Hear & Now in China 2008
Robert Worby's Diary
Part One - Beijing
Presenter Robert Worby and Producer Philip Tagney recently visited China to make two programmes on New Music for Hear & Now. Robert kept a diary of his experiences...
Day One - Arrival and first impressions; interviewing Zhang Xiaofu in his studio, with profound thoughts on Chinese aesthetics; a first meeting with the conductor of our concert; and some speculative CD purchases.
The plane bumps around in the turbulent air over the mountains as we glide in. Looking down we see fuzzy peaks surrounding a flat, hazy plain. Over the city the infamous smog sits like wispy, grey candyfloss, yellowing in the sun.
Our taxi rips along a freeway edged with fields. As we approach the suburbs, and hit the traffic, the driver turns on the radio very loud. Dance music pounds into the car, the bass drum is like a demented pile driver. Philip, in the front passenger seat, turns around and looks at me wide-eyed in disbelief. The driver turns it up louder, we can't hear ourselves think, but he seems oblivious to it all, fidgeting and scratching, bored with his lot, eyes glued on the road straight ahead.
Beijing comprises a series of six ring roads like a shooting target with the Forbidden City at the bullseye. Cutting through, East to West, just touching the target's centre at Tiananmen Square, is Chang'an Avenue, a wide, wide boulevard open to the sky and flanked by towering shopping centres, offices and hotels. The traffic fills every available space on the ground. Philip read somewhere that, at the beginning of the 1980s, there were 800 cars here. We drive through Tiananmen Square. From the car Mao's portrait looks tiny. I thought it was going to be colossal, dominating the whole space like some Orwellian tyrant.
Tiananmen Square (photo by Robert Worby)
Having checked into our hotel we go in search of a few vital supplies – bottled water, batteries and maybe some fruit. Perhaps we can find a small grocery shop or a family convenience store as the Beijingers call them. No chance. We're surrounded by cavernous shopping centres selling everything we don't want to buy – clothes, clothes and more clothes. I find the word 'supermarket' in my phrase book and show it to a security guard. He looks very puzzled as if I was pointing at the word 'astronaut'. He shrugs and stabs a finger into the middle distance across the road. We head off optimistically. There's a building that looks like an indoor market. We wander in. There are several floors of cheap trinkets that might appeal to adolescent girls. There's lots of pink and a plethora of cartoon kittens. Grinning teenagers observe us quizzically. I'd been reading an account of a 'Heart Of Darkness' type river journey, made in China by an 19th century missionary. He described how villagers, deep in the interior, pointed and stared when he disembarked each evening. I suddenly knew how he felt. We struggle to hack our way out of this bauble jungle.
The first interview is with Professor Zhang Xiaofu at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Our translator will be one of his students, Mungo Zhangruibo, a composer of electroacoustic music and the Foreign Liaison Secretary of the Centre of Electroacoustic Music of China. I met him last year at the EMS 2007 (http://www.ems-network.org/) conference at De Montfort University in Leicester. He'd never been out of China. He went from Beijing to Leicester and back again in just a few days.
We meet Zhang in his studio office. A massive mixing desk dominates the centre of the large open space. All around it is the clutter of academia – piles of papers and books threaten to topple and scatter and big wall posters advertise concerts past. The professor looks wise and kind like professors should. He speaks perfect French and has some understanding of English. He gives us tea. Big leaves in a paper cup. Philip and I have been wondering how the Chinese deal with constantly having to remove these leaves from the teeth and tongue. Have they developed some secret technique for filtering them? I ask Mungo. He says no, it's a hazard of drinking China tea made in a cup.
Mungo Zhangruibo, Professor Zhang Xiaofu and Robert Worby (photo by Philip Tagney)
The interview lasts 3 hours. Mungo does a brilliant job. Just over halfway through we stretch. Mungo looks exhausted. He says that he can work for hours thinking and writing in Chinese or thinking and writing in English but thinking in both, for such a long time, is very difficult. Zhang is wonderful. He more or less gives me a tutorial on the history of Chinese music. It's fascinating. And he doesn't skim over the Cultural Revolution. I'd mentioned to Mungo that I wanted to talk about that time. He looked a bit concerned. 'You have to understand', he said screwing his eyes and showing signs of some discomfort, 'that the Cultural Revolution is taboo here. Nobody wants to talk about it.' I'd discovered that already but Zhang simply fits it all into the history.
Towards the end of the interview we hit on something quite special and, i think, difficult for us in the West to understand. Zhang, like other composers I had talked with, montioned his 'spirit' in relation to his music. This is a very Chinese idea and something I just don't get so I questioned him further. Did his music express his spirit? Did it contain his spirirt? Was the music itself his spirit? Were these sounds - that I could hear - were these sounds his spirit? I don't understand how sound - fast moving air - can be a 'spirit'. Mungo was struggling to translate. 'This is very philosophical', he said slowly, 'and very Chinese. 'It's very Chinese' is a phrase the Chinese use a lot. I was really trying to understand this concept of the spirit and I felt that I only just touched it. I could almost see it. I thought I felt it brush the end of my outstretched fingertips but it passed like a ghost in a hurry. I was very very close. Zhang and Mungo took me almost to a point where I might experience what it was like to be Chinese but, of course, that's completely impossible.
As we step into the foyer of the Conservatoire, I can hear the Hallelujah Chorus echoing from a short way off. It's the most peculiar performance I've ever heard. The words are extremely clipped. Ha-llel-ooo-yar, ha-llel-ooo-yar. I trace the source of these sounds and find myself peeking through the door of a large lecture theatre. It's packed with women. A sea of shiny black hair. At the front, an old black guy is teaching them the piece. He's the first Afro-Caribbean I've seen in China. He speaks in Chinese, sings a phrase and they fire it back like machine guns. I whip out my digital sound recorder and capture the moment for posterity.
Outside, Mungo is chatting to a studious looking westerner. It's Eli Marshall the conductor of the Beijing New Music Ensemble, the man who will direct the Hear And Now concert on Friday night. He was just passing through the building and happened to bump into us. We've only ever met via email. We repair to a nearby student café at the back of a music shop. There's much to talk about.
When we leave I become distracted by the books, scores and CDs. There's the usual pile of Western classical music, rendered by Chinese performers, but I'm looking for other things – contemporary Chinese music, electroacoustics, folk music, stuff I've never heard before. I know the World Routes team are in China recording music of the so-called Minority Peoples (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/worldroutes/pip/xyq07/) but I wonder if there's anything like that available here. There isn't really. I buy some CDs on spec because they're inexpensive. When I get them back to the hotel there are a couple of gems but there's also a lot of insipid, folky pop with over-produced breathy vocals that sound like they've been recorded at the end of a long tunnel.
Day Two - Tracking down the Bookworm shop, and attending rehearsals for our Hear And Now concert.
A morning off, so I troll over to Bookworm, a splendid English (well, it's American actually) bookshop, library, coffee house and wi-fi access point. Getting there is difficult. Beijing taxi drivers do not speak, or read, English. Why should they? So, a traveller needs to have their destination written in Chinese. A map can be a useful but only if it's in English and Mandarin. An added problem is that taxi drivers are pouring into the city from remote rural areas to cash-in on the Olympics and many of them just do not know their way around. The best way to get anywhere is to have the phone number of your destination programmed into your phone and, when you climb into the taxi, you press the call button and hand the phone to the driver. He babbles away at your expense and then still doesn't know where he's going.
I am deposited on the edge of an eight lane highway. Some way off there's a cluster of non-descript buildings. Warehouses? Offices? Businesses? Who knows? They're just big and anonymous. Uniformed security guards loaf about. The receptionist at the hotel told me that Bookworm is lovely and it's a bit difficult to find but it's up some stairs at the top of a small yellow building. I wander through what appear to be car parks, but there are very few cars. Maybe they are delivery bays. After about 15 minutes I see a yellow building with what looks like a fire escape running up the side. It's Bookworm. Up I go. It is wonderful. There's a fabulous collection of English books about China. There are also novels, travel books, reference works, everything. It's a small private library. People are drinking coffee, reading books and staring at their laptop screens. There's background music playing softly. Suddenly it's The Gang Of Four playing At Home He's A Tourist. How incredibly bizarre and apt – The Gang Of Four were a Leeds band formed in the early 1980s (http://www.gangoffour.co.uk/) and they were a group of Chinese Communist Party leaders who were active after Mao died (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gang_of_Four). I played in The Mekons, a Leeds band associated with the Gang Of Four. I was feeling at home in Bookworm but I was a tourist. Everything was connecting. I sent a text to an old friend from the Mekons.
Bookworm (photos by Robert Worby)
During the late afternoon we make our way over to the Capital Normal University for the last of the rehearsals before the concert. I begin to feel normal when I get into the hall. This was just like being at Maida Vale, hanging around, waiting to do interviews and observing the activities. When the Rolling Stones were celebrating their first 25 years of being together, their drummer Charlie Watts quipped 'I've been in the Rolling Stones for 25 years. Five years of playing and 20 years of hanging about.' I know what he means, but it's all part of being a radio presenter.
Empty seats at the Capital Normal University Concert Hall (photo by Robert Worby)
The Beijing New Music Ensemble in rehearsal (photo by Philip Tagney)
Things were coming together. The music was sounding good, the local recording engineers were getting a chance to rehearse, as well as the musicians, and Philip and I were hearing the music live. We also managed to do a few interviews, sloping off into corridors and classrooms after each piece. The whole place was very 'capital' and very 'normal' – the matter-of-fact, utilitarian name a manifestation of the architecture, the design and the furniture. The concert hall seating was just as I imagine 1950s Soviet Communist party meeting halls to be.
The evening wore on slowly. Everything was taking its time. It became obvious there would be no dinner tonight.
Day Three - The hunt for the elusive Sugar Jar CD Shop; and interviews with underground musicians Yan Jun and Wang Fan at the 2 Kolegas club.
At breakfast I read a long article, about Tibet, in the colour supplement of the China Daily. This newspaper is, of course, run by the Chinese government and therefore toes the party line. For the last few days I'd been reading articles defending China's position on Tibet written by journalists from all over the world. Yesterday, a Finnish journalist had written a feature and it made me wonder why the China Daily needs to employ Finnish journalists to defend the government's position? But it occurred to me that the news in Britain is obviously Anglo-centric, and we rarely make an effort to see things from a point of view outside that of Britain. I also thought that this was the case with music. What did Zhang and his colleagues really make of music in the west? High Modernism may have been a bit of a shock after the Cultural Revolution. I wondered what the World Routes team were up to and what the musicians they were meeting would make of British folk music. I spent the rest of the morning backing up audio and planning the interviews for later that day.
After lunch we made our way over to the 798 Art District to visit a specialist CD shop called Sugar Jar (www.sugarjar.cn). We'd heard that this is the main outlet for all things experimental in Chinese music and the Art District is supposed to be the place for modern art in China. It's a fairly long cab ride away and, as usual, we get dumped by the side of a six lane highway on the wrong side of the road. 798 appears to be an abandoned industrial site. There are 20,000 square metres of old factories, workshops and what alarmingly appear to be disused petrochemical works. And it's a building site. Literally. The roads are rivers of mud and large, gaping trenches criss-cross all pathways. It's a health and safety nightmare! And the choking dust covers everything including our clothes and shoes.
798 Art District (photo by Robert Worby)
We wander about trying to find Sugar Jar. A small gallery selling 'nice' photographs sells us a map of the whole area. It's useless. We might as well be navigating with a map of Antarctica. We phone the shop but from our description of where we are, and where we think we are, they have no idea of how to guide us in. They just keep repeating their address. The afternoon is getting hotter and the dust creates desert like conditions. We stop for water. I reflect on the art we've seen as we've wandered about. It all feels extremely safe. There's nothing avant-garde here. There's no 'shock of the new', it's all so very tame. Like anything in China that threatens the order of things, it's all contained. It's the same in the West, in the 21st century, radical ideas become commodities to be bought and sold on the open market, it's all part of the global consumer society.
We set off again to continue our 'dérive' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogeography) our drift in this art market Disneyland. More by good luck than design, we stumble on the place we've been looking for. It's taken us about an hour and a half but it's all been worth it. This tiny shop is a goldmine of interesting CDs, vinyl, artefacts and ephemera. There's a guy working at a computer at the back of the shop, when he sees us staggering in with microphones and recording equipment he knows immediately who we are. With our dusty clothes and muddy shoes it must look like we've walked from London. He wants to phone his boss, the owner of the shop, but who knows how long it would take him to arrive, so we reassure him we're more than happy to talk to him. I look around and immediately spy the British Council book 'Sound And The City' (http://www.britishcouncil.org/china-arts-music-satc.htm) which is documentation of an exchange project, undertaken in China and Britain, with sound artists from both countries. I wrote an introduction to soundart that appears in the book. I show it to our host. He looks confused and then impressed. It seems that this book has the respect of those who frequent the shop. We do an interview, he shows me interesting stuff and we leave laden with all we can carry. I've bought soundscape CDs recorded in Lhasa and Yunnan and a beautiful instrument like a brass jews harp. But it's small and fragile and fits into a beautiful, highly coloured embroidered cylinder about the size of a fat marker pen.
Robert Worby in Sugar Jar CD shop (photo by Philip Tagney)
Sugar Jar CD Shop (photo by Philip Tagney)
We have to hurry along because we're due to meet Yan Jun and Wang Fan whose music we've just heard in the shop. We make our way back to the main road and hail a taxi which takes us way out of town beyond the fifth ring road. We're heading for a drive-in cinema where Yan Jun runs a club in a tiny bar. Again we get out of our taxi by a roaring highway but this time we wander into what looks like a wood at the side of the road. After a while we come across some deserted cafés, bars and shabby looking fast food joints. Somewhere here are Yan Jun and Wang Fan. Philip reaches for his phone, I walk further on. Suddenly I'm in the vast open space of a deserted drive-in cinema. This is like something out of J G Ballard's novel 'The Atrocity Exhibition'. I feel like Travis, the book's anti-hero, who experiences the world, on the edge of psychosis, drifting through abandoned World War II airfields, drained swimming pools and huge blown-up images of film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. This place feels like all of those in rolled into one.
Drive-in Cinema near 2 Kolegas (photo by Robert Worby)
There's a shout from Philip. Has he been sucked into the vortex of a Ballardian moment? No, he's found the people we're looking for. Three figures are sat around a plastic garden table, on a kind of lawn, across the path from a row of cafés. No one else is to be seen. As we saunter across we observe the remains of a substantial meal in front of them. Fish bones, empty bottles and leftovers litter the table. They look replete and grin broadly as we approach. A waitress appears from nowhere and Philip and I order much needed drinks. Yan Jun is active in experimental music, poetry, performance, all kinds of stuff(http://www.myspace.com/yanjunyanjun). And he runs a label, some festivals and clubs. He looks confident and has a wise, knowing smile which belies his youth. His voice is deep and authoritative. Wang Fan (http://www.chinesenewear.com/ear/artists/wangfan.html) cannot speak English so his girlfriend Jia Zhao translates for him. Wang Fan is credited with being one of the first people involved in electronica in China. The guys are amused that we have been talking to Professor Zhang. 'The big cheese', laughs Yan Jun. This is such an English cliché it's very funny.
Yan Jun, Jia, Wang Fang & Philip Tagney at 2 Kolegas Club, Beijing. (photo by Robert Worby)
We go into the venue (2 Kolegas) where Yan and Wang have been experimenting all day. It's small and cosy with beaten up sofas and armchairs. There are two microphones on the stage pointing out into the auditorium. They are plugged into a small mixer that also has guitar effects pedals connected. We do the interviews, chatting for ages. I'm trying to find out how they deal with the speed of change in China and how this change effects the music. Then Yan goes up onto the stage and demonstrates what he's been doing. Feedback fills the room and, using the mixer, he works the sound like a viscous, tactile material. I whip out my digital recorder and capture everything.
Day Four - The Hear And Now concert happens, and proves a big success.
Today's the day of the Hear And Now concert, given by the Beijing New Music Ensemble, at the Capital Normal University. We spend the morning checking that we have all the interviews and recordings we need. I back up everything from the Flashcard recorder to my laptop and then onto DVD. One copy for Philip, one copy for me.
The journey to the venue takes an horrendous hour and a half in extremely dense, slow-moving traffic. It feels like the whole of Beijing has become a car park. Nobody can go anywhere. Horns blare, but nothing moves.
When I eventually get to the venue I find people busying themselves like ants in a nest. Everyone has their individual tasks, each of which contributes to the whole. Philip and I wander backstage. The soprano Wang Jiani is sat, shoulders hunched, in front of a large mirror propped against a wall. Her long hair is being teased into its form for the evening. Clouds of hairspray float over her head. She looks extremely bored. The recording team plug and unplug cables, huffing and puffing in frustration as they try to identify rogue buzzes and crackles. The stage team position and reposition chairs and music stands. Lights flash and dim, colours swirling like some insane disco. Everywhere, musicians are parping, tooting and scraping.
I'm not doing any presentation from the stage tonight, because I don't speak Mandarin, so I can relax and enjoy the concert. I take a seat in the auditorium with some recording equipment to record applause. Philip and I wonder what kind of audience we might get. We have absolutely no idea. It might just be us! Eventually the doors open and people pour in. The hall fills to about a third capacity instantly. Not bad. We're fairly pleased because we have absolutely no idea how contemporary music is received in China. But people keep streaming in. There's a polite scrum for seats with people squeezing past each other and making for the better seats. Within a short space of time the hall is three quarters full and there's still 10 minutes before the concert begins. This is very satisfying. By the time Alex Beels, the general manager of the BNME, goes onto the stage to make announcements the hall is packed. It's a complete sell-out. I haven't seen anything like this since our first Cut & Splice series at the ICA in 2003.
Wang Jiani and The Beijing New Music Ensemble (photo by Robert Worby)
Wang Jiani in action (photo by Robert Worby)
It's a great concert. The mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments makes for a soundworld rarely heard. The percussionists are really going for it, zapping about their instruments like speeding acrobats. And when Wang Jiani comes on we see that the gargantuan coiffurial efforts have not been in vain. She looks fabulous, adding some old style glamour to the evening. Eli is in fine form, his loping, lyrical gestures gathering in the musicians and focusing hard on shaping the sound. The audience is very enthusiastic. I've never been to a concert in China and have no idea what the audience protocol might be. I half expected considerable restraint with polite applause but it's not exactly like this. There's some whooping and cheering and there's not a single piece that is received with indifference. They seem to enjoy contemporary music.
It's all over too soon. The audience disperse, small groups, chatting brightly, make their way into the night. I feel some sadness not only because it's all over but also because I cannot converse with these people. I cannot say 'Hello, I'm from the BBC. We promoted this concert. Did you enjoy it?' I thank the composers, through translators, and warmly shake hands with them all. We thank the performers, the recording engineers and those people who managed the organisation on the ground. It's been a very special Hear And Now. I have the end of the programme to record but that can wait until tomorrow. When I've finished that, our work in Beijing is done.
© Robert Worby 2008
View the Hear & Now Beijing Picture Gallery
Part Two coming soon.
(The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites)
on radio 3
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.