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.
Wang Menghan is an electronic musician based in Beijing, China, going by the artist name MengHan. While known primarily for her performances as a DJ and computer centered improviser, her practice is much broader, and she has recently started to focus on sampling and field recordings to develop works that include more elaborate presentations and conceptual ideas. In September Menghan will be moving to Berlin to start a Masters program in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts, at the University of the Arts Berlin, and to further develop her practice.
While many claims are made for the transformative nature of the club experience, in reality it can often feel a somewhat self-absorbed space. I am of course generalizing here, but it seems to me that the kinds of critical sound practices I am interested in do not appear in clubs very often. Although in the past Menghan has mainly performed in clubs, she seems to be driven to seek out other forms of presentation that provide better settings for her ideas and that are not tied to the requirements of any particular space or audience. I met up with Menghan recently to find out more about her practice and thinking.
Interview conducted at Café Alba, Beijing, 13 July 2018
Edward Sanderson (ES): Can you tell me about your background?
Wang Menghan (MH): I’m Beijing-born, but I never felt too grounded here – maybe because when I was younger I grew up in Shijingshan district in the far West of Beijing. During my childhood and teenager time, I lived in a university compound, and then behind this community there were mountainous areas with tombs dug into them. Basically there is really nothing culturally or commercially going on around there, because it’s just too far outside of Beijing.
ES: You said you lived in the University compound. Were your parents teachers?
MH: My parents studied at this university. After they graduated, many of my parents’ generation would either teach at their universities or go and set up their own businesses – which was what my mum and my father did. They were really into music when they were young, but because their generation was under so much pressure from society, and also from their families, there was no way for them to really go far with that.
My studies were all in the centre of Beijing, for my middle school, high school, and then university. But I still remember a moment on my first day in middle school, sitting with the other classmates in the classroom. I felt like I was so different from all the other kids.
What we were interested in was so different, maybe because I was from a different area – even the way we spoke was a little bit different. So I had a kind of “outsider” feeling, I felt I couldn’t easily belong to any group. I’ve always been like this.
I was kind of independent and alone pretty much all the time, nevertheless since middle school I had been thinking that when I got to university I wanted to have my own band. So when I started at the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication in 2010, I also started to look out for people: who is right to connect with for my band? However the band didn’t really go well. Based on what I dreamed of, I thought everything would be so nice! But everyone had different ideas about the music. I was the singer and the only girl in the band, so I felt that the other members were ignoring my opinions. It seems that guys easily connect; they had similar tastes in music. But I wasn’t really into the kind of Beijing punk music they liked, because it always sounds a little bit too pop to me! So I had difficulties getting along with them, and quit.
After this I felt … not disappointed, but I felt that something changed, and I stopped singing. I have always had this kind of single-mindedness and focus about my singing, and everything was so good before, I could sing and express what I felt. But the experience I had with the band made me realize this was not really the case and I had to find another way to express my feelings. Even when I think I have the same taste as other people, even when we listen to the same bands, our understandings can be very different. So if this other person felt differently than me about these things, then how can we listen to the same thing? I tried to find a new way to express myself, and kept on looking for other kinds of music, or different kinds of people, to get connected with. After I stopped singing I began to do electronic music.
ES: Were you studying music before you went to University? What was your interest in music at that point?
MH: At that point my education had been the most standard. I didn’t study art or music at school. Like most young people in China I was just preparing for the gaokao [college entrance] exam. I learned electric piano when I was young, and reached the highest (9th) grade, but didn’t really care about it. I’ve been interested in playing it, but the fact that someone was trying to teach me, made me lose interest!
ES: So after the band, what did you do?
MH: I was mainly going clubbing, but I already knew I didn’t want to do club music. I wanted something else, but I couldn’t really say what that was. So I followed my feelings.
Then I started to know more people doing music connected with the clubs, and met Markus [M Schneider]. At that time he was running Metrowaves, which was a platform for electronic music culture in China and organized events. I got involved working with him a bit later on, when he and Josh [Feola] started Sinotronics and they were organizing the BEME Beijing Electronic Music Encounter events. I was not very seriously involved, but worked on the production, promotion, and related work for these events. Then I got the opportunity to perform as a DJ at one of the Sinotronics events – although I was a nobody, and didn’t exactly know how to play music.
ES: Had you already been practicing as a DJ?
MH: I was playing on an iPad with the Traktor app. Then I got feedback from people who liked my sets, and so I started to take it bit more seriously. I practiced on my computer, and started to use controllers.
Eventually Sinotronics had to stop. It had always been hard to keep it going, it always depended on those very few people doing the work for it, but in return it brought together many people and lots of different kinds of music. It was tiring, especially with so many changes in Beijing recently, with venues shutting down, and people having to fight for their jobs, and getting more settled with their lives here.
Influences, XP, & DADA
ES: Can you tell me about your influences and the people you have been listening to over the years?
MH: I’ve always been more interested in the music that people were playing at XP [influential Beijing live house, operating from 2012–15] – I really appreciated it, but I didn’t realize how important it was for me until later. Club music, for me, has usually been about entertainment, and it definitely is not the kind of music that will challenge you. It’s always connected to dancing, and connected with the mood of the audience. People want to drink, hang out and meet new friends. It’s a very social kind of thing. But XP was very different. At that time, I typically started the night at XP and then moved on to another club called DADA. But after XP was gone, I also stopped going to DADA that often (I think that this was the same for a few people, actually).
ES: So what did you do?
MH: I started going to clubs less and less. There was a time when I really liked clubbing; I really liked to dance, this kind of temporary, free spirit and energy. But later I started to think about it: if this feeling is just repeating every time, where is it going? Enough people who go clubbing simply aim to get fucked up and drunk, to forget about their days, but what does it mean? I want to go to a place, meaningful to me. Then I started to reflect more deeply on the music I listened to and the venues I went to, and I started to make more serious choices about where to go, instead of being led by the crowd.
In terms of the kinds of music that influence me, I have to say I have a really broad taste in music. Recently I have been listening to noise music; before I was listening to techno a lot, then I got tired of it; before techno it was more the easy-going house music, until I got bored of that. I easily get bored! I listen to a little bit of dub and experimental music, a little drone – I’m listening to many things but not following any specific genre. I am looking for the concept behind the music. I try to find out what the musicians have to say with what they play. This is because I want to be more serious with my own music, so I reflect more on this aspect. I try to feel the energy, the content.
ES: How does that work for you? In the past, when you were into these different kinds of music, have they fed through into your own productions?
MH: I don’t really try to figure out how these things work. It’s like intuition for me; I don’t want to learn things systematically. But I also want to be directed by my intention, whether that’s a mental intention or a physical intention. Then I figure out what I need to achieve things in that way. If I cannot achieve it with this particular machine, I will ask myself, why is that? How can I achieve it in other ways? Musicians are easily satisfied by copying the available systems. This is what also happens to techno music, give it 1-2-3-4 beats, then every now and then you put a little bit of other percussion or sounds in, underneath you have the bass, but don’t forget to give the audience a little bit of break because otherwise they will get tired! I don’t want to do things in this way. People are not machines, but this music becomes like a machine to the audience – not a person interacting with the audience. I think machines will always change, and evolve, but what about the music? That depends on the person making it. There’s so much potential in the human mind, much more than in a machine. Although I might not know enough about machines, but perhaps I don’t really care – and machines also don’t really care about me!
And this reminds me of this noise artist from New York, Pharmakon. She is interesting because she’s doing noise performance but not as an improvisation. It’s really powerful. She has a piece called “Intent Or Instinct”, in which I feel she’s trying to bring these two things together. It’s a very intentional noise music, but at the same time I can feel this kind of intuitive part – her singing is very physical and intuitive. It’s very grounded, very human, I think. Almost a human that is already not a human!
ES: What initially made me curious to find out more about what you were doing was your unreleased sound and text piece based on field recording. What was that about?
MH: When I make music I use a lot of samples, and then I change their sound (I don’t know why I use samples in particular, maybe it’s because I’m not very good at programming sounds on the computer). I used to manipulate a lot of samples from Ableton Live for making music, but later I felt bored with these built-in library sounds so I wanted to record my own sounds. I was also generally curious about what my own sound recordings would be like. It’s not that I go out with the intention of making recordings. I take my recorder with me when I am doing other things; when I travel to other cities for work or any other reasons I bring it with me, and when I hear a sound that I think is nice, then I record it.
The piece you mentioned that I did recently is called “Simulating Space – A Location”. I was doing some acting, playing an alien in an artist’s short film in Lanzhou. At the same time I knew I needed to finish my assignment for the University of Arts in Berlin. I didn’t know what I was going to record for the assignment, but I just brought the recorder with me to Lanzhou to see what would happen. When I was in the area where we were filming, I found this abandoned building and I was really impressed by the sound inside. At the same time I felt the sound was nothing too exciting; the building has this particular shape and because of that, the sound will naturally be as I heard it. I wasn’t certain what could make it different from other sound recordings of this type. But I made a recording, took some photos, and then went away and thought about it. I knew I didn’t want to present this sound as it was, but I did want to use it somehow.
I realized that by being in that space, it had an impact on me. Then how to connect the intention I have, my concept, with the material I have, this reality of the sound recording? I realized, that people reflect on things based on their own history, their physical condition, their mental condition, what they prefer, it’s always a very personal reflection. When I think about the space, even though the sound recording sounds as it does, the way I perceive it is different. And if other people listen to it they will also hear it in their own way. And even though the recorder is recording the reality of the sound, the final recording is also based on the recorder’s settings, even limitations. So, based on all these factors, how can I present this concept, that the information we perceive is not what it is?
ES: Are you planning on doing more things like this?
MH: I clearly plan to do more sound works like this. They are very thought-provoking to do, and help me reflect on what is in my mind. But now I need to work out where this recording will lead me. This kind of sound work is helpful for me to realize a more reflective mind-set and also help me to trace what I have been doing before, which acts as a record for me on which to base my next steps.
ES: So how do you see “Simulating Space” going out into the world? Do you want to perform it, or do you want to release it as a recording? Or even as something like an installation in a gallery?
MH: I was thinking about this when I was writing the essay that goes with the recording. I was viewing my process as making an exhibition related to the city I went to, and related to this space. The sound work could be one of the elements to show in an exhibition. There might also be the photographs and the videos I took, and I could also rebuild the scene in the exhibition space, based on the research I made. I would definitely want to try this.
Certainly I don’t want to release this piece yet because I think it was finished too fast, and the influences that led to it were too intense. I was strongly influenced by the American sound artist Maryanne Amacher. She’s so good! She collects the sound within spaces, focusing on the shapes and fundamental qualities of buildings. The audience within her spaces could feel the sound literally coming from the building – her work is very site-specific. I felt impressed by her work, and as I was doing research about her work when I was doing the assignment.
Conceptually-speaking, the power is in the sound work as a whole. But if you don’t read my essay, I think there’s nothing too special about the sound on its own. I think the content is more important, and maybe more interesting than the recording itself. But, for me, sound itself is something I am really interested in. Personally I prefer a situation in which the sound part is very powerful with no need to read anything about it, but instead to feel the energy. The sound should be strong in itself, as an important part of the whole work. In this respect, this sound work is not yet strong enough for me.
Relation to Scenes
ES: How do you see yourself and your work in relation to the other experimental artists in Beijing or China?
MH: I’m not a person who gets closely related with scenes. In Beijing I don’t feel very connected with the scenes and the groups. I’m rather observing! So I’m not like other artists who can immerse themselves into these scenes.
And recently, because I’m preparing to go to Berlin, I don’t go out so much, but I keep my interest about checking out more of the experimental scene, as I didn’t get so much into it in the past. Wang Ziheng made some improvisation events in the mountains around Beijing. I didn’t go there, but I am very keen in taking part in this kind of experimental event now.
ES: These events seem to have a sort of “back-to-nature” feel, with a lot of outdoor noise music, free improvisation, and body performance. How do you see yourself fitting into that kind of event?
MH: Actually, I’m very intrigued by this! But right now I don’t see how to perform in such way. However I feel especially captivated by those things I can’t do!
Moving to Berlin
ES: So you’re moving to Berlin soon?
MH: Yes, I’m going to do a Masters program in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts, at the University of the Arts Berlin. I’ve been to Berlin twice before, and explored some of its venues for electronic music: Berghain (of course!); also an experimental music space called Loophole which was a bit like XP; and Madame Claude where there was a noise music performance.
I think noise or other experimental music doesn’t really have a that solid scene there, or at least I haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s a little bit similar to Beijing; people are moving around all the time, and you have to be deeply involved to catch it. It’s also very individualized; you can’t really follow labels. Even with a club like Berghain, I heard about a musician playing experimental music there, but people were thinking it was too weird! So although people go to these clubs, it doesn’t mean they’re really connected with the music.
I’ve been thinking about this aspect a lot. Music scenes are driven by a sort of superficial dynamic. Even the audience who regularly attends this kind of underground events doesn’t care about the music; they more care about themselves, whether they should be seen there or not. A similar thing happens to the artists. Some regularly play at very similar events, performing in repeating patterns. Now patterns are good as long as this is what an artist wants to build, but some artists need an environment for more innovative development, and they can’t find their position or what they want in the existing community. Yet this kind of superficial community is difficult to maintain, so people rather feel to solidify it, in order to keep it going, instead of keep on innovating what might be happening there.
Venues, labels, and audiences are all important, but a consistent will or determination for what you want to do is equally important. As long as this will is consistent it doesn’t matter where the venue is, or which label the artist is on, or what genre of music might be. The sound or the musical output then can be more connected with the present location and situation, and connected with the person and the perceiving environment. We shall be able to come up with more options, in order to face the extreme difficulties caused by the existing environmental forces in Beijing, or elsewhere. But I understand it is difficult, and for the majority of people it is more important to have a solid solution and a safe zone where they can feel that they are being taken care of, and where they are able to focus.
[Special thanks to Markus M Schneider]