This is a new series of posts for this blog focusing 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 described as “experimental music” or “sound art”, neither of which 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.
Sheng Jie (aka gogoj) is a visual artist and musician based in Beijing. Much of her current experimental music and sound work reflects her study of the violin and cello, as well as of video and performance art. Since returning to Beijing from college in France in 2005, she has been developing various forms of audio/visual performance using these elements. Recently she has begun incorporating a gesture-based computer interface that allows her to “manually” manipulate her video and audio signals on stage. In this interview she talks about her practice and how it has developed, her relationship with the music and art worlds in Beijing, and why she adopted this gesture interface. The interview covers a lot of ground, and so has been split over two days for convenience. Part two will be published on this blog tomorrow.
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 (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”, 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.
Venturing out into the beginnings of an untimely snow-fall last night in Beijing, I made my way over to XP to catch VAVABOND and Li Jianhong play together under the moniker of Mind Fibre.
VAVABOND specialises in very subtle, fizzing staccato stabs of computer-generated electronic sounds, while Li plucks at a guitar and combines its tones with noises from various DIY electro-mechanical objects sitting near him, their combined sounds being variously modulated and distorted. The style of sound produced by these two is a little bit cosmic, from the warbles of VAVABOND’s programming, and the bends and swoops of Li’s notes and tones, the overall effect harking back to early synthesised tonal music without in itself being at all anachronistic. They produced a wonderfully intense effect, each sound feeling highly articulated and organised, and never over-bearing or violent.