Critical Music 2: Interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery (part 2)

Welcome to part two of the second interview in this series on critical music, talking with Colin Siyuan Chinnery. Part one can be found here. This final part will cover Colin’s more recent activities in relation to sound: his involvement with the Shijia Hutong Museum and the development of the Sound Museum, an entity investigating and exploiting the full potential of sound.

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Critical Music 2: Interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery (part 1)

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 appears 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 second interview in this series. Today I am honoured to publish the first part of an interview with Colin Siyuan Chinnery, the Beijing-based artist, curator, musician, and writer. In the early ’90s Colin and his band Xue Wei were part of the evolving music scene in Beijing, as artists pushed up against the boundaries of the then dominant rock ‘n’ roll. His interest in experimental music later led to his initiating the influential Sound and the City project with the British Council, which saw four experimental musicians travelling from the UK to Beijing to create sound projects there. The second part of this interview (to follow) will cover his more recent activities: his involvement with the Shijia Hutong Museum and the development of the Sound Museum, an entity investigating and exploiting the wider potential of sound.

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Brian Eno on bells and systematic music

Would very much like to get Brian Eno over to talk about generative music as part of the project I’m working on, but he’s a difficult person to track down, unsurprisingly.

You may not know that there’s a tradition of bell-ringing in Britain that might well be the only case of Britain’s own music, because you won’t find it in any other part of the world. It probably has more to do with maths than music. The people who design these clocks or bells have a set of rules to work with, for instance, if there are eight bells, how to work out all the combination of them? There are a lot of rules, such as no neighbouring bells shall ring consequently, etc. Some people treat this tradition seriously. We have a weekly magazine, and all you’ll find in it are maths problems about different sounds produced by all kinds of clocks and bells. I once write to the editor of The Ringing World weekly saying, ‘I like your music very much, can you tell me where can I buy your CDs?’ And he replied furiously, ‘We are not making music. We are mathematicians.’

Why did I bore you with such a long and blabbering story? Because you can see that these people never think about or care about music – they avoid the topic – but what they produce is the best music that you can hear in Britain. This is quite inspiring for an exploratory musician or those who want to make totally different systematic music; it’s encouraging for me as well. When I make this kind of music, for instance a systematic piece, the first thing I would think about is the technical aspect, and then the content. The system I designed could generate music automatically, and when that happens, I’m not a musician, but an audience. The creating of this kind of music is a bit like evolution, it has become a very interesting discipline in itself – cellular automata or ‘self-evolving cellular science’, there’s a connection between the two.

Eno, Brian (2007). Sonic images in a material world. A talk with Brian Eno. Interviewed by Chinnery, Colin. In: Yan Jun & Gray, Louise (eds.) Sound and the City: British Council China SATC Anthology. Shanghai, China, 世纪出版集团/British Council. pp.71–72.