Tagged: 2005

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)

Torturing Nurse – NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNana

NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNanaTorturing Nurse
CDr, Obscurica, 2005

It’s probably too easy and predictable to start a blog about Chinoise talking about Torturing Nurse, but at the same time it’s also the most coherent and fair way of doing it. After all, great part of the “idea” of harsh noise in China – especially for foreign audiences – was informed by Junky, Xu Cheng and friends’ overabundant production. There has been noise, experimental music and glitchy electronics in China before, but it’s with Torturing Nurse that harsh noise finds its own Chinese ambassadors.

If I have to start from Torturing Nurse, then I’ll gladly avoid the all too popular bondage performances (that actually underplay what Torturing Nurse has been, musically, for years) to focus instead on music itself. My choice is also a matter of a listener’s personal history: NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNana was the the first noise record from China I came in contact with, back in 2006.

NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNana is a stupid record – and I’m talking here of a sonic stupidity somehow akin to Prurient’s The History of AIDS. Stupidity here does not refer to the musicians but to the sound itself: the tracks are so blatantly direct and the frequency range so randomly unrefined, shifting and coarsely trimmed that every song transmits a sense of vulgar obtusity. Take nna, all built on a foundation of a sub bass frequency panned jerkily from left to right with gurgling vocals perched on top, or AnRa, four seconds describing the unplugging of a cable, or again Nann, with raspy screams over a clean mixer feedback pulse: simplicity drawn to its extreme consequences yields a homely and genuine version of harsh noise not moored in overmastered distortions and massive layering. Other tracks, like Anna, Lan or Qan, present piercing curls of distorted feedback over a backdrop of rumbling bass, a spectrum of decaying frequencies reminding of certain more abstract compositions by Sightings. Occasionally videogame sounds, Boredoms-style screaming and overdriven guitars appear in the background, enriching the sonic bouquet with a refreshing attitude typical of young projects not yet constrained by expectations and codified styles. I say this with a hint of disappointment, since NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNana is in my opinion one of the best Torturing Nurse records and its freshness remains (yet) unsurpassed in their gargantuan discography.

The album contains 47 tracks and lasts 38 minutes, but actually the second half is just the reversed version of the first, a trick also used by the punk-hardcore band Lords to fill up the recording space on their short EP The House That Lords Built (2004), probably as an ironic comment on the fuss around the existence of satanic messages appearing in rock records played backwards. In NanaNanaNanaNanaNanaNana, though, the reversed half is way more functional: the tracks are renamed with titles spelled backwards so that the reversion is not immediately clear to the listener, and the beautiful translucent cover art by Xu Cheng reinforces the concept of a mirrored, two-faced record. At times, the short collages of unconsequential sounds and the almost cut-up style make the songs result actually funnier in their reversed version, especially the weirdest ones. Just give a listen to the eerie .A.N, the hilarious beginning of nnaN or ann, the reverse version of nna, where the pulses of subwoofer bass and the gurgling laments ebb and flow in a dance of unnatural attacks and decays, to understand why I like the liveliness of this stupid record so much.