by Rolf-Peter Wille
“Can you do me a favor?” asked my piano student.
“What is it?”
“Can you stop writing these horrible stories?”
“My stories? …but they are…”
Anyway, the following one is not fiction and it happened a long time ago.
When I left Taipei’s Soochow University (東吳大學) in 1983 to further my studies in Canada and New York, I felt uncomfortable. I was afraid of loosing my full-time job at the music department. “Will I keep my job?” I asked Mr. Chang Kuang-Rung who was the head of the department. “Don’t worry!” said he, “as long as I am alive you shall always be welcome back at Soochow!”
Four years later I returned with a DMA degree from Manhattan School of Music and Mr. Chang had died. One day when I meet him in heaven, I shall have a good word with Mr. Chang… Maybe I shall thank him after all, because this is how I came to TNUA (國立臺北藝術大學), which in fact was not TNUA then but simply NIA (國立藝術學院), or “National Institute of the Arts.” Actually Lina Yeh (葉綠娜), my wife, and I had started to teach part-time at NIA right from its founding days back in 1982 and I even remember the school’s first location at the TIYAC (國青中心, this Romantic acronym stands for “Taipei International Youth Activity Center”) on Hsin Hai Road. In those days they had not yet torn down those vast colonies of sprawling squatters surrounding the TIYAC and from the higher floors of the building one could overlook a wild jungle of makeshift roofs, chaotic gardens intermixed with various junk and papaya trees. I also remember the drab staircases of TIYAC with those hanging “soccer nets” of dirty white twisted rope, hanging there obviously to prevent either stones, garbage, or people from falling down.
It was also here at the Youth Activity Center that I met some of the foreign music teachers who had been hired as the “show-pieces” of NIA’s music department. Originally the founders of the school had nourished the strongest ambitions and planned to invite international musicians of the highest caliber—such as Martha Argerich—to create a Taiwanese Curtis or Juilliard. Incidentally, by the way, Martha Argerich did come to NIA, many years later, to perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto with our orchestra, but in those days the classical music market overseas was still strong and luring world famous musicians to Taiwan on a long-term basis would have been next to impossible. So NIA invited some professional musicians from Germany, lesser stars though still quite well-known, to teach at the music department. There was the pianist Raimund Havenith, the cellist Reiner Hochmuth (霍慕思), who later founded a duo with pianist Tsai Chai Hsio (蔡采秀), and violinist Irene Wilhelmi, an ancestor of the legendary violinist August Wilhelmi. Each of these musicians stayed here for one or two years teaching students and performing recitals either at Shi-Jian Hall (Yian-Ping S. Road) or National Museum of History, Art Hall (Nan-Hai Road). Those recitals were serious cultural events then and they even received English reviews, and also quite nasty ones, by Bob Christensen in the China Post. The early days of NIA generated quite a lot of enthusiasm among musicians who frequently met, not for conferences, but for listening to recordings, discussions, etc.
But I only have faint memories of the TIYAC days. I still stayed in New York then and came only sporadically. My nostalgic “good old NIA days” are associated with Luchou, Sanchung, where the Institute moved in 1985 and where I started to teach in earnest. Students and teachers seemed to have plenty of time and it was not unusual then to sit in the office and chat with ones colleague for an hour and for no particular purpose. We, the teachers that is, had no individual offices then, but each of us had a private table in the rather spacious common office. One day at the office I saw a friend of mine in tears. There was a very passionate mood and strong discussions and nobody felt able to teach on that day. Actually that was the day when the Chinese government crushed the Tiananmen protests.
Otherwise, on normal days, those office chats were rather cozy and I badly needed my coffee to forget that horrible taxi ride through Sanchung. Some of my most monstrous nightmares are connected with those rides. Once a taxi driver run over a dog without flinching. At another time a friend of mine, the cellist Craig Hambelton, a NIA teacher then, waited for a bus or a taxi on the street in front of our campus. Suddenly a car swayed into his cello case crushing the instrument into a thousand little pieces. Not a Montagnana, but nevertheless, his dear cello. The car stopped and the driver, far from apologetic, started to yell and scream at him for a long time. No wonder one of our most talented student composers called his graduation piece “Far from Luchou.”
Nevertheless—the good old days at Luchou. Our campus was rather Spartan and it would not have been advisable, for example, to wear a white shirt and lean back in ones teaching chair. The student “cafeteria” did serve neither latte nor caffe macchiato. In fact it looked suspiciously like a dark pigsty complete with ugly cement-paved floor and so did our little exam hall. But some of the students appeared to be quite stubbornly committed then. They did not possess much sophisticated information but they were tough and eager. Needless to say there was also that “ma-bi” type of student who had irrevocably been insensitized by the rough environment. Those would permanently slumber through the lesson and no amount of enthusiasm could ever pull them out of their eternal hibernation.
Both types, the tough as well as the hibernating, are quite extinct now. Today at Kuandu we have the more soft, agile, sensitive but insecure types. Students are very active now and they are affluent too. When Mstislav Rostropovich gave a lecture at our music department (room 101) I asked a question about the relevance of life experience and the maestro related some of the hardships of his Soviet student days. “So, don’t feel bad if you have no money now,” he told our students, “it may prove a vital life experience later.” Little did he know. I remember seeing my student after that lecture. “I feel so guilty!” she said, “shall I throw away my gold card?” Each student is a rich but fragile flower now.
Last week I slowly “danced” through the rather flowery swimming pool during our flower festival. Wow, I thought. We have come a long way from Luchou.
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