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 sixth interview in this series, and the last for a while. It’s a real pleasure and an honour to be able to publish this interview with Li Jianhong and Wei Wei, the couple who in their various ways have been central figures in the experimental music scene in China for many years. Originally from Hangzhou, Li and Wei Wei were both involved in the music scenes in that city before coming to Beijing around 2011. Since then they have been highly visible with their solo projects as well as performing together under the names Mind Fibre and Vagus Nerve. This interview concentrates on their early musical development, the 2pi Festival that Li founded in Hangzhou in 2003, and their thoughts about improvisation and the state of the experimental music scene in Beijing.
Interview took place on 18 April 2017, in Beijing
[Translation by Wei Wei]
Edward Sanderson (ES): Li Jianhong, what was your education like? Did you study music?
Li Jianhong (LJH): From high school to college I actually studied Fine Art, Chinese painting. I was very interested in expressing emotions, things like that, so in college I began to make music to do this. Gradually I found my interest was more in music than in art. I think music is more direct, but with art you need a process to express yourself with it. In college, from the very beginning I was playing hard-core rock ’n’ roll music, and then after I graduated I began to play rock music with more guitar noise, then I began to know noise music, so I began to play this, and then gradually moved to free improvisation. This was the process for me – as I grew older, at different stages I found different music that better expressed my feelings.
ES: What were the bands you were listening to, and how were you hearing them?
LJH: When I began to play guitar noise, I was listening to a lot of Sonic Youth. I found their guitar is freer than with other, traditional rock bands. I was also listening to Keiji Haino, and Zbigniew Karkowski.
At that point, in the ’90s through to the early 2000s, it was just at the beginning of the Internet in China, and sites like Google and YouTube were not blocked yet, so we could search for noise musicians or sound art to watch. For example, we would search for “Merzbow”, and there would be results for “similar artists” and we could just explore them. So this period is a one of learning and getting information about this kind of music.
ES: How were you getting access to the internet? At home or at school?
LJH: Not at home, maybe at internet bars. Some people had internet at home, but it was pretty slow.
I was trying to find the kind of music really suited me. I tried to experiment with all kinds of styles, because we were getting all this fresh music. At one point I was playing harsh noise, then laptop music, even vocal noise. Once we were recording this vocal noise at a friend’s house at midnight, it was pretty loud, and kind of crazy, and then the policemen turned up!
And then I finally found something that really suited me, and that was the guitar.
ES: Are you at college at that point, or are you working?
LJH: This was when I was in my mid-twenties, and I was working, but there was very little work, just part time jobs. Sometimes I worked as a newspaper journalist; sometimes as a cleaner.
ES: When you worked as a journalist, were you writing about music?
LJH: Not really. Just news reports, like about the local area, for instance the ancient villages around Hangzhou.
ES: Were there many places to perform this kind of music in Hangzhou?
LJH: Very few places. There was a live bar called Number 31 Bar [31号艺术酒吧], near the Lingyin temple [灵隐寺]. We were friends with the boss of the bar, so they usually let us play noise music there, but not very frequently. We burnt out the amplifiers several times!
ES: So there was a group of people who were also interested in that kind of thing?
LJH: Yes. Four or five people in Hangzhou, maybe six.
ES: Did you know about other similar artists in other parts of the country?
LJH: Yes. But at that time, in the whole country, there were no more than 20 people working like this. There was Zhou Pei [周沛 aka Ronez] in Guilin, Zhong Mingjie [钟敏杰] in Guangzhou, Wang Fan [王凡] in Beijing, Junky in Shanghai.
ES: Were you in contact with them?
LJH: We used MSN, and there were several BBS that we used to talk together. Then we would meet other people through friends of friends. But it’s not purely about noise music on these BBS. There are poets, rock bands, etc. and all these people are friends with each other.
ES: Did you get to travel to other places to perform?
LJH: Not very often. I went to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Beijing. The audience was very small at that time – the same as now, actually!
ES: The audiences were also very small in Hangzhou?
LJH: Oh, only about 10 people usually. So there were very few places that we could perform. Then in the early 2000s, 2002 or 2003, we made a series of performances called “Home Violence” [家庭暴力], where we made music in people’s homes, in their kitchens, etc., and the audience was very small for those. One time there were only two people in the audience.
ES: Then you started the 2pi Festival in 2003. Why did you start it?
LJH: At that time if we performed, it was usually with all different kinds of bands, like rock bands, metal bands, punk bands. So we wanted to make a festival dedicated to pure noise and experimental music. We also wanted to bring people together from other cities to make a festival, because for instance there were people not far away in Shanghai, like Junky, who were also playing this kind of music. For the first two or three festivals Chen Wei [陳維] and Jin Shan [金闪] were helping me organise things. Now they’re both fine artists.
ES: And Hangzhou could support this?
LJH: Well, the first 2pi Festival was at the Number 31 Bar that I mentioned before, and actually we kind of cheated the audience by telling them it was a rock festival so they would come! The first bands started playing and after 10 minutes or so everyone was really angry! Many left after the first band.
By the second festival, there were more people who knew this kind of music, and knew the festival. Some students from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou began to join in as musicians, like JIMU [蒋竹韵].
ES: Was the festival successful?
LJH: Yes. More and more people came from other cities, and more musicians joined, including international musicians like Audrey Chen, Marqido and Itta (the name of their group was “10”) from Japan, some Australian artists as well.
ES: So do you think it was becoming well known?
LJH: A little.
ES: Were there many other music festivals in China at that point?
LJH: There was Midi Festival, but that is more rock ’n’ roll. The Mini Midi Festival [part of Midi Festival, focusing on experimental music] came later. In 2003 there was the Sonar festival in Beijing that Yao Dajuin organised.
ES: Why did you organise the 2pi Festival? Was it to create some kind of community feeling?
LJH: It was a gathering of fans and musicians of this new kind of music. It was not like this music was seen as high art. Now some people make “sound art” which is like high art, very scholarly. We were just a group of people with similar interests, gathering together to make this music festival. We couldn’t even pay for the performances; maybe we could just give the artists some tickets and recommendations. Sometimes the artists had to pay for their own train tickets. We only paid for renting the amplifier, the venue, and some hotels. After the performance we would all have dinner together. So it’s quite pure, a very simple life.
ES: 2pi ran for five years, from 2003 to 2007. Why did you stop?
LJH: Firstly, I thought the equipment and the sound engineers in Hangzhou were not very professional. But also I began to feel kind of tired of doing it. It had become a responsibility to do it, and it was not what I really wanted to do. So I thought there would be no significance for me if I continued doing it. So I just stopped.
ES: How big were the festivals by the end?
LJH: We had about 200 people in the audience, with over 10 groups performing. It was pretty big!
ES: So between 2007, and 2011 when you came to Beijing, you carried on playing, but there were no festivals?
ES: So, Wei Wei, how did you get involved with music?
Wei Wei (WW): I studied English at university in Shanghai, and then for postgraduate I studied new media in Hong Kong – but not new media art, just new media business. After graduation I went back to Hangzhou to stay with Li. I think I began to make music around 2005, before I went to Hong Kong.
ES: Had you studied music at all?
WW: No, I just learned by myself. To begin with I was using software called Pure Data to make music, and then Max/MSP came out, so I studied that.
ES: Were you already interested in music?
WW: In my high school and my university days I listened to rock music, and then I began to get into the experimental kind of music through friends like Li and other people making it. I also tried working with pedals, some other things, but they didn’t fit me. At that time I also knew Wang Changcun [王长存] in Hangzhou and he was also learning Max/MSP, so that’s how I began to work with it.
ES: Were you producing a similar kind of music to what you’re doing now?
WW: Not very similar. I was very interested in Karkowski’s music so I tried to make some patches to make purely large volume noise, with filters. Now what I usually do is to use sampling and processing. It’s different.
ES: Were you performing?
WW: Yes, I performed once or twice in Hong Kong, but not very often.
ES: Did you play together at that point?
WW: No, because I was at a very early stage of my musical development then.
ES: So you taught yourself? I’m interested in why so many who practice experimental music in China people had to teach themselves? There doesn’t seem to be anyone who went through the educational system.
WW: Because that system was very difficult to get into, there are so many applicants for the music schools. You have to learn from a very early age [to get in].
I also think the kind of people who are experimental musicians, we are not very good students in college, or maybe we didn’t go to college at all. People like us usually listen to rock music in high school and then we begin to adopt another kind of life from the other, “normal” students.
ES: Were you involved with the 2pi Festival as well?
WW: I helped Li organise the last two festivals, and I performed at them too.
ES: So when did you come to Beijing?
WW: We got married and after my graduation in 2008 I was working in Beijing. Li stayed in Hangzhou for a few years but he wanted a change, and Beijing had more opportunities to perform, so he came in 2011.
ES: Had you already started to think about “environment improvisation” at that point?
LJH: I formed the idea around 2008, but it was not very mature to begin with. The set of three CDs I recorded in 2009 (and which were released in 2010) [“Empty Mountain”, “Twelve Moods”, “Here Is It”] was when I began to think about this seriously.
ES: Was this is a development of what you were already doing? Was it particularly inspired by Hangzhou?
LJH: At that time I found free improvisation, as a way to express myself, was much better than noise guitar. I was also very interested in the natural environment, and I wanted to retain the memories of my hometown, of some of my daily life. So I just combined these things together to make the recordings. But it’s not inspired by field recording, or by some specific person, or about a specific place. It’s inspired by Chinese traditional culture, like Buddhism and zen, ancient Chinese literature and paintings on the subject of landscapes, ghost stories and legends of ancient times, as well as my personal experiences – this combination of things.
ES: Wei Wei, is this how you think about your work as well? I’m thinking about your CD “Hologram of Sea”, which includes sampled sounds of waves.
WW: Yes, it’s kind of the same thing. Because I grew up and live in the city far away from the ocean. So I like the ocean very much. We had the chance to stay with a friend who lives on an island. I really enjoyed the whole environment there, and I wanted to capture those memories, so I just made that recording to do that.
LJH: What we make is usually very personal stuff, very emotional. In our recordings we don’t have much interest in politics, or big cultural matters.
ES: So just field recording on its own is not enough for you?
LJH: What is important to us is not the environment itself. In field recording you only listen to a very real reflection of a specific place. But in environment improvisation it’s more like the people who make this music, this person’s existence is in it, their feelings and emotions. What’s important is their status in the environment. So that’s why I made the album called “Here Is It” – I’m here, this is what I heard, and this is what I felt.
ES: You were saying you were collecting memories from your hometown. Do you get the same sort of feeling now you are living in Beijing?
LJH: Beijing of course has some very characteristics sounds, like the whistles on the pigeons. But that’s not related to us, and we ourselves don’t have much connection with that kind of sound.
WW: There was a double CD of environment improvisation that we recorded in the house we used to rent [Mind Fibre, “One Year”, 2013]. There was a hutong outside the window and we just spent one whole day recording with the sounds from the street. When the audience listens to it, from the sounds maybe they cannot figure out where it is, but to us all the sounds are very significant.
LJH: They are important memories of where we lived. We know who is talking, whose dog is barking etc.
ES: So when someone else listens to them, they become abstracted? In which case, what do you think the person listening can understand? Are you trying to communicate these memories?
WW: We are not communicating, just recording. We don’t try to communicate with the audience, to convey what this thing actually is, or what we want them to think it is. We don’t want to express anything from it. It is just a recording for ourselves.
LJH: When we perform together as Mind Fibre we are a free improvisation duo. But with these recordings, we are just recording for ourselves. If the audience listens to these sounds of the hutong, maybe they will have their own imagination, or feelings, or connections to this kind of sound. But these will definitely be different from ours. That’s not important.
The Beijing scene
ES: What are your impressions of the experimental music scene in Beijing at the moment?
WW: The good thing is that the audience is bigger and their quality is much better – because they know exactly what they are expecting to see.
LJH: There are also more musicians than before, which is good. But I think the lack of venues is a big problem.
ES: I was talking to someone recently about how things are at the moment. I was saying to them that it’s good that there are some new people appearing, but they really disagreed. They thought there were no new people! For them this was a real problem.
WW: I agree!
LJH: Well, it’s impossible to have fresh faces every year, and if the existing group of musicians are working seriously, then I think they will influence other people. But if people treat it like it’s just for fun, or if the audience are not interested or are not inspired by what you play, new people won’t start practicing themselves.