This project began with an invitation from Ziyin and Carrillo Gantner to spend a period in residence with Jun Tian Fang, a Guqin Cultural Centre based in Daxing District, Beijing, China. The guqin is an ancient Chinese instrument, fretless, with seven-strings, plucked, and tuned pentatonically. It’s intimate, beautifully expressive, and is often referred to as “the instrument of the sages,” traditionally played by scholars, and associated with the philosopher Confucius. Its music is notated in intricate tablature, which doesn’t indicate note value, tempo or rhythm. The instrument is generally played solo, because of its extreme quietness, though paired sometimes with xiao or voice.
In October 2015, I had the great pleasure of spending time with key Jun Tian Fang company members and associates, exploring possible ideas for an Australia-China musical collaboration. My main collaborators and cultural guides were Mr Wang Peng (Founder and Director of Jun Tian Fang, master guquin player), Mr Du Dapeng (Artistic Director of Jun Tian Fang, master guquin player), Ms Liu Fang (Producer and Administrator of Jun Tian Fang), Liu Xiaogang (Jun Tian Fang company member, master player of the xiao, zhu di/dizi, xun, hulusi, among other instruments), Gloria Wang and Gemma Li (cultural guides and translators).
This was an extraordinary chapter in my life, and an astonishingly rich education. In the Jun Tian Fang company, I was met with people with exquisite skills, coupled with hugely open minds and hearts. Our exchange happened on many levels – musical, cultural, human.
We worked towards a Ya Yi (small concert/public showcase) performance in their purpose built theatre, where the space is intimate, and the acoustic beautiful. The room is wooden, visitors sit on the floor, and it holds a great sense of ritual.
Between the musicians and me, there was no literal common language apart from sound. This was a lovely experience, rehearsing entirely without words, unless we called on a translator, which we did less and less as time went by.
Outside the rehearsal space, there was much talk of philosophy, painting, poems and nature. They found in me someone whose philosophical framing of music was very similar to theirs. They asked fascinating questions, and I found myself answering and articulating things that I have been contemplating a long time, but rarely discussed. Our conversations left me thinking about culture and identity, music as ritual, and the pursuit of stillness.
Since those intense days in Beijing, we’ve invited new collaborators into the project. We returned to Beijing a year later, with choreographer/director Gideon Obarzanek, composer Max de Wardener, producer Ziyin Gantner and associate producer Qian Zhang. After a heady exchanges of ideas, new shapes are beginning to emerge. We’ve the beginnings of ideas for our new work, and a title: 1 infinity.
In Gideon’s words:
Here music draws attention to the spaces between sound. Clear planes and deep hollows evoke contemplation. The audience are on stage facing back to a single figure in an empty auditorium. Looking through the musicians playing on edge of stage we see others silently enter the theatre to take their seats until it is full. It is as if we are looking into a mirror. Beginning almost imperceptibly the mirror audience waver from listening individuals to a mass moving in unison. The crowd transforms into vast abstract patterns resembling flocking and field ripples. We are witness to a strange synaesthesia, visualisation of the sound we are hearing through mass choreography. Fluxing in this kinetic field are moments when individual figures return to watch and listen. These reflections of us however are no longer in the tangible world but float in an alternative state where sound, light and movement have now fused into a purely sensory universe.
Musically, the exquisite sounds of the ancient Chinese instruments guzin and xiao form the heart of the music. Refined, softly spoken, they’re instruments for philosophers and poets. Theirs is a world of deep stillness. The recorder, a simple wooden pipe, has relatives in every time and culture. It carries story and song, and has always been a traveller, moving effortlessly between times and places, different musical styles and languages.
The contemporary electroacoustic studio is a realm where sounds can be woven into lush sonic landscapes: acoustic sounds, found sounds, Eastern sounds, Western sounds, subtly morphed versions of all of these elements, layered to become their own rich worlds. Max de Wardener and I will meet in London in June to make the first draft of the music, while in August, Gideon will work with collaborators Dance North, before we all reconvene in Beijing, to work with Jun Tian Fang and Beijing Dance Theatre.