CDr, Doufu Records, 2009
I got in touch with Ronez on MySpace around 2005 or 2006 – he was using his real name 周沛 (Zhōu Pèi), and his avatar was a weird self-portrait with a red lantern dangling from his face. He was one of the few Chinese experimental musicians using the social networking platform to promote his works internationally, in a time before Soundcloud, Facebook and Bandcamp, when collaborations and live shows were arranged through private messages and comments left on one’s MySpace profile. Then this time passed, MySpace collapsed, I moved to China and happened to buy a few Ronez albums in record stores around the country, and eventually ended up playing a show with him in Shanghai. People came specifically to see Zhou Pei perform, some of them revering him as a pioneering savant of Chinese experimental music. After the show, we added each other on WeChat, where he occasionally posts photos of food or of his holiday travels.
Sitar-Shaped Cock has been sitting on my shelf for a long time, waiting to be ripped and properly listened to. Like many other Ronez releases, its absurdist title and cover artwork manage to be almost entirely non-referential. The liner notes on the backcover are a slightly better lead into the album: they provide hardware specifications – “mixer, computer, wacom tablet, ndsl, oscillator, theremin mini, gakken sx-150, mics, pedals” – as well as relational coordinates – “Thanks: dad, mom, mini, ziming, ableton live, wmidi(for wacom), taalmala, korg ds-10(for ndsl)”. in Zhou Pei’s artistic practice, music equipment, family, software, friends, protocols and patches are all on the same level, elements of a network of inputs and outputs the results of which are etched with light on the surface of a CDr. The artwork printed on the other side of the disc also summarizes this flat network of musicmaking through a minimalist drawing of a Wacom tablet, a computer mouse and a sitar. Sitar-Shaped Cock reflects this exhilarating flattening in its contents: playful harsh noise explorations and grimy improvised techno bangers are mixed with crystalline experiments in controlling sampled synthesizers through a Wacom drawing tablet.
After a few introductory looped vocal bleeps, Son of Noise approaches distortion with a calm but assertive expressivity not distant from the more straightforward works of Merzbow, drastically panned squeaking feedbacks soaring over slow cut-up distortions into a full-spectrum wall of rumbling crackle. The contrast of this opening track with the following couplet of Wacom Solo #16 and Wacom Solo #28 (Remix) is destabilizing, as the impossibly quick flurries of piano notes and the plastified Indian raga sound closer to the incongruous sonic juxtapositions of Violent Onsen Geisha or the self-conscious irony of much of contemporary vaporwave’s recuperation of cheesy synthesizers and MIDI-controlled aesthetics. But it would be misleading to talk about Ronez’s aesthetics through the leading names of Japanoise or genres that didn’t even exist in 2009. Zhou Pei’s sound is highly idiosyncratic and courageously playful, carving a comfortable personal space out of digital signal paths and circuitboards.
Phone Maniac is perhaps my favorite track of the album, a grimy and prophetic impression of the techno-noise that would become popular a few years later, featuring ominous distortion pedal drones carefully steered over a carpet bombing of tight kick drum and an acid and obsessive step-sequenced synth phrase. After it, Zhou Pei moves back into more Wacom improvisations, this time with a synthesized reed (Wacom Solo #22), an approximated organ (Wacom Solo #9), and a nine-minute dreamy meditation for reverberating clavier (Wacom Solo #11). Knob the Don is another immersion into metallic harsh noise textures topped by the wide hissing of monophonic synthesizers, oscillators bubbling and gurgling left and right. Ronez’s noisemaking isn’t hectic, yet it is in constant change, sweeping all over the frequency spectrum and kept in motion by steady manipulation and mastery of the relevant knobs. The conclusive 17 minute-long In Core, previously released on a 3-inch CDr, sounds like a miniature version of the album in which, rather than being presented in a linear fashion, the elemental components of Zhou Pei’s music-making practices are layered one over the other: distorted leads over synthetic tablas, bubbling bass over hypnotic fuzzy loops, oscillator bleeps ricocheting from the left to the right channel and back over sped-up and slowed-down tape simulation. After all, aren’t all cocks sitar-shaped? Or is Ronez reflecting on the fact that perhaps it isn’t the sitar to be cock-shaped, but the other way around – the human being shaped around the instrument, the hand around the mouse, the finger around the knob?