Critical Music 5: Interview with Ambra Corinti and Rong Guang Rong

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 fifth interview in this series. This is an interview with Rong Guang Rong (A Rong) and Ambra Corinti. In 2010 A Rong and Ambra founded Zajia in Beijing, an influential arts space and bar in the Gulou – a very traditional urban area in the centre of town, characterised by the network of hutong (thin alleyways surrounding the imperial palace in central Beijing). For Zajia, these hutong provided an everyday community setting far from the more or less segregated art districts of Beijing. Zajia became an important hub for experimental music performances, amongst many other things. Its story demonstrates how such physical venues appear and survive, and ultimately how they reach the end of their lives – giving insights into many aspects of how the community and infrastructure for critical music is developing in China. In the latter part of the interview A Rong talks about his activity as a documentary film-maker. He recently won an award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival for his most recent film, and he has various ongoing documentary film projects that will survey experimental music and sound practices in China.

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ArtSlant: Seedy Showing

Print•Concept: The Second Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Prints

Today Art Museum, Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District, 100022 Beijing

7–19 August, 2011

The sound of cracking coming from people’s mouths and underfoot was perhaps the first indication that there was something different about this opening. Today Art Museum’s galleries were filled with the great and good of the Chinese art world for the opening of The Second Academic Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Prints, subtitled: Print•Concept. But throughout, while chatting and viewing the artworks on the walls, many were distractedly clutching small handfuls of sunflower seeds, cracking them open with their front teeth with more or less proficiency, and spitting out or letting the husks fall to the floor in their wake.

While big names in the visual arts such as Xu Bing and Fang Lijun took up the wall space, artist Yan Jun arranged a parallel experience as his own contribution to the show with his piece How To Eat Sunflower Seeds. Yan Jun is famous in the sound art community as a veteran performer and for being pivotal in the development of the Chinese experimental sound and music scene. For the last decade or so he has run the SubJam label, releasing material from a role call of experimental musicians and sound artists from China and beyond.

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Auto-generative and auto-destructive music

This afternoon UCCA hosted a rather inspiring music event organised by Yan Jun’s Subjam label, including a collaboration between Wu Na 巫娜, on Guqin1, and Zhang Jian 张荐 (one-half of FM3) on a set of seven Buddha Machines2, after which American composer William Basinski 威廉•巴辛斯基 and film-maker James Elaine 詹姆斯•伊莱恩 took over for drones and tape loops, set against scenes of water surfaces intersected with branches forming shapes, in subtly shifting hues of gold.

Conceptually these two duos formed a nice counterpoint in terms of techniques and results. Wu Na and Zhang Jian represented for me an additive process, Zhang’s manipulation of the Buddha Machines producing waves of layered sound, it’s effects occurring through the cycle of sync and de-sync of the individual loops. Most of the time sitting back in his chair studying the hanging Machines and the sounds they were producing, every now and then he would rise up and put one to his ear, selecting a loop and adjusting the pitch to add to the mix, or make subtle changes to the existing setup. These changes initiated active systems between the set of Machines, gradually progressing through possible variations, intermittently adjusted by further tweaks to the dials. The Machines began at a low pitch and at first Wu Na’s playing added harsh interruptions to their flow, the absolute temporal fixity of the plucking of the giqan cutting through the smooth, endlessness of the loops. But as the Machines rose in volume the strings began to bleed into the systems, the highlights of bright picked sequences becoming aligned with the loops to eventually flow with them.

Willian Basinski, on the other hand, set up a spectacle with his loops with definite end-points, the consistent drone punctuated by ageing stretches of tape. Selecting a length of tape from his metal cookie box, inspecting it under the USB light attached to the computer which synthesised the drone, Basinski threads the selected length onto the spools of the obsolete deck which he has tracked down, wedging a spare beer bottle to take up the slack in the loop. The loop’s sound is mixed into the drone to create a series of vignettes of sound from each loop. I didn’t make the connection until afterwards, but I had already heard some of Basinski Disintegration Loops series before, a precursor to this method, recordings of his old archive loops gradually wearing out as the tape is dragged across the playhead – the sound of the destruction of the medium overlapping and eventually replacing the recorded content.

I tend to see William Basinski’s sounds as subtractive in their construction (destruction) of the music, or a process of negation, a stripping over time of the body, flaying the sounds into other forms. Zhang Jian and Wu Na seem to work in a process of addition, adding together to form the result. Loops which technically hold infinity in their structure, for Zhang and Wu form a continuum over which they can play, but for Basinski this continuum surrenders to its physical form’s frailties.

  1. 古琴: A seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the Zither family.
  2. 貝佛: A small mass-produced loop player, developed by Zhang Jian and Christiaan Virant (FM3).