Tagged: noise

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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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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