24-03-08 Archive Display #1 – International Women’s Day 2024

This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of posts recording my efforts to organise and present my research archive of publications related to experimental music and sound art from Mainland China and Hong Kong. Today’s post is a catalogue of the first display which was inspired by International Women’s Day in March 2024, and includes a selection of female artists.

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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.

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Zhu Wenbo and Sean Lee: no performance and Okra

Despite the closure over the last few years of a number of live venues that were homes for experimental music in Beijing, the scene—while small—is generally maintaining a level of activity that gives great cause for optimism. By way of example, I’d here like to focus on the activities of two members of the Beijing improvisation scene, Zhu Wenbo and Sean Lee.

"no performance" (Sean Lee and Zhu Wenbo) performing Okra, Meridian Space, Beijing, November 2016, photograph by Edward Sanderson.

“no performance” (Sean Lee (left) and Zhu Wenbo (right)) performing Okra, Meridian Space, Beijing, November 2016, photograph by Edward Sanderson.

Zhu Wenbo has quite a high profile locally due to his activity performing solo as well as in a number of groups, and as the organiser of experimental music events, particularly the Zoomin’ Nights series. Sean Lee has a quieter presence as a performer focusing on computer music practices. They first met through their work at the social media company, Douban, and since 2015 have performed together under the name of “no performance”. Zhu Wenbo has elsewhere described no performance as, “between composition and improvisation, electronic and acoustic, or computer program and instrument”[1], and in 2016 they debuted a new piece called “Okra” combining rule-based composition and improvisation, which has since been performed in a number of forms with different sets of people. I met up with them both at Wenbo’s apartment in Beijing to talk about their backgrounds and what Okra means for them.

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GIG: Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

Yan Jun introducing Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

Yan Jun introducing Miji Concert No.12 at 2kolegas

A good selection of artists played last night at 2kolegas bar, as part of SubJam label’s Miji Concert series. Organised by Yan Jun, the evening began with him playing his electronics and feedback in a trio with Liu Xinyu on electronics and Yan Yulong on violin, performing some harsh noise improvisation.

Yan Jun and co. were followed by Soviet Pop, about whom I had heard good things. They focus on playing a set of analogue synthesizers, and their sound is characteristically softer and more organic than the previous set. While I liked what they were doing, and how they were doing it (very understated, almost aggressively geeky), it bothered me that it was really difficult to get beyond the cliché’d sounds of these instruments, harking back to Forbidden Planet-type tonal music.

Lastly, Tim Blechmann on laptop and Conny Zenk on visuals developed an apparently simple set of gradually building drones. At first I was sceptical, thinking that these endless cycles would be swiftly boring, but an interesting thing happened. Starting very quietly, the musicians seemed to be struggling against the background noise of the bar and a typically talkative audience. Yet as the drones gained in pitch and depth, these extraneous sounds were gradually smothered, leaving the drones to dominate. The visuals had a similar struggle, being projected against the heavily textured brick wall of the venue. This meant that much of the subtlety of the flickering lines being generated was lost, yet after a while watching for the small changes that stood out against the peaks and crevices of the brick became quite fascinating, not completely losing itself against the surface, and complementing the sounds well. In a way quite simple and not particularly original, but—in this setting—effective nonetheless.

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