Lìjiāng Studio, week 13 – Nà Mǎ

This past week has been really busy/satisfying/tiring! Things are happening! Shapes are emerging! I have been spending most of my waking hours every day planning and writing music. Plus, more hours have been waking hours! I promise I will write about the previous 2 weeks in Southern Yunnan, which were wonderful, another day.

I’m preparing for 2 big things: 1) 2 other musicians arriving for a month in June/July, whom I want to have music ready to perform for; and 2) the Hong Kong Contemporary Ensemble’s The Modern Academy, a summer musician and composer’s school I got into: http://hknme.org/new/education/the-modern-academy/. I’ve never been to something like this before and it’s pretty exciting. There are composers and instrumentalists from over 15 countries attending. And some great ensembles too, like the Asian Contemporary Ensemble from Singapore: http://www.ace-sg.org/. And I am really interested in the work of some of the composer tutors: especially Ken Ueno

and Joyce Beetuan Koh http://jbtkoh.net/

Joyce Beetuan Koh

Joyce Beetuan Koh


I’ll be doing a Dance Composition Module with Joyce Beetuan Koh. We have to prepare a piece for string quartet and marimba, which will get explored and modified throughout the workshop period, and then the work will be peformed towards the end of the Academy. I saw an incredible dance show at the Adelaide Festival a few years ago: What the Body Does Not Remember, from the Belgian dance company Ultima Vez, directed, choreographed and scenographed by Wim Vandekeybus. Equally incredible music was composed by Thierry De Mey & Peter Vermeersch.
The reason I loved this show so much was that there was something about it that extended it far beyond dance. Although I think it’s an amazing artform, I don’t know much about it really and I don’t often find it to be very accessible. This work for me though transcended the concept of dance as I have seen it before. There are many moments I can cite as the boundary-transcendent ones, but I don’t know if I can explain why! The conducting of bodies using hands on wood; the actual fast running (rather than dance running); the throwing of objects from person to person; the games; the use of simple props in curious ways… have a look at this short:

The object-throwing particularly has stuck in my mind since I saw the work. There was just something wonderful about such an outdoors, actor-dependent act as throwing such heavy objects that really could break and hurt if somebody isn’t in place, having a part in such a clean, defined space as a stage with such perfectly moving trained precise bodies. Watching the arc of the objects when thrown and the movement of them in dancers hands between throws somehow blurred lines for me – animate/inanimate; motion/stillness; precision/freedom; time/movement.
When the JíXiáng village community was building the house around the corner, it was fascinating to watch the big fat heavy home-made mud bricks being thrown upwards, hand to hand to hand from ground level to the second storey. Again, the arc of these big weighty objects moving somehow upwards was so graceful and time-slowing, almost mystical. Here’s the film I took again: (same one I posted a few weeks ago). I could have watched all day. 

So for this dance module, I’m writing a piece about exactly that: the throwing of mudbricks upwards in the building of a house. It’s quite satisfying that this has come about because I reached a dead end with my first attempt on this subject with the abandoned piece, “How to Build a House”. But it is something I really want to do, physically, and to want to explore, musically. This dance module has very neatly linked up my memories of “What the Body Does Not Remember” with the Lìjiāng Studio residency with The Modern Academy with my interest and wonder in handmade home-building.

I’m also doing a Composition Workshopping Module with Ken Ueno and Eli Marshall. For this I can submit 1 or 2 works to be workshopped by performers in the Academy, and possibly one will be performed as well. For this module I’m going to submit my first work with Robbie’s data on Rhododenron phenology of Yùlóngxuě Shān. We had a big chat/meeting with Robbie on skype on Tuesday morning. I am really excited to be working with him. The process is quite collaborative, with me emailing him my ideas and questions about the data in the graphical visualisation he’s developed that I want to use, and him emailing back with comments on my ideas and answers to all my questions.

I’m going to do a piece that tells the story of 2 years of 10 species of Rhododendron‘s peak flowering times with respect to elevation on the mountain and modelled expectations of their peak flowering times based on historical data. The data set does not directly tell us anything about climate change/environmental destruction/etc, but the bigger story that the data set is part of does suggest implications for the Rhododenrons (and since nothing exists alone, one can assume for other species in the ecosystems) from climate change. My desk is scattered with graphs, print-outs of chapter discussions and conclusions, and pencilled notes and ideas. It’s hard work, but it’s fun work, and it feels a bit like I’m finally in the guts of our ideas and proposal for our time here at the studio.

 Ten Rhododendron species were monitored along  gradients of season and elevation: A) R. racemosum, B) R. rubiginosum,  C) R. beesianum, D) R. yunnanense, E) R. oreotrephes, F) R.  traillianum, G) R. adenogynum, H) R. lepidotum, I) R. impeditum, J) R. primuliflorum.

Ten Rhododendron species were monitored along
gradients of season and elevation: A) R. racemosum, B) R. rubiginosum,
C) R. beesianum, D) R. yunnanense, E) R. oreotrephes, F) R.
traillianum, G) R. adenogynum, H) R. lepidotum, I) R. impeditum, J) R. primuliflorum. All photos (c) Robbie Hart.

I love it when work breeds work, and inspiration breeds inspiration, and I feel tired but satisfied and excited about what I’m producing. I could say, I love it when I get on a roll!

And I’ve finally recovered my dawn-risings, and gone out 2 mornings this week to record the birds and hear what I could hear. It’s amazing how, being an overwintering lake, Lāshìhǎi has such a dearth of waterbirds now, in high spring. The insectivores are increasingly abundant in the fields and around the studio, but on Lāshìhǎi I’ve just seen and heard a couple of ducks each morning, and watched a single beautiful silhouette of a crane-like bird flying silently into the sunrise.

Qíng Nà Mǎ.

晴 纳 玛




Tiny Critters! – 山慕

There’s been a fair amount of action in the tiny critter department around here…

First up, a tiny snake! So small that Jay picked it up with chopsticks. Poor panicked snake, hiding under our couch.

Then: Tiny birds! The swallows in our courtyard seem to have abandoned their nest and all their eggs, which is very sad. However: the swallows in the other courtyard have tiny swallows packed into their tiny nest! So many birds, so little space.

THEN! a large spider fell off the wall when Naima was trying to get it out of her room, and she dropped baby spiders everywhere. It was quite dramatic. I was no staying well clear of the scene, and hence have no photos. To quote Naima: “Babies!! … … … babies… oh no…”

And tonight, Naima found a toad, and brought it inside to show it the wonders of research tools on the internet. The toad was so impressed it weed in her hand.

That’s it for tonight. 🙂


Hiking in a sauna. – 山慕

Bushwalking with Naima...

Bushwalking with Naima…

It’s been a big few weeks! I went to Hong Kong to pick up some instruments, and then made my way home via Xishuangbanna, 2 night trains and an overnight sleeper bus built for tiny people. My stable bed in Lashihai has never been so appreciated.

Hong Kong is a crazy place. After living in China for 3 months, it felt like a giant Chinatown that was built on the side of a mountain, in a sauna. The sheer pace of the place, and the amount of languages and the clash of Eastern and Western architecture, shopping styles and sense of personal space was overwhelming. Bamboo scaffolding holding up barechested-barefooted workers above a glass walled Parthenon to finance filled with white men in suits who would be drenched in sweat if they ever went outside.

Hong Kong from the 'avenue of stars'.

We’re not in Lashihai anymore, Dudu…

I successfully picked up everything on my list on the first day. An Electric upright bass, a fancypants keyboard, and vegan chocolate. This is the list of things required that we can’t purchase in Lijiang. Seriously, the chocolate here is terrible.
So that left me with a day for traveling, and I headed straight out to Lamma Island. One of the outlying Islands of Hong Kong.

Climbed to the top of the hill!

Climbed to the top of the hill!

It’s apparently where the hippies of HK live. It’s beautiful, there are no cars, and a ton of seafood restaurants. I hiked across the top of the Island, in some crazy hot weather, with a bag full of the shopping I’d done for the long trainride home. That was some very well traveled Coconut water!

The train was a very long trip. 30 hours across the bottom of China. Somehow I got a 4 bed berth all to myself for the vast majority of the trip. It turns out that I was rarely alone, however… as being the only visibly foreign person on the train, and doing a mixture of Chinese homework and cross-stitch is a guaranteed way to get people to stand in the doorway and stare.

That’s right… cross stitch! I’ve started a new project of translation across language and artistic practices.

It’s the first in a series, so we’ll see if my legible cross-stitch characters are ongoing, or simply beginners luck! It’s a famous first line from a well known English language novel. Any guesses?

One of my favourite things about being here is language, and translation. Hearing more and more words pop out from streams of previously incomprehensible Chinese. Telling a story in English, and then hearing Jay translate it and listening to my cadence moving to another persons whim. Learning more language, and finding that cultural interpersonal habits start to make more sense in context. Language tells so much about a place, and so much nuance is lost in all but the most fluent translations.
This project is about all of that, mashing English literature with Chinese language; and Chinese inspired art with the most English art form I could think of.

Prize for whoever figures out what it says...

Prize for whoever figures out what it says…


After the slow train to Kunming, I headed down to Xishuangbanna to meet Naima. We met some lovely people, saw some amazing things, ate some great food and made a big leap in our main project here. I’m sure she’ll write more about all of that so I’ll just put some photos here:

Now we’re back, and getting back to work! It’s been a really steep learning curve here for me as a musician. I’ve never worked with a composer directly before, and it’s really interesting to go through the stages of creation together. Having rehearsal meetings where I play the new draft and then we both say “don’t like that bit as much, but the ending is awesome now!” or some paraphrased version of that. It’s also a challenge, because often music feels awkward under the hands for a while, and then *ding!* suddenly makes sense, and those often end up being the most magic moments. I don’t want to smooth out all the rough edges only to discover that they were the points of interest all along…

I’m also really missing all my regular improv and musical collaborators and co-performers. You know who you are! Working as a solo artist is a really different experience. I have a ton of recordings and experiments with graphic scores and the like that I’ve been working on, but without the to and fro of a group rehearsal I seem to be lacking the knowledge of when they’re ready to go. This residency was always a process of exploration for me, of what direction my music can and will travel. There’s still time to explore more ideas, but I’m finding that I’m stagnating in creating solo works, and am really eager for my friends and collaborators and fellow instrumentalists who will be here in June to arrive! For some of us it will be a first time collaboration, but with Crystal Pasccuci, that’s not the case! We went to grad school together at the Hartt School of music, CT, and this musical reunion has been a long time coming!

Crystal and I in 2008. Babies with attitude.

Crystal and I in 2008. The last time we played together, fresh-faced and tipsy.

I’m not sure how much of my bass-reluctance is fear of my own ideas, and not being well practiced at the art of solo performance. Over the last few years I’ve really worked hard at being a good chamber and supporting musician. I’m sure it’s not to the detriment of any solo work, but it’s become quite clear how out of practice I am at putting myself out there as a soloist. I can write a lot about this, but I’m not sure how to do so in a non self-indulgent-total-wanker type way. Let’s just say that I’m struggling to find my voice. In ensemble work my voice is supported and supportive. Reactive and reacted to. It’s difficult to find the same level of interest and complexity without the to and fro of differing instrumental ideas.

By next week I aim to have some of my score-experiments up and ready to show y’all. I’m saying this so that I’m committed to doing so. It’s the experimental music version of ‘pics or it didn’t happen’.




Translations and dead chickens. – 山慕

From squawking to an ill-conceived logo for a budget airline in one fowl swoop.

From squawking to an ill-conceived logo for a budget airline in one fowl swoop.

It’s a constant assault of the mundane and normal, and the confronting in my daily life here. On bright and clear tomb sweeping day, we went up to the graves in the mountains again, and the two families who share adjacent plots killed a chicken each. Both of them went from squawking to lunch in under half an hour. It was amazing to watch. The row of women sitting together, skilfully plucking, deboning, bleeding, pushing chopsticks through the intestines, washing, searing, chopping and stir-frying. It put the usual sausages in polystyrene barbeque fare to shame.

In my distant Melbourne life, I imagine I’d find this quite confronting. Here, I peer at the carcass in wonder, who knew that a chicken innards were so brightly coloured? I’ve never before pondered the moment of death in a food animal. The invisible line where a living, interactive creature becomes inanimate, and serves only as sustenance for the more organised living, interactive creatures. I suppose it’s part of the privilege of an industrialised society, but I am coming to also believe it’s a great loss.

To watch Xue Mei sit in the pig pen, watching the piglets eat while swatting the mother away so that they manage to get some food, despite her much larger appetite is to see that caring for the animals is part of the whole process. Caring for these piglets is caring for her own sons come next winter. She does care for the pigs, finds the piglets as hilarious as we do, and talks back to the goose with just as much gusto as it honks at her. Choosing to later kill and eat the pigs doesn’t negate caring. It’s a tricky concept for two (almost) life long vegetarians and vegans to get our heads around. Naima is less squeamish than me, but I’m surprised at how calm I am when witnessing a fish flapping it’s tail slower and slower in a basket filled with veggies; a parade of pigs being led to market; a motorscooter with 5 dead chooks in the footwell, and another 5 splayed over the pillion seat.

But in general, it's safe to say that there's a lot less masquerading of food stuffs around here.

But in general, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot less masquerading of food stuffs around here.

Naima, getting into the spirit of old town.

Naima, getting into the spirit of old town, in a dumpstered crown of flowers.

To quote myself two paragraphs ago: “Normal and Confronting” is also an apt description of Lijiang Old Town. Since we’ve started classes we’ve been spending a lot more time there. Sitting and watching the crowds swarm by while eating lunch it appears that after the earthquake demolished the original old town, they rebuilt a Chinese theme park for Chinese people to come visit and feel like they’ve had a true Chinese experience. It’s totally bizarre. Cobblestone streets and babbling streams and rows of roughly hewn shops revealing rickety stairs to beautifully quaint and comfortable hotels. It’s amazingly charming. The charm is somewhat belied, however, by the fact that all the shops sell the same things, and half of them seem to be beautiful long haired Han Chinese women playing djembe along with Naxi music. What’s even more bizarre is that the djembes often have Indigenous Australian designs painted on them! It’s a native culture free-for-all! The majority of tourists are domestic travellers, wandering down the charming laneways with flowers in their braided hair, wearing flowing cotton clothes that will never be worn again once they’re back in Guanzho, necks draped with beads as they listen in wonder to the women playing Djembe, and their bags filled with souvenirs from their trip to ‘old china’. Ironically, the China that was not run for profit.

I’ve been playing a lot, which is great. It’s really made me challenge the value of my work. When I’m playing scales every morning and watching the fields of Ji Xiang come alive with workers toiling to feed their families, it’s sometimes a little difficult. Surely I should be out there, helping the family that I’ve grown to care about, and not fussing about tone and making melodies out of the mountains? Of course, art has wide ranging benefits, and music is an essential part of most societies; but that doesn’t stop my privilege backpack feeling about as heavy as my bass as I watch Anai bend her bad back over to plant corn, as she’s been doing for about 50 years. It’s giving me more incentive to make my improvisations mean something, to interpret Naima’s pieces in a way that makes the family smile, to make the local orchestra members nod in that old man way, to bring a piece of Naxi life with me wherever I perform these works.

An older villager, working in her orchard.

An older villager, working in her orchard.

It’s a big ask, and I’m trying to not get too tied up in it. The studio allows these interactions to happen, and encourages artists to think about their work in relation to the village. My world of black clad orchestras and ballerinas is a distant tonal hum in the background as I try to make new works that will resonate in both worlds.

We’ve been here almost 3 months now! It feels like I don’t have enough to show for that amount of time. However, there are many projects brewing! I’ve had a bit of a slump month, but coming out of it I’m filled with inspiration, so hopefully it was the distraction I needed to make the most of the rest of our time here. 6 months is a long time, but it can also go by so fast. At the end of this time I suspect it will feel as if we’ve just begun.

View over Lijiang valley.

View over Lijiang valley.

I’m working on a piece for bass and tape, and a non music piece inspired by the joys of translation, and how our culturally disparate worlds are getting closer, but so much is still not quite making the leap in either direction. Sitting with Ji Xing, chatting on his holiday home from University, we were talking about aphorisms, and discovering that many of ours are replicated almost word for word in the writings of Lao Zi. Who got their moralistic quotations from whom? Or did both cultures witness the same phenomena and draw similar parables from them?

I quoted “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”, and Ji Xing replied: “that may be so, but if you ride it there, you won’t have to make it drink…”

He’s a wise kid, that one.

More than just different takes on classic sayings, our cultural understandings can also play a large part in the cross-over success of literature and other stories. No family here has 5 daughters, so how can one translate the plot driven by the desire to marry off all the Bennett sisters? Does “modern times’ provoke laughter within a non-capitalist history? Is Robocop truly able to be understood without seeing first hand the effects of off-shore processing on a manufacturing city?

Ok, the last one is ridiculous. It’s late, and I like my examples to go in sets of 3. Also: I have a serious weak spot for movies set in Detroit. Needless to say, all this is going into my new art project, that I’ll reveal next week.

Favourite sign around town.

Favourite sign around town. Apologies for dodgy mobile phone photo.

Are all our stories of the farm and country life making you jealous? Are you yearning to experience some of what we see and hear every day? If so: this is your lucky day!

I’ve started a series of “farmalarms” so that you too can wake up to the calming sounds of the countryside. Here’s my first release. It should be downloadable from soundcloud.

You’re welcome.



Lìjiāng Studio, weeks 9 & 10 – Nà Mǎ 纳 玛

Happy May Day, all.

In memory of all our comrades who have suffered and struggled (and those whom continue to do so) for the means of production to be in the hands of the people. That production stuff sounds weird coming from me. But the means of production doesn’t have to be huge monocultural/pesticide-ridden/less-than-A4-paper-sized-cages-per-chook/chemically-and-minerally-polluting centralised businesses. The means of production can be (and certainly can become) small, independent, community enterprises, using trust-based work rosters and needs-based product distribution, and no money at all. I do think it’s really interesting that the traditional MayDay Spring/Summer festival has been conflated with an International Labour Day. I can’t quite articulate this in a sensical or eloquent way right now. Something about the celebration of times of plenty being on their way, as a dual resonation with nature’s most bountiful season and humanity’s ongoing struggle and hope for dignity and self-determination. Something about the term “grassroots”. Something about my mother as a small child dancing with other smiling determined children around the maypole, and hundreds and thousands of smiling determined workers marching together across the world, all on the same day.

These past few weeks have really been all about school. Learning Mandarin 8 hours a week takes up a lot more than 8 hours a week. The travel makes each 4 hour school day at least 6.5 hours from home and back again. Then there’s the homework, which is really good, but usually difficult and taking around 3 hours per class. But we are improving rapidly!

A woman at the weekly market using a blow-torch to char a pig's leg.

A woman at the weekly market charring a pig’s leg with a blow-torch!

When not learning Mandarin I’ve been editing the First Impressions Family Portrait series at last. 5 of 6 are edited. 4 are finished on this, the second, draft, I think…and 1 is doing my head in! I haven’t got to the last one yet.

I’ve written most of a piece for Crystal Ruth Bell, a great woman whom I never had the chance to meet and who helped to get us here to the studio. This is the quartet I mentioned in my last post.

My piece called “How to Build a Home” remains an abandoned 14-bar beginning of a quiet and pretty flute and double bass duet. We went to a house-raising party. The whole village was invited and the whole village came. It was wonderful to experience so many people I see about doing their daily work together and enjoying themselves. The party happens when the frame is complete. The next few days afterwards, about 30+ people pitch in to lay the home-made mud bricks and then after the roof struts are on, lay the tiles. It’s not that I dislike what I’ve written. The harmonies are interesting, and I like how the instruments weave under and over each other. It was coming from a lovely concept, thinking about the solidity and rawness and honest beauty of the basic materials used here – chunks of stone; soil; water; and huge rough-cut pieces of timber. But how to build a home is not a quiet and pretty duet! It is a party and a village-worth of muddy sweaty happy people, mixing a 5m diameter pit of mud, making fire-chains to pass along big fat mud bricks one at a time from the stack to the brick-layers on wooden scaffolding a storey high, sawing wood, wiping brows, smoking, swiping mortar, working together and creating a big beautiful solid home in days flat – lots of tools, lots of tea, lots of co-operation, and lots of hands, enough to rest when needed and work at the pace you’re able.

Please excuse the usual wobbles on these films. I don’t have any film editing programs and my films are usually spontaneous, so no tripod.

One day we went up the mountain to see what we could see. We couldn’t see the elusive Yùlóng field research station and Alpine Botanic Garden. But we could see Yùlóngxuě Shān. And the whole valley. And we saw some Rhododendrons in flower, and a whole lot of other species, in off the road on the mountainside. We’ll go again another time to see an alpine meadow and try to find the research station. We had a delicious lunch at another Nàxī village called Báishā, which used to be the local capital. Lunch included the new shoots of Toona sinensis, a close relative of the wonderful and beautiful Toona ciliata (Syn: Toona australis) – Red Cedar. Toona ciliata was the major influence in the white colonisation of Lismore and its surrounds – The Big Scrub. The timber of this beautiful sub-tropical rainforest tree is a beautiful deep red, and great to work with for a huge variety of purposes. So the white people moved on in and cut most of it down. It’s now quite unusual to see an adult Red Cedar in The Big Scrub, apart from unloggably steep slopes. Here in China, however, Toona sinensis is common. And its new spring growth is uniquely, indescribably delicious.

We also, finally, did our first event. Miranda has called it a “social installation”. We’ll put a separate post up about it soon.

Qíng Nà Mǎ.

晴 纳 玛