It was the seemingly most innocuous of images that stayed with me from my trip to PRD and ultimately provided me with the starting point for 13 Factories: A woman talking on her mobile phone on a crowded train; her hand cupped over the mouthpiece in an attempt to maintain her own privacy and respect the privacy of those around her. I also noticed it in people at restaurants – while using a toothpick with one hand, the other hand would come up to protect the mouth from view. Somehow this image took on a metaphorical significance for me – the mouth as a vehicle for self expression and the difficulty of making its individual voice heard in a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, Shenzhen or Guangzhou.
I think of the sine tones in this piece as the tributaries of a river that wind their way between, around, over and under the thirteen members of the ensemble. A tension arises from the players’ attempts to project their individual voices with all their innate impurities onto the purity of the sine tones. By doing this in the simplest possible way they can hear the sound of their own voice.
It might seem strange that, having travelled half way around the world to experience life in the Pearl River Delta, the first sound that appears in this piece was recorded only a few miles from where I live in Glasgow. In fact all the pre-recorded sounds in the piece are of old looms or weaving machines typically found on the Scottish Islands known as the Outer Hebrides. Traditionally, in houses dotted all over the islands, men and women would work alone at their looms for hours on end to produce the famous Harris Tweed of the region. Apart from the obvious contrast to the huge factories of the PRD, it is their dignified solitude and perhaps the loneliness that comes from the rhythms of their machines that attracted me. Of course, it is possible to encounter such a sense of ‘aloneness’ on the 20th floor of an apartment block, hemmed in above, below and on all sides by human bodies.
The title of the piece is a reference to the Thirteen Factories of Canton (now Guangzhou), constructed on the banks of the Pearl River in the late 1600’s where the first foreign traders were allowed to do business with the Chinese. The word ‘factory’ in this case was meant as the premise of a ‘factor’, or merchant.