• Sonic Rituals
    Reviews

    梅志勇 – Sonic Rituals 声响仪式

    Sonic Rituals梅志勇
    Sonic Rituals 声响仪式
    DVD, Fuzztape, 2015

    I’ve crossed paths with 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng) on a few occasions, mostly at shows he was playing in the city I happened to be living – sometimes it was Hong Kong, other times Shanghai. He consistently struck me as an outward, fun-loving guy who was always either drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette or stomping on a chain of distortion pedals while screaming his lungs out, and Sonic Rituals 声响仪式 confirms my impression. This DVD, released by his own Fuzztape label, documents the 2014 “Sonic Rituals” tour that brought Dave Phillips and Mei Zhiyong to more than fifteen Chinese cities (including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Shenzhen, Xi’an and Dalian) with the help of the Nojiji collective, Yan Jun’s Subjam label, the Pro Helvetia foundation and the Zürich city administration. Zhiyong and Dave’s sustained collaboration, which has led them to record music and tour together in both China and Europe over the years, is one of the most evident examples of how international cooperation between noise artists can lead to creative opportunities and degrees of mobility that would be unattainable and unreachable by individual musicians operating in the cozy yet restricted milieus of their local or national scene.

    Sonic Rituals is, at heart, an urgent documentation of events that, for director Mei Zhiyong, could only exist in the form contained in this DVD: as he writes in the epigraph at the beginning of the film,

    For me, what is important are images and sounds, not the text. It’s about feelings, about atmospheres, about traveling, about friendship. It’s about sound, about passion, about rituals.

    Performing noise and touring with friends in China and abroad can’t really be written about – that’s the job of scholars, critics and journalists whom no one really reads – and the most fitting way to chronicle and celebrate these moments is instead capturing them with cameras and audio recorders, ingesting everything from cab rides to backstage laughter and later condensing these memories into a fifty-two-minute, black & white reel. On a backdrop of punctuated distortion, freeze-frames of a blurry Zhiyong squirming on stage give way to digital footage of Dave Phillips grimacing playfully in front of the camera. Train stations whizzing by, crowds shuffling, Dave stating that “Chinese is so difficult”, Zhiyong pointing the camera to his own face while sitting in a cab. The combination of quick cuts, metallic noises and grainy black & white footage seems an obvious nod to Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, but the existential anguish is here forsaken in favor of the positive, ecstatic excitement of traveling together to perform across the country. Bullet trains speeding through the landscape, Beijing’s urban sprawl, unclear shadows moving in poorly-lit venues, audience members taking photos with their smartphones: the sudden juxtapositions and rapid fade-outs are Zhiyong’s way of replicating the sensory assault and unexpected turns of harsh noise improvisations by manipulating moving images rather than sounds.

    The initial disorientation gives way to longer, fixed shots of performances from the tour. Wearing a Nojiji t-shirt, Mei Zhiyong screams in fits and starts into his microphone, driving the saturated distortion to the brink of feedback before throwing himself onto the floor and rolling back towards the guitar amplifier, the speaker cones feedbacking into trembling sinewaves. Kneeling on the floor, Dave Phillips feeds some field recordings from a MP3 player into the venue’s massive sound system, and the chirping sounds of frogs and insects pierce through the room as he adjusts their frequencies on a mixer. Sitting next to a concrete basin, Zhiyong is recording the sounds of dripping water and of a nearby hand-dryer, as a haunting percussive composition starts playing in the background. The rhythm slows down in the second half of the film, almost entirely dedicated to a recording of a Dave Phillips show that begins with him ominously breathing in a pitch-black room, while a projector occasionally flashes grisly images and cryptic statements on a screen behind him. The performance builds up into a chilling set of power electronics augmented by a montage of disturbing videos of animal mistreatment, including monkeys with sewn eyes, cats being tortured and cows being slaughtered. Despite the gripping nature of the live set, the haphazard camera angle cutting parts of the screen as well as most of Dave’s performative presence out of frame smothers the dynamism of the first half of the film, prompting questions regarding the inclusion of this extended take. Fortunately, the ending of the set, with Dave Phillips leaving the stage while some unhappy audience members vocally protest the graphic nature of the video projections they have been exposed to, explains the decision of including an almost integral recording of the entire performance to contextualize the controversy.

    Is Sonic Rituals a tour diary? A travelogue? An experimental film? A cinematic attempt at noise-making? In an off-camera dialogue captured by Zhiyong himself during the soundcheck of the Hong Kong tour date, he tells someone else: “I’m shooting a jilupian [documentary],” to which the other person, acknowledging that he is indeed recording a lot of footage, replies by asking him to take a look. “Mei you yisi”, Zhiyong replies – “It’s not interesting.” The Chinese term jilupian used by Zhiyong to describe his own production might hint at a broader understanding of ‘documentary’ that emphasizes the participatory act of recording as a form of memory-making – capturing footage that is perhaps “not interesting” in the moment (as Dave Phillips notes in one shot, while he tries to finish his soundcheck, “there’s fucking cameras everywhere”), but that can be later on reworked into a cinematic form resonating with the embodied experience of a touring noise artist. Regardless of the genre it belongs to, Sonic Rituals definitely portrays two friends having a good time: riding a sanlunche around Beijing’s hutong, sliding down a slope while sitting on a wheeled suitcase, muttering “fuck!” in various circumstances, and sitting in a backyard while someone strums an acoustic guitar.

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  • Reviews

    Ronez – Sitar-Shaped Cock

    Sitar-Shaped CockRonez
    Sitar-Shaped Cock
    CDr, Doufu Records, 2009

    I got in touch with Ronez on MySpace around 2005 or 2006 – he was using his real name 周沛 (Zhōu Pèi), and his avatar was a weird self-portrait with a red lantern dangling from his face. He was one of the few Chinese experimental musicians using the social networking platform to promote his works internationally, in a time before Soundcloud, Facebook and Bandcamp, when collaborations and live shows were arranged through private messages and comments left on one’s MySpace profile. Then this time passed, MySpace collapsed, I moved to China and happened to buy a few Ronez albums in record stores around the country, and eventually ended up playing a show with him in Shanghai. People came specifically to see Zhou Pei perform, some of them revering him as a pioneering savant of Chinese experimental music. After the show, we added each other on WeChat, where he occasionally posts photos of food or of his holiday travels.

    Sitar-Shaped Cock has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, waiting to be ripped and properly listened to. Like many other Ronez releases, its absurdist title and cover artwork manage to be almost entirely non-referential. The liner notes on the backcover are a slightly better lead into the album: they provide hardware specifications – “mixer, computer, wacom tablet, ndsl, oscillator, theremin mini, gakken sx-150, mics, pedals” – as well as relational coordinates – “Thanks: dad, mom, mini, ziming, ableton live, wmidi(for wacom), taalmala, korg ds-10(for ndsl)”. in Zhou Pei’s artistic practice, music equipment, family, software, friends, protocols and patches are all on the same level, elements of a network of inputs and outputs the results of which are etched with light on the surface of a CDr. The artwork printed on the other side of the disc also summarizes this flat network of musicmaking through a minimalist drawing of a Wacom tablet, a computer mouse and a sitar. Sitar-Shaped Cock reflects this exhilarating flattening in its contents: playful harsh noise explorations and grimy improvised techno bangers are mixed with crystalline experiments in controlling sampled synthesizers through a Wacom drawing tablet.

    After a few introductory looped vocal bleeps, Son of Noise approaches distortion with a calm but assertive expressivity not distant from the more straightforward works of Merzbow, drastically panned squeaking feedbacks soaring over slow cut-up distortions into a full-spectrum wall of rumbling crackle. The contrast of this opening track with the following couplet of Wacom Solo #16 and Wacom Solo #28 (Remix) is destabilizing, as the impossibly quick flurries of piano notes and the plastified Indian raga sound closer to the incongruous sonic juxtapositions of Violent Onsen Geisha or the self-conscious irony of much of contemporary vaporwave’s recuperation of cheesy synthesizers and MIDI-controlled aesthetics. But it would be misleading to talk about Ronez’s aesthetics through the leading names of Japanoise or genres that didn’t even exist in 2009. Zhou Pei’s sound is highly idiosyncratic and courageously playful, carving a comfortable personal space out of digital signal paths and circuitboards.

    Phone Maniac is perhaps my favorite track of the album, a grimy and prophetic impression of the techno-noise that would become popular a few years later, featuring ominous distortion pedal drones carefully steered over a carpet bombing of tight kick drum and an acid and obsessive step-sequenced synth phrase. After it, Zhou Pei moves back into more Wacom improvisations, this time with a synthesized reed (Wacom Solo #22), an approximated organ (Wacom Solo #9), and a nine-minute dreamy meditation for reverberating clavier (Wacom Solo #11). Knob the Don is another immersion into metallic harsh noise textures topped by the wide hissing of monophonic synthesizers, oscillators bubbling and gurgling left and right. Ronez’s noisemaking isn’t hectic, yet it is in constant change, sweeping all over the frequency spectrum and kept in motion by steady manipulation and mastery of the relevant knobs. The conclusive 17 minute-long In Core, previously released on a 3-inch CDr, sounds like a miniature version of the album in which, rather than being presented in a linear fashion, the elemental components of Zhou Pei’s music-making practices are layered one over the other: distorted leads over synthetic tablas, bubbling bass over hypnotic fuzzy loops, oscillator bleeps ricocheting from the left to the right channel and back over sped-up and slowed-down tape simulation. After all, aren’t all cocks sitar-shaped? Or is Ronez reflecting on the fact that perhaps it isn’t the sitar to be cock-shaped, but the other way around – the human being shaped around the instrument, the hand around the mouse, the finger around the knob?

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  • Reviews

    Torturing Nurse – In Ruins

    In RuinsTorturing Nurse
    In Ruins
    3” CDr, Shasha Records, 2006

    I’ve been in and out of Shanghai since 2006, and each time I return to the city I can’t help considering how much Shanghai has changed, and how this impression isn’t simply a consequence of less than a decade of intermittent visits and stays. “What do I think of Shanghai?” – a local friend, born and raised there, takes her time to reply to a question by a first-time city visitor: “It’s always changing. The buildings, the landscape. It changes. A lot.” In the crevices between stylized narratives (from the Whore of the Orient to the Paris of the East to the blueprint of China’s urban future) and aestheticized contrasts (Puxi versus Pudong, tradition versus hypermodernity, the hot hell of Beijing versus the cold hell of Shanghai) lie the corrugated histories of everyday lives traversed by the shifting configurations of urban change. In terms of sound ecologies, the place occupied by the auditory presence of construction work in the living matrix of the city is perhaps a good example of these everyday rugosities of change: in contrast to other Chinese metropolitan areas undergoing more recent and more reckless waves of development and renovation, unfolding on the massive scales of peripheral conurbations or engulfing entire districts, the relatively long history of Shanghai’s multilayered urbanism has by now trapped the concrete sounds of demolition (拆迁, chāiqiān) in the walled pockets of construction/destruction sites popping up around the city overnight, remodeling housing blocks piecemeal, and weaving a cyclical patchwork quilt of noises which stands as a contrappunto to the routines of urban living. In a conversation with Bivouac Recording‘s own Terence Lloren about the label’s long-standing series of soundwalks Growing Up With Shanghai, graphic designer Ericson Corpuz reflects on this peculiarity:

    It is the never-ending construction in Shanghai that stands out. The raw sound of concrete scraping, being torn down and being rebuilt stands out from the everyday cackle of the City. [It is] the stains on the road, the concrete walls that are witnesses to the sounds that make the Shanghai experience rich and memorable.

    It is precisely the sounds witnessed by the concrete walls of Shanghai’s construction sites that Torturing Nurse engage with in this EP. In Ruins is perhaps my favourite release from the outfit: as a minor work from their early years, and perhaps their most conceptual record (so to say) it is also the one that better situates Torturing Nurse as a noise act emerging from the Shanghai of the mid-2000s. Ethnomusicologically speaking, In Ruins documents how a trio of locals, in their early efforts of forging a distinctive sound in an aesthetic community largely obsessed with Japanoise, turned their ears and hands towards their daily experience and the closest noise at hand – the tools and rubble available in each construction site and abandoned semi-demolished unit – and broke in one of them with the sole purpose of sounding the ruins of Shanghai. Despite the faux-glitch transparencies and cut&paste photos of the recording activity that characterize the artwork, In Ruins isn’t yet the solipsistic post-harsh noise meditations of 不活了’s Xin Fu, picking up the sounds of the chattering city with cheap digital devices and bitcrushing distortions. What Junky, Youki & Miriam mapped, quite physically, in this EP is the raw sound of the materials of urban change hidden behind the temporary whitewashed walls and metal fences of construction sites: short, metallic echoes; things, smashed one against the other; ruined structures, collapsing; screams, bored parodies of repetitive physical labor. In In Ruins there is no order nor thought nor composition, but not even disorder, frenzy or excitement. There is rather randomness, dejected constance, casual bursts of violence and animalesque grunts, which at times make the EP sound like a disturbing audio veritè of a mental institution.

    The 17-minute recording starts with a thump, echoing in a tail of backdrop ambience – passing engines and car honks which pulsate with the presence of saturated audio; the trio screams, bangs rocks on concrete, shatters glass and ceramics, crashes pieces of metal, breaks wooden planks. The urgency of the first minutes has nothing of the naturalistic intent of extracting the sound of specific matter – it’s just a mess, a senseless outburst of caged insanity, a romp. Vocalizations get weirder, gusts of wind rumble in the condenser microphones of the portable recorder – one more object among objects – as the thuds of discard and junk punctuate the space in uncertain regularities. Some droning sounds hint at the possibility of one of them tinkering with a portable device, maybe a small amplifier. Basslines and beats from a pop hit filter through the walls, at some point, as a car with a loud sound system passes by. Things are dragged, scraped on the pavement, thrown around, smashed in different combinations without any climax to aim for or any progression orienting the process. The praxis of sounding is not experimental: there is no trial and error because there is no goal. There are instead instinctive rhythmic figures, repeated sketched crescendos, ending with the mistreated object shattering or being thrown away in pseudo-ritual screams. Listening to In Ruins in its entirety is unexpectedly cathartic: a few minutes into the record the sounds lose their specificities, and a sense of primal immediacy sets in. As the anger subsides, Torturing Nurse quickly lose their fascination for full-on destruction, and settle for an annoyed tinkering with sonorous tools: they crumple sheets of paper, knock on wood, pour rubble on the ground, and slowly drift back into the regular hum of muffled traffic around them.

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  • Critique,  Reviews

    陈维 (Ed.) – CSA: 中国声音前线

    CSA陈维 (Ed.)
    CSA – 中国声音前线
    Webzine, ChineseNewEar, 2005/2006

    This post hopefully inaugurates a line of parallel (and, given the medium, necessarily self-reflexive) inquiry on textual materials – magazines, fanzines, webzines, blogs and so on – related to experimental music in China. As a first foray into the textual construction of scenes and genres, I decided to start from the unexpected encounter with CSA: 中国声音前线 (Zhōngguó Shēngyīn Qiánxiàn, ‘China: The Sonic Avantgarde’), likely to be the first webzine dedicated exclusively to Chinese experimental music. Without delving too much on the contents of the two existing issues of CSA, in themselves documents of great archival interest to be scoured through for information about specific musicians and to crosscheck who was doing what (and writing about what others were doing) around 2005, I’d like to take the chance of reading through the webzine and jot down a couple of points regarding the role of writing and publishing in scene-making, and to hint at how the rapid changes of online platforms and services have impacted on this construction efforts in terms of format, dissemination and preservation.

    Published solely in .pdf format and originally hosted as a free download on 姚大钧 (Yáo Dàjūn)’s Chinese New Ear website (now unavailable), CSA wraps dense text and blurry digital photos in the bold colors and slightly retro-minimalist design choices of Torturing Nurse’s 徐程 (Xú Chéng), member of the editorial board of the webzine together with artists 陈维 (Chén Wéi) and 張立明 (Zhāng Lìmíng). Its title clearly resonating the China: The Sonic Avant-Garde compilation put together by Yao Dajun in 2003 for his own Post-Concrete label, the webzine does clearly bear the authorial imprint of the man, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that the first person to be featured in the thirteen-page “People” section of the first issue is actually Yao Dajun himself, introduced as “sound artist / music-maker / art history researcher / organizer / music critic / freelance journalist / radio host” – quite a curriculum already. Complete with academic achievements, current and past positions, performances and publications, the dense and monologic interview ranges from his musical influences to his early days in music-making, and includes discussions of the term ‘avant-garde’. This word, already appearing in the title of the webzine itself (as 前线 qiánxiàn, literally ‘frontline’), pops up several times in Yao Dajun’s answers, albeit in different translations: “…it was all 前卫 (qiánwèi, ‘avant-garde’), pure in disposition, aesthetic,” he recalls of his early contacts with art, “I knew very early that I wanted to throw myself into avant-garde art.” It’s pretty evident how at that time Yao Dajun was pushing the term avant-garde, in its broader lexical domain, as a fil rouge capable of holding together a dispersed and motley crew of very different artists and musicians: “in China 先锋 (xiānfēng, ‘avant-garde’) music or sound art has had enthusiastic developments” and this has to be understood in a local context, he claims, since

    avant-garde art in China has its own peculiar context and linguistic domain. Abroad, this word has not been used after the sixties, and today is probably seen as referring to a specific period in time (in particular, as an art movement of the early 20th century). But in China it’s not so, in China the avant-garde tradition has continued to the present day

    Besides the curious mention of a 前卫传统 (qiánwèi chuántǒng, ‘avant-garde tradition’), which seems a quite contradictory construct, another concern apparent in most of Yao Dajun’s interviews, talks and curatorial choices is the stubborn pursuit of an alphabet of Chineseness capable of articulating coherently the local experimental music scene. Nationalizing the avant-garde, though, is a slippery exercise in mirror-climbing: when asked about the motivations behind the creation of the 中国声音小组 (Zhōngguó Shēngyīn Xiǎozǔ, ‘China Sound Group’), Yao Dajun replies that he felt the need to put the group together “because the sound of Chinese people is too amusing, totally different from the foreign world.” Pressed by the interviewer asking him how does he defines this Chinese sound, he repeats: “the sound emitted by Chinese people.” Yet this choice of emphasizing locality, difference and cultural nationalism is not left unsubstantiated: “I love and I am passionate about researching my own nationality and cultural traditions; and my cultural tradition happens to be Chinese tradition, so that’s it.” Yao Dajun’s passionate research on one’s own cultural tradition, moreover, rests on an inescapable national identity:

    what I mean here is not nationality as in your documents, but the culture of a nation […] Even if the domain of avant-garde art (especially the high-skilled artistic fields) can easily seem a globalized, ‘post-national’ phenomenon or a collective subconscious of stateless art, in fact what works of art represent or reflect behind this appearance is precisely the contemporary traditions of each national culture

    Yao Dajun is also featured in the “Dialogue” section, where he long-windedly explains his own experience with recording equipment, contrasted by a short and unassuming paragraph on the same topic written by Wang Changcun. In the following pages, an interview to Autechre originally published in the Japanese music magazine Fader translated by Xie Zhongqi precedes some pictures from recent performances: a long-haired Xu Cheng, early Torturing Nurse, and Yan Jun, Li Jianhong and C-drik sharing a table during a Beijing show. In a short piece, Yan Jun discusses the Dashanzi Art festival, the book 北京新声 (Běijīng Xīnshēng, ‘Beijing New Sound’) co-written with Ou Ning, and describes his shift from rock music criticism to experimental music and sound art: “in two years’ time, Chinese experimental music and sound art have finally become a network,” he proclaims. The last pages of the first issue of CSA are dedicated to a nostalgic ad of the Sugar Jar shop, a short presentation of the Drama Script CD written by Li Jianhong himself, a careful track-by-track in which Ronez explains his own Feedback CDr, and PNF’s Li Chinsung introducing the PNF/Torturing Nurse Splittail, recollecting how “Torturing Nurse are now in China a bit like what PNF was in Hong Kong back in the day.”

    The second issue already shows signs of shrinkage: out of the same 38 pages, one third are dedicated to a mammoth interview of Li Jianhong in which he discusses pretty much everything, from his early listening experiences and Eastern philosophies to his band projects and recording techniques. And while his quietist attitudes towards high-volume distortions verge on mysticism (“What does noise mean to you?” – “Just a calm heart”), more elaborate statements see him distancing himself from the avant-garde framework set up by Yao Dajun in the preceding issue:

    I think myself as a noisemaker. Even if sometimes I also do some works of sound art, or some audio installations, most of what I’m interested in really is noise music […] at the moment in China there is basically two kind of people making this stuff, one privileges ‘yīn’, another privileges ‘yuè’. I’m more interested in ‘yuè’ – emotion. So there’s no way I’m an avant-garde sound artist

    The rest of the issue is made of a collection of full-page photos of the 2pi festival organized by Li Jianhong in 2005 – featuring Torturing Nurse, Yan Jun, Ronez, Wang Changcun, Audrey Chen, Tatsuya Nakatani, Xu Cheng and Marqido – and a translation of an essay by sound artist Andra McCartney. In the last pages, another essay by Yan Jun explains the etymology of the name chosen for his fortunate series of shows in Beijing, Waterland Kwanyin: “I want back home and I wanted to give it a name, I decided that the artificial lake would be ‘water’, the grass patch would be ‘land’, and Guanyin is from Guanyin Records: “guān” from guānchá [observe], and “yīn” from shēngyīn [sound].”

    In occasion of the two issues of CSA being uploaded on Monoskop, Yao Dajun has recently posted on Weibo a recollection of his involvement:

    In 2006 I started making ChineseNewEar.com, which at the time was the only portal dedicated to popularize the developments of Chinese Sound Art in the world, and which included artist archives, the Chinese Sonic Avantgarde magazine edited by Chen Wei, my Zhongguo Shengyin online radio, and the Global Noise Online blog founded by Li Ruyi (the only blog reporting on Chinese experimental music). Now the domain name has been taken, but parts of the contents can be found through archive.org

    Little remains online of this massive project in centralizing and gatekeeping the construction of a local avant-garde sound art scene: the domain ChineseNewEar.com has been bought by someone else, its archives and online radio gone with the rest of the website, while Lawrence RY Li’s blog, fittingly renamed Global Noise Offline, remains stuck at its last update, date January 2006. What was supposed to be a cohesive, communal effort in building a genre – China’s sonic avant-garde – ended up in a scarce collection of different concerns and artistic statements, put to an end after only two issues and eventually disappearing along with expired Internet domains, fading interest and lack of manpower. As the editors summarize in their farewell to the readership, hoping for someone to get in touch and help out with the next issues:

    This publication is aimed at going one step further in disseminating our country’s developing sound art, and also hopes to become a memorandum of this developments. But reality usually pays no attention to artistic ideals. Having painstakingly reached the second issue of this magazine, and as it is fairly evident from its contents, this editorial department is definitely lacking in personnel. We hope that good friends interested in working on this publication will get in touch with us soon: 1980217@gmail.com

    Download (Issue 1)

    Download (Issue 2)

  • Critique,  Reviews

    鐵觀音二重奏 – 殺不死的牛

    殺不死的牛鐵觀音二重奏
    殺不死的牛
    CD, Sub Jam – KwanYin Records, 2006

    Let us discuss commerce. It is almost the year two thousand fourteen, and I still take pride of extracting all the .mp3s offered on this blog from the original copies (which is in itself an ironic contradiction in terms, the laughing remnant of the work of art reinstated, instead of exploded, through the mass reproduction of auras) that I have been collecting since 2006 from trades with friends, musicians and stores around China. So, what about the stores, the often neglected sites of exchange around which entire scenes develop and thrive through stockpiling and suggestion? Where are they, how do they look, which market do they serve, who is selling and who’s buying, and most importantly, where should you go to squander your wads of RMB on limited editions of Chinese experimental music? I have no idea. Speaking of this specific record, I acquired it in either Beijing or Shanghai, if memory doesn’t fail me: it might have been at Sugar Jar in 2006, right after it moved to the 798 art district, or at 2046 in Shanghai, the following year.

    I ended up in Sugar Jar without any actual plan or interest in finding a record store in Beijing – I was there for school, and 798 seemed like an hip spot to visit at the time, although it ended up being fairly disappointing: wannabe-edgy artworks and political pop for sale in dusty gallery displays and young urbanites with large DSLRs hanging from their necks. I remember the store clerk suggesting me a couple of local releases because I said that I was into post-rock. Among them was a band called 戈多 (Gēduō, Godot) and an enigmatic release by 武權 (Wǔ Quán) that at the time seemed a refreshing effort in digital ambient sketches. Sound art, and the stuffy vocabulary with which it quickly fills the air, were not around yet. I was the only customer in the store. One year later, I ended up in 2046 by pure chance – I was living two blocks away from it, a little and unassuming shop on the strip of cheap restaurants closest to the university I was studying in. When one day I walked inside to get some pirate DVDs, I was quite amazed to find a nice selection of Torturing Nurse records lined up in the first shelf right after the entrance, along with releases by the major (that is, the only three or four) underground labels in China at the time: ShaSha, 2pi, Shanshui, Sub Jam. I still don’t know what the shop-owners thought of me and my cousin systematically raiding it to buy almost all the limited, handmade, DIY releases we could find, along with scores of Japanese idols’ dakou CDs. 2046 closed, moved and re-opened several times during the following years – its shelf of experimental records appearing and disappearing depending on mysterious circumstances. Sugar Jar in 798 closed as well, and I don’t know what happened to its other branches or to my clerk friend; the only thing I heard about it is that the owner, 杨立才 (Yáng Lìcái), is the 老杨 (Lǎo Yáng) behind the conceptual record made out of circular saw blade recently released by Sub Jam. I personally prefer records made out of circular saw blades that also contain amazing music, such as Isis’ Sawblade EP from 1999, but anyway: at some point, somewhere, I bought a record called Viva la Vaches by Tie Guan Yin Duo, which Sub Jam’s website describes as:

    two year-of-ox-born improvisors use this title to say hello to fm3’s Staalplaat album Mort Aux Vaches (kill all ox). a powerful studio improvisation which was lead by unknow force

    The two improvisers in question, playing under the name of 鐵觀音二重奏(Tiěguānyīn érchóngzòu, Tie Guan Yin Duo), are 王凡 (Wáng Fán), the reclusive pioneer of experimental music in China, and 颜峻 (Yán Jùn), the main scene-mover of the early 2000s now turned sound artist. The record title, oscillating between the Franco-Spanish coinage Viva la Vaches (long live the cows) and the Chinese 殺不死的牛 (shābùsǐ de niú, the un-killable cows), is supposed to ironically hail the release of a FM3 record on the Dutch label Staalplaat’s series Mort aux Vaches (death to cows). In his recently published book Japanoise, David Novak argues that noise music functions as a vector of circulation of cultural practices and artistic tropes between fringes of national communities of musicians and listeners. Seven years ago, this record seemed to me a very good example of how a scene could resonate with the excitement of circulation, as the freshly minted cogs of collaboration and exchange set up by Chinese experimental musicians started engaging with international partners.

    殺不死的牛 is a 30-minute piece of minimal electronics hiding a sincere cheapness and bricolaic attitude under a thin veneer of digital asepsis. Its uncertain development stumbles forward relying on samples, interferences, contact microphones, laptop bleeps fed into mixer feedback loops and delay pedals, resulting in textures and gentle droning hums swelling up and down, grainy atmospheres and pulsating tones building up layer upon layer. The amateurish feel of a direct line-in home recording and the accidental drops of volume dampen the general sense of ominousness created by the accumulation of loops sounding like the anxious cycling routines of old hardware. Sparse instrumental punctuations avoid the accretion of boredom: a single guitar note plucked over a syncopated delay, sparse gongs and timpani, until the obnoxious tremolo through which the main electronic tracks are fed  generates a syncopated rhythm that propels the track into the middle section, more bubbling synths and enveloped buzz leads hover over it, and eventually everything coalesces into a tamed white noise pattern. At some point a moaning didjeridoo emerges from a feedbacked reverb, the plucked guitar returns with a trail of echoes, and some high-pitched tones reeking of stale microhouse follow without much consequentiality. When the piece seems to be over, a roaring reversed percussion sample is deployed to show some muscle along with KaossPad-like manipulations, sampled pads, more drones, little tinkering metal percussions, bubbling noises and delays on the brink of self-feedbacking.

    Despite a general lack of feeling, the simplicity of the sound design and the inconsequentiality of the composition, with its abrupt volume changes and deliberate shifts from one pattern to the other, 殺不死的牛 sounds like a playful exploration of the possibilities of home-studio recording with cheap pieces of electronics, sampled instruments and digital production. In an historical perspective though, this record might epitomize a missed chance: while most of the pioneer labels active seven years ago have halted their operations or have changed names and shifted to other directions, while the record stores where I bought this and other records have moved and closed and changed, while youngest musicians have carved their own path across international and local alliances, Sub Jam is still around, being even recently featured on The Wire along with Yan Jun’s vacuous statements peddling his latest book (“Please snatch one if you can”) and a hit-and-miss catalogue (“I need money. I made 500 copies of this album in 2003. There are still 250 left to sell!”) topped by an obtuse circular saw blade in a cheap jewel box that seems to give rise to revelatory questions: “Why do we make or listen to music if it has no weight?” Again, I have no answer to this kind of question, but my impression is that this specific edge of circulation has been spinning in a dangerous and boring void for a while.

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