Experience the rich sound of winds, piano and percussion in a wild, inter-cultural celebration of Chinese and Australian culture. A conversation with Erik Griswold

The Sichuan province in China is big, bold and brash – and so is the music.  In Water Pushes Sand, composer Erik Griswold and the Australian Art Orchestra team up with all-star musicians from Sichuan to create a ten-piece big band fusing traditional Sichuan melodies with modern jazz improvisation.

JK:  How did this project originate?
EG:  Water Pushes Sand is really a project that’s 15 years in the making.  My partner Vanessa Tomlinson and I have been going to Chengdu since 2000, studying and collaborating with local musicians and dancers.  Our first performance was a crazy improvisation on piano, percussion and electronics, with our good friend Zou Xiangping recreating folk and street songs live on stage.  From there we’ve slowly built up to larger bands, incorporating visual and performance elements along the way.  Now with the support of the Australian Art Orchestra, we’ve got an incredible pool of musicians, and creative team including director Tamara Saulwick, video artist Scott Morrison, and “face-changing” performer Zheng Sheng Li!

JK:  Can you tell us what audiences will see?

EG:  Audiences will experience traditional and contemporary Sichuan culture, presented through a collage of musical styles, mesmerizing video, costume and performance.  They’ll see and hear the transformation of Chinese culture that we’ve witnessed:  seas of bicycles being replaced by cars and motorcycles, rapid development, the rise of tourism, and attempts to retain fragile links to traditional culture.

JK:  Would you like to tell us about the instrumentation used by the Chinese musicians?

EG:  We have bamboo flute, played by Shi Lei.  The first time we played with him he just took flight…such an amazing energy.  And the suona, sometimes called Chinese trumpet, but I think it’s more like a very intense soprano sax.  When you hear Zhou Yu play, you get a definite feeling for real Sichuan heat!  Master Zhong Kaizhi brings his colourful collection of cymbals and gongs to the group.  Vanessa and I often join him to recreate some of the flowing rhythms of Sichuan Opera Percussion, like “Clouds in White” or “Water Pushes Sand.”  And lastly, we have the gu zheng, or Chinese zither, played by Zhou Taotao.  Such a great tone colour, and she plays with a really soulful and bluesy feel.

JK:  Was improvising new for these musicians

EG:  It’s definitely the first time for these musicians playing jazz and free improvisation, and they’ve all shown a great flair for it!  All of them are experienced playing traditional Chinese music, and some have quite a bit of experience with contemporary classical music as well. These days I think they do a lot of work in the studio, where they have to think on their feet.

JK:  How have you found the fusing of these two different musical cultures

EG:  For me there are some natural points of contact between the two musical cultures.  The brash and bright colours of the Sichuan cymbals and gongs really work in an avant garde / contemporary context.  The use of pentatonic scale and the subtle inflections of pitch and tone which are part of the language of bamboo flute and gu zheng really relate to the language of blues.  And the piercing tone of suona sits right with the soprano of Coltrane or Sydney Bechet – but Chinese style!

JK:  What have been the highlights of this collaboration for you

EG:  It’s been a real pleasure working with our Chinese and Australian collaborators, everyone has had an incredibly positive approach to the project.  The highlights have been discovering the secret talents of all the musicians…you’d be amazed what sounds Shi Lei can make out of a beer bottle!


Where Space Theatre, Adelaide

Part of the OzAsia Arts Festival INFO