Tagged: 颜峻

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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颜峻 – Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)

Ear Drummer (No-Input Study)颜峻
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.

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