Lijiang Studio Week 2 – Miranda

A man fishing, probably illegally, on the lake at dawn.

A man fishing, probably illegally, on the lake at dawn.

It’s amazing how quickly I’ve adapted to a lifestyle that has no bearing on my regular life whatsoever. The little daily rhythms that appear after a short time are comforting.

Twice a day a Naxi grandmother herds her mismatched gang of goats up the road to the lake, and then back again. They bleat and straggle and run to catch up, with their bells ringing and A Nai (grandmother) cracking her whip and singing out as they make their way past.

Grandfather sitting under his portrait on the studio wall.

Grandfather sitting under his portrait on the studio wall.

Every day grandfather appears in our courtyard, folds himself up in a sunny spot, and smokes. If it’s after about 11am he’ll probably also have a small glass of firewater. He’s ephemeral in his attentions to us strange non Naxi speaking artists, appearing and disappearing before I’ve had a chance to formulate a question to start a conversation. Often you’ll look up to find he’s gone, and then discover he’s just moved to an even sunnier spot and folded himself up there. A particularly sunny corner has a portrait of grandfather, wearing a beanie and smoking.  It’s one of his favourite places to sit, often while wearing a beanie and smoking.

This week we started getting up early to record the dawn birds, and now it’s just Naima doing so… On our first outing I rode my bike into a ditch, and thoughtfully decided to break the bikes fall with my much less breakable body. Or so I thought. That night when I went to bed I suddenly was seized by leg cramps, worse than I’ve ever felt before. After 8 hours of excruciating pain and mounting delerium it was finally morning, and it had calmed enough to let me hobble with assistance to the bathrooms. Doing so, step by slow step, I was spotted by the women who were staying in our courtyard house. One of them is married to a doctor, and he was summarily summoned. Then started the most public and painful massage of my life to date!

I was on the bed, Naima was next to me trying to calm me down, Jay (the curator at the studio) was translating everything the doctor said. The Doctor was very kind and concerned in his ministrations, wiping the tears from my eyes during breaks, and apparently did hold back significantly in his massage strength, even though at the time I would have yelled “too much! too much!” if I’d known how to say it in Chinese. The doctors wife, her friend, her husband, and the Grandma of our family were all also crowded into our little bedroom, offering advice, murmuring concern, and translating everything the doctor said into different Chinese words, and little charades, hoping I would understand something, and furiously agreeing with each other. It was like a hospital drama re-imagined by Kafka. If Kafka was in a good mood.

By the end of this super helpful ordeal, I was even more delirious, shivering, and my hands were swollen and numb. The doctor was obviously quite concerned about this, and ordered two more doonas, another pair of socks and a heater to be pointed at my feet. By the time I went to sleep I was under about 4 doonas and a blanket, in my puffy winter jacket, wearing a beanie, and I’d never been so comfortable. Fresh fried steam buns with ginger chilli sauce and a hot ginger sugar drink were sent over from the kitchen for breakfast, and the next thing I knew it was lunch.

The family were so lovely. They all came in to check on me, bringing lunch and dinner to my room, and in an attempt to make the most wholesome food possible for me I think the family ate a lot more vegetarian food than they usually do! Grandpa at one point came in, and then realised he had a lit cigarette and left straight away. Since then, I’ve been fine! A bit sore and achy, but mobile and moving freely. At least twice a day Grandma tells me that the problem is that I’m too tall, and I had so far to fall. If I’d been shorter, it wouldn’t have been so  bad.

Also this week we ventured into Lijiang, the big town nearby, which is a world heritage unesco listed site. Apparently it used to be an amazingly preserved old town full of local minority culture people living their lives as they always had. Big markets and old ladies with baskets brimming with vegetables, and traditional music and dancing in the village square. Now it’s tourist central. I was claustrophobic within seconds of entering the old town.  Every shop is filled with tourist junk, and the streets are so crammed with (mostly Chinese) tourists that it’s hard to move.

There was a Naxi song and dance competition on, however, which was adorable if terribly amplified, and watching all the groups of traditionally dressed women on an outing to compete was pretty fabulous.

So to the music this week! I have a rough draft of a piece inspired by this photograph: OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The banjo melody is based off this tune from the World Oral Literature Project. The song is a Naxi song sung by elders to younger people, telling them about the changes they will see in their lives. I ‘played along’ and recorded it 3 times to get a randomised chorus effect. 3 is a lucky number representing the 3 stages of life, birth, marriage, and death. (Obviously politically problematic, but that’s to be tackled in a more sophisticated project!)

The other sounds are river stones from our courtyard representing the stones of the graves, and burning pine needles, representing the trees, the dry grass, and the memories of the forests being torn down for firewood during the Great Leap Forward. The forests are younger than the mountains and many people around here.

I lengthened the rests on the banjo tracks, slowly phasing the tracks apart, and about halfway through reversed and slowed down the rocks and layered them by 3 again. The idea was to get a sense of time slowing as grandpa tended the graves of his ancestors, but the future interrupting our reverie. It ends with the organic sounds of stone and fire, dust to dust.

I’ve started work on my first larger project, it involves translation, graphic notation, local history and the ever present mountains… and I’m excited to see it come to life. Watch this space!

I’ll leave you with a gallery of photos of a the village life, children, fireworks and bicycles.



Lìjiāng Studio, Week 1 – Naima

We arrived in 昆明 云南 中国 (Kūnmíng, Yúnnán, Zhōngguó/China), on the 8th/9th of Feb. Our week in Kūnmíng was a lovely and frustrating combination of delicious food and accidental meat; thousands of phone repair shops but no-one willing to repair our phone; discovering that the cost of new technology (external harddrives; MIDI keyboards; etc) is the same or more than in Australia; and staying in a really lovely room but at the basement level, in a tucked-away guesthouse but with a very busy noisy Western-cheesy-food only restaurant!

After Kūnmíng, we took the train to Lìjiāng with Jay on Sunday the 15th, arriving at our new home Lìjiāng Studio, in the Nàxī minority people’s village of Jíxiáng, on Sunday night to a warm welcome from the 和 (Hé) family hosts.

On Tuesday morning we visited Mù Yún Bái in the next village, the only local artist and wood-carver. His family home is covered with carvings and paintings and woodwork that he’s done over the years. He’s currently busy doing huge pencil portraits of all the elderly people in his village – he’s done 60 people so far – he’s halfway! He also has a series of large portraits of people with the Young Pioneers red neck scarf (红领巾 hónglǐngjīn) tied over their eyes like a blindfold. His work is beautiful. We chatted for ages, about such philosophical topics as the approach of artists in the nearby quite touristy town Lìjiāng, who do rather generic, safe, and repetitive work made specifically to sell; compared with Mù Yún Bái’s approach. He is inspired by what he sees around him and his life experiences, and his work is novel, exploratory, and not always safe.

I don’t have a keyboard yet, but then I also don’t have a computer that can run a music program that can take the MIDI input from a keyboard. And there’s a harmonium here, and I’ve got my little audio recorder, and I like writing music in my head and on paper anyway. So I don’t really mind my current dearth of technology.

Recordings I’ve made so far include the pigs, chooks, and goose; the sound of hot bean jelly (a delicious New Year treat) being mixed as it thickens in a huge wok; and a piece of my washing flapping madly on the line with the strong wind that comes up every day. It’s the end of the northern bird’s winter migration to 拉市海 (Lā shì hǎi) lake that’s only a 10 minute walk away. We’re going to go out on kayaks at dawn to record them soon. We don’t have gloves yet and everything is closed because it’s New Year, but the birds are all leaving so I think we’re going to have to brave it!

It’s going to be easy to write music here. But it’s going to be challenging to write music that can actually be played here AND elsewhere. There’s Miranda and I. And there are local musicians around. Many of them, such as the local orchestra, play traditional Nàxī music by heart on traditional instruments. This is wonderful, and I hope some of the musicians will want to collaborate with us, but if they do, my usual style of fully notated compositions won’t be very useful at all! And if (when) I write for them, there’s the question of how we will bring the music away from our village 吉祥 (Jíxiáng) / back to Australia, in a live, performable format. Finding a way to do this is an integral part of our project, because the experience of live music is a fundamental part of our music philosophy.

We’re yet to find our Chinese names, although we’ve been contemplating some fun transliterations!



Lìjiāng Studio, Week 1! – Miranda

Grandfather taking a rest from working in the field, and the suckling pig happily grazing.

Grandfather taking a rest from working in the field, and the suckling pig happily grazing.


We’re here! Safely ensconced in the welcoming kitchen of the He family.



Fireworks, village style.

It’s Chinese New Year, and spring festival season, so the festivities have been as raucous as the fireworks. People sitting around the fire, drinking firewater, talking, reminiscing, eating, more eating, tea, more firewater, more fireworks, more laughing, more mahjong, and more guests arriving with more gifts.

From an art creating perspective, the studio is amazing. We have the time and space to create and experiment, and we’re surrounded by Naxi culture, music, and the most loving family. However: it’s so comfortable that it’s hard to remember we’re not on holiday, and to get some stuff done before a head pokes into our courtyard and shouts: “Chi fan!”

A lot of our work here will be about, and defined by, translation. Translation of Naxi culture through a western and Han Chinese lens, translation of language, translation of landscapes to music, translation between cultures. We’ve already experienced conversations that transcend language barriers and some dance moves that need no words.

I don’t have a bass just yet, so here’s a small piece on banjo… inspiration taken from the ponies walking home, strung in a line; the water in the lake, and the ever-present mountains. It’s not much, but it’s a start!


Dudu, the ever faithful family dog leading the way to the lake.

Happy New Year! – Miranda.