Monday, December 03, 2007

Little international flowers

Last night, several of us gathered around Sebastien, an exchange student here who has turned all of Hong Kong into his stage, performing unlicensed public jazz improvisations on his saxophone throughout the city. To see off those of us who are leaving Hong Kong this week, to travel or to go home, Sebastien set up shop with his saxophone in front of our residential complex.

The first piece he ever learned on his saxophone - and to this day, his favorite piece - is Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur" ("Little Flower"). We resolved that Sebastien would perform an improvised version of the song (which has been interpreted a million different ways on a million different instruments), and each of us would offer the narrative we saw unfolding within our own minds while listening to the song. I recorded the performance:

My first instinct was that "Little Flower" would be a nickname for a woman. But I made an effort to listen to the song literally, and imagined a little flower in a clay pot in the window of a flower shop. Every day, the same beautiful woman walks by the store and looks at the flower in the window, and with each little musical flourish during the slow opening of the song, the flower excitedly watches the woman pass and wishes for her to come in and buy him. This happens time and again, until finally, the woman comes into the store. As the song grows quicker and more intense, the flower's hopes are fulfilled. There is hustle and bustle as he is removed from the window, wrapped up, packed, and sent home with the woman. But as the song slows back down, the flower settles into comfortable obscurity on the woman's dining room table. He is at once lonely and ignored, but grateful to get to be with the beautiful woman in her home every day. He is at once sad and comfortable, until after some time, he finally perishes.

Sebastien, from France, saw a flower struggling against soil and wind to grow. Every musical flourish is a small victory against the soil, some small success in moving toward the surface. As the music rises and intensifies, the flower at long last breaks the soil's surface and blossoms. But inevitably, the music lilts and falls, and so do the flower's petals, until it too succumbs to the elements and age. Interestingly, in the dozens (if not hundreds) of times Sebastien performed this song, it never occurred to him to treat "Little Flower" as a nickname for a woman.

Sam(antha), from Singapore, saw a woman walking down an unknown beach, her flowing dress fluttering in the wind. The woman is anonymous, literally faceless, and represents all of the atrocities in the world. Every musical flourish is a flashback to some abuse, some genocide, some injustice in a distant land. As the music rises, the woman is stricken with emotion and injustice, and when the song comes back down, she is finally overcome, collapsing dead on the beach.

Cayley, from Canada, never crafted a narrative at all, instead contemplating how absurd and amazing it was to have a group of near-strangers, representatives from nearly ever continent sitting quietly in a circle as one of their company played his saxophone to the sky.

Claudia, from Venezuela, lamented her lack of creativity, as she was so taken by the music that she thought of nothing at all.

Christina, from the United States, was clearly deep in her own mind about everything else that had been going on with her that day, and was so overcome by the music that she left without a word as soon as the song was done.

And Sarah, from Australia, tapped into her biologist instincts. She imagined each of us in that circle as a flower from our continents of origin - Sam, an Asian orchid; Claudia, a Latin American bird of paradise; Cayley, a small and delicate mountain flower; herself, an Australian tumbleweed. She pondered which of us could be transplanted into the Hong Kong climate and survive and thrive. Orchid Sam won.

We could have invited 10 more people to listen to the song, and gotten 10 more reactions, each of which would have been as valid as the next.

So if you have 5 minutes, press play, listen to the song, and leave a comment letting me know what story you see unfolding in your own mind. It doesn't have to be a narrative, though I'll say that's what I'm most curious to hear about. And certainly, a video on YouTube is likely to be less emotionally resonant than a quiet, outdoor, 1 am jam session. But I'm utterly infatuated with the diversity of personal reactions that can be derived from ostensibly the same experience. I want to know what everyone in the world thinks when they hear this.

And if you know French, then listen to this lyrical rendition and translate it for me.


pamiam said...

Here's my translation of the song - it's not the most fluid or sophisticated, but I couldn't resist (she was surprisingly easy to understand).

I have hidden
Better than anywhere else
In the garden of my heart
A little flower

This flower
Prettier than a bouquet
She guards a secret
All my childhood dreams
The love of my parents
And all these clear mornings
Deeds of happy memories far away

When life
Betrays me for a moment
You are still my happiness
Little flower

On my twenty years (this may be some idiom i'm not getting, or perhaps an allusion to Ronsard)
I stop for a moment
To breathe
This perfume that I have loved so much

In my heart
You will always bloom
In the vast garden of love
Little flower

Take this present that I have always guarded
And even in twenty years I have never given

Don’t be afraid
(Even) Cut to the bottom of (your) heart

(the words in parentheses aren't really there, but that's the meaning i got from the verse)

A little flower
Never dies.

Also, my images were of "The Little Prince" and his beautiful rose, though those may be skewed impressions, given the task at hand while I was listening.

John Fitzpatrick said...

Music occupies the same space of the listener, and thus changes, and is changed by, the environment in which you hear it. Sound by its very nature sends a shiver though everything in its path, whether air, liquid or solid, and in that moment changes everything it encounters. Like a pebble dropped into a calm pool that affects a change to the water’s surface, the music bends and warbles the air around us sending waves though our very bodies and, for lack of a better word, our souls. As with water, it’s easy to see the effect across the surface, and forget the invisible ripples which continue to the very bottom of the pond, or the imperceptible displacement of air carried upward from the disturbed water’s surface and into the atmosphere. So it is with a 1am Hong Kong jam session.

Candide said...

The video is no longer available... =(