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.
Welcome to the third interview in this series. Today I am very happy to be able to publish an interview with Ake 阿科, the Beijing-based experimental musician. Ake is a young (born in 1990), self-taught artist, who has only been performing for a couple of years but has become a regular participant in experimental music events in the city. While initially working with violin drones, she has recently started investigating manipulated field recording. I interviewed Ake because I think she represents a new generation of artists in China whose practice is developing within a relatively stable environment for autonomous experimental work, an environment that does not depend on the “regular” music scene to provide it with outlets and reasons to exist.
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.
For the experimental music community in Beijing, each month holds the promise of another MIJI Concert. Organised since 2011 by various members associated with the Sub Jam record label, MIJI Concert is now in its 39th edition. This event has managed to survive in a city that has become less than fertile ground for experimental creative productions over the past few years with the closure of a number of venues that would host such events; MIJI is now one of the few regular events for such practical research into sound and music. Since edition 18 MIJI has found a home at the Meridian Space, located in a small creative cluster behind the National Art Museum of China not far from the Forbidden City in central Beijing. The long, thin, upstairs room in which it takes place is perhaps inhospitable for regular styles of performance, but within an experimental context provides an ideal foil for the artists. The quality of the space helps to work against divisions between performer and audience, so the physical relationship between them is always under negotiation – dependant on things like the equipment being used, the style of performance, and the nerve of the audience members. Last week’s MIJI Concert 39 was a case in point, with four pieces making various uses of the space, setting up different experiences of the performers’ relationship between themselves and with the audience.
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.