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.
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.
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.
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.
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.