Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)
Tape, Fuzztape, 2011
Not inspired Onkyo-inspired no-input mixer on tape. Right, the format clashes a bit with the tradition of the genre, but the interaction does actually create some interesting things: the sound is not polished, the direct punch of the bass peaks is smoothened by the frequency envelope while clicks, crackles and feedback oscillations emerge from a soft and warm texture of hissing tape thickness. This also means, though, that the high and low ends of the spectrum are sensibly muffled by the mastering on tape, and the idea that the earphone-listening suggested on the cover art should provide an “ear-drumming” experience (something along the lines of any Ryoji Ikeda’s Test Patterns, I guess) is sort of crippled by this fact: most of the percussive sounds cranked out of saturated mixer channels linger sadly across the spectrum and in the middle of the aural space, resonate in analogue harmonics and bounce around following some slow knob-work. Listening to this as a self-proclaimed “No-Input Study”, I would venture to say that I’ve seen people study in more interesting ways. I’m not a big fan of 颜峻 (Yán Jùn)’s recent live sets, built around multiple speakers-mixer feedback, a directional microphone and some objects thrown in the cones to disturb the frequencies, but Ear Drummer is not even a studio version of this (which I would at least find interesting as a document and a statement). All that’s in this tape is just twenty minutes of no-input mixer basics: inputs into outputs, high frequencies distorting into crackling hiss, sub-basses stretched into percussive waves, volumes and pan pots tentatively adjusted to make things appear and disappear with a lazy indolence.
Yet, following the name of Adel Wang Jing (who, according to the liner notes, “invigorated” Yan Jun to record this at Ohio University @lab during a recent series of workshops and improvvisations across U.S. institutions) I came across one paper published on the Journal of Sonic Studies where she presents her own theory of affective listening using Chinese experimental music as a case study, coaxing Yan Jun and Li Jianhong’s latest output into a framework that I find highly questionable, especially in its reference to Qi, Buddhism and Taoism as the epitomes of a non-interpretive and deterritorialized (whatever you want this to mean) listening practices. Probably I lost my grip on postmodernity, but linking affective listening to practices of self-trascendence (sometimes overlapping or contrasted with practices of self-transformation) and equating the concept of Qi to Deleuze and Guattari’s hacceity (right, the “thisness” of something compared to the energy flow common to all things, makes sense) seems just a little far-fetched. Ultimately, what disturbs me in this kind of theorization is not the rather fashionable theoretical toolbox as much as the feeling that the only feasible way to characterize the music of these Chinese artists seems to be, after all efforts to question it, again and only a nondescript Chineseness: one makes two, two makes three, and we all go up on the clouds to play some sound-calligraphy, and you audience would you please be quiet and listen attentively, otherwise you’ll not grasp our self-transcendent expression. I would love to delve further into this – and will never have time for it, fortunately – but I’m baffled by how academic analysis and the musicians’ theorizations are often well-disposed to fall into feedbacks of self-congratulatory discourse. In an interview to Yan Jun in a recent, quite hagiological column, he proclaims: “Westerners deconstruct their own traditions in order to redefine them, whereas the Chinese simultaneously attempt to understand the Western tradition and to rediscover their own. While Westerners believe that the Chinese are re-inventing sounds that already exist, the Chinese believe that they are simply re-inventing themselves.” I’ll play the part of the colonial Westerner then: Yan Jun has been a rather known poet, music critic and essayist, a successful organizer and a smart promoter, but his idealistic proclaims about the nature of experimental musicians in China not simply reprocessing foreign genres but integrating them with the values of Chinese culture do not find in this specific release any concrete proof – maybe because Yan Jun himself has no pretense of being a musician, but then again why would we have any interest in being the listeners of this 17 minutes of unquestionably derivative no-input fiddling? Music is hardly legitimized by theory: we want sounds that speak by themselves. We want good records and moving, challenging or exciting performances, not listening instructions.
Academic blabber aside, if you haven’t had enough of Nakamura/Sachiko M/Ciciliani/McGee no-input stuff, have developed a maniac black-metalesque attraction for obscure minimalism, enjoy being told how to listen and what to listen for, or you want to hear how this CD-centric (or even file-centric, as per recent Alva Noto & Raster-Notonian developments) genre plays out on tape, you might enjoy this release. After all, the most interesting thing about Ear Drummer is that it is a tape, and that it exists thanks to 梅志勇 Méi Zhìyǒng’s efforts in publishing tapes through Fuzztape, the only – as far as I know – underground tape-centered label in the PRC right now. Praxis wins.