Lìjiāng Studio, weeks 27 & 28 – Nà Mǎ 纳 玛

(24th August – 6th September)

The past 2 weeks were all work. It was great! I finally settled into the “new normal” of being here with just the family, and got on with my projects.

So this fortnight, you mainly get photos.


It’s mushroom season! There’s mushrooms at the markets everywhere and Xue Mei has gone mushroom foraging twice since we went with the others last time. The first time I walked into the kitchen I was so blown away by the array of mushroom species that I took a photo series. Here it is. We ate them all!


On Saturday 5th Sept, He Er Ge and I went to Mu Yun Bai’s exhibition. It was good, although I felt that I’d seen his work a bit too regularly recently to properly appreciate it. Since I’m drawing ten flowers at the moment, I spent some time examining how he made lines of shade change without drawing a line – which is pretty much what his whole drawing style is. I can’t do it very well yet; and it’s my only specific aim of improvement for my pencil drawing. Oh, that – and less perfectionism! The exhibition was in an old school, in an undercover but only 3-walled area, and it worked really well.

He Ji Yu and I are working on finishing repainting this mural that’s in the family kitchen. Here’s a photo of the mural before he’s done many flowers, and while he’s doing them! My sister Hildy started this mural revitalising project and my aim is for it be finished by the time I leave.

I came home at lunchtime one day and Anai hadn’t cooked because she wasn’t expecting me. She was worried but it worked out perfectly because the day before, she had pulled up all the nettles I was cultivating – well, letting grow, anyway – in my flower-bed that Miranda and Jay built and I’ve grown against the front wall of the studio. So, nettle soup it was!

Hi Ji Xing’s horse has a pretty crappy life when he’s not around, as nobody else takes it for walks and it lives on a short rope. So I asked him to show me the basic, and took the horse out. It was really scary! I have never handled a horse alone before, and this horse is pretty frisky and jumpy. But we made it to the lake, and he was so happy to be out!

Things I saw around and about:

I am in the midst of a completely non-musical project. I am using rubbish and a few natural found objects I’ve been collecting since I arrived here to create a menagerie of animals that maybe once lived in the mountains around Lashihai. There are several inspirations for this project and I’ll put a detailed post up about it after I finish it. Next weekend I plan to exhibit the animals in a little diorama in the village, with Ji Yu helping me explain to the villagers what it’s about.  Here’s a few animals-in-progress.

I sat down to write a Second Iteration: He Family Portrait for Anai. It wasn’t happening. But some other little thoughts and ideas were happening. I tried to focus but to no avail. So I started turning the little thoughts and ideas into a piece. 2 days later, I had a finished draft. I’ve written a piece for 2 tenor voices; violin; bass; and percussion. The piece sets text by Francis Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958), an English botanist, explorer, plant collector and author who spent a lot of time in this part of the world. The text is from one of his many books, “Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges” (1926), and describes the wonder of mountainsides of Rhododendrons. Robbie Hart used this quote in his thesis, which is how I discovered it…and so this piece became my 3rd approach in my Robbie’s-data-into-music project. The text is set simultaneously in Mandarin and English. 周巧(Zhōu Qiǎo)did the translation for me, and it happened to be the exact same number of syllables, which was perfect!

Kindgon-Ward quote 1926

I finally made a decision about my graphic score, and started drawing. Here’s species 3, Rhododendron beesianum: the photo by Robbie Hart, and my drawing in-process and completed. I plan to do high-quality photocopies of the flowers onto transparencies and overlay them onto manuscript.

Qíng Nà Mǎ

晴 纳 玛


Rainstallation – 山慕

Big Orange Friend.

Please play this track while reading this blog post. Maybe hit repeat, it’s only 5 minutes long, even though the full track goes for over an hour.

The percussion machine met a different end to what was expected. Naima and I both got immersed in other projects, and the machine languished in the courtyard for quite a while. When Jen and Lizzy were here, all talk in the village was about rain, and the lack thereof. No rain is bad anywhere, but it’s hard to ignore the negatives while living on a farm. The extra water let down from the reserve on the mountain had already dried up, and Lashihai was retreating apace. The rain was late, very late. He Yeye mentioned it almost every day, with a sad defeated look on his face, and aNai said this was the latest she had ever seen the rain come. Even if it did finally come, it was too late, she said, while miming all the corn keeling over and dying of heat stroke.

So the talk was of rain, and Jen and I both came to the idea of building something that sounds good in the rain, as a portent of the much longed for downpour. To tempt fate and call the rain from the sky. Our ideas ranged from the simple to the increasingly ornate, but we settled on the half finished installation already in the courtyard.

We danced for the rain in Wumu, and we watched others eat the goat sacrificed for her pleasure; we commiserated with Yeye and stared at the blue sky with our arms stretched, asking “为什么” “wei, shenme?” and so we again sifted through the rubbish piles, built the rainstallation, and we all waited patiently for the rain.

It took a few weeks for any rain to fall, and it wasn’t until weeks after Jen left that it started raining in earnest. Good solid summer rains, drenching the soil and filling the ditches. A rain that’s here for the duration, the type that turns soccer games into mud wrestling matches, and makes the solar hot water frustratingly inefficient when it’s time to wash off.

In other words, a rain that makes the rainstallation sing.

But the rain didn’t last. It came, the old people smiled over Mahjong and Baiju, the middle generation grimaced over beer and said it was too little too late, and the children and tourists laughed at the dogs dancing in the downpour; then it left again, leaving a muddy footprint on the way out.

But by then, I’d captured the rain, crouching in the courtyard, recorder in hand. Instinctively holding my raincoat out over the artwork to protect it, then realising that it was a rainstallation made from found rubbish. I couldn’t make it rain, but I could help it sound like it should.

I wanted our sculpture to sing for the rain. To lament what it’s missing and wail for precipitation. I wanted our rainstallation to highlight everything that was missing from the rainclouds over Lashihai. I wanted our bright orange pile of suspended rubbish to help people remember the rain, how it feels, how it smells, and how it sounds.

So we gave it a voice.

I mixed recordings of the rainstallation together, to simulate a big rain, a solid rain, a good old timey drenching. Making all the little rains together sound like a torrential downpour, the type of rain that seems to give birth to frogs. The sound of a rain that hasn’t happened this year, the type that makes streams out of driveways and makes the roots of the sunflowers smile.

Hanging tiny speakers in the sculpture, we put it out to pasture. Leaving it for passers by and wandering Anai’s to discover. The rainstallation sat there, still, unmoved by the weather. Its pans and tins swung lifeless in the breath of breezes. But yet, something stirred, a memory of sound, of how it feels to be wet from the sky. The sound of rain echoes out of these dry corners, reverberating in the cracked earth.

Watching this dry dusty sculpture while listening to it rain, I felt the song of Australia, of California, of China and everywhere else. I felt the sadness of an empty room, of an empty cloud and a dry well. The memory of a time when streams ran down the road, and you could catch fish with your hands. The rainstallation sung of the olden times, of last week, last year, last generation, last time; do you remember?

It was eerie.

It was sad.

Teenagers used it as a giant drum kit.

Watching it, (because after an hour the rain-track switched to exuberant Naxi Pop music) I felt a chill, a shiver up my spine. Seeing the village elderly double take, because they know the sound so well they didn’t even look where it was coming from at first, I felt a cool breeze. A change breeze. Spitting drops.

And friends? It rained. They didn’t stay that day, but very soon… the summer rains came. The frogs were born and the soccer was muddy. The showers were cold and the crops were happy. Anai hummed while she checked her corn, and Yeye put on an extra polar fleece, and muttered less when he looked at the sky.

Lìjiāng Studio weeks 19 & 20 – Nà Mǎ 纳 玛

29th June – 12th July (Written 26th August)

After I returned from Hong Kong, I had 8 or 9 days until our big concert. Just after I left for Hong Kong, Crystal Pascucci, a cellist and composer, had arrived from America, and then Jen Torrence, a percussionist, and Lizzie Peacocke, a public health worker, both from, well, Norway, via a lot of other places.

Crystal’s website: http://www.crystalpascucci.com/

Jen’s website: http://www.jennifertorrence.com/

And somehow I think I didn’t mention Michelle/ the weaver, who arrived shortly after Frog: http://www.ozzoombro.com/

I was so happy to come back – be back home; be away from the big stinky challenging city; see my family again; spend time with some lovely people and get to know them better; and perform some of my work in the place it was written.

Lesser Heat Festival poster, by Frog Wing.

Lesser Heat Festival poster, by Frog Wing.

I didn’t count on all of the time the others had all had together influencing my time with them so much, but it really did. Conversations were often continuations of events or earlier ideas that I wasn’t there for, and people had all fallen into the habits and the knowings of each other that happens when you live together. In a way, even though of course I was welcomed, I felt I’d disrupted the rhythms that they’d developed together and they never really got regained in a group sense. I actually feel (still, 2 months later) that I really missed out on something possibly more important than the Hong Kong Academy, not being here for the whole time that the others were. It was a risk I took because the opportunity to participate in the Academy seemed so great, and I’d never done anything like that before, and I was interested in the tutors. But I’d been looking towards this period and writing music for this group of people back at the Studio almost since I arrived in February, and I really think I did myself a disservice by missing out on much of that time.

Michelle/LìLì's homemade loom, with 2 works-in-progress.

Michelle/Lili’s homemade loom, with 2 works-in-progress.

Some things about the week building up to the concert were lovely. But other things were stressful. I didn’t quite leave myself enough time to learn the hardest part I’d made for myself, Crystal Ruth Bell’s piece. And then in putting the time I had into learning that piece, I didn’t do other important things like properly transcribe the part for dí zi (Chinese transverse flute with a membrane) into the right key for the dí zi I own for the Rhododendron piece. There were some disagreements about the venue. Rehearsals were challenging for me because I wanted to make a timetable for the week so that I could manage my time better, but no-one else wanted to. So we didn’t, and I didn’t manage my time well. Miranda wasn’t feeling great about her playing. The whole week was really just organising, practicing, and rehearsing. So I really didn’t get to spend much hanging out/bouncing concepts off each other/giving and getting feedback along the way time with Crystal, Jen or Lizzie. had retreated into quite an internal and ascetic place, and I was worrying about her. She was producing a lot of work, and fasting, and not sleeping a lot, and had really socially withdrawn too. Frog was trying to get her giant dodecahedron sanded, painted and installed in time, as well as doing a really beautiful flyer for the whole event as well, so she was also under the pump.

The orb is installed! Jen and Lizzie are taking photos. Dudu is along for the ride.

The orb is installed! Jen and Lizzie are taking photos. Dūdū is along for the ride.

But also: we had a walk every afternoon in rehearsal break through the village to buy an iceblock. Lizzie and I went to Fēng Le Market together on our bicycles. Lizzie bought a broom that subsequently faithfully travelled with her through Hong Kong, America and Europe and eventually back to Norway. The feeling of being amongst several lovely and hard-working artistic women was pretty great. I had some insight into how someone else (Crystal) composes, looking, listening to and discussing her score-in-process, which was valuable and not that common an experience for me. We were organised enough to rehearse enough for most pieces to be ready to perform.

Us all! Back L-R: Jay; Lili/Michelle; Lizzie; Jen Front L-R; Frog; Naima; Crystal; Miranda.

Us all!
Back L-R: Jay; LìLì/Michelle; Lizzie; Jen
Front L-R; Frog; Naima; Crystal/JīngJīng; Miranda/Shān Mù.

The pieces of mine we played are:

Crystal Ruth Bell: We Keep Going

flute – me;

tuned glass bottles – Jen Torrence;

cello – Crystal Pascucci; and

double bass – Miranda Hill.

Climate-Driven Change in Himalayan Rhododendron Phenology (sections 1-3 of 6)

pre-recorded sine waves;

dí zi – me;

cello – Crystal Pascucci;

double bass – Miranda Hill;

tuned percussion – Jen Torrence; and

harmonium – Frog Wing.

I felt we played both pieces well, even though we had played both better. But I completely messed up the Climate-Driven Change… piece, and because it seemed easy and I felt a bit embarrassed by it because I wasn’t yet used to how it turned out, I didn’t push enough practice time with it and so we didn’t record it either, which I’m a bit disappointed about.

I also played flute in an improvised version of “Bái Yún de Měi Lì” (“The Beautiful White Clouds”) with Jimmy / Yáng Zé Mín, Crystal and Miranda; harmonium in a movement of Crystal Pascucci’s “Flute Poems”; and metal bowl, pebble and lentils in Jenn Torrence’s “Women’s Work” piece.

One sad thing is that Miranda had rehearsed to play some of the First Impressions Family Portraits that I wrote in March/April. But dinner took longer than we allotted it, and we still had to finish at sundown, so the Portraits got squashed out. Also, Miranda was really taking on an organising and rehearsal-leading role, and so although she also has work that could have been played, she didn’t have the time to introduce and rehearse any of her stuff as well.

Rehearsal time.

Rehearsal time.

Highlights for me:

We were playing Jen’s piece (in which lentils are rolled and swished around in bowls), Ānǎi was sitting next to Miranda, and at first she was really dismayed that the lentils were going out onto the floor and being wasted as food – but then at a certain point she just shrugged and threw the handful she was retrieving off the floor into the air and started laughing. It was the best.

While folks were eating, a bunch of the Jí Xiáng Orchestra members had gotten the tuned bottles from my piece and rearranged them, and were playing Nàxī tunes on them.

Earlier in the day, Miranda and I went for a walk together and collected flowers and sheaves of grasses to put in Jen’s bottles for the piece I wrote for Crystal. It was a really lovely cycle to collect flowers from Lì jiāng Studio and Jí Xiáng Cūn, a place she had loved and had helped Miranda and I get to, as part of playing the piece I wrote for her. She helped me get here, and then I wrote a piece for her here, and we performed it here, with flowers for her from here.

Setting up ‘s work for the festival (she had to leave 2 days beforehand). She had completed a huge number of simple paintings, all in the same format, as well as a number of stunning woven pieces. We laid out all of the paintings on a wooden floor with pebbles holding them down, and it looked really amazing. Throughout the day, people came in and made a same-size painting of their own, left it behind, and took one of hers. So the shape and content of the laid-out paintings slowly changed over the day. I really liked going up to the room every so often to see what had gone and what had arrived.

At the end of Crystal’s piece, she had some troubles orchestrating a part for the harmonium simple enough for Frog and I to play for the final movement (we are not very accomplished!). So she made a last-minute decision to cut the final movement and just follow the penultimate movement with one chord to finish, following her lead for the fade-out. We had never rehearsed it and it was slightly nerve-wracking because I wanted to get it right, but I did, and even though it wasn’t what she’d wanted, I thought it was a beautiful ending to the piece.

Lizzie’s story about street-dental work. It was captivating, and I really loved her photos of teeth and things that reminded her of teeth that accompanied the story, too.

The Dōngbā ritual blessing of the giant dodecahedron/orb. Frog danced a Dōngbā dance inside the orb, at sunset, with a smoky atmosphere from burning green pine needles to purify the area, and it was just magic.

Our teachers from school came; the villagers came; Jay’s family came… there was such a festive joyful feel and I’m so glad we decided to put the festival on, in just the format we did. It really worked.

For a detailed program and more photos of the concert, you can go here: http://www.lijiangstudio.org/lesserheatfestival/

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the day of the concert, it rained. And the villagers said that we musicians called the rain.

And then the next day, Crystal and her partner Mark left; and the day after that Jen and Lizzie left; and a few days after that Frog left to go to Lú Gū Hú (Lúgū Lake; home of the Mósuō matriarchal folk that we’ve been interested in visiting for months, but we couldn’t go because we had things to do); and Jay left to go to some appointments interstate, and it felt like a really fast exodus with no downtime or group debrief. For me, the whole period of time between returning from Hong Kong and doing our festival and the other 3 artists leaving was a bit of a gasp and a run and it’s over before I got another breath. I really do wish I’d gotten to spend the whole month with them.

But I won’t forget that the villagers said we musicians called the rain. To me, that is a huge compliment, and a blessing beyond any blessing I would hope to have.

Qíng Nà Mǎ

晴 纳 玛