Returning through Central Station on Saturday afternoon, heading home after an 11-mile walk with a group of women I’d met through Facebook, I was stopped short by the sound of a piano.
Public pianos have become a feature of stations and shopping malls, an invitation to contribute to street life and humanise our cities. People will occasionally play ‘chopsticks’ or mangle a tune they half-remember from childhood piano lessons.
The young Chinese man at the keyboard was no tinkler. He was playing a complex piece with the intensity and virtuosity of a concert pianist. From memory.
My first thought: was he one of those child prodigies, come to study or perform in Europe? Out east, the Edinburgh Festival had kicked off the previous week. Were the mostly indifferent Glaswegian train-travellers being treated to an impromptu concert by a world-famous musician? (I checked the EIF programme later: no.)
Some people, like me, did stop and listen, drawn by the sheer spectacle of his hands moving fluently and tirelessly across the keyboard, summoning an extraordinary storm of music. You didn’t have to know anything about classical music to recognise that he was the real deal, that there were years and years of work behind such effortless skill. The hairs on the back of my neck quivered.
Several spectators pulled out phones and began to record. So did I. The contemporary compulsion to record a moment in lieu of experiencing it, to prove that you were there, even if you were viewing the moment through your phone screen. After a few seconds, I stopped, feeling obscurely ashamed, and went back to listening and looking properly.
He was perhaps in his early 20s, with spiky hair, the way a little boy’s hair is spiky if cut short. Every so often he looked sideways and beamed, whether at the generality of people in Glasgow Central Station or at his own pleasure in producing astonishing music, it was impossible to know.
His baggy black t-shirt bore the slogan SMILEY JIZO ENMA/ENMA JIZO SMILEY. I looked this up on my phone to see if this gave any hints. Did he belong to a religious sect harassed by the government? Had he been dispatched overseas to proselytise, like the pairs of smiling young Mormons sent out into the big bad world from Utah? (I always worry that someone will take advantage of their seeming innocence.)
Jizō is a bodhisattva in Japanese Buddhism, often shown as smiling. He is the protector of children, especially those who die before their parents. There are temples all over the country with rows and ranks of jizō figurines wearing red bibs and beanies. A friend in Japan once told me that women who have abortions feel pressure to pay for one of these statues, and that it was effectively an extortion racket enacted by Buddhist priests on women.
Enma is the king of hell. He and Jizō Bosatsu appear together in old scroll paintings and are even described as two aspects of the same deity.
From the style of the t-shirt, including the yellow smiley face that used to be the icon of rave culture, I assumed that Buddhist mythology had been incorporated into anime or manga culture. Buddhism seems less hung up on blasphemy than the Abrahamic religions.
Near me, an older man apparently stood listening despite the balls of wax inserted in his ears. He was unkempt and his ears were visibly dry and flaking. When the young man finished, to the fervent applause of his select audience, flaky ear man scurried across to stand beside him. I thought he was going to speak to the young man, but he was merely impatient to take over the keyboard. He launched into sounded like a show tune, executed with confidence but not remotely comparable to what we’d just heard. I had the feeling he was station piano regular and had resented this encroachment on his domain.
The boy picked up his bag and walked away with a jaunty, satisfied air. As he passed, I approached him.
‘What was that piece you just played?’
I’d tried to Shazam it on my phone, but Shazam had either been defeated by the background noise or didn’t understand classical music.
It took a few tries before the boy understood the question. Spanish Rhapsody, by Liszt.
‘Do you know Liszt? He is a Hungarian composer.’
The boy was tall and not at all diffident or shy in speaking, which confirmed my impression that he was Chinese, not Japanese.
I was slightly insulted by the suggestion that I might not know Liszt. Honestly, I can’t tell a Liszt piano piece from one by Beethoven or Chopin, but the existence of such a composer is part of my cultural knowledge, the way Jizō and Enma are for an East Asian.
He explained, with the wide-eyed, serious enthusiasm of a child, that Liszt was famous for his technique; that he could play both parts with one hand. Or so I gathered. Did Liszt have massive hands? I used to play the flute, but I know nothing about the piano.
I thanked him for the impromptu concert. This is one of the many reasons I live in a city and not a village or (god forbid) a suburb with no footpaths or public spaces.
‘Thank you for your listening,’ he said, and cheerfully headed out to shuttered shops, broken Buckfast bottles and beggars of Union Street.