Critical Music 3: Interview with Ake

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 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.

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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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First steps researching experimental sound culture in Osaka

With half a day free while visiting relatives in Osaka, I had an opportunity to start looking into the sound scene here. This ever-so-slight beginning will be supplemented by future visits, to develop an understanding of this city’s sonic culture. This post is a starting point from which to look into the infrastructure that exists in Osaka for practices connected with sound, including the venues, artforms, and producers involved.

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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.

thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from:
    http://www.intermorphic.com/ [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://noiseforairports.com/post/426858290/old-media-interactivity-and-mechanical-music [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael (michael.yuen@internode.on.net) (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (cpupro.art@gmail.com).

the “auto-” in creativity

Following on from the last post, I wanted to try and clarify my use of the prefix “auto-” to describe the types of sound that came up in the Subjam concert at UCCA. At the same time this will help put some meat on the bones of a project that I’m working on right now, a project whose subjects, and the arguments that I’m touching on in this post, cross over from the sonic arts to the visual.

By using “auto-” I was trying to suggest that the sounds had some kind of automatic, or non-human activity in its formation (although it would be a mistake to think that’s all I was interested in, but I’ll get to that later). In this case I mentioned “Auto-Generative” and “Auto-Destructive” sound, and although I used these terms in the title, I didn’t make it explicit in the text what they were referring to other than a vague idea of additive versus subtractive compositions (where I was tentatively linking the former to Zhang Jian and Wu Na, and the latter to William Basinski).

My use of the term Auto-Destructive is inspired by the work of Gustav Metzger (born US, but now stateless) and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Metzger popularised the term in 1959 with his First manifesto of auto-destructive art,1 as a general principle and a way to describe his performance works using nylon and acid, a lethal combination which resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the material of the works. In a similar vein, Jean Tinguely is well known for his elaborate machines which progressively destroy and undo themselves. Both artists were working towards a dematerialisation of the artwork, a throwing into question of assumptions of the object-status of the artwork at that time. This (non- or negative-)thing that results was also one of the focii of Conceptual art, Metzger and TInguely in this case having quite an influence on their thinking. In their work Metzger and Tinguely presented the process of dematerialisation as being an end in itself, literally performing the critique of the object in front of the audience.

From “Auto-Destructive” the antithesis I set up was “Auto-Generative.” In this case the word “generative” comes from its use as a form of musical composition, usually associated with computer music. I have been thinking recently in this regard specifically of the composers Conlan Nancarrow (US) and Edgard Varèse (France, US), whose work involved investigation of systems which, although of course “man-made” in their inspiration or initiation, in execution relied on the working through of a set of rules by mechanical means.

For generative work human intervention can simply be a starting point, from which systems can work themselves out, the “human touch” can be removed entirely from the actual act of music/noise making. The extent to which the human needs to be involved in the act of music/noise making is a very divisive issue. For some the human touch is pre-eminent, for others a hands-off approach is the interesting means and I think it is this subject that can be usefully pursued, an which my project is working from.

It’s an important part of the project, too, that there should be no restriction for this to sonic investigations, it can equally be applied to visual and other forms. Metzger’s words, for example, apply across the board:

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction… Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.2

I have to admit, setting up these polarities of “auto-generative” and “auto-destructive” is a deliberate straw-man tactic, to create a discursive environment for the project. They serve as ideals around which to drawing out the arguments involved in various artists’ methods. As such, I doubt any artist would commit themselves to one or the other exclusively, certainly not over their whole oeuvre (or even within a single piece of work). However what the use of these terms does do is to set up a field of argument, around which the various participants can set up their camps, like a set of Venn diagrams of creativity, covering more or less of each of the meanings in their practice and theory.

It’s early days yet, but as the project progresses, more information will get posted here.

  1. Metzger, Gustav (1959). Auto-Destructive Art [first manifesto of auto-destructive art; 4 November 1959]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].
  2. Metzger, Gustav (1960). Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art [second manifesto of auto-destructive art; 10 March 1960]. [Online]. Available from: http://www.luftgangster.de/audeart3.html [Accessed 3 March 2010].