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China's Experimental Music Pioneers Are Moving West

A Q&A with several of today’s most important Chinese experimental music figures about their creative process and their country’s music phenomena.
March 31, 2011, 7:25pm

Back in November 2007, the 2pi Experimental Music festival was the only place in China to catch performances from experimental musicians. Countless fans from every corner of the country gathered in Hangzhou to fill a warehouse, and transform it into an art space for the festival’s fifth gathering. Musicians assembled from mainland China, Taiwan, and abroad didn’t just play together—they also traded performing practices. A laundry list of toys like laptops, fluorescent lamps, custom-made hardware and software, contact microphones, sound processors, guitars, saxophones and many, many foot pedals modulated the sound, the silence, and the overall ambiance of the event. The experience reached its peak when Li Jiahong skillfully performed a psychedelic guitar set with overwhelming layers of sound building up to a sonic orgasm.


Li, the organizer of the festival, is considered to be “the best noise musician in China.” At least, according to the internationally-renown composer Zbigniew Karkowski. In the past, Li has participated in several different bands, including D


D!, (a major hit in Japan), Vagus Nerve, Second Skin, and Pisces Iscariots.

The last set, with Yan Jun, was quieter. Taking a Zen-like approach, Yan manipulated a high-frequency microphone, playing with delicate feedback sounds for a half hour. Yan Jun is another well-known figure in China’s underground music scene. A regular renaissance man, Yan Jun is a music critic, poet, and sound artist, as well as founder of the music label Sub Jam and organizer of the weekly Waterland KwanYin venue at the 2Kolegas bar in Beijing. Yan is also responsible for the annual Mini Midi festival, where local and international musicians participate in a three-day event parallel to Beijing’s Midi Festival. It’s no surprise he’s often cited as the key figure of the music scene centered in Beijing. Working in a wide range of formats—from spoken word to field recordings—he searches for a musical practice that’s as minimal as possible, once saying, "I wish I could play with nothing at all."

Wang Fan is another one of the earliest Chinese experimental musicians and works with a laptop, synthesizers, electronic organs, and samplers. Wang’s background was working with major underground rock bands in Beijing, and he also composes scores for the theater. His performances are a hypnotizing mix of improv, noise, tribal beats, and religious elements.


Four years later, Li Jihangong is preparing to tour the U.S. with Yan Jun and Wang Fan. Their show will provide audiences with a rare chance to see the three musicians who collectively comprise the roots of Chinese experimental music. The Creators Project spoke with Li and Yan about their creative processes, and to learn about their views on the Chinese experimental music scene.

The Creators Project: You’re one of the first Chinese experimental musicians. Can you describe what the scene was like back in the 90s?
Li Jianhong: It was a rather closed situation. My main music sources were illegal cracked CDs [fished out of a U.S. and European plastic waste dump around the Canton coast]. Music magazines were extremely rare in that time. We had no idea of other music genres besides rock. Later, when we started to have access to (almost) everything, mainly with the internet, we got to know all the other music genres and styles. So, when the first young alternative Chinese musicians and bands started producing, people used the terms “experimental music” or “experimental noise” to categorize them. Musicians later developed more refined musical concepts, and this happened with the audience as well.

Why did you started to play noise/experimental music?
Li: There was no specific reason. I felt rock music didn’t affect me, it wasn’t my cup of tea anymore. That repeated formula of music-making didn’t allow me to express myself.
Yan Jun: There weren’t any concerts during [the SARS outbreak in 2003], so I couldn’t write about anything. I started hanging out with Wang Fan and FM3. Later, encouraged by Zhang Jian, I bought my first MD recorder and a microphone. I started to perform with field recordings, CD sampling, and voices. I think underground rock is dead, but I need to keep the revolution going. A formless desire needs to find a way to be expressed. I got on the boat spontaneously.


Chinese experimental musicians have been exploring noise, psychedelic rock, field recordings, laptop music, and improvisation. Do those styles and their corresponding mediums have any relation to developing technology?
Li: There are certain relationships and influences. Many Chinese musicians are willing to try new formats. For example, when computer music appeared, there were a lot of people trying to use software as instrument. We just wanted to know which form was the best for us. For us, everything was fresh in the first place. We were eager to try it all. Once we found the right form, we kept it and developed it.

You all have different styles and use different instruments. How do you work together?
Li: We will collaborate. We did it before. I am still not sure about the form, but I’m not worried. Things will come gradually.
Yan: No plan, we will know it by then. Touring together is a collaboration already. The outcome and everything else will come naturally.

You will perform with ten other American musicians in the Heaven Gallery. How are you preparing for that?
Li: I think we will develop it in an improvisational format. With so many performers, listening is participating already.
Yan: We might make random groups of three or four musicians.

Who influences your work?
Li: Guan Pinghu, Lin Shicheng, Keith Rowe, AMM, Jimi Hendrix, Keiji Haino, and, most importantly, Chinese traditional culture.
Yan: Alvin Lucier, David Tudor, Jason Kahn, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, Ryu Hankil, Yuen Cheewai, Lin Chi Wei, Zbigniew Karkowski, Erik Satie, Hermann Nitsch, Yves klein, He Wenbiao, Alan Tam, Cui Jian, Dao Lang, FM3, Liu Shao Chun, André Breton, Lu Xun, Nietzsche, and Jean Baudrillard.


Can you tell us how you choose and collect your sound? How does technology influence your creative process?
Li: What I am using now was basically fixed a couple years before. New technology doesn’t influence my work much. The software I am using now for sound editing and mixing is the same as ten years ago, and I am still playing traditional instruments. In fact, I do not want technology to influence my music much, but if there is something that can make the sound similar to what I idealize, I would love to try it out.
Yan: I carry my recorder along everyday. I record interesting sounds that I may encounter, or whatever sound when I get bored. I like to record micro sounds, like the sound of materials contracting and expanding according to temperature shifts. Sometimes I use contact microphones to record cans, tins, or pipes. I like their low frequency noise and electronic flow noise. I am a normal human being, so technology is affecting me the same way it’s affecting everybody else. I am just following the flow, but I do explore it more.

As the organizer of the most important experimental music festival in China, what would you like to see in the scene? What does it need to become self-sustainable?
Li: I used to hope to see a crowded audience at an avant-garde and experimental music festival, with the same atmosphere as a rock festival, and getting all the media attention. I do not think that way anymore. If things really happen like that, will it still be an interesting and healthy avant-garde scene? The situation as it is now is good. We should let it be.
Yan: Most important is that the creators keep having the desire to create independently from the public reception of their work. They should be clear-minded, and they should stop complaining. If you do not get distracted with small interests, everything else will change consequently.


You have performed around the world. Do you think there are any differences between the Chinese experimental music scene, and that of other regions?
Li: There isn’t a big difference, but different people. The main difference that is worth mentioning is that the development of Chinese new music is fractured inside.
Yan: Chinese people drink more.

Can you talk about your artist residency in New York? What is your working direction?
Yan: My residency in New York is a three-month long program with support from the Asian Culture Council. I don’t have a specific project. My mission is to “observe the New York experimental music scene.” Now I am getting in touch with new New York experimental music. I had a taste of the old Black Mountain College, NY Fluxus, and Minimalism. My friends are arranging some shows for me, and I just came back from the Bay Area, then I will go to Boston, then I will do this tour with Wang Fan and Li Jianhong. Later, I will have other performances, nothing is systematically related. Not many people in the States know about Chinese experimental music. They have some knowledge about Li Jianhong’s D


D!, Dickson Dee and Xper from HK, Torturing Nurse from Shanghai, and the Buddha Machine from FM3, plus me and Xiao He.

28th March 7pm- Myopic— Yan Jun+Brian Labicz
29th March 7pm- Museum of Contemporary Art— Yan Jun
31th March 4pm- The School of the Art Institute of Chicago— Yan Jun, Wang Fan, Li Jianhong lecture
1st April – Brown Rice- Yan Jun, Wang Fan, Li Jianhong, Jonathan Chen, Marina Peterson
2nd April 6pm- WUNR— Yan Jun, Wang Fan, Li Jianhong, performance and talk
3rd April 7pm- Heaven Gallery with Chicago-based musicians

Columbus, Ohio:
4th April 8pm- It looks Like It’s Open, with Columbus- based musicians

Athens, Ohio:
5th April 7:30- School of Music Recital Hall— Yan Jun, Wang Fan, Li Jianhong, Jonathan Chen, Marina Peterson
6th April 10:00am-12:00pm- aesthetic lab— workshop

Concerts, workshops, lectures free of charge

images courtesy of the artists and Bryan Spencer