Zhu Wenbo and Sean Lee: no performance and Okra

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.

"no performance" (Sean Lee and Zhu Wenbo) performing Okra, Meridian Space, Beijing, November 2016, photograph by Edward Sanderson.

“no performance” (Sean Lee (left) and Zhu Wenbo (right)) performing Okra, Meridian Space, Beijing, November 2016, photograph by Edward Sanderson.

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”[1], 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.

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GIG: Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

Yan Jun introducing Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

Yan Jun introducing Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

A good selection of artists played last night at 2kolegas bar, as part of SubJam label’s Miji Concert series. Organised by Yan Jun, the evening began with him playing his electronics and feedback in a trio with Liu Xinyu on electronics and Yan Yulong on violin, performing some harsh noise improvisation.

Yan Jun and co. were followed by Soviet Pop, about whom I had heard good things. They focus on playing a set of analogue synthesizers, and their sound is characteristically softer and more organic than the previous set. While I liked what they were doing, and how they were doing it (very understated, almost aggressively geeky), it bothered me that it was really difficult to get beyond the cliché’d sounds of these instruments, harking back to Forbidden Planet-type tonal music.

Lastly, Tim Blechmann on laptop and Conny Zenk on visuals developed an apparently simple set of gradually building drones. At first I was sceptical, thinking that these endless cycles would be swiftly boring, but an interesting thing happened. Starting very quietly, the musicians seemed to be struggling against the background noise of the bar and a typically talkative audience. Yet as the drones gained in pitch and depth, these extraneous sounds were gradually smothered, leaving the drones to dominate. The visuals had a similar struggle, being projected against the heavily textured brick wall of the venue. This meant that much of the subtlety of the flickering lines being generated was lost, yet after a while watching for the small changes that stood out against the peaks and crevices of the brick became quite fascinating, not completely losing itself against the surface, and complementing the sounds well. In a way quite simple and not particularly original, but—in this setting—effective nonetheless.

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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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ArtSlant: Not Quite a Roast

Half Rabbit (Local Whispers 2): Maria Castro, Experimenter En Couleur, Leslie Deere, Felicity Ford, Yan Jun, Christian Krupa, Catherine Shakespeare Lane, Alex McLean, Christopher Moon, Ruan Qianrui, Neil Webb, Ron Wright

Platform China, No. 319-1, East End Art Zone A, Caochangdi Village, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015, China

5 June – 3 July, 2011

The title Half Rabbit here refers to the fact that we are now half way through the Year of the Rabbit, in the Chinese calendar. The animal years represented in the Chinese zodiac run in 12-year sequences, so for anyone born in a “Rabbit” year, the current annual cycle is a particularly auspicious time. Following the custom of reading one’s prospects based when you are born, the theme for Half Rabbit attempted to address issues of identity and fortune.

This was planned to be the return section of Local Whispers, an exchange project between Audio Architecture in the UK and SubJam in China. The first part having taken place in January at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the follow-up show at Platform China was to have seen the British artists collaborate with their Chinese counterparts. These collaborative efforts are often promoted as a way to use cultural activities to improve relations between countries. But this does not easily happen without a suitable environment in which foster such a result, and how much it occurs in practice very much depends on local conditions and effective support from both ends.

As it happened, unforeseen circumstances complicated the return of this show to China, and although there was a strong group of artists and great potential, the divided nature of the title could equally refer to the half-fulfilled final product.

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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].

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).