Review: Water Pushes Sand


Water Pushes Sand is an ensemble work by the Australian Art Orchestra in collaboration with the WaterPushesSand_350x350v2Sichuan Ensemble from Sichuan, China that aims to combine experimental jazz with the unique and folkloric music of Sichuan, China. Composed by Erik Griswold and presented in collaboration with the Arts Centre Melbourne and the Australian Art Orchestra for Melbourne Festival, the piece sees the conventional Western jazz instruments of piano, saxophone, trumpet, contrabass and percussion juxtaposed with the Chinese bamboo flute, Suona (a double-reeded horn), Gu Zheng (a plucked zither) and an array of symbals, chimes and percussive instruments native to China. The ensemble is also accompanied by traditional Chinese operatic vocalist and mask-dance performer, Zheng Sheng Li.

Water Pushes Sand is intended to be a work of cultural fusion and technical finesse, and in many ways it is. The musicians featured are clearly highly skilled and capable both in their mastery of the instruments and in performance dynamic. There are moments of genuine excitement that meet the audience’s seeming anticipation of culturally rich and aurally intense soundscapes.

This work does however inadvertently demonstrated the challenges and inherent incongruences in trying to merge two very distinct and culturally imbued musical aesthetics. In contrasting the bold and robust sounds of the Western jazz ensemble with the fragile, penetrative and articulate tones of the Sichuan instruments, there are moments of compositional suspension, where the instruments seem divorced from each other and unsupported. It should be noted that in some instances this was seemingly purposeful, tying into the cacophonous celebration that is improvised free jazz. However, at other times the disjuncture within the ensemble felt somewhat confused and unguided.

Mask dancerMusicians and artists have tried for decades to celebrate the rich artistic history of China in a contemporary format, without conceding to stereotypical imagery or gimmicky and tokenistic tricks about the ‘wonders of the East’. It is true that the artists of Water Pushes Sand have a deep and sincere respect for the cultural heritages that they are honouring with this work. But the question remains whether the composition, format and performance techniques used in this work are successful in presenting this intention accurately. Particularly, the finale of mask-dancing by Zheng Sheng Li – whilst extremely impressive and worthy of praise – creates a sense that this show is not simply about the quality of the musical creation, but is somewhat a flashy exhibition of how Chinese performing arts can be entertaining to a Western audience. Arguably there is nothing wrong with this, however it again brings into question the intention of the work and its influence on Western perceptions of the depth and artistry of Asian performing arts disciplines.

Some narrative is offered throughout the work, between stories told by Griswold, and the digital images and videography of Chengdu, China and the ensemble members, as composed by Scott Morrison and shot by Christie Scott. It is through this narrative that the audience understands that the artists have been on an honest journey to scratch the surface of what is the very complex cultural landscape of China. This gives the work a sense of intimacy and sincerity. It also piques our interest as to the rest of the story and perhaps this narrative could be used more explicitly to frame the creation of the work and the multi-faceted experiences which brought it to life.

Water Pushes Sand is an admirable feat and should be considered a meaningful step towards unpacking the possibilities that exist in Asian-Australian orchestral collaboration. The work shows us that there is no shortage of fodder for artistic creation between China and Australia, with each of the musicians featured exhibiting a high-quality of musical mastery and maturity in performance and improvisation. It would be wonderful to see what this ensemble could create next.

3 out of 5 stars.


ZHENG Sheng Li 郑胜利 Voice, Changing Faces 歌手, 变脸表演
SHI Lei 石磊 Bamboo Flute 笛子
ZHOU Yu 周宇 Suona 唢呐
Timothy O’DWYER Saxophones 萨克管
Peter KNIGHT Trumpet 喇叭
ZHOU Tao Tao 周桃桃 Gu Zheng 古箏
Erik GRISWOLD Piano 钢琴
Vanessa TOMLINSON Percussion 打击乐器
ZHONG Kai Zhi 钟开志 Percussion 打击乐器
Samuel PANKHURST Contrabass 最低音

Creative Team

Tamara Saulwick Director
Scott Morrison Video Artist


Van Locker Production Manager
Teresa Fok Interpreter and Artist Liaison

Shot on location in Chengdu by Christie Stott.

Nithya Iyer

Author: Nithya Iyer

Nithya Iyer is a Melbourne-based writer and performer of Indian-descent. Her work regards experimental and experiential arts practices in self-inquiry and connection to the Other. She has performed in experimental, roving and choreographed works in festivals and events across Victoria and New South Wales. Nithya has a background in Bharatanatayam from the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy and is currently studying a Masters of Therapeutic Arts Practice at the Melbourne Institute of Experiential and Creative Art Therapy.

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