Vol 12, Issue 12
This weekend I took my first gaohu lesson. What was meant to be a study session at a friend’s place turned into an impromptu music lesson by her mother, then an hour practising the scales, then an unexpected jam session…
Soon after I left my friend’s house, I forgot all about the music. I remembered instead the quantity of work I had to do. The remedies assignment that was waiting, expectant, OneNote and PDFs still open on my napping computer. As the mountain of work loomed big in my mind I gave voice to it. The mountain learned how to speak, and tell stories. It told me stories about how it was made out of work worth doing, how conquering it would be like pulling the proverbial sword out of the stone. Get it done before everyone else, and I could be the King Arthur of Remedies. Would I take the path of righteousness? No, I chose the path of vice and sloth, playing around when I should be studying. I am nothing but a jester, and I don’t even have that cool hat with the bells. My mountain of work shakes its massive head, and unjust enrichment notes flutter down from the sky.
I should be studying, I know.
The gaohu enamoured me. More than any other, it seemed to have a pre-requisite of grace – the way you hold yourself affects the way you hold the instrument. It makes the difference between a note swollen with sound, and a sickening buzz. My friend’s mother demonstrated to me the correct bowing technique. I watched her right hand, and could think of nothing to describe the way she played except through this word: 送. A Chinese word, meaning to give, often used in the context of gift-giving, where generosity is implied. She sent to the instrument something that she thought it might appreciate, and it returned the favour.
The body of the gaohu is a long thin stick, to which two fine strings are attached. These strings are not traversable, in the same way you can run your fingers over a guitar. One hovers above the other, in a constant tension. Like two star-crossed lovers, never the twain shall meet – because curiously enough, the bow comes attached to the instrument, caught between the two strings. One may bow up and bow down, but never both at the same time. This instrument felt undeniably dramatic, and I could not get enough of it.
I managed to pitch my way through a few simple songs, accompanied by my friend on piano. Some old Chinese ones that my mother used to hum when I was younger. The tone of the gaohu, unmatched by any Western instrument, is at once creaky and sweet, attendant and grouchy. I recorded snippets of the songs to show our other friends, but the fluted edges of each note were tamped, mashed down to a wail. All you could hear were dull, wrong notes. When listening to the recording, it incited our back molars, made us bare our teeth and groan. A friend attempted to hammer his wince into a smile.
It sounded better than that, I promise.
Choose your story
I tell myself these stories, but sometimes I forget that one is truer than the other. Story 1 makes more sense to me, because it’s always easier to tell myself that I’m the problem. I am lazy, and never ever working hard enough. But I like Story 2 more, because it tells me that I am more than the wrong notes I make. I am a music student, I am a friend, I am a duet partner, I am more than a questionable law student. I do have a choice, between the stories I tell myself. And I think it’s important that we like the choices we make.
Janelle Koh is a second-year JD student and the Managing Editor elect of De Minimis
The rest of this issue (:O)