This blog post marks a return to the originally intended subject matter of my recently-completed PhD – that being a study of the physical spaces for the performance of experimental music and sound art in China. Such was my original direction, before the outbreak of COVID-19 forced performance spaces to close (temporarily or, in some cases, permanently), and all public gatherings to be restricted, a situation which led me to consider live-streaming as a space of performance for many of the same artists under these conditions. So here we are, in the long-tail of COVID-19, and while in the near future I plan to return to Mainland China to resume my fieldwork, in the meantime there are spaces in Hong Kong, where I live, that I can learn from.
The interview below stemmed from my first visit to Peng Chau, one of the outer islands of Hong Kong and an hour’s ferry trip from the main urban area of the city. That trip was for a performance by Karen Yu and Olivier Cong, part of a series of experimental music events organised by the musician Nelson Hiu and hosted by the Islander’s Space bookshop. Through Nelson I contacted Kit Chan, one of the owners of Islander’s Space, and had a conversation with him about the space and its relation to the performance of experimental music, and the island’s overall social dynamic. Many thanks to Kit for his time and patience on this.
Today I’m really pleased to follow up my interview with Wang Menghan that came out a few days ago, with a short interview with Sun Dawei, one of the most influential experimental electronic musicians out of China. Sun Dawei started producing music in his hometown of Beijing in the late 1990s, emerging from a punk background to become a full-fledged electronic musician by the early 2000s. At the same time he founded the record label Shanshui, which continues to be a great resource for experimental electronic music. Early on he became internationally known for his chiptune/8bit releases and performances under the artist name SULUMI, but his music has always been diverse, moving into the fields of electronica, techno, or ambient, reflected by the particular artist name he used. In 2010 he moved to Osaka, Japan where he has continued producing music. He was recently back in Beijing to take part in a residency at the M WOODS Art Museum, with a number of other contemporary artists from China, responding to the Museum’s current show of Buddhist cave paintings from the Xinjiang region of China. The following interview was done by email, and I want to thank Dawei for being so accessible. In the near future I hope to be able to present a more detailed interview with him, so keep checking back!
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.
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.