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.
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”, 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.
Sean Lee (SL): I was born and grew up in Xi’an, only moving to Beijing after I graduated. I don’t have a musical background, but I’ve always listened to music. At university I did a computer science major, learning sound design, computer design, computer programming, those kinds of things. Programming in general was part of the course, but many of the other things I self-learnt from the Internet: from Wikipedia, open source software, and other resources, and I really started exploring making sound with software that way. In Xi’an there is an experimental music label called System Error that did workshops on programming sound, and I also learnt a lot from them.
Around 2013, while I was in Xi’an I performed for one or two years in a duo called Kunjinkao with a college friend, where I was on audio and he did the visuals. The performances were half-prepared and half-improvised. My computer-based pieces were also included in two System Error compilation CDs, which was the first time my songs were published.
I came to Beijing in my last year at university for a three-month internship at Douban. While I was there I visited the Zoomin’ Night series of events that Zhu Wenbo was organising at XP club. After the internship finished I went back to college in Xi’an, but after I graduated I came back to work full-time at Douban in Beijing, and sometime in 2014 I got the opportunity to perform at a Zoomin’ Night.
ES: How did you get to know Wenbo?
SL: It was while I was interning at Douban. To begin with I think some friends from System Error introduced us and then he offered me the opportunity to perform. That’s also when I first played together with Wenbo, in 2015.
Zhu Wenbo (ZWB): Originally I come from Qingdao, and came to Beijing to study Biology at university in 2000. I stayed in Beijing for four years, then I went to Hunan for my postgraduate degree for three years, and then I came back to Beijing.
I also have no real music background; most of the instruments I learned to play by myself. When I was at university in Beijing I was a good friend with a guy called Zhang Shouwang [later founder of the bands Carsick Cars and White+]. At that time he was still a high school student, without a band, and we had the same musical tastes. We knew each from about 2003 through Internet forums (like the “Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground” forum on xici.net). We sometimes met together, for dinner, or to go to the record store to buy CDs. When I went to Hunan, Shouwang went to university and there he formed Carsick Cars. Then in 2006 his friend Michael Pettis [Founder of Maybe Mars record label] opened the club D-22 in Beijing, and when I came back to the city he introduced me to Michael.
From 2008 or 9 my first band was a duo with Ma Meng called Fat City and we would play at D-22. Then my wife Zhao Cong and I formed Xiaohong & Xiaoxiaohong. From 2009 I started organising the Zoomin’ Night series of experimental music nights every Tuesday, first at the D-22 club, then when D-22 closed Michael opened XP club, and we carried on there.
ZWB: I think the first chance Sean and I had to play together was due to Douban having their annual staff meeting in Taiwan, so I thought we could meet Taiwan’s experimental musicians. I suggested to Sean that we could play together there – two mainland experimental musicians coming to Taiwan. This was our chance!
ES: Who did you connect up with in Taiwan?
ZWB: Gao Jiafeng, another musician friend of ours, had been to Taiwan for a tour in January 2015, so he introduced us to some people in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, including the musician Liu Fangyi and the people at Kandala Records.
SL: And there is a small record shop in Taipei called Senko Issha. They started a performance series and we were the first to perform in that series. But before we went to Taiwan we didn’t actually know much about the music scene there.
ZWB: I knew some names, but I didn’t know their music so well.
SL: I think at that time there was not much connection between the music scenes of Taiwan and Mainland China. Except for Wang Fujui, he’s a professor who had visited Mainland China around then.
ZWB: For our performances in Taiwan, the idea was that Sean should use software and I would play bass clarinet. Then we mix them together, to have some interaction.
SL: I was using the computer to just play sine waves; the sound was very primitive, just simple sounds.
ZWB: We discussed having a physical aspect to the performance, so the sound changes as I move through space.
SL: Our performance in Kaohsiung was very site-specific: Wenbo came from across the road and slowly moved into the venue.
ZWB: The cafe where we played was on the second floor and outside there is a main road. To begin with it’s only Sean sitting in the room playing; I took a cymbal out and over to the other side of the road, and began hitting the cymbal, and then slowly, slowly moved inside.
SL: I was also playing a drum, but just quiet sounds. Liu Fangyi had lots of toy instruments, small drums, plastic flutes, so we used his stuff.
ZWB: Then, when I got inside I played drones on the clarinet. There is also a microphone collecting the sound of the whole space, including the sound of my clarinet and the sounds made by the computer. But it is not pure repetition; the software selects some frequencies, and then replays only those.
ZWB: After this trip to Taiwan we start to really focus on this use of space, the recording and replaying of the sounds of the space. In Beijing we had another performance at XP that began with Sean and I sitting together in front of the audience. Sean’s computer programme is running and making some simple sounds but because we are not doing anything at that point there is no further input. After ten minutes I move to the neighbouring room and play clarinet into a microphone, with the sounds being sent to his computer.
SL: The computer is analysing the sound of the clarinet and this triggers sine waves, simple sounds, of different durations, different amplitudes, and different frequencies. Because Wenbo is in the other room and I am apparently doing nothing, it’s like there is no real performance.
ZWB: I think it is at that time that we start to use the name “no performance”!
We are also thinking about what is this thing called “computer music”? In the end, we think that computer music is not just about making your computer play something; it is to use the computer’s own unique ways to make music. Such as randomness: the computer can perform randomly really well, which performers cannot. When we play, we play melody, notes, and rhythm, it’s difficult to play randomly, but the computer can.
SL: And also it can do it very precisely, and repeat small things many times – it’s very accurate. For our pieces there are many variables that let the computer incorporate randomness. Randomness has different distributions, different ranges, you must still decide these for the computer.
ES: So how did these performances lead to Okra?
ZWB: In August of this year the musician Yan Yulong asked me if I want to play a composition at 20% Space in Beijing [a small, private space for commissioned performances established by Michael Pettis and Yan Yulong in 2016]. So I thought about performing using two microphones, two speakers, again using recording and play back. Initially I thought we could both play clarinets, but finally we decided that we should just read out what we were doing, the microphone would record the sound of us reading, and then replay our voices many times.
SL: We were each holding a sheet of paper describing the piece.
ZWB: Every now and again I also hit some metal percussion instruments to make it sound like a little ritual. It sounds a little like the piece “I am sitting in a room”, by Alvin Lucier. With every repetition the speed changes; you can recognise the sound but you can’t confirm that it’s the same one – I wanted that uncertainty.
ES: Wenbo, this reminds me of a piece you performed at the Sally Can’t Dance experimental music festival last year at School Bar in Beijing, and again for Zoomin’ Night in the underpass, where you were playing notes on a clarinet and a penny whistle respectively. You asked the audience to use their mobile phones to make short recordings while you were playing and replay as they wished. This was intended to build up over time as the sounds were recorded and repeated, over and over, layering the sounds into unexpected arrangements. You seem to be interested in this repetition?
ZWB: Yes. But I feel I could only do this! It’s partly about my playing skills: I’m not a very skilful clarinet player, so I am always thinking about how I am playing. For this piece I did a test with a mobile phone, playing something and recording it on the phone, and found that it could work. Then I think about how it will sound if there are also many people recording – I think it could be great! In School Bar I used the clarinet, and its sound is loud enough for the phones to pick up. I also played very high-pitched sounds with the clarinet, so when the phones replay the sound it sounds like a sine wave.
ES: Returning to Okra, why did you give it this name?
ZWB: Because it’s like the cross section of the vegetable: there are usually six spaces where the seeds form. We originally planned the Okra performance to have six repeated elements – two speakers, two microphones, and two people. Okra is a process of playing, and recording, and playing again. Beforehand we specify periods of time during which we will read, during which the computer will record, and during which we will be silent.
SL: So before the performance we tune the parameters, the different random processes, in order to think through the structure of the whole.
ES: For the performance of Okra at the MIJI concert at Meridian Space in Beijing last month there were a lot of people playing that time. Why did it develop in that way?
ZWB: We wanted to make it into a more constructed piece, with lots of people. The important element is that every musician should select certain periods when they do not play, and they should write these down before the performance. The whole piece was forty minutes long, and there were seven performers in the end – Sean and I, Abing, Ake, Ding Chenchen, Zhao Cong, and Daniel Beban – a musician visiting from New Zealand. I only control the mixing board.
SL: This part is also different from the other performances. The mixing board is also one of the instruments because Wenbo can silence the computer playback, but like everyone else before the performance he also has to choose his silent periods.
ES: What is this piece supposed to do? Is it supposed to confuse the audience’s understanding of the actions of each performer?
ZWB: Maybe at MIJI some of the audience were confused. They just found a number of musicians playing in the room; some people stop, some people start – you don’t know what is happening so you just listen. But for the performance at 20% Space, it was very clear what was happening because we were reading out the text that described the performance.
SL: The experience is that of the original sounds changing into other ways of its being played. Our method means this process is not fixed, so it’s hard to predict beforehand how it will sound.
ES: So you’re setting up Okra as a system with a number of performers making their sounds, and where the computer also acts as a performer. Throughout the piece the sounds from all these performers combine or separate, stop and start, get louder or softer. Is the point of the piece the experience of a number of people performing some sounds that either come directly from their instruments, or via the computer as slightly changed?
ZWB: Yes, that’s the piece! It’s as if you go to a restaurant, order a dish, and the dish comes out – oh, it’s eggs with tomatoes: red and yellow; it tastes a little salty, a little sweet – it tastes good! That’s it! If you want to know more, you can go into the kitchen to see how they make it.
Names of people
Names of groups/events
|Sally Can’t Dance||撒丽不跳舞||http://pangbianr.com/?s=sally+can%27t+dance|
|Xiaohong & Xiaoxiaohong||小红与小小红||https://site.douban.com/xhyxxh/|
 Cupoli, Michael (2016), Interview: Zhu Wenbo, on LiveBeijingMusic http://www.livebeijingmusic.com/interview-zhu-wenbo/. Last accessed 15/12/16.