I arrived in Taipei last Friday, for a one-month visit. It's a resplendent, occasionally maze-like city, filled with hidden tea houses and tangled-up skyscrapers, outpourings of people, alley cats and banyan trees and greenery spilling out of its pots. The place seems equally ramshackle and state-of-the-art, an accumulation of necessity, creativity and improvisation. It's shameless, dizzying and kind, and I've felt no need for music this week. The city's natural soundtrack is enough: blurring voices, hissing grills, pattering rain, the bee-like whirr of scooters as they fan out beneath a green light.
And throughout the day, almost every day, Beethoven's Für Elise is ringing somewhere through the streets. Taipei's Für Elise is a slow, metronomic rendition. A little lifeless, some might say. But I'll forgive the performance since the performer is a garbage truck, or rather a fleet of garbage trucks. Thousands of these yellow, beetle-like vehicles meander across Taiwan, singing as they go, like sickly ice-cream trucks. Whereas in other places, musical trucks bring the kids out running, Popsicle money in their fists, here the recording's siren call beckons droves of residents and their bags of stinking trash. I cannot say what Beethoven had in mind when he wrote Für Elise for Elise, but I can say with certainty: It wasn't this.
Still, Taiwan's garbage trucks are a marvel. They are the front line in the tiny island's war against excess waste. Since the roaming virtuosos were introduced, in 1997, the country's citizens have reduced the amount they throw out by two thirds and increased their recycling tenfold. At 55 per cent, Taiwan's 2016 recycling rate is about twice as high as Canada's.
This isn't (just?) because people enjoy throwing garbage at plodding renderings of Beethoven. Daily pickups make recycling convenient, and neighbourhood pickups make it social. (The island's health minister has suggested replacing Für Elise with modern pop hits to "inspire more young people to meet and hang out with one another at the local trash pickup stations".) They've also penalized excessive waste by requiring citizens to put their refuse in expensive, state-approved garbage bags. Recycling bags, on the other hand, are free: You just have to sort your recyclables among more than 15 categories, including glass, paper, plastics, compact discs, standard kitchen waste, and, in a separate bag, any kitchen waste unsuitable for consumption by Taiwan's indigenous black-haired pigs.
As you might imagine, it took me a few days to acquire the know-how – and the nerve – to drag my junk toward a nearby truck's litter bagatelle. It was at night, on the corner, by a park. Around me, locals were streaming out from doorways and lanes; the blues and pinks of their plastic bags gleamed in the thin street light. Fathers passed bags of cardboard to gloved city workers. Grannies scraped pig-friendly green beans into designated bins. Scooters buzzed through. A writer from Montreal hesitated before a dump truck's yellow maw. All of us were there because the music had called us. It was bleating and reedy and as-ever in A-minor. I thought to myself, "I guess we're dancing."
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.