao-mei has tremendous courage to keep going when faced with such adversity from the public self criticisms, labour camps, keeping a level of sanity when being brain washed, trying to make it in America and Paris, only to then fight off a disease. The effect though was a continued doubt about herself which is a pity because so many times Zhu Xiam-mei bounces back when life (or Mao) knocks her down.
The book also quite rightly points out western countries have drew a public closure (as best they could) and learn lessons from world war 2 but China not taken that approach about the cultural revolution, which still appears largely hidden away and for China to become a greater power then it needs to be more open and honest, with itself and others. The making of great leaders are those that have no problem apologising for mistakes, and learn from them.
Overall, a very insightful book into both music and the cultural revolution, but is a book that requires effort to finish and is worth it in the end.