by Matt Saunders.

For two nights, OzAsia Festival 2015 will bring a ten-piece big band to Space Theatre to present the world premiere of Water Pushes Sand; a modern jazz performance incorporating traditional Sichuan melodies and instruments featuring the Australian Art Orchestra and Sichuan composer Zou Xiangping. The performance also includes Australian percussionist Vanessa Tomlinson and composer-pianist Erik Griswold, who both produce events as co-directors of their production company, Clocked Out.

Combining modern improvisational jazz and the traditional music of Sichuan province is no small feat, but Dr Griswold is uniquely qualified to bring them together, having forged a career marrying jazz with musical styles from around the world.

We speak with Erik Griswold, via email, who happily tells us about Water Pushes Sand.

Water Pushes Sand is a collage of styles bringing traditional music and performance of Sichuan Province together with Australian contemporary jazz and improvisation. With video and imagery from Chengdu we try to celebrate the vibrancy of Sichuan, and also give our own unique perspective on the rapid transformation of culture in China.”

How did the collaboration between the Australian Art Orchestra and musicians from Sichuan come together?

“Vanessa Tomlinson and I (as Clocked Out) first started going to Sichuan province back in 2000, on the invitation of a wonderful composer, Zou Xiangping. We were so blown away by the music, food and hospitality that we’ve gone back several times over the years to learn more and collaborate with local musicians, dancers and artists.

“In 2007 we had the chance to invite a larger contingent of Australian and Chinese musicians to collaborate on The Wide Alley, including AAO director Peter Knight. Peter and the AAO have now put their support behind Water Pushes Sand, helping us to take the collaboration to the next level. There’s a fantastic team of creatives, including director Tamara Saulwick and video artist Scott Morrison, who put all of the elements together.”

Tell us what the title of the performance, Water Pushes Sand, signifies.

“Water Pushes Sand is actually the very poetic name of a rhythm used in Sichuan Opera percussion. It’s a kind of flowing 3/4 rhythm reminiscent of a jazz waltz. In addition to this musical connection, I also love the image of water ‘pushing’ sand and felt that was very relevant for this Australian/Chinese collaboration.”

Water Pushes Sand - OzAsia Festival 2015 - The Clothesline

Erik Griswold & Zou Xiangping – Water Pushes Sand

How is improvisation being is used in this performance?

“We have some amazing instrumentalists in the band, performing on instruments you don’t often hear in this context in Australia, such as suona (Chinese Trumpet), bamboo flute, gu zheng (zither), and Chinese percussion. Almost all of the pieces in Water Pushes Sand involve at least one soloist improvising, often two or more.

“The great thing is that each person is able to musically ‘speak’ in their own language, so we get Chinese, western jazz, or experimental ‘inflections’ in a spontaneous dialogue. One of my favourite moments is when we get the hot and spicy suona playing of Zhou Yu in ‘battle’ with the deep and saucy baritone sax of Tim O’Dwyer!”

Are there composers or performers who have influenced your work?

“When I conceived the music for this project I imagined a transformed ‘big band’ sound, inspired by composers like Duke Ellington and Sun Ra. But equally this work is influenced by many of the great Sichuan musicians from whom I’ve learned over the last 15 years, like Zou Xiangping and the late master Zou Zhongxin.”

How do Sichuan melodies differ from Western melodies? What kind of challenges does this collaboration entail?

“Sichuan melodies often use a 5-note, pentatonic scale. The phrasing of songs follows the Sichuan dialect, which can sound surprising or unpredictable from a western perspective. In our performance we’re especially drawing on some mountain folk songs and work songs, which tend to have a simpler and more rhythmic structure, and make you want to sing along…”

Have there been any surprises in how the show has developed that you didn’t anticipate or plan?

“There are always surprises in China! Because of the difficulties of language and translation (my Chinese is just so-so/mama huhu) we can often have small misunderstandings. However, the wonderful thing about developing Water Pushes Sand was learning about the many hidden talents and abilities of our Chinese collaborators. They’ve approached the project with so much openness and creativity!”

In addition to the performance, is there anything you’re looking forward to doing while you’re here in Adelaide?

“I always love going to the Adelaide Markets, so I really hope we have time for a visit!”

Water Pushes Sand performs at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre,  from 6pm on Fri 2 Oct and from 2pm on Sat 3 Oct.

Book at BASS on 131 246 or bass.net.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.

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