Sounds of history

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/9 17:13:40

An artist creates a timeline of Beijing using recordings from the past and present

Colin Chinnery, who sees himself a conceptual artist, wishes to make history by using sound as a tool of capturing history. Photo: Li Hao/GT


Colin Chinnery (right), records a Beijing senior citizen as he waves his "dragon." Photo: Li Hao/GT

Ever since the beginning of humanity, we have lived in a world with sound both from nature and those we create ourselves. However, has anyone ever thought to compile these sounds and use them as a record of our history?

This is what the British-Chinese artist Colin Chinnery, or Qin Siyuan, has been doing for the past five years.

"For me, I think Beijing has a really, really interesting sound environment," said the 47-year-old artist, who has come back and forth to live in Beijing since the 1970s. Realizing that over the decades there has always been unique sounds during certain time periods, and a lot of them have died out, Chinnery decided to make a history of Beijing using only sound.

Though Chinnery spent years learning wushu in Beijing in his childhood and being a vocalist in Beijing during his college years, it was not until 2005 that he began to pay special attention to the sounds of Beijing.

While Chinnery was an artist and curator, he created a project called Sound and the City and invited several experimental musicians from the UK to Beijing to explore the ancient Chinese city's sound environment.

"[The title of the project] is a play on the TV program Sex and the City (1998-2004)," Chinnery told Metropolitan, adding that the musicians were also asked to create sound works inside Beijing from the experiences they have had.

Though Chinnery knew that the UK musicians would discover something special, he was still surprised to learn that his fellow artists, who have traveled around the world to experience different sound environments, thought Beijing had "the richest and most interesting sound resources" they've ever encountered, which inspired him.

The project, which he originally thought would be niche, turned out to be popular as well.

"It was successful because sound was able to open up certain conversations about the city, the way of life, society, memories and culture. Those kinds of conversations meant that this was not just a sound project, but it was actually a project that reached beyond art into the realm of society," he later concluded.

However, for years, the artist did not carry on the project.

In 2013, a new museum was about to be constructed on the site of Chinnery's former family house in Shijia Hutong, Dongcheng District. It would be a museum about traditional Beijing culture, and Chinnery was invited to be a consultant. Then and there, he brought up the idea of recording the traditional sounds of Beijing.

What came to him first were the sounds of Beijing street hawkers, which were very common in the capital up until the 1950s.

"Before the 1950s, the traditional way of life was that people would sell their wares by walking up and down the hutong and call out to customers on the street," Chinnery explained.

"They would call out sounds or words, or they would use special instruments. They would be instantly recognizable because the seller of each wear would use a different sound with a different melody."

And then, he recorded the sounds of pigeon whistles. Made by bamboo or wood, such whistles were often attached to home-raised pigeons, and when they would fly, a special sound could be heard.

While the sound of pigeon whistles could be heard almost everywhere in Beijing before and during the 1990s, one of Chinnery's memories of the city, along with the urbanization of the capital, there were few people making such whistles or even raising pigeons.

To avoid the interference of city sounds, Chinnery later chose one pigeon raiser in a village of Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province.

Besides recording sounds of the past, Chinnery is also interested in the current-day sounds of the city. Local parks are where he finds and records many of the sounds he desires.

At about 8 am on a Friday, Chinnery had already traveled from his residence outside the northeast Fifth Ring Road to Tiantan Park, located inside the south Second Ring Road. Though a national tourist site, the early morning hours at Tiantan Park are often the best time to find local seniors exercising and socializing with each other.

"Let's make it next Tuesday, and please call more buddies," said Chinnery in fluent Beijing-dialect when speaking to an elderly man who was playing with a kongzhu, a Chinese yo-yo that makes a buzzing sound when used. After recording the sound of a whip cracking, kongzhu is his next target.


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