From the moment I arrived in Beigou village in China I was captivated by the sounds and the texture of the place. I made recordings of sounds in the forests and any voice and sound that drifted into my temporary residence near the Great Wall. I made use of a piano in the lobby of a nearby resort, toys and instruments that were left in the residence by the former inhabitants, and of course my MacBook and all the tricks and techniques of contemporary recording software. I did not realize at the time I was making an E.P. I was just making. The title of what came to be a collection of five strange ambient/instrumental tracks Nijidema (你记得吗) is pronounced Nee Jee Duh Ma and means “Do you remember”. When I listen to this music I immediately remember everything about Beigou. This is my way of sharing these memories with you.
The village has existed quietly alongside the Great Wall of China for centuries, in many ways untouched by time or the pace of modern life. If you randomly woke up there you would never imagine that the cacophony of Beijing was one hour to the south by car. The quiet of Beigou makes the sound of every wave of noisy insects or child playing in the street seem more brilliant, like stars in a dark place. The air is not crisp but not muggy—in the summer the smell of the (Chinese) chestnut trees is everywhere and so pungent as to seem chemical. There is relief from both the smell of the trees and the heat after the rain.
A steep-half hour walk to the north is the Great Wall, which can be seen from anywhere in the village. Scattered among bushes and clearings in the surrounding woods are old grindstones, wells, and other evidence of human activity, dates unknown. Along the trails loudspeakers have been placed on poles by agents from the People’s Republic of China announcing the appropriate hours of hiking and wall visits to anyone nearby, or presumably to no one, as the case may be. The Great Wall here is the rebuilt wall from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) near Mutianyu, its touristy perfection maintained by mason laborers and expert climbers carrying hand-crafted bamboo backpacks that look like Joseph Beuys sculptures. Even on days with few visitors, alongside the wall are more loudspeakers but with human operators selling ice cold Coca-Cola and ice cream. Walk along the restored wall a mile or two to the west and one finds the “wild wall”—hundreds of years of erosion and growth and rubble recalling a lost grandeur and broadcasting the historical ineffectiveness of great walls in general.
Back in the village in the mornings men driving three wheeled motor carts come through town with tiny megaphones advertising their wares: usually fruits or vegetables, although sometimes rather than selling they are buying and collecting specific kinds of junk such as broken vacuum cleaners. Because the village is relatively remote, the locals depend on these daily delivery carts, and the clockwork regularity of the carts and the chant-like repetition of their low-fi advertisements gives the town a sense of monastic balance and endurance. I image the carts before the combustion engine and before Radioshack. Did they come with the same consistency, perhaps even with some of the same chants? The sound of the engines motoring and the particular tinniness and cackle of the tiny loudspeakers reverberating off the dusty stone alleyways became for me a kind of indicator of creeping modernity, with all its misplaced optimism and its real benefits too.
China itself is caught between dimensions and as is often said, full of contradicitons. There is no China and there are many Chinas, many dialects, traditions, foods, and few people even agree on the nation’s physical borders. In its old places you can feel the pull of the past and the weight of the peoples’ traditions. In the cities there’s a frenetic, obsessive desire to build, change, develop, educate, and achieve. The 20th century steamroller of aspirationsm and global capitalism has brought economic prosperity to millions, as well as new forms of anxiety and recently, extreme income inequality. The visual and aural results of all this change are everywhere and for an artist or a lover of sounds, endlessly inspiring and intriguing.
Here I must acknowledge that looking and listening to the evidence all of this change with a particular kind of western detachedness or scientism can at its worst make the world and its inhabitants into a kind of curiosity. This of course was not my intention. Although art making (especially field recording and photography) implicitly involve a kind of “taking”, I have however attempted to tap into a unique kind of human wonder that seeks not only to take but to really listen, interpret, exchange, share and to value and celebrate individual experiences and the uniqueness of particular places. I used Chinese names for tracks listed on the album cover firstly because the songs do not have words anyway and secondly because the look, feel and my ongoing engagement with the Chinese language at this point is more than superficial but less than extensive. The characters are still like half-developed Polaroids; even as they begin to point toward their meanings the contours fade and sway in my mind. In this way they are like my experience of Beigou itself. I hope to pass along this sense of being in between, of longing and of suspended wonder.
Although I went to Beigou with my partner Jiemei Lin for an artist residency, this E.P. was a not a project that I really set out to do. An artist residency is any kind of place where artists go to make art work. Some places are strict about the kinds of media or materials the artists can use; some places are not. This residency was thankfully extremely relaxed. Although we had previously agreed to create some kind of collaborative performance, we didn’t know what it would consist of or look like, and the daily use of our time, energy and creativity was wholly self-directed. From the very first jet-lagged morning I was inspired to make sound recordings, and the performance ended up involving me mixing music and found sounds live while Jiemei Lin created drawings based on objects we collected around the wall. The music was sculpted from these experiments and grew into this more fixed form.
Although I spent much of my life working writing, recording and producing pop and rock songs, making ambient music was always a private pleasure. It is more like abstract painting and less like rendering an apple. These mixes are a bit rough around the edges and the arrangements are semisolid but I am letting them go before they lose their interest to me. Only in sharing our memories do they become stable.