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).

The Society of Indexing

One of the books which I managed to fit into my bags on my return to Beijing this time, was The Ideology of the Aesthetic by Terry Eagleton. I’ve had a copy of this for a few years now, and at some point I will actually read it, but that’s not what prompted this post.

It’s about a little note I saw as I was flicking through the book. On the very last page, at the end of the index, in some very unassuming, italicised text, it says “Index compiled by Meg Davies (Society of Indexers).”

Wow. There’s a Society of Indexers? And they get to put their names on their work? Now that’s fascinating (to me, at least). I looked them up. The UK branch can found at, but there are many groups around the world, including a Mr. Qin Banglian in China. They describe their role as “exist[ing] to promote indexing, the quality of indexes and the profession of indexing.”

A lot of books don’t need indexes, but when they do, I’m glad there’s a group of people devoted to maintaining the standards of textual referencing.

Essay on Zheng Yunhan – short version

As promised in my previous post about artist Zheng Yunhan, I have edited down the essay to a more manageable size. This version obviously is much more condensed and shifts the focus a bit. From the intro:

As an artist is it possible to hold your subjects apart from their ideology, to present their close-at-hand concerns, to present the people around you and their lives as they take place outside of larger systems? Chinese artist Zheng Yunhan works with subjects embedded in the cult of ideology, working to avoid being caught up by it in his presentations.

Download PDF (152Kb)

embedded writing

I was talking the other night about the problems I have with writing about the art and, in this case, specifically the art world. The person I was having the conversation with thought that I was in some way independent which meant I could write what I liked and be objective about the things going on around me. But I vehemently disagreed with this point – I think I am possibly the least independent of people because I am so embedded in the system (as in the journalists who are “embedded” with troops in wartime). This is manifested either as a result of my work or the social situation, creating an inevitable bias towards my colleagues or my friends which I am constantly trying to balance in my writing. There is always the possibility that I cannot afford to say what I truly feel as I am concerned by the possibility of adversely affecting business or ruining relationships.

The question is can we ever find a critic who is truly independent? This is an impossible task. All critics will have a bias one way or another, some of which are more apparent than others. I also believe that to approach a point of pure freedom from bias would actually be counter-productive. One must take some kind of position in relation to the work in order to measure it up. But it’s this positioning which has to be managed lest it revert too much in the direction of bias (I also don’t believe in anonymity: without accountability opinion is worthless).

So I guess I am partly struggling with a problem of ethics, and partly a problem of social relations.

Looking at the reality of the situation I have to ask myself: would I jeopardise a friendship to speak my mind in a public forum such as this? I would like to think that I could say what I felt, with due consideration that what I was saying was worth saying and was well said (within my capabilities), at the same time giving the subject their due and proper opportunity to be presented accurately (to the best of my knowledge, a proviso which must be recognised where appropriate).

That said, I do have a tendency to start with the negatives when I approach art – I am suspicious of an immediate positive reaction. In some cases I end up working through these negatives to ultimately reach a positive position, and in other cases I am simply unable to resolve them and they remain negative. My point being that the process of working through my feelings is a mark of respect to the subject, and one which distinguishes the result as critique and not ad hominem criticism.