Miranda Hill and Naima Fine make up the musical & ecological collective Fine Fine Small Mountain, and spent the better part of 2015 creating graphic scores, sound sculptures, and collaborative musical performances at Lijiang Studio in Yunnan.
China Residencies: Did you have plans for projects in China before you applied to Two To Three 二到三?
Miranda Hill: We’d been to China and travelled through Yunnan a few years earlier on a holiday and did some performances in Beijing with a friend. And Naima saw the Two to Three call-out and we thought we'd love to go back, and when you said we didn’t get it but that there was this other place in Yunnan, we were like: “Yes!”
China Residencies: What was your first impression of the farm?
Naima Fine: When Er Ge picked us up from the train, he had the biggest smile, he was so welcoming. I felt quite overwhelmed when we first arrived, we were suddenly surrounded by heaps of people and Dudu (the best dog in the world).
MH: Yeah, it was an honest welcome. And I drank way too much baijiu that night with Er Ge, we had a really deep conversation about life and death and family and choices, and we had the entire conversation through Jay [Brown], who was translating. The family has had 10 years of dealing with the language barrier and the otherness of new people. I felt really welcomed, it was a really open-hearted way to start.
CR: What was the rest of the first week like?
MH: I wrote a piece of music on the banjo, I didn’t have the double bass yet. We took a lot of photos and went on a lot of walks. The first piece I did was about the path down from the mountain based on a photo-graphic score.
NF: I was getting up at dawn to record the birds on the lake. I didn’t do any proper work, I set up a work desk but I didn’t know where to start. Miranda dove right in.
CR: Did you settle into a rhythm at the Studio or was every day really different?
MH: I had little phases, a few different routines that lasted for a few weeks at a time, then something else would take it’s place.
NF: Even though we were told it was an intimate residency, it wasn't until we were actually there that I really understood what that meant. Every day started and finished with the family, so the family became my first focus. Later I started to look outwards more. After some clumps of work and some procrastination, I developed a regular compositional practice. I've always been a bit more ad-hoc or project-focused, so it was amazing for me to have the space to just build a daily pattern.
CR: You updated the blog pretty consistently, what was the idea behind keeping the blog?
NF: It was to document the residency, I think you told us to!
CR: Oh cool! It’s a great blog and I loved reading it.
NF: We had included that in our proposal, so we kept it up for the entire residency. It was a great “check-in” for us over our time there. So thanks!
MH: We had to really think about not just making it entirely a travel blog, and also include our music and artistic processes. It was also a way to keep our families in Australia up to date.
NF: I feel a bit differently, I think the music came through in our blog posts. In my mind, everything that was happening was related to my output. I was happy to write about everything, especially the family, because the family is that residency. It’s someone’s home, and that’s a really unique part of Lijiang Studio. In fact, the first pieces I wrote were sort-of aural portraits of each of the family members, Hé Family Stories.
Jay, Anai, Miranda, Naima & Dudu in Lijiang Studio's courtyard
CR: The blog is also there for the record, as long as the internet is around.
NF: I’m already referring back to it, it’s as much a resource for us as well as for other people.
CR: Did the ideas you came with change once you arrived?
MH: I had quite set ideas, but they all seemed irrelevant once I arrived there. I had visions of making pieces about taiqi and dances in the village square, but when we arrived, there was no village square and no one doing taiqi! I also brought a pedal with me to create live performances based off the graphic scores, but that style of music wasn’t how I heard that landscape, apparently it sounds much more like a banjo! But the biggest work I made still ended up being a score based on the paintings of the mountain scrolls, just in a very different format that I imagined before going. The family was incredibly important, I feel like I have grandparents now. It’s great to be able to send photos back and forth and keep in touch, they’re such special folks.
NF: My focal idea was more general – to find some interesting local ecological research and make music from it – so I still did that. But lots of other ideas definitely changed along the way!
Anai telling a story to Jay, Naima & Miranda
CR: You also did lots of collaborations, how did those come about?
NF: We have done a lot of production together, but we had never created new work together. In the end, we still ended up working on our own and subconsciously divided the work on the things we wanted to do together. After four months, I felt that we were failing at working together, but I don’t think that anymore. We’re really good at the beginning part together, coming up with ideas, then going off and doing our own things and reuniting to perform. The actual art making turned out to be a separate process, and it took me a while to realize that that was fine.
CR: How did you two meet and start working together originally?
NH: We came up with the name Fine Fine Small Mountain when we applied for a big-wig grant in Sydney that we knew we wouldn’t get but was still fun to put something together. But the name stuck! We met through music actually. In 2011, Miranda put a call out for a show she was producing and I wrote a piece for it.
MH: When I put out the open call, Naima responded immediately, wanting to compose something and I said I wanted her to make a video-format score instead.
NF: I was kind of deflated because I was new to Melbourne and was picking up composing again after a long break and wanted to write a piece of music the way I knew how to, but it wasn’t actually what she wanted. But I did make a video-score, and it turned out really well!
MH: We played it in Melbourne and Auckland and Beijing, we played that score all over the place. That show was my first production on my own, not playing as part of an orchestra.
NF: From there, Miranda started commissioning my works, and I started helping out with producing her shows. Miranda's performance collective 3 Shades Black is still going strong, and I've had heaps more opportunities to compose than I would've had without her.
CR: Naima, did your interest in ecology come before your interest in music? How did you manage to combine those two interests and careers?
NF: That’s a big question! I don’t think either came first, my dad is a musician and my parents are both very environmentally aware. Music and ecology were always my two main interests. I started a composition degree, and I felt like everyone around me was only interested in practicing and not in the world around them, and so I quit and became really involved in environmental activism, and then got a degree in ecology. I never found a satisfying way to combine them so I’ve kept alternating ever since. But I recently decided to try combining them again. The residency was actually the first time I got to do that, which was really important for me.
MH: The first piece Naima wrote for me (the video-score) was called “I miss science.”
CR: I really loved reading about the plants and bugs on the blog. What was the natural environment like in Lashihai?
NF: One of the things that stood out was the seasons, I hadn’t experienced a really strong change of seasons before. I know that’s normal for a lot of the world, but it was new for me. Another thing was all the challenges of China's environment. Rubbish in the lakes, rubbish in the roads - that’s the most visible thing, but it’s not the most important thing. What’s more important is the mountains that got deforested during the Cultural Revolution because people had burn wood to melt iron, and this whole story from the older people about all the animals that used to be in the mountains. I’m sure there would have been a bigger diversity of plants then as well. I felt bereft about what I didn’t get to experience because of that history... I ended up doing a work about the animals that aren’t in the mountains anymore. It was quite fantastical, I used lots of the rubbish to make imaginary animals, since I couldn’t see any in real life.
MH: The fact that it was just the two of us, and we weren’t surrounded by the excess of the city, we actually did a lot of new things ourselves. In my regular life, I get paid to play the bass, but I didn’t play it much the studio because I was composing and manipulating sounds on the computer and making sound sculptures — all this other stuff that I’ve never had the space to allow myself to do in the city. In Lashihai, the sky was so big that you could do anything. I did an embroidery project, and I’d never embroidered in my life! We both veered into visual art more than we expected to. In Melbourne, sometimes you’re known as your instrument first - I’m a double-bassist, and then a producer, whereas in Lashihai, it felt like it started at ‘artist’ and anything was possible. It was very freeing to be able to do that.
CR: How did you decide to invite other musicians?
MH: It was kind of happenstance, my friend and colleague Crystal [Pascucci] mentioned she was looking for an adventure. And the equally awesome Jen and Lizzie came for similar reasons, they had a plan that had fallen through and suddenly had a spare month.
NF:It turned out great for me, because it meant that I could write for more instruments for a little while. As soon as I found out that many people were coming, we organised a concert. Lili, another artist came for two months at the same time too, and Frog was there, so all of a sudden, there was a rush of people.
MH: Also, it was the first time in the studio’s ten year history that it’s been all female artists!
CR: That’s awesome.
NF: As soon as we realized that everyone was coming at once, we had an end point, something to work towards. It opened up all these possibilities.
MH: I learnt how much I’m less of a soloist, and how much I prefer playing with other people. But we didn’t really plan that, we didn’t look at our musical colleagues and pick people, it was happenstance but it was great to have that space.
NF: Jay said that that’s something that he likes, things tend to build on themselves like that and he can end up with a lot of people there at once. It’s sort of a little critical mass of people, and you really start to feel the possibilities of these links.
Naima & Miranda's "Rainstallation" found-object percussion instrument in Lijiang Studio's courtyard.
CR: People also tend to go back. At the celebration in New York [at City Bird Gallery], it felt like everyone knew each other, if only through the Studio. I always try to stop on each research trip, even though it’s not really not the way. It's such magnetic place, the artists are always interesting and the He family is so wonderful.
NF: And the family really keeps up with everyone. Grandad is really excited about where people come from, and even though we each only come by for a few months, we learn about all the other people who also spent time there.
CR: What’s a moment that really stayed with you?
MH: Anai feeding me deep fried eggs because she thought I was too skinny; the orchestra guys retuning the bottles from the music for Crystal and making their own songs; YeYe taking his naps under where I was playing bass, and knowing he was there by the wafting smell of smoke; the time we were sitting with the old folks’ orchestra, and Naima’s aunt joined in.
NF: ...which was so great because we’d been sitting with them quietly for months, whereas she arrived and just joined in and got us to join in as well.
MH: I was playing the banjo, and an old Naxi guy with a traditional instrument there asked me to play a tune. I did, and he said “ahhh... Appalachia”. That, to me, sums up the Studio. There was always a meeting point. We didn’t speak the same languages, and Mandarin wasn’t even his first language, but there will always be a meeting point, no matter how obscure.
NF: There were just so many amazing moments...but a stand-out for me was going mushroom hunting with the family. They always work so hard, and this felt like a holiday. The autumn forest was so beautiful and we had a picnic lunch under the trees and there was lots of laughing and whooping with excitement whenever we found some. And the mushrooms, their diversity, and the family's knowledge of them were just amazing!
Miranda & Naima at Lijiang Studio
CR: On a less happy note, how did both of you handle all the difficulties?
NF: I’ve been vegan for over 20 years, and they’ve never had a vegan artist there... I know that Xuemei and Grandma went through a lot of trouble for us to make sure that vegetarian dishes weren’t made with animal fats, I don’t take that for granted. The only trouble was that Grandpa and Grandma really wanted us to eat the best bits, and those bits are always the meat in their minds and experiences, and it made them distressed to not be able to give them to us. But the immediacy of their food cycle, growing their food crops and their meat, is something that I find really important – I felt way more comfortable as a part of that food culture than I would have eating instant vegetarian noodles or something every day. One day Er Ge was going to kill a chicken, and I was standing in the kitchen thinking I'd step away while it happened, but by the time I finished that thought, it was done! The chook didn’t even make a sound of distress.
MH: The times I got injured or sick, I felt very cared for. It was a bit scary at times.
NF: But they had our backs the whole time.
MH: It was still a hell of a lot more isolated than what I'm used to, so it was an adjustment for me. We were each other’s entire support network until we improved our language skills and built trusting relationships with the family. There were hard times, yeah, we would be lying if we said it was all easy.
NF: We also did one project that didn't really “work”. We planted flowers and herbs in pots made from old drink bottles we'd painted, and went to a public place to trade them for stories, songs, or anecdotes. We did it twice, at the old people's centre and a local market. People were really curious and would come up asking about it, but wouldn’t sit down and tell or sing us anything. We had chairs and tea, but most people weren't interested. Maybe they were too shy in the public setting, or they didn't want potted flowers, or our request was too general. It was surprising because people we met were generally curious and always had a story ready.
CR: I was also thinking about the ordeals of getting the bass and the visas.
NF: The visas were stressful, but I’m glad things worked out the way they did. We had misunderstood the visa situation before we left and so were left with some drastic-seeming choices: leaving China and hopefully being let back in, paying heaps for a special long tourist visa that we might not get, or going on a student visa and learning Mandarin which would use up precious Studio time every week. At the last possible moment, we chose the student visa. Taking Mandarin lessons gave us the longer visa, but also added structure...Taking Mandarin lessons gave us the longer visa, but also added structure and especially added massive amounts of skills and increased our participation in the society we were living in, and within the family. The outcome was so great. If I was going back to China, the first thing I would do would be to look for a language school where I could continue learning.
MH: Being at the ‘advanced tourist’ level was a huge help, even in just striking up casual conversations on the minibus
NF: The bass thing was funny. There was so much confusion between the double-bass and the cello. We kept saying “diyindiqin” — it's the really big one! And the guy at the music shop was like: “it’s really uncommon, but I can get you one”. We came back, and he had a cello… He just didn’t believe us, who would want one of those?
One of the banjo tunes Miranda wrote in the first few weeks at Lijiang Studio
CR: Can you talk about the music in Lashihai?
MH: There’s an orchestra in every village, and they all specialise in a different type of music. Jixiang was formal. processional music. Another village does weddings, another funerals and so on. What a great system! But when you asked that question, my first thought was simply music floating over the fields. Music from orchestra rehearsal, or the racecourse, or the nightclub that turned up unexpectedly. Music from personal stereos carried into the fields, people carried their music with them, there was one guy who would sing at full volume while he worked. The songs are obviously so important, culturally and socially.
NF: There were a few traditional Naxi instruments that were different to the Han Chinese instruments. Ji Yu showed me a great local spring-time music toy: get a soft new growth twig, massage it for a while, then pull out the middle so you have a hollow tube. Strip a bit of the outer layer off the end of the tube and flatten the ends together, and you've got a squeaky thing that uses an identical method of double-reeds as an oboe. But some aspects of the music were quite hard to access. The studio had a Naxi reed pipe, a fancier bamboo version of the toy, but we never heard it played by anybody aside from us. And the orchestras played Naxi music, but on Chinese instruments, and we never found out why that was. I’ve still got so much to learn about Naxi music.
CR: You both mentioned the mountains and used them in your music. Was that planned? Did you ever go into the mountains?NF: We had quite a few mountain trips, all really different and all wonderful! I hadn't planned to use the mountains in my music – I often focus on small-scale things in nature. But the research that I found that I was most interested in using for my data-music translation project was about the effects of climate change on Rhododendrons on Yulong Xueshan – the biggest mountain in our 360 degree mountain horizon.
MH: I loved the mountains so much I took it as part of my Chinese name, 山慕! As you know, the mountains are pretty visually present in that landscape, so I’m not surprised we both used them in different ways as inspiration. We went to two tomb sweeping days up in the mountains, as well as a few more sightseeing expeditions. I remember Anai saying that her family had a saying: “If your village has the mountain at your back, you’ll always be OK, you’ll never be hungry,” and Yeye said his family saying was “If you go into the mountains, you’ll always come back richer. If you go into the city, you’ll always come back poorer.” The mountains will provide and take care of you, I liked that.
Live recording of Miranda's mountains scroll, made in collaboration with Frog and MuYunBa.
Belinda Woods, flute; Karen Heath-Mann, bass clarinet; Miranda Hill, bass. Recorded at the Atheneum Library.
MuYunBai's version of the score laid out for performance in Sydney.
CR: You both went to several different places while you were in China. How did you find the different places you went to?
MH: Most of it was just travel! Yunnan is so stunning, and I wanted to see as much as I could while also being enrolled in school and busy at the studio. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge with He Jixing and He Jiyu was a real highlight. The group trip to Wumu, (while Naima was in Hong Kong) was just amazing. We did an improv concert, and I wove some Naxi songs into that, it was really special to be able to reimagine Naxi music into our musical language, and to hear people recognising that. At the end of that concert people kept getting up to share their songs, and it got a bit riotous. The Wumu trip in general was amazing. Jen, Lizzy and I spent hours sitting with women weaving, recording their sounds and laughter, having my embroidery technique critiqued and improved, I learnt so much there. Baiju was definitely involved...
NF: I went off to Hong Kong at that time to do a two week Summer Academy with other composers and musicians from all over Asia. That was pretty fun – I got to meet a lot of really interesting colleagues, and had a piece I wrote in Lashihai after watching a mud-brick house-raising performed. We also went down to Xishuangbanna, the tropical part of Yunnan, where an old friend of mine from ecology student days works. It was so beautiful there. Most people don't know that there's a tropical rainforest in China! We did a presentation to a whole lot of PhD and post-grad students, asking for data that we could use after the residency to do more data-music translation work. We got some cool stuff, like data on the iridescence of butterfly wings, and audio of forests with rich and poor bird diversity and density. It's tucked away in our artistic pockets, ready to use.
CR: What is this data-music translation you keep mentioning?NF: Well it's what I'm exploring as a way to put my ecological and compositional worlds together. I'm not a singer-songwriter...penning songs and performing them at folk festivals isn't my skill at all! But I love that data tells a story, and scientists are really story-tellers. We start with an idea or an observation, and then explore it through research, and then read the data and try to figure out the story it's telling us. And heaps of important science stories never make it outside academia. So I'm picking up some of these stories and pushing them into new forms, musical forms. I wonder, not what music might we use to accompany this story, but what does this actual data sound like? Can we use our ears instead of our eyes as the primary data interpreter? Can we hear these science stories?
CR: Can you explain the process of graphic scores?
MH: It’s an experimental form of music notation. The idea is to remove the heirachy involved in standard notation, and give equal weight to everything on the page. So: technically, you could play a traditional score as a graphic score, and it would sound super, super different. More interestingly, though, it’s used to explore how things “sound”. How is a red sound different to a green one? How do you signify a pointy sound? As a composer it frees you from the exact notation, and allows you to explore sounds in a more precise way. If you want to hear a washy wavy sound, with indistinct edges and it’s kinda greenish, but don’t care what key it’s in? Then graphic scores are for you! For me, it’s a form of translation, taking forms from nature and exploring how they can sound. How does a mountain sound different to a field, and what does that mean? With my score I was trying to capture the mountains somehow, to make a way I can bring them back with me, and conjure them in any performance space. Having the words of Anai and JiXing in there is also really powerful. It makes it a literal translation, many times removed, but the story is still being told… no matter how obscurely.
CR: How did the performance at Homophonic [an annual show produced by Miranda] go?
NF: The piece I wrote for Crystal [China Residencies' co-founder, who passed away in 2014] went really well. It was quite emotional concert...
MH: It was really nice to play that work in Melbourne, at an event that was dedicated to the memory of a dear friend of ours who also passed away far too young. It was a moment of confluence of two powerhouse, awesome young women, who are loved and missed daily.
NF: Lying in the double hammock with you in the courtyard in the sun that day in a place Crystal loved to be, learning about her through you, and then sharing that knowledge back outwards as a piece of music, was such a special experience for me.
MH: For me, it's one of my most enduring musical memories of Lashihai, the music on bottles, and floating melodies, really capture that space. As I never got to meet Crystal in person, I imagine her at the studio, and that’s all entwined into Naima's piece.
CR: What are you both up to now?
NF: We've put on a bunch of shows with some of the work we did at the studio, all in various Festivals. They've gone really well and we're working on another one right now. Artistically, I've been really active this year – as well as the shows, I've joined a rock band and been performing in the local world music orkeztra, and will be conducting it next year, and I write a feature artist column in the local rag. But I haven't been composing. I really miss the focus of being at the studio. I've moved to the bush and have been spending a lot of time getting to know my new community, managing the land and weeds here, and figuring out how to progress with my big ideas! Like building an eco-arts residency at my place in rural NSW, which is very inspired by my experience with China Residencies and at Lijiang Studio. Being linked up with this great thing, and then being given the time and space and financial security to develop my practice and interact with the local community around my practice was just invaluable. And I love the we-dont-pay-you/you-dont-pay-us model. I want to be able to offer all that to others. And you’re such a powerhouse of information and knowledge, I'll definitely be wanting to talk with you about it!
CR: Happy to help! There’s a cool network of residencies in Europe that are ecologically focused, the Green Art Lab Alliance, that would also have lots of resources for you.
NF: Thank you, that's amazing.
MH: Right now? I’m mostly working in activist music. I’m spending heaps of time with my activist marching street band. It’s a ton of fun, and feels really important to take to the streets and change the words to songs and get people dancing. Singing is less exhausting than yelling. I’m teaching violin and ukulele in immigration detention, and getting requests for songs like “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” which is a trip. It’s emotionally hard work. Apart from that I’m continuing on, playing everything from Baroque to electro-acoustic, gigging, singing, baking, cycling, the usual! A highlight is the Sun Ra tribute band. We get all dressed up and let loose. Free jazz mayhem. It’s so much fun. Coming back from the Studio was really hard -- being away from Melbourne for so long meant that as a freelancer, I had to start again. However, I managed to play at four festivals in January alone, so it’s not all bad! But seriously, having the eye-opening experience of living at the Studio has really put my life here into relief, and made me want to do more with my art, to make art that’s connected to community, and to build those connections within my own wider community. Easier said than done, but I’m working on it. Lijiang Studio taught me the importance of connection, and that I’m not limited to the title “bassist”. It was very freeing. I try to take that wide Lashihai sky with me everywhere I go.
This interview was conducted over video chat and email by Kira Simon-Kennedy on February 4 2016 for China Residencies.