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Experimental Music and Sound Art

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Experimental music and sound art are China’s musical avant garde. My choice for these two labels illustrates my hesitation over whether to call this music at all. It is a small scene, perhaps even marginal, but like Japanese noise, it is very vibrant.

Beginnings

2003 is the year the experimental music scene emerged in the PRC. This is suggested by the four CDs of An Anthology of Chinese Electronic Music 1992-2008 that the prestigious Belgium label Sub Rosa published, which furthermore suggest that the PRC overtook other Chinese speaking regions since 2006 in terms of output. Additionally, in 2003 the four day festival Sounding Beijing took place (organized by Yao Dajuin), offering Chinese musicians for the first time the opportunity to perform on the same stage as internationally renowned sound artists.

Inspirations and connections

  • Rock music. In the early 2000s a substantial number of (predominantly Beijing-based) rock musicians became frustrated with the limitations of rock. This energy fueled innovations in the band scene, most notably the emergence of parody and self-ridicule, and new scenes around folksong and experimental music.
  • Western art music. The emergent scene did not find support in Chinese conservatories and hardly any experimental musicians have a conservatory background.
  • Dance music. Although not entirely non-existent, connections with the dance music scene have remained limited. By and large, engaging with experimental music is a critical intellectual activity. It is to be contemplated sitting or standing rather than experienced dancing. That said, in other ways it is very physical. Sound artists return to the raw materiality of sound. They confront audiences with (deviant) sexuality and interact with the space of the performance.
  • Visual art. Experimental music has many connections with visual and performance art. In the 1990s Li Zhenhua, Qiu Zhijie and others stumbled upon sound in their performance, video and digital art. Like experimental music, site-specific art engaged the physical environment of the performance. It also challenged to the co-optation of art in museums and galleries. However, whereas site-specific art ostensibly sought to get out of museums, sound art strove to get in the circuit of museums and art festivals. The double album Music for Museums with music by Yan Jun, Zafka and others was part of an exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol in 2008. In this light, experimental music is a (hip) global idiom that enables former rock musicians and tech-savvy nerds to organize solo performances that spectacularly display the latest Western trend in China and vice versa.

 

Ambient and Soundscapes

  • Yan Jun is a central figure in this scene. Emerging as a poet and rock critic in the late 1990s, he transformed into a sound artist and curator after 2003. Still, his musical activities in the 2000s can be seen as furthering his underground rock challenge to posture rock and state rituals with other means. In 2003, he added the sublabel Kwanyin Records for experimental music to his label Sub Jam. Between 2005 and 2010 he organized the capital's only weekly series of experimental music shows, titled Waterland Kwanyin as well as the yearly open-air festival Mini Midi. It’s slogan was ‘Noise is Free’.
  • The duo FM3 (since 1999) had a world wide hit with the Buddha Machine in 2005, a low-fi device with an in-built speaker based on sutra-chanting machines at Buddhist temples that loops nine of their drones. Brian Eno was an early supporter. Similarly, many of Wang Fan’s albums breath a kind of religiosity.
  • After 2005 there was a brief fad of soundscape projects. Many of these projects promoted awareness of the urban environment and especially of the (social) value of old neighborhoods that were about to be demolished as part of demolition and relocation projects. Yan Jun was involved in many of them. Hitlike in Harbin, Yin Yi in Shanghai and Edwin Lo and Anson Mak in Hong Kong have also set up many sound walks and soundscape websites over the years.

 

Noise

  • Feng Jiangzhou is a painter. He also was the front man of the rock band the Fly in the mid-1990s. After the Fly disbanded, Feng started making noise, partly inspired by Japanese examples.
  • Yao Dajuin is based in Berkeley and an important figure in the Taiwanese and international sound art scene, through his website and record label post-concrete and the podcast China NewEar.
  • Li Jianhong of 2pi (aka Second Skin) is a guitar player who hails from Hangzhou, where he also operates a small record label and organizes a festival.
  • Sun Dawei (Panda Twin, Sulumi) studied for a year at the Shenyang conservatory, played in punk bands and started making noise in 2000. Between 2003 and 2009 he ran Shan Shui records.
  • Zhang Changcun published the album The Mountain Swallowing Sadness in 2006 with Sub Rosa. Performances of his Shanghai-based band Torturing Nurse have featured bondage and S&M.
  • Carsick Cars lead singer and guitar player Jeff Zhang (Zhang Shouwang) has a noise group White (and White+) that has toured Europe with the German post-industrial rock band Einstürzende Neubauten.
  • Josh Feola has been active promoter and chronicler of experimental music in China, through the venue XP (Beijing), the website Pangbianr, and the festival Sally Can’t Dance. XP also has a CD shop.

 

 

For the complete chapter, please download the PDF below. Please also check the further reading section.