For the experimental music community in Beijing, each month holds the promise of another MIJI Concert. Organised since 2011 by various members associated with the Sub Jam record label, MIJI Concert is now in its 39th edition. This event has managed to survive in a city that has become less than fertile ground for experimental creative productions over the past few years with the closure of a number of venues that would host such events; MIJI is now one of the few regular events for such practical research into sound and music. Since edition 18 MIJI has found a home at the Meridian Space, located in a small creative cluster behind the National Art Museum of China not far from the Forbidden City in central Beijing. The long, thin, upstairs room in which it takes place is perhaps inhospitable for regular styles of performance, but within an experimental context provides an ideal foil for the artists. The quality of the space helps to work against divisions between performer and audience, so the physical relationship between them is always under negotiation – dependant on things like the equipment being used, the style of performance, and the nerve of the audience members. Last week’s MIJI Concert 39 was a case in point, with four pieces making various uses of the space, setting up different experiences of the performers’ relationship between themselves and with the audience.
First off, veterans of the improvisation scene in China Yan Yulong (also co-founder of the influential experimental psychedelic rock group, Chui Wan) and Sheng Jie performed Yan’s piece “Oppose” for two violins. Oppose is an instruction-based piece demanding that the performers move around a circle of music stands, maintaining their relative positions on opposite sides of the circle, while playing the notes printed on the sheets of paper on the stands. As one performer moves to the next stand, the notes move to the adjacent semitone in a diatonic scale; the other performer must mirror their movement and also change their note, in a game of musical chairs and resonating sounds. The combination of sound and movement makes it impossible to focus solely on the sounds produced without taking into account the spatial dance that the performers are undertaking.
Following this, Ding Chenchen’s solo piece extended these spatial negotiations to include the audience in an aggressive way. Ding improvises using pieces of scrap metal, their sounds sometimes amplified with contact microphones but in this case he worked “unplugged”, throwing himself with abandon into the abuse of his materials. His work is not destructive per se – the metal objects are probably a match for Ding’s attacks, but within the confined space of the venue that night, Ding’s flailing body seemed to be trying to literally become part of the metal objects. His movements threatened not only himself (as he fell into his objects and over their makeshift wooden stands) but also nearby audience members who scrambled to avoid his stumbling. Ding’s performances, for all their explosive energy, reach a moment where he finds a particular simple rhythm that he beats out on his objects, creating a point of calm in the eye of the storm. This may be deliberate or just a product of Ding’s exhaustion – when he cannot maintain the chaos and gets trapped into a sequence of movements. But eventually the chaos returns.
After a short break, Daniel Beban and Zhu Wenbo took their positions in front of arrangements of electronics and objects. Beban is a musician from New Zealand taking part in a residency in Beijing having previously toured China last year with his band Orchestra of Spheres. Following the end of that tour he stayed in Beijing a little longer and performed at the Zoomin’ Nights experimental concerts, organised by Zhu Wenbo. Unlike the first two performances, Beban and Zhu’s collaboration had them relatively immobile behind their instruments to improvise. Both performers used bows in various ways to create their sounds – in Zhu’s case against a violin placed flat on the table, or with metal dishes in Beban’s case. In both cases contact mikes captured the sounds, passed them through filters and mixing desks for feedback-heavy results. Amongst Beban’s set up, the sounds were then replayed back through two upward-facing speakers, into the cones of which loose objects rattled away in sympathy with his bowing, until strong tones sent them flying across the desk.
A light clattering from Ding Chenchen on his metals acted as an introduction to the fourth improvisation, brutally interrupted by Sheng Jie performing a single bow gesture across the strings of her electric cello, the resulting vibration routed through a series of software filters generating a vast thrum that I recall as being shocking in this context. Sheng developed these heavily distorted sounds by rubbing her bow heavily across the strings, breaking numerous hairs, while Yan Yulong accompanied her by picking out bursts of undistorted notes from his electric violin. In this case Ding’s restrained percussion provided a subtle counterpoint to the other two performers – unexpected, given his earlier, highly physical technique.
MIJI Concerts has staked a strong place in the experimental scene in Beijing, and it seems that it is in the nature of Meridian Space to encourage the performers to critically assess their practice within space. This is not always the case of course: some performers choose not to engage with the spatial aspect of their work in such a direct way. However I would say that one of the valuable features of Meridian as a venue and MIJI as a format for performances is this in-built expectation that the role of the performer and the audience will be placed in question. MIJI Concert 39 proved to be a good instance where this expectation was largely fulfilled, with the performers producing pieces that were engaging, and more or less rigorous in their proposals – revealing processes that the audience could respond to intellectually – if not physically.