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 fourth interview in this series. Today I am honoured to be able to publish the first part of an interview with Zafka (Zhang Anding), an experimental musician, sound artist, and founder of the brand consultancy, China Youthology. Zafka’s story takes us from the early practices of experimental music and sound art in China in the late ’90s, his first bands through to his investigations of field recording to tap the political power of sound, and his more recent work on sound in relation to social media and online platforms. Over the years Zafka has been involved in many of the important festivals and exhibitions related to sound art held in China, including Revolutions per Minute, Get it Louder, Mini Midi, and Pixel Echo, and in this interview provides a critical perspective on a wide range of aspects of the development of sound practices there.
Interview conducted on 22 February, 2017 in Beijing
Edward Sanderson (ES): I know you’re nowadays focusing on the China Youthology and the brand consultancy, but I wanted to go back to when you started, in the ’90s. What was your background at that point?
Zafka (ZAD): I call myself the first generation of subculture kids in China, because I was born in 1979, almost in the post-80s generation. I was born in a small city in Hunan. At that time, the whole music scene in the ’90s is rock culture, so when I was in high school I listened to Michael Jackson for instance (compared to popular music at that time in China, Jackson was very “rock”!), there was also this Hong Kong band called Beyond, and the hugely popular rock bands: Cui Jian [崔健], Tang Dynasty [唐朝乐队], Dou Wei [竇唯], Zhang Chu [张楚], Hei Bao [黑豹乐队], etc. So my teenage period is growing up with rock music. I went to college in Shanghai Fudan University in 1996, this was the first time I went to Shanghai and I met a lot of other kids from other cities there. They bought me a lot of dakoudai releases; this kind of scene was really a cultural trend then. We shared music, and in 1998 we organised a band together (Surging Prague, later shortened to Prague), highly focused on improvisation and noise, because the band we really idolised is Sonic Youth – we listened to them a lot! But we listen to everything really, from classical music, Debussy, to noise – a lot of different things. At that time, 1998 or 1999, the first wave of the rock bands in Shanghai all came from the college campuses, for example B6 [Lou Nanli 樓南立] started in one of these bands and is now a famous solo electronic musician, and we all come together to have gigs.
ES: So it’s a very student-led scene?
ZAD: Yes. Of course, there were several bands influenced by the Beijing scene, who went to Beijing as professionals musicians and then came back to Shanghai, but the main power is with the young people, the young blood, we are all from the campuses. We were listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GYBE), Tortoise – especially GYBE. Fuck! That’s the music we make! So in 2001 or 2002 we released several albums of post-rock, and we were kind of the first band in China to do that style of music.
ES: At this point how are you hearing this music?
ZAD: CDs and dakoudai still. Also downloading a lot of MP3s through SoulSeek (p2p software). We can share MP3s globally that way. At that time, loving music really means you are in some kind of community. But at that time GYBE is not from dakoudai. The post-rock thing is from our friends who are doing music courses. They bring the original CDs, and we share and copy them. At that time the only download source was SoulSeek. It was not like today, with all the streaming services where it’s copyrighted music and you can listen online. At that time you had to have connections to access those sources. I graduated from Fudan in 2003, and went to London, to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), on another masters programme. So I have two master degrees: one in Fudan, where I spent seven years, and then one year in London to get another master degree.
ES: What was the SOAS degree in?
ZAD: It was in political sociology. It was about the state and society and their development. The members of my band at this point all started different careers, in different cities. After I come back to China my first job was with the 21st Century Herald [21
世纪经济报道] head office in Guangzhou, the leading business paper in China. After several months I was promoted to the front-page to be an editor and provide responses for “TeGao” [特稿 – a feature report on the front page] that brought together different perspectives – from politics, to the economy, to society, checking what’s going on in China, what’s interesting and what deserves to be addressed deeper.
So at that time everyone’s pursuing their own careers and I don’t have a band to play with, so my interest moves to sound in general. With the post-rock we were playing before, the sound texture is a very important part of it., and for me the origin of this sound is in experimental music. It was in Guangzhou that I met Zhong Minjie [钟敏杰] and Lin Zhiying [林志英], who were two of the first sound artists in China. My friends introduced me to them, and they then introduced me to a lot of other sound artists and works. I think, wow! This is great! This is more complex and interesting than pure noise! And I can do it myself – I don’t need a band! ha! So I began to use a laptop to produce sound works. That’s 2005.
Sound & Power
The way I cut into the sound is very political. My background is from there, so when I listen to sound I mainly focus on the political perspective: When listening to a sound, how can one understand the power structures behind the sound? So I did a lot of field recordings – in Guangzhou, or in my hometown, every time I took a trip I would do field recordings, and begin to use them in electro-acoustic works. So my first perspective on sound is to cut into it with a very political perspective, and also to write articles every time I released an album.
ES: So this is an important combination for you? It’s not just sound, it has to have background or context?
ZAD: Yes. My friends always say the way that I deal with sound has two sides. One is the political or sociological side, and the other is influenced by my experience with the band. I pay a lot of attention to the latter emotional side. Because actually there is no emotion with a lot of sound art works, they are just “sound objects”, purely rational and using pure sounds. They cut all the links with culture, society, the political. I am actually not very interested in that.
ES: Is that a problem with recording itself? As soon as you record it, it loses its place in society?
ZAD: Yao Dajuin [姚大鈞] always said that in China field recording is very different from the western tradition. All the people doing field recording here always link them back to the social and the cultural meanings. Also the way they deal with the sound means they are not just pure sound objects. Because China changes so fast, the everyday sounds that you listen to are part of the way you recognise and understand yourself and the world around you. So naturally sounds have a lot of meanings that you want to express, and also as comprehensive indicators even beyond their meanings as sounds.
So that’s the first experience I got in sound art: the electro-acoustic, the political and social perspectives. And then in 2006–2007 Zhong Minjie, Lin Zhiying, and I got a chance to work together for the Guangzhou Triennial [广州三年展], one of the important contemporary art exhibitions in China. For this we went to Qinghai Xizang (Tibet) and developed a new way of doing field recordings that are more like what we called ‘action-based’. It’s not just that we have a perspective on how to do a recording, we’re also trying to be more progressive. When we’re doing the recording, we are part of the recording. We call it action-based, theatre-based recording – when we see something happening, we try to be a part of it, to participate in it.
ES: Is that about recognising your place in society?
ZAD: Yes, we put ourselves in the process, similar to when we are improvising, it’s a dramatic thing. We plan something, then ask the people to perform. For instance, there was a tour guide. We ask him to repeat to us the talk that he presents everyday to the tourists, while we are sitting in a restaurant. This means we are trying to promote another way of doing field recording. To make sound part of a method of participation.
ES: Is it because the tour guide is part of environment around you? They also present a version of the environment as well?
ZAD: Yes. Because in Qinghai there are many tourists at the temples and other places, so the language of the tour guides is a very important part of the sound environment. They go everywhere and they are talking and repeating the same thing, again and again. So we did a kind of drama, a participatory activity with one of the guides.
Yong◎He and Shang◎Du
After this I moved to Beijing where I began to try to reflect on what I had been dealing with in Guangzhou. There seemed to be a distance in terms of cultural or political perspectives between my thoughts and the sound works we presented. It always seemed my thoughts could not be highly integrated into the sound, because sound is always abstract. So, based on the actions and the field recordings, I began to make sound practice a daily behaviour. I did this in two ways. Firstly, I created a project called “Yong◎He”. Every weekend I walked around the Lama Temple in Beijing and the hutong around it, trying to notice every detail, every step, to understand what is going on, and to talk with the local people. In Guangzhou I was usually working from an abstract idea and then producing the recordings as research into that idea. But Yong◎He was not so much research as it was about the way you directly experience the area. I put a lot of time into that area, to really understand what’s going on, and I learnt a really important thing: we know that sound has a lot of connections with aesthetics and with emotions, but it also connects with history and personal memories and also a lot of deep personal cultural meanings. In this area, around the Temple, the main street Yonghegong Dajie is very noisy with all the sounds of religious practice. But if you go into the hutongs, maybe only 15m away, it’s so quiet!
But when I talk with the people there, everyone hates the quietness! They want to move! They are poor, and that area is protected, so there is no government money for them to develop their spaces. So they live there but they don’t enjoy it. They like to be in a noisy environment! So I realised the sound can be more personal, not so abstract, more meaningful for the individual people in everyday life.
In 2007 there was the Get It Louder exhibition, for which Yan Jun [颜峻] was one of the curators, so they promoted sound art a lot. Based on what I learnt from this Yong◎He project, I did a new project for Get It Louder called Shang◎Du, which was the name of the building where the exhibition was held. I recruited several people online, young people I didn’t know, and then we studied together. We chose an area and did a lot of sound work studies, and we tried to practice how to listen and share this experience.
ES: Where did you find these people?
ZAD: Just online, on the social media website Douban which was very popular at the time – a lot of artistic youth were using it. They took part in this project because they wanted to understand themselves and the world around them better. They felt that sound seemed an interesting way, a funny way to do that. We spent about two months together, and every weekend we would walk around the area, discussing, and talking with people. I acted more as a supporter or curator. My expectation was that after the project I hoped everyone could have a sound piece. Through this practice they got a clearer idea of what sounds means for them. What was very surprising was that the work they presented for Get it Louder was mostly not sound work! You know the eye-checking chart at the opticians? Well, one of the people did a ‘sound-checking chart’ instead. He analysed the different sound agents in that area. For example, they are building high towers there, and there are also some old men chatting in the street. He analysed them all and put them onto this sound-checking chart. But it is totally silent! The sound of building the tower is powerful, so it becomes the biggest icon on the chart, and the people talking is then relatively small next to it. You wear earphones in the installation but there is no sound from them, you just see the different sizes of the images, and you experience sound memories in each case! Really interesting!
For another piece the student used their mobile phone, recording their own footsteps. He walked around the area, and as he walked he was field recording. There’s a little bit of ambient sound in there, but mainly it’s about how he is walking the area.
ES: So the way his walking changes tells you something about the conditions in the area?
ZAD: Yes. It’s very interesting! There’s nothing visual, only the sound of the feet!
And another person whose background is in geography got the old government maps for this area from the library, and also created his own hand-drawn maps based on his sound walk around the area. Then he took all these maps, stuck them together on a board, and used nails and string to re-link parts. In that way he got a totally new city map, reconstructed based on his personal sound understanding and the political-social reality.
ES: And again, no sound?
ZAD: No sound! Only one person used pure field recording, but I think that wasn’t the best piece. I also did a piece without sound, quite like the sound chart piece. I printed a lot of words on the walls of a small room. These words are from the observation/study notes of the sound walk journey in Shang◎Du, about sound events happening in the area. I carefully considered the different positions on the wall where I should place the words, and they are all in different sizes. In the room there is a chair where you sit and wear earplugs. Normally earplugs are used are to prevent noise, but actually you can hear your inner reverb, the sound in your skull.
In fact, the whole team’s experience of the sounds, the people, and how we are experiencing them (even without sound), was a very emotional one. It was almost violent! The emotions and memories, your connections to these things. The sound chart piece and my piece are, for me, the most important pieces, because they are very personal, private perspectives on how an individual can practice sound listening in everyday life. And then help the participant to realise how to live, and how the world is changing. This is the second stage of my practice, where the meaning is very private, very emotional.
Instrumental Soundscapes and the Body
Also at that time I also did several performances at the Mini Midi Festival and some other shows in the 2kolegas venue, where Yan Jun was organizing regular sound art shows. Those performances were mainly electro-acoustic pieces, based on recording, manipulating, improvising.
I had another band at that time called The Wedding Beast [怀丁陛士德]. We had one performance at Mini Midi. I called that performance an “instrumental soundscape”. We were trying to combine my band experience with the field recording, but addressing the body more directly. Where is the agent when you perform on stage? Where is the body? Where is your physical side, your emotional side, your real side? It’s not just abstract.
ES: How do you involve the body?
ZAD: It has a lot to do with the body, because 50% of the material is improvised. We don’t differentiate between the field recordings and the instrumental sound, we put them together as we mix the soundscape. But we are not saying this is noise. It’s a soundscape, and you can be part of it too.
ES: So when you’re actually performing, how did it differ from a “normal” improvising performance”?
ZAD: Oh, those performances are so polite! Everybody is trying to find some linkage, trying to figure out the way. They think, “Ah, you’re doing this thing!”, and then they react to each other. We are more direct. We have a clear idea. So for example in our performance we used several key animal noises. And we know the bass player will produce a very deep sound, the drummer will perform a certain way. So this is very direct. We don’t like pure noise, so we want to present the dynamic between these sounds as a soundscape. We don’t treat this as a rock band or an experimental band performance. We ourselves are the machines, but at the same time we’re the bodies that are producing.