I’m not sure how to frame this. A few weeks ago, when I started writing this Aabservation in my head, while wedged between people (thankfully shorter than me) on Bus 120 going to work, I planned to write about the value of framing things. I was going to talk about the photo contest — whose results are going on display in the Ginza Gallery next Saturday, March 22nd at 8:30 (come if you’re in Beijing!) — and how the art of a photograph wasn’t just noticing something and shooting it, but cropping it and putting it against the right background. That in framing something, you add your own personality to someone else’s experience. In the Aabservation I was going to write, I would’ve talked in saturated tones about how the red edging I added when matting some dreary grey photographs of China to bring out the a sense of hope in these shots. Then, like in all Aabservations, I was going to expand out on this little micrometaphor, talk expansively about human nature, drop in a reference to China and gratuitously comment on how cute pandas are (well, c’mon, they are so cute!), before closing with some profound-sounding play on words intended to play on your mind for days to come.
Or that was the plan, until I had some black coffee.
I usually take my coffee with milk and one cube of sugar. It’s how I like to frame my morning cup o’ joe, how to make it fit my personality and tastes. So when my friend handed me a homebrewed cup of illy(TM) coffee with no cream or sugar in sight, I accepted politely — and got ready to chug.
The coffee was amazing. No oily aftertaste. No harsh graininess. No burnt dryness, excessive acid or unnecessary bitterness. Just full and well-rounded flavor. It was just pure, good coffee.
It isn’t often in life that you get that — something just by itself, unframed, undoctored, and excellent. Something that could do well in any environment, with or without milk and sugar, with or without red edging. Music in particular needs context. You can’t really isolate a song and expect to still have the same impression of it — you never just listen to a song, you always listen to a song somewhere. I believe Chinese people like cheesy pop songs because they hang out in karaoke bars where singability is the most important consideration, whereas New Yorkers like music whose beat you can still hear over roar of your stairclimbing machine and the rhythmic rumble of the subway. The only place I can think of where music has no context is the inside of a car. I actually started wondering, while riding Bus 120 this week, whether the explosive divergence in American music styles began when people first started listening to music in their cars, rather than in context-rich, music-influencing venues. When you are by yourself, windows up, in your car, you can listen to anything.
This week I was on Bus 120, now on my way back home from work, wedged between people (still shorter than me), with the remains of a black sugar-less iced coffee coursing through my (overtired) veins. Suddenly on my borrowed iPod, above the churn of the bus engine, the pleasant but repetitive voice of the station announcements, and the murmur of my fellow strap hangers, came the simple notes of Pieter Wispelwey playing a Bach cello solo. For the next forty minutes of usually frustrating rush hour traffic, Beijing just dropped away. The hollowness around the single notes of his cello created space despite the press of the crowd on the bus. The context had no impact on the music.
I want to look for other things that don’t need framing for a while, rather than looking for ways to frame things. I got a chance when the “Aabsetrip,” fourteen friends and friends-of-friends visiting China for the first time, came to Beijing last week at the tail end of their 10 day tour. When friends have come in the past, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to show them a great and authentic time, to present “China” in a way that would make them fall in love with it, or at least understand why I have. But here, they were on a guided tour, and I could do nothing more than let the tour guides frame their experience. What if they don’t like it? I fretted to Jeff Levinson, my friend who ran the tour, on the way over to meet the group. “Liz, you don’t have to worry about selling them on China,” he replied. “China sells itself.” And he was right.
But still deep down I can’t really seek a frameless life. There’s a lot of music that sounds terrible on a Beijing bus no matter who great it sounds in a concert hall, and a lot of coffee out there that tastes better with milk and sugar. And there’s a bunch of winning photographs waiting at the print shop waiting to be framed.