I’m a tad late but Happy Lunar New Year 🐉! Spencer and I released our first album on Saturday and I thought I’d share our drums/guzheng recordings with you all. It’s a special one to me so I hope you like it. :)
I decided I wanted to remember some of the unwritten moments that happen when working on a creative collaborative project like this so I’m ruffling my blog out of hibernation.
A Loud Moon was recorded on a day of several coincidences. It was a full (pink) moon that night, which also marked the QingMing Festival 清明節 - a Chinese celebration celebrating and remembering your ancestors. This also happened to be a day of noisy siren-filled streets in the Downtown Eastside as it happened to be the day Vancouver police were conducting tent sweeps - removing encampment sites and displacing many troubled and homeless souls whose closest thing to home was East Hastings street.
Because of all these unexpected happenings, this album initiated a different set of reflections and gratitude that perhaps wouldn’t have occurred if not for their coincidental synchronicity. Reflections surrounding full moons, traditions, and navigating a changing world.
Welcome to the zheng-gle…
I grew up in the Fraser Valley of BC which in the 90s didn’t have a large demographic population of Chinese people (especially in comparison to nearby metropolitan cities like Vancouver and neighbouring Richmond). For 15 years, my mother drove my brother and I to spend the day in Vancouver every Saturday to learn certain extracurricular activities including Chinese school. At some point, we were introduced to the sounds of a Chinese orchestra which was such a wonderfully different sound world compared to what I was learning musically in my classical piano lessons and Canadian fiddle activities. Growing up in a family that valued education, I had the privileged opportunity to fill several years of Sundays learning Chinese music in Richmond. I had chosen the erhu, a 2-string spiked fiddle, and my brother chose the guzheng, a 21-string zither. The erhu is quite mobile, but the guzheng was likely larger than we were at the time. For a couple years, a school teacher lent us her zither to reside in our home as my brother took his lessons, and my parents would wrestle with tuning and re-tuning all 21 of its strings.
I can’t remember when we returned this instrument, but at the time I certainly didn’t think I would ever see it again. The teacher who it used to belong to is now a close dear friend of my family. She’s responsible for more than one musical branch of my ever-growing interests. More than a decade would pass before she asked me if I wanted to have her guzheng and the very same instrument would fall back into my hands. I want to say that was around 2019/2020 and while I had studied some Chinese music and could read cipher notation (used to notate much traditional Chinese music), I had learnt all of that on a vastly different bowed instrument and didn’t know much beyond whatever peripheral observations I had of the (gu)zheng from when my brother was practicing on it. But it now sat in MY living room, and what a shame it would be for it to hibernate silently as a piece of glorified furniture. So I set out to try to teach myself with what I knew from my other musical studies, to practice, and explore what sounds I could create on it. The pandemic had just struck us after all.
I am not self-taught in music. My parents worked hard to afford me a musical education outside of school, and found for me a wide range of dedicated teachers. If not for their efforts, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate music the same way I can today. I think because I was more acquainted with a traditional classroom, teaching myself the guzheng was a uniquely fascinating journey. There was no one to B-line me to the traditionally established conclusions regarding what and how to play. I dug out my brother’s old books and our old CDs of guzheng studio recordings. YouTube and Spotify and Google were also fantastic resources. I had a completely blank palette but also a novel freedom to decide for myself what techniques, tuning conventions, and (micro)tonal sounds I liked.
I ended up using the guzheng for a number of different projects below…
… but it wasn’t until I met Spencer at John Korsrud's Hard Rubber New Music Society’s Mixtophonics festival that my playing was met with the real time interactivity of collaborative improvisation at a much much higher frequency.
We spent a lot of the summer of 2022 jamming for nothing else but the sake of playing, checking out recordings of various traditional and contemporary players, and seeing what sounds our unconventional instrumentation could create. For some time, I went back and forth struggling ethically with the idea of performing this instrument (a thought for a #futurepost) as my strongest interests were to approach it with an explorative and experimental, rather than traditional, spirit; I was unsure if I could gracefully do so without being misunderstood as being disrespectful to this instruments’ cultural heritage and history. Is it possible to culturally appropriate your own culture? But I fell in love with all the different sonic characters I found in the zheng, with a newfound freedom I rarely gave myself permission to pursue when learning something new: knocking the resonance out of its hollow body, playing the “wrong” side of the bridge, disrupting its standardized repeating-pentatonic tuning…
About the music
In the process that led up to recording this album, I learnt and discovered so much. There were logistical challenges like competing dynamically with modern instruments with more efficient loudness projection (brass, piano, drums…) as well as musical ones with the modal limitation of both the drum set and zheng’s preset tuning/tensions.
We recorded around 6 takes from one recording day and picked our favourite ones here. We felt that maintaining as much of its free form and live honesty felt in line with the spirit of free jazz/free improvisation that we admired, so there’s extremely minimal trimming and stitching of recorded moments. We experimented occasionally with tuning to different pitches on both the drums and the zheng, but essentially once all the microphones were situated and between the interjected coffee and listening breaks, we just played what we felt until the sun went down.
The hugest thanks to Michael Kenyon for inviting us into his studio Phony! Records, engineering, and mixing our first album. Be sure to check out his work at https://phonyrecords.ca/