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.