Critical Music series: This series of posts focuses on individuals, groups, or organisations that have played notable roles in the history of critical music practices in China. These practices appear in many different guises, often related to concepts such as “experimental music” or “sound art”, although neither term is entirely satisfactory in describing the practices which often exist in many hybrid forms. My adoption of the term “critical music” (following the writings of G Douglas Barrett) attempts to avoid the limitations of these terms, while highlighting the active nature of the sound component of the practices. These posts will primarily take the form of interviews, each one aiming to place the subject within the general history of critical music practices in China, and contextualise their current practice within their overall development.
Welcome to the third interview in this series. Today I am very happy to be able to publish an interview with Ake 阿科, the Beijing-based experimental musician. Ake is a young (born in 1990), self-taught artist, who has only been performing for a couple of years but has become a regular participant in experimental music events in the city. While initially working with violin drones, she has recently started investigating manipulated field recording. I interviewed Ake because I think she represents a new generation of artists in China whose practice is developing within a relatively stable environment for autonomous experimental work, an environment that does not depend on the “regular” music scene to provide it with outlets and reasons to exist.
Interview: 7 April 2017, Beijing
Edward Sanderson (ES): Where are you from originally?
Ake (AK): I’m from Haikou city, in Hainan province in China. I came to Beijing in 2008 to study Business English at college. I haven’t finished this yet, because I don’t really like tests; I’m not a good student!
ES: But you decided to stay in Beijing? What were you doing?
AK: Before I came to Beijing I didn’t know much about Beijing at all. I just know it is the capital city of China. I don’t really know what was going on, like the music scene, or with the theatre, or any other arts things.
ES: Were you interested in those things before you came to Beijing?
AK: I may have read some things about them, and listened to some music, but I didn’t really know what was happening here. So after I got here I felt it really was not what I expected. Everything was pretty new for me, and made a pretty strong impact.
ES: When you were living in Haikou, were you listening to much music?
AK: Not very much.
ES: Did you ever study music?
AK: I remember I didn’t really like music at all at that point! It’s only when I was at high school that I listened to things like the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and some classical music.
ES: How did you hear those artists?
AK: It was from one of my classmates. It was towards the end of high school, the final year, and we were working hard to finish. In the middle of the day we’re supposed to have a rest, have a sleep, so we’re hanging out in the classroom and some people are playing some CDs to learn English and there are some English songs on the CDs, like the Beatles.
ES: Were you taught music at school? Did you learn an instrument?
AK: Before that I didn’t really like music at all, and I didn’t like the music classes, because I can’t play music. I was very embarrassed because I couldn’t remember the notes!
ES: So when you came to Beijing how did you come into contact with the music scene here?
AK: I think my first involvement in the music scene was in 2009 or 10, I guess. I was working at a café near the west gate of Tsinghua University [in the University district in the North-West of Beijing]. They were selling some illegal music CDs so I was listening to a lot of music that way. The café would also have some shows of folk music, one-person bands usually. I also heard about D22 at that time because it was pretty close to the café, and I went there twice. [D22: influential live house, run by the Maybe Mars record label, open from 2006 to 2012]
ES: What kind of thing did you see at D22?
AK: I saw Little Punk who is from Shanghai, and Skip Skip Ben Ben from Taiwan. I remember Little Punk most. There were quite a lot of people there that night and I was standing quite close to her. I got a really strong feeling from that. Her sound is quite powerful.
ES: How long were you working in that cafe and how did you end up on this side of town?
AK: I was working there for maybe half a year, and then I went back to Hainan. Then I travelled a little bit, and went back to school. A few years later, after I graduated, I came back to Beijing and became involved in this area of town because of the Penghao Theatre [蓬蒿剧场]. At that time I wanted to be involved in theatre and they have an independent theatre festival every year. So I did volunteering for this festival.
I didn’t really know this area, actually. I just felt like it was a fun area, so I was looking around, and also because of the festival, there were all these theatre productions at that time.
ES: Had you been to the festival before?
AK: No. I was just passing by the theatre actually. That’s often how I get involved with things. I’m not really into that type of people, otherwise I would probably already know about those things – I was just walking past. Also with the café, I was looking for a job and I just walked by there.
For the theatre festival, they asked me to deliver flyers for the events. This was even before I was living in that area, somehow I had a bike there already. So I just rode the bike around and got to know the area pretty well. I knew about some of the music venues around there, like Mao Livehouse and Yugong Yishan [two mid-sized live music venues in the centre of Beijing], but I didn’t really go to many shows there.
ES: By this time had D22 closed and XP opened? [XP: Maybe Mars’ successor to D22 in the centre of Beijing, open from 2012 to 2015]
AK: Yes. At that time it was XP. I got involved with XP because of the Mid-summer festival organised by the French Embassy and cultural centre, with free music in many venues in town. So I went to most of those shows, and I saw one venue called XP, and although I didn’t really know about it I had a good feeling about it, so I got on my bicycle to go, but it’s raining that night so I wasn’t able to find it in the end. But I was able to find it later on, and then I went there quite often.
ES: Were you going to see the experimental music at XP?
AK: To begin with I just went to music gigs at the weekends, and then I found out XP had a regular experimental night on Tuesday called Zoomin’ Night organised by Zhu Wenbo [朱文博 – experimental musician and event organiser], and the tickets are cheaper, and the sound is… I don’t know… I just enjoyed standing there and listening to those sounds. You can do better thinking sometimes than with other music!
ES: Did you know Zhu Wenbo at that point, or were you just in the audience, listening?
AK: I suppose I was just listening, I didn’t really know the people. I only knew Zhu Wenbo after I’d been going to Zoomin’ Night for two years or something! At that point they had a show where everybody can play their music, or compose something, so I joined in for that show.
ES: So you found the experimental music interesting?
AK: It seemed suitable for me!
ES: But were you playing any instrument by then?
AK: No. I was more a pure listener, I think. I just really enjoyed listening.
ES: So how did you get into performing?
AK: It had something to do with one of my ex-boyfriends. He is a musician, and one day we were hanging out in a hutong and someone there was selling a violin very cheaply, like 10 kuai. My boyfriend asked me if I wanted to try it. At that time we also hung out in Zajia [杂家 – art centre in central Beijing, open from 2010–2015] quite often, so I tried playing the violin in Zajia once. They had a free jam session that Aming [阿鸣 – experimental musician, founder of Space 631 in Shanghai] organised, so I tried to play a little bit, but it was a bit scary, and then I didn’t really touch it for one year. Then I began to practice a bit and I found I liked it this time, and could continue playing it.
Then Zhu Wenbo was doing a show about composition, and asked me if I wanted to join. I was doing a little bit already, so I thought I could try.
ES: At that point you were playing very simple drone pieces with single notes held for long periods. How would you describe what you were trying to do?
AK: I found that it is never one pure note; there are other sounds inside each note. So I am just playing and trying to find these notes. I just follow the feeling. I don’t try to do too much because if I make big jumps between the notes that are too big, it can be quite scary for me.
ES: Are you studying how to play at all?
AK: In the beginning I asked one of my friends, who is a violinist at a school, how to hold the instrument better. But otherwise I’m not trying to learn how to play.
ES: Over time, as you do more performances, do you feel like your technique is changing?
AK: Yes, I think I know more about making the sounds, rather than just listening to them. But it’s also helped to improve my listening, as well. Before, maybe I’m listening more to the feeling, but now I can understand the structure better.
ES: Do you perform for yourself, or for the audience?
AK: I think it’s better if I just perform for myself. I don’t really know about performing on stage for an audience. The Zoomin’ Nights were quite good for me, because they are about sharing – I’m doing my thing, and then the audience happen to be here, so we share it. I’m interested in how Zhu Wenbo and Yan Yulong [闫玉龙 – experimental musician and member of the group Chui Wan] (and some other people) are conscious of making links with the audience as part of the show; the audience is an element of the performance. I don’t think I have that consciousness yet. I would like to have it; maybe then I can do more interesting things.
ES: How did you end up being invited to submit a track for the compilation that Yan Jun and Zhu Wenbo have put together?1 Your track seems to be a field recording in a toilet, which is not what I was expecting from you!
AK: Well, when Zhu Wenbo asked me, and I saw the title: “there is no music from China”, I just had the feeling that I shouldn’t use my violin. I had several ideas about what kind of recording to do. I was thinking about recording a bicycle, on the street. But I was interested in making a structured piece, not just a straight recording of a sound – but the bicycle already has its own structure so I didn’t use that in the end.
I was working at the Institute for Provocation (IfP) [a gallery and residency space in Beijing] at that time, and I realised the sound in their toilet is really good.
ES: What is the structure in that piece?
AK: The recording is: as you go inside the toilet you open the door and you turn on the light, you sit there, afterwards you flush and turn off the light, and then you close the door. And then I repeat this process, but every time I mix up the order of events. Everything is a little bit upside down. I think this can be interesting.
ES: For me it’s also interesting because I was expecting something like what you usually do with your violin. It makes me want to ask what are your reasons for doing this? Do you think you’re going to do more of these kinds of recordings?
AK: Yes, I like doing things like this. Sometimes you get a chance to do things, and then you have an idea. Or sometimes you have an idea, and then you do things. Art, for me, is like this; it can give me ways to do things. Theatre is one way, and sound is another; there are a lot of ways to do my things.
ES: They are different ways to express yourself? So you’re not particularly a musician, or someone who works in theatre – they’re all good ways for you to work?
AK: Yes. I’d rather not be defined, actually. Maybe, for me, all these ways of working are sending out the same thing. That’s why I really enjoy doing things with Zhu Wenbo and the others, because they just say, “Have a go!”. And then you do it.