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 appear 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.
10 March, 2017 in Beijing
Cui Jian, Xue Wei, beyond rock ’n‘ roll
Edward Sanderson (ES): Your activity in the music scene goes back to the early ‘90s in China, when music is coming out of the rock ‘n’ roll period and becoming a bit more experimental, perhaps?
Colin Siyuan Chinnery (CSC): Perhaps. Well, I really got involved in music when I came back to China in Autumn of 1991, ostensibly to study Chinese at Beishida [北师大 – Beijing Normal University]. I started to explore and make friends. I met some visual artists and through them I got to know a bunch of people who were mucking around with music, in an amateurish way.
To begin with I knew people like the painters Yue Minjun and Yang Shaobin, and other people like that. I was quite close with some of them. But then, you know, I didn’t want to be a hunzi [混子] – someone who just hangs around with cool people but doesn’t actually have anything to do. So I tried to get involved. I made a documentary about them with my little video camera and did their photographic portraits for an exhibition that was happening in Belgium. I was only 20, so it was all really amateurish, but it was a lot of fun. Then I started to collaborate with a couple of artists on photography, where I would do portraits of them in strange lighting, develop the photos in my dorm, and give them the prints and they would do paintings based on them.
Through these artists I got to know some people who were putting together a band and I ended up renting a really, really shabby little place in Xidan with the guitarist Chen Dili, who was surprisingly talented. I told them I could play drums although I’d never touched a drum kit before. So I got a very cheap, nasty drum kit, with lots of cloth on it to muffle the sound from the neighbours and I started practising. And as we were playing together I ended up writing songs with the guitarist – they just came out, it was not intentional at all. I would just suggest things, putting together ideas, and we would rehearse those ideas. It was fun, but I wasn’t under any illusions whatsoever that it was anything “real”. But living just down the road from us, five minutes walk away, there was a drummer—a real drummer—and a bass player. They were making music for adverts, stuff like that. But they had a rehearsal place there. The drummer was the drummer from Dou Wei’s old band Zuo Meng [做梦 – to dream]. Zuo Meng had disbanded but this place where they rehearsed belonged to the drummer’s family, so he still had it. So here we were: me and this guitarist, not really happy with the skill of the other people in our band, then we meet these other people, and got along quite well. So we decided to just dump all the other dudes, and get together. I didn’t have to pretend to play the drums any more, I could just sing. And we had a real bass player, and a real drummer. We also brought on board the keyboardist from our previous band who wasn’t technically very good, but had good ideas. This was the band Xue Wei [穴位]. Xue Wei could be translated as “acupuncture point”, but that’s not exactly a snappy name for a band so we just use Xue Wei in English.
We really hit the ground running. I think we got together in November 1992, and then Cui Jian listened to us. I knew him because I did translations, interviews, and stuff like that involving him. I met him at some function or other. In those days it was very small circle, it was not unusual to bump into megastars like Cui Jian, whereas now it’s kind of impossible, it’s a different world. So I remember bumping into him at some event, he asked how I was doing, I told him I had a band and he asked why don’t we come to his studio and play a song or whatever we had? So, I was like, “alright!” So we went, and he thought the songs were great and asked us to open for him when he played at Christmas (1992). So already within a month and half we had a five song set, and were playing with Cui Jian. Not a bad start.
But then it was difficult to develop from there, because the scene in those days meant that if you wanted to be recording you really had to have some kind of popular song. It had to be something like Cui Jian: he had this very lyrical style, amazing lyrics, and had a hit with “YiWuSuoYou” [一无所有 – Nothing to My Name].
ES: Was that just a matter of getting access to a studio?
CSC: No, it was more like you would have to have some sort of hit, or you would have to be like pop rock, or like Tang Chao that was pop metal. Then you could get yourself a record contract. We wanted to be experimental. We didn’t really know what experimental meant, but I listened to stuff like the Butthole Surfers and John Zorn, so I knew something about it. We weren’t exactly making things without structure or “experimental”. We were still basically using popular music structures, but they were eight, nine, ten minute songs – way outside the usual remit for a song. We actually played together again a couple of years ago, and listening back on those songs I think a lot of them had genuinely good ideas. But most of them were quite immature, and would need a lot of work for them to become truly good music. But we were deliberately trying not to stick to any convention, and trying to follow our ideas wherever they led. Because most of the other bands we saw in those days (apart from Zuo Meng, which had already disbanded) were basically pop rock or heavy metal bands, and it was all quite conventional and done rather poorly.
Most people in the music scene in those days did rock because they could; because it was a lifestyle choice. For most of them, it wasn’t really about the music. It was more about having a sense of rebellion, having attitude, the whole package of what rock music is, as an image. Very few people in that situation were really in love with music. Rock music.is a very social thing, it wasn’t really political. I don’t think many of these kids had political ideas, or had any sense of political rebellion. It was exactly the same kind of rebelliousness you get from bored teenagers in the West. They liked the swagger of it.
ES: Is this like a small-scale rebellion against their families? That kind of level?
CSC: Of course there is rebellion against the older generation. But I think it would be misleading to stress the Chinese context too much. You know, most of these guys didn’t think that much. It was at a time when most of them were just making very straightforward pop-rock or heavy metal.
But then you got a weird person like Cui Jian, who was making very sophisticated, original music. At the beginning it still suffered from, like… you can tell it sounded a bit tu [土 – unsophisticated]. Any art form is a form of language. You need time to allow a language into your bloodstream so it’s not just floating around as some sort of idea. But he was someone with ideas, and he had real musical training, and it was the music and the words that were motivating him. At the beginning he was imitating rock, but the music was carried by his amazing lyrics, and some really, really good musical ideas. Later he became musically more sophisticated; he listened to a lot of Sonic Youth and Prince and rap, and his sound became more raw, more interesting and nuanced. But then he didn’t have the hits any more. And then he lost it totally, but that’s later… So you had this one person who was totally amazing, and you had a few other talented people, like Dou Wei, who was really talented. And then you had this mass of more conventional sounding bands.
ES: What venues were available for people to play in?
CSC: So our first gig was at the Friendship Hotel, at the Christmas party where Cui Jian was playing. Then there was a place near Beijing Normal University, called Suzanna’s, which was open for a couple years. There was Waijiaorenyuan Dajiudian [外交人员大酒店] (which is now a soup place), and they had a bar in the basement that was where Cui Jian and other early bands played for years. And then there was Maxim’s [马克西姆餐厅]. They did regular parties, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, with gigs. And then there was New Maxim’s at the Guomao World Trade Centre [in Beijing’s CBD]. And then other people would open up spaces that would come and go.
ES: Who were the audience?
CSC: It was some foreigners, some artists, and the music scene, basically the “usual crowd”. It was a very small group that went to all these places. In terms of the actual music, there was an energy, with many different styles, but not everything was really “there”. There was a lot of minyao [民謠] influence, with a country sound – not American country, but more folksy, acoustic guitar music. And then you’ve got the different nuances of rock: some are heavier; some death metal, or heavy metal. And then you’ve got some more Chinese influenced ones, who put a lot of Chinese sounds in their songs. But there were very few people who identified with the alternative music – and that’s what we did, and that’s why our music sounded different from all the other bands. A lot of our influences were post punk: older bands like Talking Heads, and Bauhaus, and newer stuff like Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, grunge bands, things like that. It was whatever was happening at the time.
ES: And how were you hearing all that?
CSC: We just buy the Dakoudai and I would occasionally get things brought over by friends.
Xue Wei lasted between ’92 to the end of ’94, just two years basically. I don’t think we were making any wonderful music, but—apart from Cui Jian and Dou Wei—it was more interesting than everything else going on at the time.
Then I went back to London. I finished my degree, and worked for the British Library for four years doing a project. And then I came back to China in 2002.
ES: Were you involved in music in London?
CSC: No, I stopped making music really. I continued writing songs on my own, occasionally with a friend. But I didn’t do anything with them. I was working. I was in a very prestigious job, working for the British Library as a “researcher”, going around the world, doing lectures and things like that. But it bored me. I’m no scholar, and to continue that job I would have to become a scholar. I didn’t want to do that. When I got interested in contemporary art, I thought that was great because it was ideas-based. It was like a real revelation, a liberation for me. I decided I wanted to do that. So I gave up my job. My wife is Chinese and we thought let’s just go back to Beijing. I certainly couldn’t afford to be an artist with no training and no money in London. But I could start from scratch and afford to do that somewhere else. I could do that in Beijing. So we came back to Beijing, rented a studio and started making work.
The British Council and Sound and the City
ES: So in 2003 you started working for the British Council in Beijing?
CSC: I was teaching English to make ends meet, and my wife was doing costume design for films. So we were kind of getting by. Then I started working for an art centre, as a way to work my foot in the door and meet people in the arts here. From there I found out about this job opening at the British Council. And my friends told me, “Oh, you must apply to this job. It is so well funded!” So I applied and I got the job.
The British Council is a strange organisation. If you’re in London and you’re in the arts team, of course you’re picked because of your speciality. But if you’re out in the rest of the world, you’re just a manager. If you’re a science manager, or an arts manager, or a business manager, it’s all the same. You don’t really need expertise; you just manage the projects that you’re given. But there are meetings of all the arts teams around China, to discuss what ideas you have for the next years, what offers are coming from London, which make sense for China, which don’t, and which are more suitable for the target audiences. Then we have a discussion, we choose some of those options, and we implement them. That’s the way it is. But when I got there, things got turned on their head because I started initiating projects on my own. It was a great position to be in, because no one else in the Chinese arts team had any arts training or background. So here I was, grand veteran of the art world – for all of one and a half years! However, I had more experience than the others did.
ES: You went around the system, essentially, and started bringing up your projects?
CSC: Yes. So we had certain powers, as managers. I started discussing some things directly with London. In two years, I did three or four self-initiated projects. The one that’s most relevant to this interview is Sound and the City in 2005. To begin with I was still thinking in terms of just inviting bands to come over. The people that I really wanted were Asian Dub Foundation. We were supposed to address all these key messages about what Britain is all about, you know, flag-waving, and all that. So I thought, well, instead of getting some typical, trendy band, let’s have a band with issues. Ideas about social issues, ideas of ethnicity, rather than just a band coming out here to sell records. The other thing that was really attractive was that they worked with communities; they worked with kids a lot. So rather than a band coming out here and just playing for an hour, and going away again, Asian Dub Foundation would come here and do projects with kids, or whatever. Probably these kids have never, ever experienced this before, and I thought it would be really interesting. The band really wanted to do it, too, but even if they were paid the fee, and the rest, they would still lose a lot of money. They were very nice about it, but they couldn’t do that. So London came back with a counter proposal, saying, “Oh shame about Asian Dub Foundation, but Ladytron would like to come to China.” I said, “Who? Ladytron? Who the fuck are they?” So Ladytron came to China. They went to Guangzhou, they went to Shanghai, they went to Chongqing… but they didn’t bloody come to Beijing. I wasn’t going to blast a huge chunk of my annual budget on Ladytron. It would be totally meaningless.
So we had power, as managers. If something is really inappropriate and you feel that it doesn’t add anything, you’re in charge of your budget and you’re allowed to do that. As long as you justify it to your boss. He would then say, “Alright. But you better come up with a better idea.” And this is where I thought, well let’s invite somebody more experimental, who works in different, alternative ways with music. I started talking to my colleagues in London, and so on, and they introduced me to David Toop. He had done Sonic Boom at the Hayward in 2000, which I saw when I was in London. He was a musician, a writer, curator, and I thought we could build on this. I came up with this idea of inviting people over to experience the sounds of Beijing, and come up with proposals to do something with those sounds, but not in galleries, or music halls – in the city. So that was the core idea, and my London colleagues loved it. David Toop really liked the idea, as well. So if you invite David Toop, you invite Clive Bell, as they’re mates, and also Peter Cusack. But getting Brian Eno involved was an interesting process. I don’t think anyone actually dared to invite him. But he heard about it from a colleague in London and just loved the idea, and actually volunteered to be part of the project. So we started with those four experimental musicians, and brought them over to Beijing. I took them to all the places in Beijing that I thought were sonically the most interesting and they were totally blown away. Peter Cusack, who’s a very influential field recorder and experimental musician, who has made recordings all over world, in the Middle East and Central Asia, etc. said Beijing was the richest sound environment he had heard anywhere. I’d never thought about Beijing like that.
So I think this project planted a seed in my head that would have repercussions much later on. What was amazing about that project was that it opened up so many different ideas, and doors. Even things like urban planning came up. We got invited to design the sound environment for the Olympic Park in Beijing. It was really interesting how it could go from just a little idea, and grow like this. The media also went crazy for the project. We got four full pages in the Beijing Wanbao [北京晚报], which is a really very traditional, conservative newspaper. But they gave me four full pages, two spreads, which is crazy.
ES: At the time, did you know people like Yan Jun?
CSC: Yes, I invited him as a consultant for Sound and the City. I thought that Yan Jun was brilliant; I liked what he was doing. He was organising, he was very persistent, doing all these things, making all this stuff happen. I thought that was great. So he was consultant on the project. But I wasn’t into that scene. I went to a lot of his events and we had a lot of common friends. I went to 2kolegas all the time, but I wasn’t into that kind of music – not because it’s bad, I’m just not into noise. I had a lot of experimental musician friends, like Feng Jiangzhou [丰江舟], making digital hard-core, but none of that interested me. I love that it exists. I also like that Peking Opera exists; that doesn’t mean I like listening to it. So I wasn’t a part of the scene.