Despite the closure over the last few years of a number of live venues that were homes for experimental music in Beijing, the scene—while small—is generally maintaining a level of activity that gives great cause for optimism. By way of example, I’d here like to focus on the activities of two members of the Beijing improvisation scene, Zhu Wenbo and Sean Lee.
Zhu Wenbo has quite a high profile locally due to his activity performing solo as well as in a number of groups, and as the organiser of experimental music events, particularly the Zoomin’ Nights series. Sean Lee has a quieter presence as a performer focusing on computer music practices. They first met through their work at the social media company, Douban, and since 2015 have performed together under the name of “no performance”. Zhu Wenbo has elsewhere described no performance as, “between composition and improvisation, electronic and acoustic, or computer program and instrument”, and in 2016 they debuted a new piece called “Okra” combining rule-based composition and improvisation, which has since been performed in a number of forms with different sets of people. I met up with them both at Wenbo’s apartment in Beijing to talk about their backgrounds and what Okra means for them.
Sean Lee (SL): I was born and grew up in Xi’an, only moving to Beijing after I graduated. I don’t have a musical background, but I’ve always listened to music. At university I did a computer science major, learning sound design, computer design, computer programming, those kinds of things. Programming in general was part of the course, but many of the other things I self-learnt from the Internet: from Wikipedia, open source software, and other resources, and I really started exploring making sound with software that way. In Xi’an there is an experimental music label called System Error that did workshops on programming sound, and I also learnt a lot from them.
Around 2013, while I was in Xi’an I performed for one or two years in a duo called Kunjinkao with a college friend, where I was on audio and he did the visuals. The performances were half-prepared and half-improvised. My computer-based pieces were also included in two System Error compilation CDs, which was the first time my songs were published.
I came to Beijing in my last year at university for a three-month internship at Douban. While I was there I visited the Zoomin’ Night series of events that Zhu Wenbo was organising at XP club. After the internship finished I went back to college in Xi’an, but after I graduated I came back to work full-time at Douban in Beijing, and sometime in 2014 I got the opportunity to perform at a Zoomin’ Night.
ES: How did you get to know Wenbo?
SL: It was while I was interning at Douban. To begin with I think some friends from System Error introduced us and then he offered me the opportunity to perform. That’s also when I first played together with Wenbo, in 2015.
Zhu Wenbo (ZWB): Originally I come from Qingdao, and came to Beijing to study Biology at university in 2000. I stayed in Beijing for four years, then I went to Hunan for my postgraduate degree for three years, and then I came back to Beijing.
I also have no real music background; most of the instruments I learned to play by myself. When I was at university in Beijing I was a good friend with a guy called Zhang Shouwang [later founder of the bands Carsick Cars and White+]. At that time he was still a high school student, without a band, and we had the same musical tastes. We knew each from about 2003 through Internet forums (like the “Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground” forum on xici.net). We sometimes met together, for dinner, or to go to the record store to buy CDs. When I went to Hunan, Shouwang went to university and there he formed Carsick Cars. Then in 2006 his friend Michael Pettis [Founder of Maybe Mars record label] opened the club D-22 in Beijing, and when I came back to the city he introduced me to Michael.
From 2008 or 9 my first band was a duo with Ma Meng called Fat City and we would play at D-22. Then my wife Zhao Cong and I formed Xiaohong & Xiaoxiaohong. From 2009 I started organising the Zoomin’ Night series of experimental music nights every Tuesday, first at the D-22 club, then when D-22 closed Michael opened XP club, and we carried on there.
ZWB: I think the first chance Sean and I had to play together was due to Douban having their annual staff meeting in Taiwan, so I thought we could meet Taiwan’s experimental musicians. I suggested to Sean that we could play together there – two mainland experimental musicians coming to Taiwan. This was our chance!