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.