A young mother leaves home in Shanghai shortly before the 1949 communist takeover of China, and settles, penniless, in Hong Kong, where she gives piano lessons. Her daughter leaves Hong Kong in 1964 to study music in London and becomes a professional concert pianist. A granddaughter, born in the UK and trained as a classical soprano, writes a song-cycle encapsulating the experience of three generations of Chinese women. The piece, Songs for My Grandmother, premieres on Sunday in London.
The “young mother” is Constance Wu, now 91 and resident in Britain. Her daughter is 66-year-old Enloc Wu, who had a flourishing solo career in the 1970s and 1980s before devoting herself to raising a family. Enloc’s daughter is 35-year-old Seaming To, a singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer who has carved a niche for herself as one of the most captivating, and unclassifiable, performers on the British musical scene. In Songs for My Grandmother, Seaming sets her grandmother’s words to music, as well as some of her own, which she performs with Enloc on piano.
Commissioned by the Chinese Arts Centre in Manchester and sung in English, it represents a formidable, and possibly unique, cross-generational collaboration – a homage to one woman through the eyes of her granddaughter combining voice, dulcitone, clarinet, piano, spycorders (tiny reel-to-reel machines), vintage electronics and the words of poet Judy Kendall.
The cycle starts in the present, telling how “your breath becomes shorter/ your body grows tired/ skin gains more creases/ movements less fire”. It then looks back to the Japanese wartime occupation of China, Constance’s first kiss, the Wu family’s Christian heritage and sense of displacement, and the “storms we do not speak of/ the quiet of after/ winds long since died down/ debris folded into earth, rich brown”.
The material is drawn from a series of conversations Seaming had with her grandmother about the Wu family history.
“I knew very little about my background,” says Seaming, explaining the inspiration behind Songs for My Grandmother. “So I used this project to find out more, and I’ve only really discovered a fraction of it. My grandmother saw wars and pain and upheaval. There’s a lot that isn’t said.”
Seaming’s other aim was to resume working with her mother. Many of Seaming’s seminal musical experiences revolved around Enloc, who accompanied her daughter’s early performances at school and music college. Despite the tradition of music in the family – Constance had studied piano in Shanghai with a Russian pupil of Liszt’s circle – Enloc says: “I never asked Seaming to take up music as a profession. I know how tough it is. But she has a way of expressing herself musically that is just like speaking.”
Even so, when an email arrived saying, “Mum, I’ve got some music for you”, Enloc felt apprehension as well as pride. She describes Seaming’s compositional style as “quite difficult to read in places” and “not completely classical” – something of an understatement. If you listen to Seaming, her first album, you will find a host of influences, from Kate Bush to alternative pop/jazz and exotica. There’s a hint of wacky rebellion about it but also a sound that “is unmistakably Seaming’s voice, not anyone else’s,” as Enloc outs it. “So I sat down and had a go.”
What listeners to Songs for My Grandmother will hear is a music that bears no recognisable connection to Seaming’s soprano training, nor to conventional pop. It defies categorisation, appropriately for an artist who has collaborated with some of the most experimental outfits of the past decade, including pianist/composer Matthew Bourne, electronic group Funckarma and improvisatory bands Homelife and Toolshed.
“That was when I got into making things up instead of following a strict technical route where I was pigeonholed as a lyric soprano,” recalls Seaming, whose quiet, soft-spoken personality stands in stark contrast to her extrovert clothes, her ecstatic onstage act and the fantastical “pagan priestess” image of her album cover. She makes no secret of her love for juxtaposing what she calls “real-life” instruments and electronic sounds – a mix exemplified by her studio, which has a celesta and clavichord rubbing shoulders with analogue synthesisers and wurlitzers.
That haphazard combination of styles and influences suffuses Songs for My Grandmother – “I didn’t want it to follow the model of a classical song-cycle” – but it also reflects Seaming’s occasional feelings of identity-confusion. Recalling a brief tour to China, she says: “Obviously there’s a Chinese element still within me but I’m rooted in western ways and I don’t feel Chinese. I don’t really know where I’m from.”
The song-cycle has pre-recorded tracks overlaid with live voice and piano. It includes a Chinese music-box melody heard in electronic playback, piano duets (“Mum will play all the right notes and I’ll muck it up a bit”) and an ode to Alexandre Scriabin “based on an étude which I’ve screwed around. There’s no structure in how it’s presented but I’ve written a beginning, a middle and an end, and there will be a climax. I’d like to think there’s a theatrical element, too, without it seeming contrived.”
Given the strong visual aura Seaming brings to her live performances, it seems odd that she has yet to make a video. But there is to be a homemade film within Songs for My Grandmother – “lush, rich colours, really deep, presented by flashing frame so that it’s got a rhythm to it” – and if film is to infiltrate Seaming’s future work, there is every chance it will have the same sense of freewheeling creativity.
“I’m ambitious in one sense – I want to spend the rest of my life making music,” she says, “and ideally I’d like it to be music that people like. But ultimately I’m expressing what comes out of me, and being true to that is what’s paramount, not chasing the new fad and the new sound.”
‘Songs for My Grandmother’ opens at London’s Southbank Centre on March 10 (part of Women of the World Festival), and tours to Manchester, Brawby, Brighton and Oxford, www.seaming.co.uk