Lusheng learning and a first improv

After a long taxi ride in heavy Monday morning traffic, Kerun and I reached Guizhou University’s College of Arts, where I was due to spend the morning meeting the lovely staff of the music, theatre and dance departments. We were greeted by the head of music at the door, and shown through to a large room where many smiling faces were waiting. I was as usual treated with enormous friendliness, interest and respect, and was struck by how many staff had taken the time out of the busy schedules to meet and talk to me. They’d even hung a special banner on the wall in welcome. It was fascinating to hear all about their work- and also to learn again how deeply the cultures of Guizhou’s ethnic minority groups influenced those working in the arts in this part of China. Many referred to the extent of this influence, discussing the importance of this heritage in their own work. After hearing about my work here and in the UK, they warmly encouraged me to come back and meet their students to workshop material. “Our door is always open- now and in the future,” they said.

After I’d played my saw for them we were joined by a wonderful Lusheng master, Yang Chang Jie who played for us. The sound of the Lusheng was utterly mesmeric- so rich and loud. I could imagine it singing out across the mountains of the province from village to village, almost like bagpipes.

Mr Yang explained all about the instrument to me, taking its bamboo piping structure apart so I could see its very anatomy. He described the different kinds of Lusheng- those played on happy occasions, such as harvest-times or weddings, those played during ritual sacrifice ceremonies, and those reserved for funerals. The Miao have no concept of heaven or hell, he explained, but all souls are believed to return to their village’s central square, to live forever in the pebbled symbol of the sun. Next Mr Yang let me have a go on his Lusheng myself and I learnt a simple Miao tune with its accompanying dance. We swapped contacts and he encouraged me to get in touch if I had any more questions. Increasingly I’m feeling the passion in all those I meet for preserving the province’s ethnic heritage.

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After lunch, Kerun and I made our way to a Third Front factory site. The Third Front Movement was an enormous industrial development initiative, set up by the Chinese government back in the 60s. Less developed areas of the country, like Guizhou province, were prioritised for development and people were transported from other parts of the country to work in the self-contained factory communities. Third Front sites often handled militarily sensitive projects- building munitions etc and were located according to the principle of ‘kaoshan, fensan, yinbi’ or ‘close to the mountains, dispersed, and hidden’. I’d known about these sites before coming to China, and was interested to visit one. How was it, I’d wondered, to be plucked from your home to live in a self-contained hidden-away work site, with little contact with the outside world? I saw strange parallels with the pre-transport revolution lives of the ethnic minority groups, cut-off from others in their self-contained communities, with their distinctive dress mirroring the factory workers’ regulation blue and grey uniforms.

The Guiyang site, as with many Third Front sites, has been in decline for many years. But the sense of history that came from its being neglected by the government, the fact that much of what we saw- machinery, warehouse space, fixtures and fittings- had remained unchanged for decades, gave the place an incredible atmosphere. In one warehouse, pictured below, there was a mountain of shining spiral metal offcuts, nearly reaching the ceiling. Immediately I thought of the silver jewellery of the ethnic minority villagers and salvaged a few pieces for potential costumes purposes…

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On the hunt for fellow performers for my final show, I went later that afternoon to the studio of a concert violinist named Liao Hao Yue. Ms Liao set up the studio a year and half ago, after a number of years spent living and playing in Vienna. She saw that, whilst Guiyang had a concert orchestra, the classical scene was not thriving and lacked infrastructure. Booking agents and arts production companies were thin on the ground in the city, which made getting gigs and setting things up difficult for players. Since its set-up, she’d gathered a group of young musicians at her studio, who taught there and also performed in concerts as regularly as they could.

Given the extent to which the ethnic minority cultures influence art-making in Guizhou, I’d become interested in incorporating some of their elements into my final piece. But rather than presenting the material literally, on traditional instruments, I wanted to bring the sounds and character in more imaginatively. Using Western instruments to evoke and interpret felt like a possible approach, hence meeting Ms Liao and her young group.

And as the late afternoon sunlight streamed in through the studio’s hi-rise window, one-by-one, nervously, they played for me. Beethoven, Debussy, Webern. I saw their fingers shake. I saw them pull faces when they made a little slip here or there. Ms Liao dazzled after they’d all played with an excerpt from the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ violin concerto- a Chinese-style cross-over piece, featuring the pentatonic scale and other Chinese-style elements set to tonal Western harmonies. But the longer I sat there, the more I felt like a withholding X Factor judge, assessing young hopefuls.

Before they’d started, I’d explained I was looking for players for my show- players who would be comfortable moving or dancing during a performance as well as playing, and players who would be happy improvising. I’d mentioned graphic scores and had shown them some examples I’d brought with me when they’d looked confused. Ms Liao had come across this kind of music but to the rest of the group it was entirely new. I wondered how well I was going to be able to get these players to improvise, but was relieved, once they’d played the pieces they’d prepared, when the fun could finally begin!

In the last hour of my visit, we spontaneously decided to play an improvisation game. I asked each person in the group to write three words on a piece of paper- words that they could imagine interpreting musically themselves- and to pass them onto their neighbour. I asked Kerun to pick a number at random between 1 and 8 (the number of people in the group), and this decided the number of players in each improvising ensemble. I gave some notes before we started- “Remember, you don’t have to play all the time- silence is as important as sound and it’s better not to play for the sake of it!” and “There is no such thing as a mistake in improvising!” and so on. Then I got out my saw and played with them too.

It was striking how the players responded differently to the challenge. Some, for safety, clearly reached for material they already knew. Some were not listening. Some were filling their improvisations end-to-end with an anxious flood of material. All of this was completely understandable. I’m sure it was tough to improvise with me there, with the hope of work in the balance, and not least with the spectre of their classical music training hanging over them. But after each improvisation, we talked about how it felt, what our three inspiration words were, and gradually the sense of adventure took hold. I sat out for the final improvisation- played by Ms Liao, with another violinist, Cai Gi, and a clarinettist with the coolest name in the world, Xie Xiu Xia- and it was absolutely beautiful! Ms Liao made the younger players feel safe with her presence, exploring more unusual sounds on her violin and moving the improvisation into interesting places. But the younger players too played beautifully- listening so sensitively, playing instinctively rather than reaching for generic structures or harmonies.

‘I think I’ve found my fellow performers’, I thought to myself as I watched them.

After they’d finished, I told them how beautiful I thought they’d played and the group was full of smiles. I asked how they’d felt doing it and Xie Xiu Xia said she’d felt nervous. “It’s the first time I’ve ever improvised,” she said.

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