Category: Critique

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

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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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Mind Fiber – Hello Balcony

Hello BalconyMind Fiber
Hello Balcony
Double CD, China Free Improvisation / JNBY, 2012

Free improvisation and its (if existing) boundaries have been the topic of ongoing theoretical and practical discussions. Yet, more than the recognition than even the freest, most skilled, most eclectic improvisers will at some point stick to the clichés of improvisation itself is often a shared conclusion – one that, to be clear, does not prevent the enjoyment of a nice improvisational session. Now, with the release of Mind Fiber’s latest double record, Hello Balcony, one wonders if the real danger of free improvisation today is not the reliance on some unavoidable clichés but the worsening of the situation with drastic attempts to escape from them. Let’s proceed in order: Hello Balcony, with its almost two hours’ worth of material, is a mastodontic collection of five improvisational sessions recorded by China’s foremost experimental music couple 李剑鸿 (Lǐ Jiànhóng) and 韦玮 (Wéi Wěi, also known as VAVABOND). While the two musicians join forces as Vagus Nerve when dealing with liquid drones and layered psychedelia, Mind Fiber is the name under which they record and perform “environmental improvisation”, Li Jianhong’s latest aesthetic statement. In fact, Hello Balcony has been reportedly recorded between the evening of May 1st (disc two, PM) and the morning of May 2nd 2012 (disc one, AM), in Lijia, Zhejiang province, and it is dedicated to a balcony. As the booklet recites: “[this record] is the brief memo of a balcony. Before early this year, the second floor of my parent’s house had a balcony. As most of the children who had ever owned a balcony of their own, my childhood seemingly became a little bit miraculous because of the balcony. While to other people, of course it is only a simple balcony”.

While the record revolves around this very specific balcony in Lijia village, there’s more in it than the balcony itself or the sounds that can be heard from it during the day. The first element to stand out is Wei Wei’s glitchy laptop synthesis and, although I have to admit that her solo output rarely impresses me, the first minutes of AM function quite well, with the sparse bleeps and rattles merging with and emerging from the field recordings of a distant countryside morning, reverberated granularities maintaining their ambiguous resemblances and contrasts with the ambience backdrop, sometimes sounding like slightly displaced agricultural machinery, cutlery or fireworks, other times spurting out in their full-blown digital coating. Unfortunately, as soon as the serendipity and the novelty of the first few minutes wear down, the generative patches lapse back into their stark aleatory functioning, and the isolation in which Wei Wei put herself during the recording of these sessions (she “isolated herself into her own environment by using small earphones. Therefore, during the improvisation, I could not hear her at all”) does not help restraining the obnoxious repertory of clicks, hisses and stutters that plagues most of the remaining tracks. I understand the fascination with isolationist improvisation, and sometimes appreciate its results, especially when the sensory blindness is selective and involves only the melodic content, but not the rhythmic, or the other way around – a beautiful example is Hymn for a Fallen Angel by Tetuzi Akiyama and Jozef van Wissem, in which the latter improvised over the former’s recordings by simply looking at the clusters of notes as they came up in the audio file waveform. I also appreciate the reasons that drive the choice of a total isolation of the performers, a compositional device that puts them on a par with the unconcerned third element (the environment), enabling unrestrained self-expression and freeing the musicians from any residue of interactional temptation. Yet, as much as I like the theoretical underpinnings of this improvisational set up, I am disappointed with the results. At least for the laptop’s contribution, the absolute isolationist blindness results in very quickly predictable, almost transparent sounds faltering around in hesitant clusters and tentative modulations, enclosed in a very small range of variability, with an impressive lack of sense of space, amplitude and exuberance, a collection of rattles and snaps unconsciously frightened by the possibility of not fitting into a larger picture from which the performers have deliberately withdrawn themselves.

The semi-acoustic guitar, entering the scene subtly, as if already part of the ambience itself, is definitely more interesting. Abandoned the signature delays, fuzzes and amps, Li Jianhong goes unplugged and lazily delivers his signature Derek-Bailey-without-Derek-Bailey move: all that is left of free improvisation are skeletal shades of harmonic progressions, uprooted scratches and muted plucking. Sometimes he even drifts into the remote echo of slanted jazz chords, as in the tenth minute of 9:07, the second track of PM; here, the fractured remains of low key melodies float for a while on a barely perceivable hiss, like fluffs of mist forming undecipherable letters while rolling down steep cliffs. In general, while the homely sound of the atonal picks and strums soothes the listener while maintaining a weird, ephemeral tension, the improvisations in themselves suffer from an absolute lack of progression, both at the level of interaction between the elements (which is sort of predictable, given the preconditions) and of individual invention (which is less predictable and quite disheartening). Everything seems in the end to bear little relation to anything else – the balcony, the morning or evening sounds from Lijia, the guitar, the laptop’s bleeps, the occasional rattles of found objects, all of them float around tirelessly without actually moving as a whole; five slabs of monotonous, inscrutable remembrance end up revolving around sparse lumps of motifs or moves that continuously fade back into indecision.

Interestingly, it is in the rare moments in which the guitar halts for a while and the laptop rarefies into bare presence that the environment itself, the third protagonist of this record, emerges and speaks in its own right: kids at play, dogs barking without urgency, the paroxysmal crow of a rooster, a truck’s horn – lessons in contingency that seem to unfold unnoticed by the self-absorbed improvisers. But there are exceptions. The ending of AM’s first track, 8:16, is a case in point: the synthetic crackles hover gently over the voices of passersby, while the guitar punctuates space with courtly slides and unfinished phrases. This, along with other sparse fragments, could work as a three-minute piece on its own, as a single episode part of what would be a much more varied and much less dispersive record. Being this not the case, Hello Balcony mutates quickly from a pleasing concoction of caressing tones and low-key field recordings into an desolate jumble of recurring tropes and missed opportunities. When the next interesting moment, buried in the track x of disc y, comes up, it becomes difficult to summon up sufficient attention to imagine how that specific intuition would work on its own, were it not buried in a gargantuan thirty-minute suite of nothingness. As an instructive case of emptiness of content rather than form, Hello Balcony reveals how directionless and isolationist improvisation, frozen in its ultimate struggle to free itself from clichés, ends up silencing and neutralizing what it proclaims to be its very core – the environment. I wonder if improvisation is even a valid denominator for this kind of music anymore: instead of taking cues from the improvisus (the unforeseen, unexpected) it instead prolongs a single moment of worthless freedom for its own sake and flattens the surrounding environment into a mere canvas for the unrelated gestures of self-centered improvisers. Should we call it eternization instead?

It is not hard to imagine the pleasure of a kid playing on his country house’s balcony in a country where leisure space becomes a luxury and reckless urbanization widens the gap between the public and the private with intensive forests of high-rise buildings and homogenized closed surfaces. Yet, the biggest problem of this record is precisely that, for most listeners, it will remain only a simple record, just like the balcony will remain only a simple balcony. In fact, Li Jianhong himself believes that  “environmental improvisation has nothing to do with others” (环境即兴无关于他人) and so, despite the cooperation of three distinct protagonists – Li Jianhong and his semi-acoustic guitar, Wei Wei and her laptop, and Lijia village with all its rural ambience – Hello Balcony ends up being more of a stubborn experiment in isolationism than a heartfelt selection of locational childhood memories: children, after all, like to play together. Instead of fighting against itself through conflicts, games, challenges and provocations, improvisation here objectifies itself, fragmented into the versions of individuals that only care to “be more concentrated on our individual environment and universe […] instead of musical conversations between the two of us”, and becomes the “intentionless invention of regulated improvisation” – a beautiful phrasing that Pierre Bourdieu uses to describe the distancing of expressive dispositions (the “honest and the most accurate recording of musicians’ subtlest emotions” described in the booklet) and the intuited means of expression (the unavoidable improvisational motions amplified by regulated solipsism). An improvisation of this kind, free only in the sense that each individual is carried away by his own train of emotional epoché, renders improvisers mere spiritual automatons overtaken by their own sounds, uncertain at every step and yet eager to legitimize uncertainty itself as the only reminder of nostalgic institutions. Should we agree with Li Jianhong that “there is no need to worry about the consequence” (不用担心这样的结果会不会糟糕)?

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