Tagged: environment improvisation

Torturing Nurse – In Ruins

In RuinsTorturing Nurse
In Ruins
3” CDr, Shasha Records, 2006

I’ve been in and out of Shanghai since 2006, and each time I return to the city I can’t help considering how much Shanghai has changed, and how this impression isn’t simply a consequence of less than a decade of intermittent visits and stays. “What do I think of Shanghai?” – a local friend, born and raised there, takes her time to reply to a question by a first-time city visitor: “It’s always changing. The buildings, the landscape. It changes. A lot.” In the crevices between stylized narratives (from the Whore of the Orient to the Paris of the East to the blueprint of China’s urban future) and aestheticized contrasts (Puxi versus Pudong, tradition versus hypermodernity, the hot hell of Beijing versus the cold hell of Shanghai) lie the corrugated histories of everyday lives traversed by the shifting configurations of urban change. In terms of sound ecologies, the place occupied by the auditory presence of construction work in the living matrix of the city is perhaps a good example of these everyday rugosities of change: in contrast to other Chinese metropolitan areas undergoing more recent and more reckless waves of development and renovation, unfolding on the massive scales of peripheral conurbations or engulfing entire districts, the relatively long history of Shanghai’s multilayered urbanism has by now trapped the concrete sounds of demolition (拆迁, chāiqiān) in the walled pockets of construction/destruction sites popping up around the city overnight, remodeling housing blocks piecemeal, and weaving a cyclical patchwork quilt of noises which stands as a contrappunto to the routines of urban living. In a conversation with Bivouac Recording‘s own Terence Lloren about the label’s long-standing series of soundwalks Growing Up With Shanghai, graphic designer Ericson Corpuz reflects on this peculiarity:

It is the never-ending construction in Shanghai that stands out. The raw sound of concrete scraping, being torn down and being rebuilt stands out from the everyday cackle of the City. [It is] the stains on the road, the concrete walls that are witnesses to the sounds that make the Shanghai experience rich and memorable.

It is precisely the sounds witnessed by the concrete walls of Shanghai’s construction sites that Torturing Nurse engage with in this EP. In Ruins is perhaps my favourite release from the outfit: as a minor work from their early years, and perhaps their most conceptual record (so to say) it is also the one that better situates Torturing Nurse as a noise act emerging from the Shanghai of the mid-2000s. Ethnomusicologically speaking, In Ruins documents how a trio of locals, in their early efforts of forging a distinctive sound in an aesthetic community largely obsessed with Japanoise, turned their ears and hands towards their daily experience and the closest noise at hand – the tools and rubble available in each construction site and abandoned semi-demolished unit – and broke in one of them with the sole purpose of sounding the ruins of Shanghai. Despite the faux-glitch transparencies and cut&paste photos of the recording activity that characterize the artwork, In Ruins isn’t yet the solipsistic post-harsh noise meditations of 不活了’s Xin Fu, picking up the sounds of the chattering city with cheap digital devices and bitcrushing distortions. What Junky, Youki & Miriam mapped, quite physically, in this EP is the raw sound of the materials of urban change hidden behind the temporary whitewashed walls and metal fences of construction sites: short, metallic echoes; things, smashed one against the other; ruined structures, collapsing; screams, bored parodies of repetitive physical labor. In In Ruins there is no order nor thought nor composition, but not even disorder, frenzy or excitement. There is rather randomness, dejected constance, casual bursts of violence and animalesque grunts, which at times make the EP sound like a disturbing audio veritè of a mental institution.

The 17-minute recording starts with a thump, echoing in a tail of backdrop ambience – passing engines and car honks which pulsate with the presence of saturated audio; the trio screams, bangs rocks on concrete, shatters glass and ceramics, crashes pieces of metal, breaks wooden planks. The urgency of the first minutes has nothing of the naturalistic intent of extracting the sound of specific matter – it’s just a mess, a senseless outburst of caged insanity, a romp. Vocalizations get weirder, gusts of wind rumble in the condenser microphones of the portable recorder – one more object among objects – as the thuds of discard and junk punctuate the space in uncertain regularities. Some droning sounds hint at the possibility of one of them tinkering with a portable device, maybe a small amplifier. Basslines and beats from a pop hit filter through the walls, at some point, as a car with a loud sound system passes by. Things are dragged, scraped on the pavement, thrown around, smashed in different combinations without any climax to aim for or any progression orienting the process. The praxis of sounding is not experimental: there is no trial and error because there is no goal. There are instead instinctive rhythmic figures, repeated sketched crescendos, ending with the mistreated object shattering or being thrown away in pseudo-ritual screams. Listening to In Ruins in its entirety is unexpectedly cathartic: a few minutes into the record the sounds lose their specificities, and a sense of primal immediacy sets in. As the anger subsides, Torturing Nurse quickly lose their fascination for full-on destruction, and settle for an annoyed tinkering with sonorous tools: they crumple sheets of paper, knock on wood, pour rubble on the ground, and slowly drift back into the regular hum of muffled traffic around them.

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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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