On Touring

It’s the 28th March and I’m in Chong Qing airport. I’m not going to lie, I’m feeling rough today, I thought I’d share my experience of the first time on tour. Last night’s performance went very well, although I began to lose my voice halfway through the second half.

The 24 consists of a variety of singers with different levels and types of experience. My experience is less as a singer (in fact, almost not as a singer – I’ve had to take singing lessons to keep up and they’ve helped enormously). More instead as a composer, repetiteur and choral conductor. Within the choir we have (for example) first-study singers that have been touring round with national choirs, people like me that have mainly worked conducting amateur ensembles and only recently got into singing, and on the other extreme Stef Conner, who toured as pianist for the popular folk trio The Winterset (now The Unthanks) and played to thousands of people, as well as conducting for the ITV hit Rock Choir, which also performed in large London venues and on National TV.

I’m loving performing to large packed venues. Wuhan, which we’re travelling to today is flagged as the most intense as it is the home town of Zhu Bu Xi and Zhu Jie, our organisers/directors, whom also hold posts at Wuhan University. The concert is apparently already sold out and we’re under pressure to perform Jie’s piece “Process” really well as his fellow academics and students will be there.

Our hotel in Chong Qing - my room was on the 9th floor of 26...

Touring is an almost completely new experience to me, certainly on this scale. It’s amazing to me that we’ve already performed five concerts. As webmaster and blog maintainer I’ve been taking lots of pictures and videos (which will appear in dribs and drabs as they have been) and in doing so I’ve tried to not make it too much of a succession of airports and venues, which is what we mainly see. Our agency official/guide Jack (who by the way is a complete legend) has been very good at playing the tourist host and guiding us from venue to hotel to restaurant to venue and back. We travel by bus everywhere, even if it is only 2 minutes away. I do wonder whether this is an intentional top-down attempt to control our movements, or whether they’re just anxious about not losing anyone.

I’m finding during the tour that it’s increasingly hard to keep energy levels up. We frequently have to get up early to get on a plane or a bus to the next city and venue and we usually don’t get back to our hotel until at least midnight. We spend most of the day at the venue and because my priority as accompanist is to get some all-important piano practice in, I often spend the time I could be exploring with playing the piano instead. I do love the fact that we’re performing the same set over and again though; it gives me great opportunity to work on my singing and iron out any mistakes. As a musician, it’s proving a very formative experience and something that I wish I’d spent more time on earlier on. I hope to expand a bit on this and work more as a performer when I get back (up until now, my focus has been on my PhD, composing and keeping above the bread line!).

The newly arrived Lisa Coates, Stef Conner and Jenny Green

Relationships are an interesting aspect of the tour as well. It’s unusual to be spending so much time with this group of people. We seem to gel very well as a group and I don’t feel anxious about talking to anyone. It’s nice to get to know some of them well and become friends. There are some very good characters and excellent musicians. One of the most interesting things for me has been having the chance to observe and understand our director Professor Bill Brooks a little better. Conversations about music become quite philosophical and sometimes heated. A good sense of humour seems to be the catch-all answer to harmonious touring and banter among the choir is rife. Even the most cheerful among us have off days, which is a relief, as I feel that I’m allowed to have this off day too. Being in some way a non-singer gives me a nice distant perspective. While the singing world can be sometimes unfriendly and bitchy, the opposite is also true and far more rewarding and we are all very supportive of each other. I feel privileged to sit beside some of the amazing singers in the choir, and flattered and buoyed up by their encouragement and support.

Chong Qing

Luohan Si Temple in Chong Qing

Yesterday we had a free morning. We were offered a trip to a museum which left too early in the morning and I wasn’t planning to go. I decided to anyway, but owing to some complications the bus didn’t turn up to pick us up. Some of us thought it would be good to go into town to explore and Jack immediately took control. At one point I looked up Chong Qing in my guide book and found a 100-year old temple that me and a couple of people thought it would be good to look at. Before I knew it Jack was guiding the whole group to this temple. It felt quite embarrassing – I don’t like the feeling of being a Tourist (note the capital T), I feel embarrassed by large groups of people taking snaps and pointing at things. Everything ultimately felt a little controlled and closed.

Incense lit by the many locals that visit

 

 

The temple however was amazing and so fascinating. In it there were hundreds of carved statues depicting the stories and faces of Buddha. The statues were so characterful and interesting, and I really feel like reading up on them when I get back. Despite the disruptive influence of the large number of Yorkies traipsing through the place with cameras and noise (us) it was quite serene in this big city.

Crossing the gorge on a bridge, you see tall skyscrapers next to tumble-down blocks of flats

Chong Qing is an amazing city. Incredibly smelly and smoggy, it epitomises Chinese progress quite well. The whole thing is build up on the steep hillside surrounding a large gorge with a river in the middle. The newer buildings tower overhead and number in their hundreds. Looking at one scene you will see 3-4 enormous scy-scraper block of flats, a smaller crumbling apartment building, and at ground height a slum area, all at the same time. Highlight and nice summarisation of this was the unexpected sight of a homeless person taking a large poo in the nice fountain of a flashy shopping mall. This and the huge construction sites and many unfinished buildings makes it all seem unfinished and unsettled. Idealistic posters of the finished chong qing are pasted on billboards hiding huge piles of construction waste, right beside our enormous striking transformer-like venue.

Billboards displaying a vision for a happy future next to a pile of building rubble

The venue itself is stark and stands proud of the city on a rock jutting out into the gorge. Huge screens on the side of the building display video and sparkling lights. Standing on the promenade by the venue there is an amazing view of the marvellous bridge, and at night a visually stunning representation of Big Ben shining out like a beacon, with spotlights shooting out from the tower. It reminded me of the spectacle of floodlights during the second world war (not that I was there). I should mention that bussing out of Dongguan the other day we also saw a miniature representation of the Eiffel Tower, although we were unable to get a picture. The presence of western imagery in china seems to be more apparant in the places we are visiting (so far) and I feel a bit saddened by it, much though I’m pro-freedom/democracy. We ate at a Pizza-Hut the other day in Shenzen. After some of the most amazing food we had been eating in traditional chinese restaurants it seemed so plastic, sweet and shallow. The chinese have such an amazing culinary history an it makes me sad to think how much of our own history we’ve lost to the presence of american chains like that.

The venue from the side

Time to board the plane. Hopefully I can kip there.

Contributed by Edd Caine

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