A week of making: music

As well as making the costumes for my final show, this past week has seen me completely absorbed in some wonderful music-making. Last Monday, I borrowed a keyboard from the local studio and set up a workspace in the corner of my flat- happy to have a den for making in. It’s so important to get your creative environment right in this way, and for me, privacy and the ability to come and go freely (to make tea, to go for a walk (or do some star-jumps…) if you hit a wall) is just what I need.

The music I’ve been making sees a meeting of everything I’ve absorbed here- the minority ethnic songs, the scholarly guqin-playing, the vibrant energy of the lusheng, other ‘non-musical’ things- with everything I bring from home- my tastes, my world. Inspirations take form in different ways. I developed, for example, the gorgeously intuitive ‘by-ear’ nature of the Dong songs I’d heard by setting the melodies against squarer rhythmic forms, weaving them across phrase-endings and barlines. I interpreted the space, spirit and technique of the guqin using stopped harmonic string pizzicato, bent pitches and shimmering watery piano. I heard in the vigour of the lusheng, ritualistic and danced-to, the mesmeric energies of British folk reels, with resounding double-stopped strings, open fifths, and repetition. And though I’d been concerned that using pentatonic harmonies could risk turning what I was making into a bit of a cod-Chinese cliche, they do seem to be very prevalent here! The very tuning of the guqin is pentatonic for example. And when I’d spoken to the group of composers I’d met at the end of my first week in Guiyang, one of the only stylistic features they could articulate about Chinese music was the fact of ‘gōng 宫, shāng 商, jué 角, zhǐ 徵 and 羽’. Chinese music, when played traditionally, is not equal-tempered, so is characterised by a very beautiful and distinctive ‘curving’ of the notes- a musical line is not hit like a hammer, but is curved coaxingly into shape, with glissandi between notes and micro-tonal variations in pitch idiosyncratic to each particular player. I’ve tried to bring this into the music I’m making too.

I’d also wanted to create some scores which would allow the performers to improvise during the show- as an experiment for them and for me. Particularly when performers are not accustomed to improvising, it is important to consider this quite carefully. Rather than setting them adrift into free improvisation, I aimed to make semi-improvisatory scores or scores where improvisation would be an option, sometimes for a smaller number of players in the group rather than the whole, and where lots of the parts were still closely composed. However, as well as more conventional scores, I have been working on some graphic scores inspired by things ranging from the Miao narrative textiles I’ve seen to the window formation in the hi-rise opposite my balcony. Though these could be a stretch for new improvisors, I hope they will also be fun and like a game. It’s always a gamble, what you make for players whose playing you don’t know and with whom you’ve never played before. Fingers crossed.

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As well as considering the needs of my fellow performers, I’ve also been conscious of my potential audience. As my hosts have gently hinted, the kind of show I’m making will not necessarily be easy for local audiences here in Guiyang to fathom. There is a possibility they just won’t ‘get it’ or it’ll leave them cold. I can believe this: musical and artistic tastes here sometimes feel so different! I was nervous about this at first, as I wanted to make a show that would open things up for everyone involved, to make a connection. If it was a show inspired by their city and province, the last thing I wanted to do was to alienate people. Whilst I don’t think I’ve compromised myself artistically, I’ve been conscious of finding a suitable pitch for the piece given these realities.

In order to bring atmosphere, to allow the performance to showcase all the wonderful sounds I’ve heard while I’ve been in Guizhou province, I’ve also made a soundscape to run throughout the show. When time is relatively short for making a piece with people who don’t know each other and who haven’t improvised (or danced) before, a soundscape can provide a feeling of structure, a way of mapping where the different pieces of music and movement should fit. They can also bring a sense of safety, providing a kind of ‘sound blanket’ for improvisation. I love the chance opportunities a soundscape provides too- you never know quite how the music will come alive against it, which bits will coincide with which. Here’s a version of what I’ve been developing- busier than the real one will be- with a couple of demos clips of the music I’ve made dropped in, just to give a sense of it:

Finally, I’ve been devising the electronic interfacing part of the show, which will use conductive copper taping and skin-to-skin contact to trigger samples. Because the flooring for this element of the show is too large to work on in my apartment, I’ll be going to work on it further in situ at the venue on Tuesday. Dance and movement are the focus of this coming week, and will I hope feed into the choreography of this dimension of the piece.

Though it’s been an intense week of work, I’ve found time to go out too- to watch the kite-fliers in my local park, to see the bright lights on evenings out, and to sample more delicious Chinese food! The traditional ‘hot pot’ pictured below is served with side plates of whatever ingredients you choose (mushrooms, potato slices, lotus root, tofu etc) which you dip into a central tureen of delicious spicy soup to cook yourself. Each person also has their own individual dish of chillis, spring onions, peanuts and other spicy goodies to add even more flavour. As well as being really tasty, I love how sociable Chinese food culture is- you’re always sharing food, whether on a circular ‘lazy susan’, in the hot pot kind of way, or just through having a selection of dishes which every one can dip their chopsticks into. There’s something nice too about just choosing and eating what you want rather than having your plate filled up by someone else. Love it.

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