David Moser, Part II: LRCCS Spotlight, Beijing Edition

David Moser speaking on CCTV

David Moser speaking on CCTV

This post is a continuation of an interview conducted with David Moser, LRCCS Alum ’90.  The interview continues with Moser’s experience performing at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (春节联欢晚会), as well his perspective on the Chinese music scene.

Interview conducted by LRCCS Social Media Coordinator, Eric Couillard, and transcribed by Erzhan Xu


Couillard: I read that you were in 春晚 [the CCTV Spring Festival Gala]. When was that?

Moser: By then I had already been on TV a lot, and this was 1999, I think.  It was four foreigners, and they wanted to have a foreign theme sort of crosstalk.  It was a very interesting experience, but the piece itself was terrible, it was not funny.

Couillard: Did you have any part in writing it?

Moser: No, no… I mean, they wrote the original script, which did have some funny stuff, and even a little bit of edgy stuff, and a little bit of stuff that more makes fun of foreigner in Chinese context. But each time it made this iterative pass to the censor, it got progressively worse.  The censors didn’t know  anything at all about how to do an entertaining TV show, they were like, the Ministry of Propaganda Censors that know nothing about entertainment, right? So they would just say: “Oh, you can’t do that! Or that thing doesn’t make foreigners look good.” Or this or that…

So by the time we got to the final piece, there was really hardly a funny line in the whole piece. And all that was left was four foreigners trying to outdo themselves and praising the glory of China.  It was disgusting in a kind of way, because the piece had nothing to do with us, and presented the usual caricature of the adorable laowai.  But it was amazing because we were, in fact, seen by probably a billion people.

The CCTV Spring Festival Gala is a very important event,   broadcasting live for four hours, on the most important evening  of the year- Chinese New Year. So it is very highly vetted and rehearsed, and prepared for months and months in advance, down to the minute, the second. Every act is rehearsed endlessly over and over, and every political aspect is thought out, and reinterpreted. 

And it’s so important, in fact, that on the night before the lives broadcast, they tape the entire show from beginning to end, as if it were an actual performance. And then they take the tape as backup, so in case something happens, somebody breaks her leg, or somebody holds up a “Free Tibet” sign, they can cut away and just insert the backup tape, and no one will be the wiser. 

So to be a part of all of that was really exhausting.  And actually the next year, they wanted to do a re-hash of this thing. They said: “we want to do another crosstalk with four foreigners. Are you willing to come on and do it?” All four of us said: “No way! “ The experiences was the most disruptive thing; it just ruined our lives for like a whole month. So we didn’t go back on. 

But it was quite an interesting experience culturally, and to this day, and people will come out on the street and say: “I remember you! Yeah! You were on the ChunWan.” 

Couillard: What do you do with music these days?

Moser: I’m still playing Jazz piano, at least once or twice a month.  There are some groups I play in, mostly in bars. I was a music major. I was interested in Jazz, but I didn’t play the piano. I played the trumpet, and guitar. But when I came to Beijing in the early 90s, what groups really needed more than horn players was a keyboard or guitar player, the instruments that play the chords and harmony. They needed a player who knew something about jazz harmonies, and could make the chords sound stylistically right. So since I didn't have a guitar, I ended up playing jazz piano instead, even though I had never studied piano formally, and had no technique.

I’m still really lousy pianist.  I can’t even read music worth anything. But I can play the chords, and I can improvise pretty well. In jazz, sometimes the spirit, the rhythm, the feel of the music can be more important than mere technique. So that’s been a great joy, and I met a lot of great musicians, and I’ve played with some good ones. And I’ve seen jazz in Beijing go from just some really interested and passionate listeners, to new generations of young kids now, who not only have grown up listening to the music, but they have chops, the ability, the technique, and they are playing absolutely great music. I mean at a world-class level. So it’s exciting to see that. 

Couillard: How do you find your experience in music informs what you do with scholarship, and with language? 

Moser: I think it is pretty obvious, to me anyway, that language and music are just two sides of the same coin. They are related. It’s all communication, just on a different level. And for jazz, just like a language, there are people who are able to learn this new kind of music and appreciate it, and understand it, and there are people that have to struggle to to master it and communicate in this new form.   

I would say this -  and it might be controversial. I think a Westerner can understand a lot of Chinese culture, and you can learn a lot about China without necessarily exploring the world of Chinese music. This is because music doesn’t play the same kind of role in Chinese culture. There are beloved melodies that all Chinese people know, and there are forms like Peking opera, which has an enormous cultural influence. And there is a rich historical repertoire of Chinese music.  But at this current era it doesn’t play the same sort of roles socially that it does in the West, especially in America.  Regional opera forms and minyue, the "folk music" have a loyal following, but they are rapidly becoming museum pieces.  In China, pop music is incredibly popular, has it has always functioned as mere entertainment, a distraction.  It's not a political or intellectual force. In the US, the rock music, rap, punk, and so on have spawned social movements, or even, I would say, raised consciousness.  I think if you really want to understand American culture now or in the past decades, if you don’t know the importance of rock music, the influence of soul music, the history of jazz on the culture and all that, you're missing something. If you don’t understand who, say, Aretha Franklin, or Bruce Springsteen, or Dylan are, or the important music figures of the last decades, you won't understand some really important aspects of American culture.  

So what it is been interesting to me to see how Chinese people learn that musical language, and are able to develop it. And now are just actually no different from Americans in their level of mastery.  I mean, in the old days, they were just into Taiwanese pop star Deng Lijun, they didn’t understand the possibilities of pop music.  But just the other night, I saw a Chinese woman singing in a bar who I swear to god sounded just like Aretha Franklin.  You close your eyes and think, how could this woman have been born and raised in China! How can this be? 

But the language, they’ve absorbed that language. And it’s creeping into their pop music, and that’s exciting. That’s really amazing. And to see Chinese being able to incorporate that into their own music, is an exciting thing. 

And I think that is a kind of cross-cultural communication at a really important level. Because that stuff is so real, and hits people at the gut level. So for listening to the same music and digging the same music, that’s almost more important than speaking the same language, and hammering out some kind of trade agreement.  Which is good, but I mean, if you have the people sitting there and both responding in the same way to Jazz, that is a huge victory.  Editor's note - click here to read more about David Moser's thoughts on jazz in China

Couillard: So what are you up to these days? 

Moser: I just had a book come out called A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language, about the history of Putonghua., and I am really trying to work hard and get another book out on Chinese media. But you know the old joke - if you come to China for month, you can write a book. But if you stay for 10 years, you can’t even write an article.  

I’ve done so much with media, I’d just like to give my take on it. Because there are a lot of interesting aspects of the Chinese media that most Westerners are unaware of. And it’s tricky because so much important media is already in the past. So much water under the dam, you know. So I'll have to write the account in such a way that it connects the 80s and 90s, and 2000s, but also gives an image of the media dynamics right now, especially the issue of censorship and information control. The issues are quite subtle and difficult to explain without a lot of backgrounding. So that’s what I working on now.  But I may have to simplify my lifestyle in order to find time to finish it.  

David Moser is currently teaching at Capital Normal University’s CET Program, and has recently published a new book, A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language

More from David Moser:

The infamous article "Why Chinese is So Damn Hard"

A recent "battle of word" over the struggle of incorporating Chinese characters into cyberspace:

Stay tuned for more interviews with LRCCS Beijing Alum!