a word about compilations

On the occasion of the release of the cassette compilation of experimental music, “There is no music from China” (published simultaneously in China and New Zealand by Zoomin’ Night 燥眠夜 and End of the Alphabet Recordings respectively), I wrote this text expressing why I think the compilation format is so important. Where it occurs the experimental music scene in China is truly vibrant, but doesn’t have many outlets for expression, is under pressure as it often antagonises authority in any number of ways, and so can be difficult to locate and understand for outsiders. So for the artists in China a compilation such as this is really helpful for creating visibility for their activities, which in turn cements their own practices in relation to their peers.

Compilations are great. Where before there was an amorphous set of individuals working away on their respective projects, whose relationship to their peers and their history was far from amounting to the self-understanding of a distinct grouping or a “scene”, along comes a compilation and magically makes concrete those relationships and gives form to those potential arrangements. This works well both for the artists, giving them a sense of identity based on relativity, and also for the audience, who perhaps were unaware such connections existed. And hence a scene is formed. It’s something of an illusion, of course, but serves as a useful public face for those involved.

In this way previous compilations of experimental music from China have helped to solidify the scene for artists and the audience. The two releases most cited as formative are Taiwanese sound artist and professor Yao Dajuin’s ‘China: The Sonic Avantgarde’ double-CD, published in 2003 on his Post Concrete label, and ‘An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992–2008’ released in 2009 by the Sub Rosa label in Belgium. The latter established a strong historical context for the works in their local environment, at the same time as presenting them on an international stage (in addition to these I would mention another excellent compilation, ‘Background (of Chinese Sound Art)’, published in 2008 by the SubJam label, with which Yan Jun was also involved).

“China: The Sonic Avant-Garde” cover

“An Anthology Of Chinese Experimental Music 1992–2008” cover

“Background (of Chinese Sound Art)” cover

Relevant to the task in hand is media anthropologist Gabriele de Seta’s contention that the Sub Rosa release mentioned above, “… validates the cohesiveness of the community for the Western audience, playing the same role that the compilation published in 2003 by Post Concrete played for the Chinese audience. In a twist of irony, putting side by side musicians from different countries and decades, it is the record that performs the community of ‘Chinese Experimental Music’.” 1

So, for better or worse, compilations act as a crystallisation of a particular cultural condition. On the one hand they take their form from that of the hypothetical condition that they propose exists in society already, and on the other they speculate that form back onto society, in a way pre-emptively calling into existence their own precondition. These are retrospective and speculative aspects: they obviously claim to present the way things are (or at least the way things were when the organisers selected the artists and tracks). But they also project a claim into the future, laying a base line on which that future can potentially build and grow. Either way the compilation acts as a sort of uneven hub around which artists’ and audiences’ hopes and desires revolve, an accretion of materials in the process of formation. Without such a compilation there may never be a chance to take stock of the situation, and potentially move on (or at least, to change).

So what about this particular compilation? What can it tell us? Each track deserves attention and respect, but in this short essay I will just make some correspondences and observations. Taking a broad perspective, I could say that there is a sense of arbitrariness about the world (almost all of) these tracks inhabit. In this respect, there are to be found a number of pieces adopting environmental recordings in part or in whole. In Ake and Zhu Wenbo’s pieces the environment has a certain domesticity, respectively conveying the hard reverberations of a toilet room and the sounds of a defrosting fridge. Zhong Minjie reflects the urban environment by collapsing the competing sound textures of a pop ballad’s composed musical environment with the ambience of a busy public area, while Torturing Nurse’s complex piece inserts his verbal diarrhoea into a subway platform. The voice appears again with Yan Jun’s throat singing over the “background” noise from his apartment window, and Yao Qingmei encounters a quizzical police officer while provocatively singing the seldom performed third verse of The Internationale over a loudspeaker from her car window. Sun Wei’s hydrophone links the sea to its surface, where vague voices contrast with the splashing water. On a visit to a tailor, Zhao Cong discovers sounds in the stockroom that have since become a staple of her live performances. Liu Xinyu looks to the internal workings of his machines to chase flows of feedback. Li Song works with minimally offset stereo signals to induce psychoacoustic effects, while for Mai Mai new vibrations occur from the interfering harmonics of his guitar, and Jun-y Ciao investigates the possibilities of vibrations drawn from a reed instrument. All of this is topped with a healthy dose of satire in Gao Jiafeng’s self-referential paean to the compilation of which it is a part.

You will have noted that so far I have avoided addressing the title of this compilation. I feel I will regret trying to pick it apart, but I can make a start. Is it ironic? Of course it’s ironic! It must be ironic, because of course we know there is music from China. Don’t we? Unless it is questioning the meaning of the word “music”. Are we questioning that? Of course, there are a lot of things called “music” from China. Is it that act of calling these things “music” that is the problem? There are no quotation marks around any of the words in the title that might suggest that it was drawing attention to a possible ambiguity of meaning. The title apparently makes a basic assertion, without obvious modulation. Any modulation (for emphasis, or ironic effect, say) is all in our approach to the title, it comes from ourselves. With no hints or clues within the title itself, the only sane option is to take it at face value, otherwise we fall down a rabbit hole of assumptions and prejudices. How about the recordings themselves? Do they help us interpret the title? As sources of information, these recordings are full of potential. They pose their own additional questions, that may or may not have anything to with whether “there is no music from China”, and we may or may not call these recordings “music”. Again, based on the available information it appears it is not really important whether we do or not. So I think I should stop here, and leave the statement out there awaiting further investigation.

What I can say is that the appearance of this compilation defines a space between the paucity of the title and the plethora of the recordings, a sort of oscillation between the two that constantly delays interpretation. This space in which the compilation performs its work serves to form a necessarily partial understanding of the current state of experimental music in China. The release also creates a locus around which a community may appear.

As I said, compilations are great.

  1. de Seta, Gabriele. 2011. ‘Mediation through Noise: Experimental Music in China’. Leiden: Universiteit Leiden. http://shilin.nl/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/MA_Thesis_-_de_Seta__Gabriele_-_Mediation_Through_Noise_2011-07.pdf.