Tona Scherchen

I met the composer Tona Scherchen in Berkeley in the winter of 1994/95. I had no idea that I would soon after experience one of the most incredible coincidences—yet another proof of our interconnectedness. It was a dark evening on Arch Street when I, pushing my bike up the steep hill, ran into a woman in her fifties who wore a CD around her neck. She asked me where the concert at CNMAT was supposed to take place. I told her that she was on the right track and accompanied her to the entrance since we had the same goal. I took an interest in this slightly eccentric woman and asked her during the intermission about her whereabouts. She was quite ready to comply: I quickly found out that she was  a composer and producer at the French radio, and had come to California to treat the effects of a physical breakdown by means of traditional Chinese medicine while reuniting with her brother who had just recently moved to the States from China. After the concert I stayed on as I wanted to learn more about her: Inquiring about her Eurasian looks which reminded me of Jennifer, she revealed that her father was a certain Hermann Scherchen (whom she was surprised to hear I had learned about as a student). Her mother Xiao Shuxian, a composer and Scherchen’s second wife, had returned with her children to China in 1950. This all sounded fascinating and we decided to stay in touch. At home, I talked to Jennifer and we decided to invite her to a dinner party along with Jennifer’s friend Jin Lei Chang—a student of comparative literature, originally from Shanghai, and her boyfriend, the Berkeley literature professor Bertrand Augst. We felt that we would quite easily find common ground: the Chinese background of Tona, Jin Lei and Jennifer, as well as the culture of France, Bertrand’s home country and Tona’s country of choice.

A week later, we all finally met in our apartment on 62nd Street off of College Ave in the Rockridge district of Oakland and the conversation quickly took an unexpected turn. We had just sat down at the dinner table when Jin Lei, who like Tona’s mother came from a noble Chinese family, mentioned that her mother used to tell her about this daughter of a European conductor. She would come down from Beijing to Shanghai in the 1950’s to spend some time with the family of Jin Lei’s mother and had a weakness for ice cream and getting up late in the morning. I noticed Tona turning pale. She became very flustered and apologized for not remembering, but it was obvious that she was the one. Tona then went on explaining why she had repressed nearly all her memories of China: When they had gone back, Tona who had grown up in Switzerland, was already 12 years old and had learned to question authority. They arrived to Beijing when Mao’s revolution was in full swing and it didn’t necessarily make her life easier that she contradicted and doubted her indoctrinated high school teachers with all their agitprop. At some point, the authorities lost patience with her and sent her to a labor camp where she, for 9 months, had to clean latrines. She became severely ill and almost died when she was sent back home and eventually allowed to return to Europe. No less a person than Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary companion (and himself descendant of a noble family) was instrumental in getting her out of the country. In 1956 an incident at the Bern embassy where Chinese citizens had been taken hostage presented an opportunity: She was freed in the ensuing exchange and finally able to reunite with her father. He had remarried in the meantime though and had little forbearance for his deprived daughter. He convinced her therefore to study composition in Vienna with no one less than György Ligeti—who only a few years after he had fled Hungary—had already made a name for himself in the avant-garde music circles.
After our dinner Tona and I  saw each other a couple of times. Once at Mills college, where she, unfortunately, had been met with a fair amount of “Euroscepticism” and once again at my place where she gave me a pile of her scores published by the finest European publishers.


When the Wall Came Down

I was there when the Wall came down on November 9th, 1989. On the very evening the changes were announced on East German Radio, I was sitting on a tour bus that was taking students of the Cologne Musikhochschule to Berlin. At the time, I was studying composition with Prof. Krzysztof Meyer who had set up an exchange with the Berlin Hochschule der Künste (now Universität der Künste). For this, the composers from his class as well as a few other musicians embarked on this trip, for which I had just completed a new piece in 17-tone equal temperament (later named Two Cartoons) and had the whole bus wait for me as I had problems saving the last, definitive version of the piece.

After finally leaving Cologne in the early afternoon, the sun had already set when we passed the border to East Germany and we were gently rocked by the many potholes of the GDR autobahn. The driver had tuned into the Radio DDR II when the news were announced that no one on this bus would have expected during his lifetime. For the first time in decades the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Germany were allowed to travel where they pleased which was equivalent to the abolition of socialism as we knew it. It was pitch dark outside, which together with the announcement created an eerie atmosphere in the order of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.”

Arriving to Berlin, it was clear that something out of the ordinary had happened. To the dismay of Meyer, I decided to stay with my friends Peter and Barbara whom I knew from Cologne. We agreed to meet after the concert, which took place on the next day and to inspect the situation a bit more closely. The next day, my piece was performed by my good old Atari ST 1024 computer, which I use to log around just like people nowadays tote their laptops.

Since arriving to Berlin, Meyer had been in a strange mood; he seemed nervous and irritable. What went on in his head, I asked myself. Did this have anything to do with him leaving communist Poland before the Warsaw block officially returned to democracy? It was hard to picture that the historical events which concurrently took place in Poland would have any repercussion on him, considering that he was able to smoothly travel between those two worlds and never uttered anything publicly that would have compromised him? We will probably never find out.

Anyway, after the concert, which took place on Hardenbergstraße, Peter, Barbara and I walked down on Straße des 17. Juni to the Wall joining more and more people, all headed for this monstrous monument of political insanity that my parents had escaped from in 1956 when they fled Hungary. It felt we were at a huge outdoors party and when we finally arrived to the wall, which, at hardly 3 meters tall, again felt so diminutive that I kept asking myself how it was able to contain 17 million people for so long, everybody got totally excited. There were people standing tightly packed on the wall, some helping others to climb on top assisted by those standing below.

In my memory the wall was wider than it actually was at 1.3 meters, but obviously  spacious enough for dozens of youth who in a provocative manner had raised their arms and shouted “Sieg Heil” to the Volkspolizisten lined up on the other side of the Mauer, which quickly put a damper on my excitement. And indeed in the aftermath of the liberation and reunification a nationalistic sentiment swept high during the West, which was quickly contained and subdued by the ruling political parties. After spending some time on the wall, we climbed down again and walked towards Checkpoint Charlie which we reached after midnight. Most people had already left the scene but I remember clearly that the ground was littered with thousands of bottles of beer, wine and champagne. We decided to go home at this point.

The next day, it was Saturday, I decided to spend a few hours downtown by myself which at this point in history mainly meant Charlottenburg. I encountered vast amounts of East Germans who all had the same two questions: Where is Ku-Damm (Kurfürstendamm) and where is the KDW (Berlin’s famous department store and beacon of capitalist excess)? On the way back to my friends, I experienced a situation in the subway, which I had only seen in TV features on the Tokyo subway, where masses of people are being shoved into the trains by special personnel: I stood so closely packed with all the other passengers that I could hardly breath.

A few hours later I joined my colleagues from the Cologne Musikhochschule and we embarked on a trip that was going to become the longest bus tour of my life. Shortly after leaving the Berlin city limits, we got into a huge traffic jam which lasted for 10 hours until we reached West Germany again. An armada of Trabis (the nick name for Trabant, the East German folk’s wagon) had hit the autobahn, their owners keen to quickly experience what they had yearned for over years: a little bit of personal freedom. During our frequent stops, the musicians pulled out their instruments and gave little impromptu concerts on the autobahn to everybody’s delight except for the bus driver who couldn’t stop complaining about the extra hours.