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January 27, 2010

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Listening to the city

Armed with microphone and tape recorder, American Terence Lloren takes "sound walks" in the city, each guided by a young Shanghainese with special memories and stories to tell. Nancy Zhang listens.

The vibrancy of the city attracts all sorts of artists and creative types, especially ones who want to throw out the rule book and do things differently from the way it has always been done.

American Terence Lloren was an architect who rebelled against the constraints of his very realistic discipline, and Shanghai gave him the chance to move into a totally new field of experimental sound art.

His latest project is a "sound walk" through nine Shanghai streets. Sound walks record the natural sounds of the life in the environment. In Lloren's project, "Growing Up with Shanghai," a Shanghainese resident guides each walk, talking about his or her memories.

The recording (in Shanghainese) plus a bilingual English and Chinese transcription will be published early February. It gives a slice of city life foreigners almost never get to experience.

"Shanghai is my muse. It's a machine that makes its own sounds. I see myself as a musician who uses the city as a sound instrument," says Lloren.

The people featured in the sound walks, all young Shanghainese aged between 25 and 30, came to see it as doing something for their city - to preserve its memories, its history and its language.

The inspiration for this project came to Lloren through a string of accidents that, in hindsight, seem to lead to exactly the right place. Taking life as it comes is also Lloren's life philosophy.

"At the beginning I tried to sit down and plan the concepts and rules, but then I realized I needed to walk out and just start doing. If I'm sitting at home, I'm missing the world."

Lloren, who does not speak Chinese, arrived in Shanghai three and a half years ago from New York without any concrete ideas or plans.

Formally trained as an architect, Lloren had been experimenting with sound, a childhood passion, by taking night classes in sound engineering. He had chosen architecture because it had seemed more practical, but in Shanghai where the experimental sound-recording scene was still in its infancy, he saw the possibility of working with what he really loved.

"Visual images are very final. You see it and that's it," the sound specialist says. "But sound really plays on the imagination, you participate in it, it's your vision."

At first, Lloren taught interior design at a local art and design institute, which allowed him to get to know other artists, film makers and designers.

While helping a colleague on a project - a documentary about an old building on Shaanxi Road - he was struck by the natural sound of life in Shanghai.

Later while sitting in a Shanghai park, recording the sounds of the rich community life there, all the pieces fell into place. There was a gazebo full of retirees singing traditional opera. Intrigued by this tradition, Lloren went to the gazebo, hung out with them and recorded an afternoon's worth of footage.

"It was the first time that I had talked and interacted with people while recording sound and it was great. I realized that this was the missing piece in my recordings - the Shanghainese people and their stories," he recalls.

It inspired him to embark on an experimental project to walk through Shanghai with local residents talking about their memories. He put up online ads for participants. Of hundreds of e-mails he sent out, nine led to recordings. Each of these had intimate, personal stories to tell about their neighborhoods.

"I wanted only Shanghainese people who deeply understand the city. I was amazed by the first walk. A translator took us through a now abandoned part of Xujiahui and described how in her childhood she heard the lightning outside and the rain on the awning, how she hid under the blankets until the ayi next door offered watermelon. It really meant something to her. After that the stars aligned, and it all made sense."

One woman took him on a walk through the everyday route from her work to her home, just as she was leaving that job and that part of her life forever. It included the exact spot where she met her last boyfriend - they met when she had to buy camping equipment for a work trip, and he was working in the camping shop.

Another Shanghainese guy described what used to be on the busy commercial street of Nanjing Road E., how stories were hidden behind the gleaming exteriors. For example, one normal-looking shop actually marked the site of the May 30, 1925, massacre (when workers and students were killed by British-led police), and stood on top of a basement that was the preserved jail. It was still there and open to the public though the entrance was hidden in the back of some shops nearby.

Or a shop that still made traditional funeral clothes for the deceased. Shanghainese customers know to leave a tip of exactly 2 yuan (29 US cents) to symbolize a beginning and an end, a traditional reference to reincarnation.

"This is the kind of stuff no one could know unless they were true Shanghainese," says Lloren. "For me, in the making of this project I also got to see Shanghai like I never did before. I was born in 1978, exactly the year that China opened up to the outside world. All these changes have happened in my lifetime, and the people in this project being aged 25 to 30 all grew up with the city. It became the link in the story."

Lloren's next project involves exploring Shanghai as a city based around water. He plans to record the life around, and on Suzhou Creek. He hopes to persuade one of the canal boat people to let him spend a day with them and record their lives.

"It will be a kind of a Huckleberry Finn adventure," he says, laughing.

"Growing Up in Shanghai" is available at Terence Lloren

Nationality: USA

Age: 31

Profession: Sound recordist and designer


Self-description:Imaginative, patient, carefree.

Favorite place:I feel at home everywhere in Shanghai. I've never felt such a connection to a city (except my boarding school days in Lugano, Switzerland).

Strangest sight:

People throwing things out of a car moving at top speed on the highway, the water bottle was bouncing off all the other moving cars.

Perfect weekend:Go somewhere quiet outside the city with fields and farmland and maybe have a picnic.

Worst experience:

Shanghai traffic, especially since getting my driver's license here.

Motto for life:

Keep an open mind.

How to improve Shanghai:Shanghai is improving itself all the time, it's in the process of being improved. There's a lot of debate around the preservation issue, but even as an architect I'm a futurist. I think the city has to change. I always rejected standardization for innovation.

Advice to newcomers:

Take it as it comes and don't stress out to get ahead. You can never shape destiny - just live and do whatever you love and destiny will happen. Anyone can earn money, but the difference is whether you do it with something you love.


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