Does anyone remember the scene in The Golden Child — maybe I should first ask, does anyone remember the movie The Golden Child? From 1986, with Eddie Murphy? Not one of his best. There’s this scene where he enters a Nepalese temple and encounters a ceremonial pillar that rotates around its vertical axis. Not knowing what to do, he scrubs it like a turntable DJ, making a scratching noise. Laughter ensues.
I think of that scene when I eat out in China because of the mechanism known as the zhuan pan at the center of the table. Known in the west as a lazy susan, this rotating platter is a fixture at traditional tables in China. It is both an efficient delivery mechanism and a wonderful social lubricant. Everything is communal and by definition participatory as the platter rotates forth and back. You just reach in with your chopsticks as a dish you like comes by. If you can get beyond the sanitary issues of this particular disease vector it becomes clear that the zhuan pan is a marvelous thing.
There’s something musical about the whole process. The zhuan pan is a DJ turntable set up.
Consider it this way. The dishes are notes/chords/samples — discrete musical units of some kind. They appear at a point in time on the platter and rotate more or less consistently until they are removed or moved (more on this in a moment). So you have discrete units repeating in time from the perspective of a fixed point which in this case is me, the eater, but metaphorically is the armature of the phonograph. Units are added in time, layered in so to speak, and repeat at the same interval. Dishes leave the table periodically — their particular musical loops end. But the dishes return, smaller this time (the waitstaff transfers uneaten portions to smaller plates to make more room on the table) and they are placed closer in to the center of the rotating platter, allowing people easier access to the newer, fuller dishes at the periphery. In other words, the loops return in a changed state and with new, quicker intervals (rotating more quickly since their radial distances are now shorter). The zhuan pan rotates backwards too, but only quickly, a “scrub” if you will, to let someone grab a morsel that made its way by too quickly. The overall motion is forward.
Data visualization geek that I am I started considering the possibilities — which of course weren’t visual at all but more like data sonification (a field to be sure but not one much popularized). What would this meal sound like if the zhuan pan were a recording?
zhuanpan.mp3 | 1.4MB | 1 min, 1 sec
So I recorded each dish as a separate track in GarageBand. Each measure corresponded to one minute of the meal starting with the arrival of tea, which is the downbeat bass drum that remains constant throughout, the engine of the entire affair. Each new dish comes in more or less as I recorded it on a timeline in my notebook during the meal. (My hosts graciously obliged my notetaking as the curiosity of a unaccustomed Westerner.) Some dishes are single notes, some are short phrases, and at least one, the fish “flower,” is a constant note modulating in time with the rotation of the table. Each unit repeats with a period of five minutes. This is an average based on the number of revolutions of the table, but it is almost exact for at least the first two rotations of the 50 minute-long meal. With the exception of the tea-beat, volumes fade out for each track based on the consumption of the dishes. As noted above, the period of at least one dish, West Lake soup (represented by the piano), speeds up midway through the meal as it was transferred to a smaller plate and move closer to the center of the table, rotating faster. The two vinyl scratches correspond to an extended counter-rotation of the table. At 60 BPM one second correponds to roughly one minute of elapsed meal time. I think the time signature is 5/4, but I’m rusty on my Brubeck so who knows.
It is not what I’d call a chart-topper, but it isn’t cacophonous, though at quicker BPM’s it does get a bit muddy. I clearly could have done more. Instrumentation could be made to correspond more closely to the food type. (But what does “silver agaric” sound like?) Discord could be used to suggest tastes I did not care for. But the general idea is clear. Maybe on the next trip I can videotape the whole thing for the time-lapse music video this cries out to be.
In China you often encounter a circular jade plate known as a bi. It is ancient in origin and its purpose is not completely understood. The bi is flat and usually has a circular hole at the center. Movable type, gunpowder, paper. The recordable disc?