Category: Reviews

Just some thoughts about records.

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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Big Brother & The Holding Cock – Big Brother & The Holding Cock

Big Brother & The Holding CockBig Brother & The Holding Cock
Big Brother & The Holding Cock
C20, Fuzztape, 2011

Being impressed by 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng)’s solo performance in Hong Kong – an intoxicated, quite punk microphone-driven fuzzfest just about ten minutes long – I dug in my box of yet-unexplored releases and ended up ripping this 2011 collaboration with Torturing Nurse’s Junky released by the man’s own label, Fuzztape, under the name Big Brother & The Holding Cock. Now, I have absolutely no idea of the relationship that this record has with Big Brother & The Holding Company (maybe some of their LPs were scratched by Junky during the recording session?), but the name sounds fun, if anything because of the semantic associations I make when I think of it – like, who is the Big Brother here? Probably Junky himself, while Mei Zhiyong takes the role of the Holding Cock, or just holding his own cock, or maybe Junky’s. Anyway, it is a cute name for a purportedly industrial/noise act who releases a black cassette wrapped in a sheet of “sulfuric acid waste paper” (as per their description, probably a Google-powered translation of tracing paper which does indeed sound very industrial), itself bundled in a lump of knotted tape, making the whole packaging quite hard to put back together once opened.

What’s the music like, anyway? Nothing transcendental, but way better than Zhiyong’s solo output reviewed some time ago and, despite its low-key stuttering and muffled tape mastering, the two ten-minute sides are actually capable of gaining the listener’s attention through precarious variations and glitchy passages. Side One begins with a broken sequencer tone undergoing some uneventful modulations – probably a circuit-bended drum machine through some distortion, kept from becoming a steady loop through knob fiddling and sudden halts. The piece seems to follow its own tempo, despite the absence of any regularity, as it slowly melts down into a mangled mess that sounds like downright tape manipulation, popping and sizzling like a broken speaker; halfway through the trip, it splits into two tracks, as the cuts sport a more frantic edge, hovering over the feedback hiss in the background, with the noise loops resembling gated drum blasts or overdriven radio signals. Even when the attack and release of the beats are reduced to almost zero, mired in the uncertainty of a slow cut-up style and punctuated by broken bits of silence and pulsating frequencies, while the high end breaking up in spurts and crackles, the whole thing manages to actually make sense, and stretch the original sounds into interesting variants. Side Two is more compact: similar source sounds but let loose, with swashes of white noise floating over the fizzing contacts and the bass loops, everything transported on a faulty tape reel in front of some clanking industrial machinery. Oscillating squeals pair up with the rest of the manipulations, sometimes precipitating into silence or trying to pull the whole mess in uncertain directions. By playing along the same lines of Side One, the second track sounds a little less convincing but the overall atmosphere is still enjoyable, especially when it wanders around more industrially-sounding loops or when in the second half the sound palette is opened up by straightforward turntable slowdowns and bitcrushed breakbeats throbbing under the weight of an oppressive distortion.

My rip might have aggravated the overall sound quality, but this tape does have a nice punch and, without being an exceptional release, it still manages to provide a fun, twenty-minute fix of subdued industrial noise with a definite electronic edge, a sort of messy power electronics played with no regard for post-production. Big Brother & The Holding Cock contains a lot of cables misfiring, faulty contacts and crackling pots, and it is one of the best Fuzztape cassettes released up to today. The only reservation I have with the record is that it lacks in headroom, panning and sense of space: the gnarly and overdriven cut-up drives the point home, but everything remains all too often strictly bi-dimensional and blunted. After twenty minutes of listening one feels trapped in a narrow space, struggling to focus on the development of a sound in a very small portion of the audible range, while much of what had been going on during the recording session remains to be imagined following some muddled hints buried here and there in the mix.

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NO_SE666 – DINGCHENCHEN

DINGCHENCHENNO_SE666
DINGCHENCHEN
CDr, self-released, 2012

《一张关于实地录音+即兴的记录,随机的发声,对于生活的厌倦恐怕只有归于噪音。》

(“An album about on-the-spot recordings + impromptu annotations, a random production of sound, the return to noise as the only way to to confront the weariness of life.”)

What is it we are paying for when we sit, or stand, in the dim visibility of a nondescript art gallery, warehouse, live house, pub, art center, and listen to the same introductory preamble of ticking traffic lights, passing cars, chirping voices of non-concerned passersby, birds, slowly superseded by cheeky swells of anonymous simulations of analog synthesizers, well-calibrated delays and reverbs, automated panning, carefully sterilized bass drone and sporadic, carefree “live” punctuations? Am I the only one feeling the supreme irony of the silenced audience, of the hand that shuts down the air conditioner not to disturb the performance, of the five seconds of silence before the beginning, of the ears fixed on the speakers and, finally, the set, the performance, the piece, the oeuvre, whatever it wants itself to be called: ambient, sound art, field recordings, experimental electronics, all inevitably sounding like a caramelized, absolutely non-challenging version of the same aural soundscape experienced by every member of the audience up to ten seconds before the show? Russolo, a century ago, in a fit of futuristic fervor, wrote a score called Risveglio di una Città – times of rapid industrialization and thundering wars, it’s true –  but yet, Italian audiences were not so happy of listening to grating noises coming down from a stage, and threw him back all kind of stuff. Today, recording metropolitan sonic environments, mixing them with clichéd naturalistic snippets and embedding them in as well-crafted as innocuous slabs of flat and uneventful techno-dreams seems to be the easiest and most profitable way of justifying thirty minutes of one’s presence behind a laptop in front of an audience of twenty-something people. My question remains: as an audience, why do we want to listen to aestheticized repetition of sounds we know by heart, sounds that we are immersed around the clock, sounds we replicate almost effortlessly in our agitated dreams, sounds that feel like home when we immerse in them – the rush hour in the subway, that traffic jam under the walkway, the advertisement repeated on a thousand screens – why do we accept their ordered and well-mannered juxtaposition in indulgent fade-ins and predictable climaxes, glazed with major harmonies of lush synthesizers coming straight from the worst post-muzak and propped up by a safe, totalitarian basso continuo – the real soundscape of our time of capitalist non-places – and most importantly: why do we treat it as art? I will not accept answers appealing to the need to guide us, poor derelict audience, on the bright path to deep listening and other bullshit – we know what we listen to, we explore it daily, we absorb it and shut it out of our ears when we had enough, we sift through it and we enjoy it, and we don’t need more processing really – especially when each one of us, with his/her shiny laptop and a couple of presets, could do the same.

But what do we need? This objectless tirade is all meant to balance my question with negative answers – what we don’t need, what we are tired of, what we don’t want to be given as pre-packaged, candy-eyed urban dreamscapes. If it is true that, as the over-quoted Attali writes, recording has always been a means of social control, it is in the same way true that recordings, especially the variety traditionally termed field recordings, as one of the most technically simple and egalitarian forms of composition, can be at the same time exceptional documentary material, emotional anchors, and empowering, political statements. Yet, this can be the case only when they don’t deliberately ignore, cut out, divide, exclude, separate, repress, aestheticize, when they don’t sanitize the captured panorama from mobile phones ringing, gusts of wind and unprovoked interferences, when they don’t extract the short, interesting bits and ignore the flat, unchanging, non-dynamic plateau of ordinary boredom, the wrong moves, the loud coughs, the sound of that specific ten minutes that passed without anything noticeable besides your arm holding the recorder, far from the perfect traffic jam on the highway, far from the romantic bustling of a central street. So, let’s boycott the habitus of cinematic long shots, the utopian agglomerations of all-too-perfect snippets of metropolitan sound clinging to the ritual bass line of modernity. Let’s forget post-production. Let’s situate ourselves within in-activity as such, to paraphrase Bourdieu, step down from idealist standpoints, and dislodge our knowledge from performance and representation: let’s record practice. Let the recordings of our field explode into bruitism, let them deal with themselves and depict a real field in its extension, ordinariness and fundamental dispersion. Let the singular moments shine in embarrassed constellations, let them last too long, too wide, too muffled, too unrefined, as they really do in the low pressure of our repetitive days.

With DINGCHENCHEN, NO_SE666 (a moniker that works as a rite of passage removing the “I” from the old Noise666, towards the new DINGCHENCHEN) compiles a beautiful, sincere collection of sound diaries from a lived life – not China, not a cinematized Shanghai, not modernity, not the dreamworld of a vainglorious sound artist empowered by a MacBook –  everything in this record is a fragment with no beginning and no end, an opaque surface enclosing a very specific field: someone’s daily existence, unwinding over vectors of transportation (A TRAIN, STREET, and TAXI TALKING), transcribed through the unconcerned recording of moments of lazy leisure (the nostalgic WAITING HALL, the beautiful SCHOOL GAMING or A GUITAR, which stands in stark opposition to the gargantuan and pretentious balcony-based guitar and laptop meditations recently released by Mind Fiber), and laid bare even in the details of the domestic fiddling with music and software (DJ COMPUTER) that short-circuit the very nature of field recordings, bringing music, technology and play back into the dreary tradition of naturalistic or urban idealizations: what happens when your field recording captures the silence of your gaze fixed on the LCD screen, the clicks of your mouse, the sound of mp3 house hits distorted by crappy speakers and fluctuating in the still air of your dorm room? The unexamined life, in CAPS LOCK, with love: deep listen this, if you care.

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王长存 – Homepage

Homepage王长存
Homepage
CDr, self-released, 2012

This one is a little gem. I was abssent-mindedly scrolling through my Twitter feed a while ago when I came across 王长存 (Wáng Chángcún) announcing that he was going to play a live set in Hangzhou without any hardware/software except for Google Chrome running on a laptop. At the time, I thought this to be an extravagant claim or an ironic form of minimalism, I imagined that he was just going to use some fancy web-based sequencer or simply play samples and field recordings, and I dismissed the whole thing as a clever statement of net-artsy fun: as this review explains later on, I was wrong. However, some days later, I apprehended that 小王 (xiǎowáng, little Wang, yeah) was going to perform all his major releases at the North Hotel in his hometown Harbin. Wang Changcun has been doing experimental stuff (actually orbiting around the uncomfortable zone of ambient/minimalism/field recordings) for quite a while, being featured on the already historical China: The Sonic Avant-Garde Post-Concrete compilation, then becoming a Sub Rosa pupil and slowly amassing a noteworthy résumé of playful and elegant sketches of sound-related artsy programming (or net art, if you care) that would make any contemporary Tumblr-curator happy; yet, the sole thought of listening to his entire musical production in a freezing hostel in Harbin made me cringe in lethargic horror (you can put your patience to test here with the whole set, if you dare). Anyways, looking at the tracklist of this behemoth celebrative live set I decided to rehash his beautiful 2006 record Parallel Universe, and I ended up suggesting it to a friend that liked it to the point of deciding to release his next EP. The circle was closed in December when, by chance, he ended up playing his Google Chrome set right here in Hong Kong. As I said, I was wrong: with one laptop, a calculated darkness and some speakers he blew the audience away.

For Homepage – the name of this set, a version of which is contained in this super-limited (5 copies!) CDr I got from him – Wang Changcun does indeed only use Google Chrome, but the sources of the sounds are in fact several .html pages containing Timbre.js patches that he programmed in order to obtain a slowly and unpredictably morphing synthesis, building blocks of swelling dissonances assembled and overlaid in different ways during the course of every live performance. The tones of Homepage are subtle and glassy – like thin tubes of a transparent vitreous alloy in which small particles collide and scatter, tumbling across the curved surfaces of sinewaves. As the traces of the collisions interweave as a small and undulating subtext beneath, the main wave mutates and shift according to partially unpredictable algorithms. The bass end is lush, throbbing, supporting an atmosphere that vacillates between meditative voicings and unsettling, sharp tremolos over minor, unresolving swells. The result is a placid rustling of membranelike drones that envelop the act of listening with a purifying simplicity: in a live setting, Homepage sounded astonishing, with the clash of frequencies generating extremely positional effects, gifting each member of the audience with a unique rendition of the piece enriched by microtones and auditory illusions that changed according to the subtlest movement of the head. On CDr, the outcome is definitely more bland, favoring the soothing and tranquil quality of a palette of sounds that, despite its simplicity, never becomes childishly chiptuney or faux-industrialist. I am fairly impressed of the direction Wang Changcun is headed – although I enjoyed his previous output in an ambivalent way, I admire his dedication and compositional straightforwardness: just as Flicker was just a collection of extremely naturalistic and unrefined field recordings, Homepage maintains a very precise trajectory, exploring limited possibilities without self-indulgence.

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梅志勇 – 條 條 條

條 條 條梅志勇
條 條 條
Tape, Fuzztape, 2011

I’ve already mused about Fuzztape here and there. I would be glad to recapitulate, repeating myself and saying: Fuzztape is the only tape label active in China at the moment, it keeps releasing filthy über-limited records by the best Chinese noise musicians and so on. Sadly, Fuzztape’s homepage has been down for several months and the last release (a four-way split between Soviet Pop, Deady Cradle Death 致命摇篮死, Fat City and 张守望 Zhāng Shǒuwàng) came out more than half a year ago. Yet 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng), who runs Fuzztape as a branch of the almighty NOJIJI, is definitely not missing in action. He recently toured Japan with Torturing Nurse, and a live recording from the tour is supposed to come out as a lathe cut soon, so it’s likely that Fuzztape’s operations will resume in the near future. If not, another dead label in the ephemeral Chinese underground scene would not be a surprise…

I got a batch of Fuzztape releases earlier this year. Among them, there was a tape by Mei Zhiyong himself called 條 條 條 (or just , according to the cover) packed in a standard transparent box with a color artwork featuring mud-covered corpses somewhere in war-torn Libya. The words Buddha Liberation on the front cover looked eerily ironic. Having never listened to anything by Zhiyong and having heard about his passion about DIY electronics and pedals, I was quite curious to check out one of his releases. Through a generous release trade I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity, and I hereby announce my findings: this tape is shit. Plain, unpretentious, self-contented, sincere, understated, desiccated, odorless, almost loveable shit. Be warned: throughout this review I will use the idea of shit as a pure signifier, so feel free to understand it as you please. The overall sound of 條 條 條 is extremely murky and lo-fi, potentially similar to a forgotten 4-track guitar recording for a Slovenian black metal album from the early nineties, basinskially decomposed for twenty years and processed through a faulty fuzz pedal. I admit that my tape rip might have aggravated the already atrocious lack of any detail (as the only tape head available was my sister’s crappy stereo player) but I assure all the readers that the original tape sounds pretty much like this: motionless, extremely poor in frequencies, fuddled by oversaturated mids and thin high squeaks. The A side consists of a spurting electronic signal driven through an array of simple distortions for twenty-so minutes. The poor frequency response and the absence of any rhythmic element give to the result a sort of cheap industrial/drone feeling – think of distant factory sounds muffled by a snowstorm and echoing in a subterranean shit-stained public toilet. Cyclically, the droning and monotonous rumble breaks up in careless decimations and granularities that make it stagger and crackle for no apparent reason. Take out the tape, flip it, and enjoy its B side – once in a while, a true B side: a crappy live take of a lonely drum machine slowly covered by distant washes of white FM noise, piling up without any structure until the gain is cranked up, the drum machine goes reverse and everything melts into shit, boredom, the horror. The already poor palette of sounds collapses back into the same unforgiving, anonymous, mid-boosted lo-fi distortion of the previous track, while the brazen drum machine lazily surfaces back once in a while, as if joking or pretending to be trapped in the same rarefied frequencies of the whole record. The last track is the paradigm of the tape: two minutes of spitting interference and filtered high frequency signals oscillating inside a cheap flanger, one hundred eighty-six seconds of meaningless, submissive and dejected whirrs and distant bleeps. Pure shit.

I normally enjoy bashing records and being mean, but I have to admit that with this tape Zhiyong made me transcend my original attitude and reach a new plateau of understanding. It is basically impossible to review this tape. I will probably never listen to it again, but at the same time I feel that the unsettling sincerity and simplicity of these tracks has something to say, conceptually, to everyone having time and interest to actually talk about noise in the year 2012. After all, we all understand the sheer pleasure and fun of distorting the simplest signal that one can get of his equipment and fiddle with it just for the sake of it. Mei Zhiyong just recorded some shit and made tapes out of it. Why the fuck not.

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