Laura Snapes: Musicians in Residence

The artist’s residency is often perceived as a jolly in which the musicians ship out in luxury fashion before landing squarely on their feet once they arrive at their destination. That’s not the case with the British Council’s Musicians in Residence, China programme with PRS for Music Foundation. Each year, a handful of artists are nominated for the scheme, and take the long flight to major Chinese cities (whose international links aren’t yet as strong as the country’s other urban centres). They might have a local host, or a rough idea of who they’re going to work with, but often these artists are flung straight into unknown territory: into a world of collaborations that have to take shape across language barriers; into both ancient traditions and modern scenes that are changing at the speed of light.

“Musical life in Hangzhou felt so different to everything I'd expected,” says Scottish composer/producer Anna Meredith, who participated in 2014. “Attending a ‘classical’ concert of western music had similarities, but also a set of immaculately attired air hostess-style concert stewards who patrolled the aisles during the concert holding flashing neon ‘silence’ signs and shining lasers into the lenses of anyone who tried to photograph the concert, which was basically everyone.” That same year, Sam Genders — aka producer Diagrams — found himself in Changsha, being asked to improvise with musicians he’d only just met. “My first reaction was to blurt out something approximating no,” he wrote in his diary. “Some kind of bumbling sub-Hugh Grant nonsense along the lines of it not being the right time or needing to prepare. But I quickly realised that whatever happened, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something different, and if I didn’t go for it, I’d regret it.”

2017’s residents are enthused by the possibility of defining their own adventure. The only plan that MOBO-nominated jazz drummer, recording artist, composer and label owner David Lyttle has for his time in the eastern city of Suzhou is to investigate the quqin instrument and see where it takes him. “I want to write and record music than incorporates that instrument and sound,” he says. “When I meet my hosts in a couple of weeks I'll run some of my weird ideas by them and see how they respond but I'm open and ready for their own suggestions too.”

Multi-instrumentalist Quinta will be spending her stay in Guiyang, in the southwest of the country. Despite being thousands of miles from home, she’s looking forward to actually being in one place for a while. “Working as a musician often involves a lot of plate-spinning, moving from project to project from day to day, and keeping lots of balls in the air at once,” she says. “The residency appealed to me because I could get away from the usual demands, and work deep into one project and see it through with my own two hands.” At a time of global political division, she says, “it feels important to be championing values of collaboration, friendship, and communication, especially across international boundaries and between ordinary people.”

For Emma Lee Moss, who performs as Emmy the Great, her residency in Xiamen offers her a chance to connect with her Chinese heritage. She was born in Hong Kong to an English dad and Chinese mum, but has never visited her maternal homeland. “Chinese culture is in everything I do, even when I don’t mean it to be,” she says. “In the last few years, I have been coming to terms with this inherent relationship, and using language to discover truths about myself that were hidden.” Earlier this year, she re-recorded her song “Constantly” in Mandarin, as part of a translation project she undertook with her mother and aunties last summer “because of this pull I was feeling,” she says. “Weirdly, the songs sound sweeter and more open in Chinese.”

Forging connections over differences as well as similarities is a key component of the residency. In 2013, Welsh folk multi-instrumentalist Gareth Bonello travelled to Chengdu and collaborated with local musicians on an album called Y Bardd Anfarwol (the immortal bard), which fused Chinese and Welsh traditional music. Two years later, Bella Hardy (BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year 2014) travelled to Yunnan to examine the history of Chinese folk music and its place in modern Chinese culture. “Some of their folk tradition reflects our own so closely it takes me completely by surprise,” she told Songlines magazine.

Award-winning cellist Oliver Coates, who participated in 2014, was inspired by how jarring he found his time in Hong Kong. “Superstition was rife,” he says. “One day I snapped my bow while demonstrating something in a class to 20 student composers. Instantly they began spiralling complex theories as to the chain of events that led to the accident. To me it was meaningless, a nihilist event, but to them it was normal to apportion cause and even blame on unrelated thoughts or gestures from before.” He stayed in Wan Chai, next to a block where a British businessman had recently committed terrible atrocities. The thought of it kept him awake all night as he edited sounds for his album Upstepping, which included a song called “Bambi 2046” inspired by the sound of the traffic lights outside. “I found a well-spring of musical desire, restlessness, experimentation and anxiety about the future,” he says. “The oblique relationship between music and politics was laid bare. I encountered the tenacity of artists resolute to remain independent and true to their practice.”

All the past residents attest to China’s influence on their subsequent work. Imogen Heap (a participant in 2013) released “XiZi She Knows”, a track made up of field recordings from 24 hours in Hangzhou. Jamie Woon, another 2013 resident, wrote “Little Wonder” while in Xi’an. While 2017’s David Lyttle has fairly open-ended plans, Quinta has proposed an idea “involving group improvisation and collective field recording, which works with dancers and acrobats as well as local musicians to explore experimental and visually interesting ways of performing material, including electronic interface technologies to trigger sounds,” she says. Meanwhile, Emma Lee Moss is planning to write a whole album during her time in Xiamen. “I’m going to take my field recorder and make recordings of city noise and interview people, and I’m also going to set up writing days with local musicians,” she says. “Then I’ll find a way of weaving it all together in many languages, to tell the story of my time there.” Her overall expectations are simple. “I genuinely think it will change my life.”

– Laura Snapes

Laura Snapes is a contributing editor at Pitchfork whose work also appears in Uncut, the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times and NME among others.

Find out more about the Musicians in Residence, China programme here.