Sonic Rituals 声响仪式
DVD, Fuzztape, 2015
I’ve crossed paths with 梅志勇 (Méi Zhìyǒng) on a few occasions, mostly at shows he was playing in the city I happened to be living – sometimes it was Hong Kong, other times Shanghai. He consistently struck me as an outward, fun-loving guy who was always either drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette or stomping on a chain of distortion pedals while screaming his lungs out, and Sonic Rituals 声响仪式 confirms my impression. This DVD, released by his own Fuzztape label, documents the 2014 “Sonic Rituals” tour that brought Dave Phillips and Mei Zhiyong to more than fifteen Chinese cities (including Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Shenzhen, Xi’an and Dalian) with the help of the Nojiji collective, Yan Jun’s Subjam label, the Pro Helvetia foundation and the Zürich city administration. Zhiyong and Dave’s sustained collaboration, which has led them to record music and tour together in both China and Europe over the years, is one of the most evident examples of how international cooperation between noise artists can lead to creative opportunities and degrees of mobility that would be unattainable and unreachable by individual musicians operating in the cozy yet restricted milieus of their local or national scene.
Sonic Rituals is, at heart, an urgent documentation of events that, for director Mei Zhiyong, could only exist in the form contained in this DVD: as he writes in the epigraph at the beginning of the film,
For me, what is important are images and sounds, not the text. It’s about feelings, about atmospheres, about traveling, about friendship. It’s about sound, about passion, about rituals.
Performing noise and touring with friends in China and abroad can’t really be written about – that’s the job of scholars, critics and journalists whom no one really reads – and the most fitting way to chronicle and celebrate these moments is instead capturing them with cameras and audio recorders, ingesting everything from cab rides to backstage laughter and later condensing these memories into a fifty-two-minute, black & white reel. On a backdrop of punctuated distortion, freeze-frames of a blurry Zhiyong squirming on stage give way to digital footage of Dave Phillips grimacing playfully in front of the camera. Train stations whizzing by, crowds shuffling, Dave stating that “Chinese is so difficult”, Zhiyong pointing the camera to his own face while sitting in a cab. The combination of quick cuts, metallic noises and grainy black & white footage seems an obvious nod to Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo, but the existential anguish is here forsaken in favor of the positive, ecstatic excitement of traveling together to perform across the country. Bullet trains speeding through the landscape, Beijing’s urban sprawl, unclear shadows moving in poorly-lit venues, audience members taking photos with their smartphones: the sudden juxtapositions and rapid fade-outs are Zhiyong’s way of replicating the sensory assault and unexpected turns of harsh noise improvisations by manipulating moving images rather than sounds.
The initial disorientation gives way to longer, fixed shots of performances from the tour. Wearing a Nojiji t-shirt, Mei Zhiyong screams in fits and starts into his microphone, driving the saturated distortion to the brink of feedback before throwing himself onto the floor and rolling back towards the guitar amplifier, the speaker cones feedbacking into trembling sinewaves. Kneeling on the floor, Dave Phillips feeds some field recordings from a MP3 player into the venue’s massive sound system, and the chirping sounds of frogs and insects pierce through the room as he adjusts their frequencies on a mixer. Sitting next to a concrete basin, Zhiyong is recording the sounds of dripping water and of a nearby hand-dryer, as a haunting percussive composition starts playing in the background. The rhythm slows down in the second half of the film, almost entirely dedicated to a recording of a Dave Phillips show that begins with him ominously breathing in a pitch-black room, while a projector occasionally flashes grisly images and cryptic statements on a screen behind him. The performance builds up into a chilling set of power electronics augmented by a montage of disturbing videos of animal mistreatment, including monkeys with sewn eyes, cats being tortured and cows being slaughtered. Despite the gripping nature of the live set, the haphazard camera angle cutting parts of the screen as well as most of Dave’s performative presence out of frame smothers the dynamism of the first half of the film, prompting questions regarding the inclusion of this extended take. Fortunately, the ending of the set, with Dave Phillips leaving the stage while some unhappy audience members vocally protest the graphic nature of the video projections they have been exposed to, explains the decision of including an almost integral recording of the entire performance to contextualize the controversy.
Is Sonic Rituals a tour diary? A travelogue? An experimental film? A cinematic attempt at noise-making? In an off-camera dialogue captured by Zhiyong himself during the soundcheck of the Hong Kong tour date, he tells someone else: “I’m shooting a jilupian [documentary],” to which the other person, acknowledging that he is indeed recording a lot of footage, replies by asking him to take a look. “Mei you yisi”, Zhiyong replies – “It’s not interesting.” The Chinese term jilupian used by Zhiyong to describe his own production might hint at a broader understanding of ‘documentary’ that emphasizes the participatory act of recording as a form of memory-making – capturing footage that is perhaps “not interesting” in the moment (as Dave Phillips notes in one shot, while he tries to finish his soundcheck, “there’s fucking cameras everywhere”), but that can be later on reworked into a cinematic form resonating with the embodied experience of a touring noise artist. Regardless of the genre it belongs to, Sonic Rituals definitely portrays two friends having a good time: riding a sanlunche around Beijing’s hutong, sliding down a slope while sitting on a wheeled suitcase, muttering “fuck!” in various circumstances, and sitting in a backyard while someone strums an acoustic guitar.