Xièxie – translated into English as ‘thank you, thanks’ – is a journey through China. Celer’s trip began with a dictionary and a phrasebook. Day and night, rain wept from the sky, ripped from an open wound in a leaden cloud. Shanghai was lit in ultra-bright light, a fantastic neon display, and swirling grey mists. The ground fog never mirrored the fog of insomnia, because this city never slept. Nights were just as busy, a role reversal of the working day, an upside-down city where sleep vied with activity, and the lack of light brought seedier, sludgy aspects. The bright, eye-piercing lighting, the HDTV screens, glowing like artificial suns, blocking out the inky darkness of midnight, and the 24/7 supermarkets became the nightly population, its quieter traffic the only difference between night and late afternoon.
Will Long manages to condense the atmosphere of place into extended and patient drones. Car horns blare out, and pedestrians – tourists and locals – throng the streets, standing in clumps, under fire from a spattering of cool rain. Delayed drones lie softly out of focus, smeared like a taxi’s headlights in the rain. Will stands just outside a metro station, in a square beside a nearby park, where its trees overhang, draping outwards like a leafy skirt. A construction site sits silently, sleeping for a couple of hours. The exhausting nature of travelling isn’t lost on Celer, as his tones are a little jet-lagged, doing the red-eye, staying up all night to observe the square, the street, the noodle bar (‘From the doorway of the beef noodle shop, shoes on the street in the rain, outside the karate school’), the people, and documenting it. In a sense, this is his camera, his phrasebook in which dialect, culture, and atmosphere translates into sound.
The atmosphere is distilled, turned into music.
This is music of transit. It never slows down, and the drone’s tempo is deceptive. At first, it sounds like it’s in a 100m race with a snail, but that’s an illusion. The ambient music passes onto Hangzhou, rocketing past apartment buildings and open fields of farmland on the Maglev, which reaches speeds of 303 km/h. The train itself is indicative of the journey, and a metaphor for his trip. It flashed by in an instant, a singular photo shot on a single day, in a month, in a year, in a life.
Xièxie is a journey and a thank you, a music born from an appreciative heart. The dreamy loops and the long, unspooling drones have a rhythm of their own, never seeming to lose energy, never flat-lining or turning into a mere exercise. Instead, the loops gracefully unfurl, like the passing landscape, and like those fields of purity, there’s an organic tone to the music, which gives it a feeling of comfort, or sedation. This is a safe place. This is a good place. For Will, the trip was a touching experience, and you can feel that in the music, in the way it carefully and patiently unfolds, and repeats. The longer drones – some reaching up to and over ten minutes, and ‘For the entirety’ is twenty-one minutes – are suggestive of Will’s feelings. He doesn’t want that moment to end. He doesn’t want his journey to end, even as it one day must, even as seconds keep on ticking, and the train continues to hurtle along, producing barely a shudder. Likewise, Long’s ambient-dusted drones are gentle and smooth to the touch. Tender. Staying in the moment, the music marinates in itself and in its memories, as if it were in a beef noodle mixture of its own. Stay with me, the music says.
The announcer’s voice bleeds into the whirring of the train. The field recordings turn into long, outstretched echoes, becoming distant, like subway trains as they leave the station and thunder into the tunnel, leaving behind an ominous rumble emanating from the heart of its blackened mouth, but lasting for minutes at a time; sound left in freefall, eternally delayed.
‘I fell asleep, as you were dancing, but to no music. The lilies on the lake nodded in the rain, dipping into the water. There was a Wal-Mart near the hotel where I won a pink bunny from a claw machine. I remember the beauty of the architecture of Hangzhou station, birds swirling around the pillars near the top, the echoes of the deep station interior, and the laughing at being lost. There at least we have each other, that memory, or that daydream’.
The music is sweet and sensitive, and the coda, ‘Our dream to be strangers’, lightens the tone, as if it were above the clouds, with warm light pouring through the gaps in the drone, ascending in altitude. The effect is the same – we’re still passing through at speed – but the tone is different. Above all, the music is full of gratitude. It’s full of thanks.
Even so, there’s a constant sense of not wanting this time to end, even though it will, and it burns at the heart. Nothing lasts forever, and time doesn’t slow down. It only increases its pace. The adventure’s over before you know it, and the flight home is boarding. Xièxie was the only word he ever got to use.