Zhu Wenbo, Li Song, Yan Jun: There Is No Music From China (compilation)

Navel-Gazers #13 is an interview with Zhu Wenbo, Yan Jun and Li Song who are going to talk to us about There Is No Music From China. This is new territory, for several reasons.. it's the first venture onto the Asian continent for Navel-Gazers, and I hope the first of many. It's also an email interview with three people so bear with me collating all the responses! And it's a compilation, produced by Zhu Wenbo and Yan Jun. Zhu Wenbo is a sound artist, event organiser, and founder of the Zoomin' Night label based in Beijing. Zoomin' Night is a goldmine for anyone wondering about experimental music in China. Yan Jun is also based in Beijing - he's been described as 'the invisible glue holding together the Chinese experimental music scene' - on a side note I recommend his collaboration with Hsia Yu 7 Poems and Some Tinnitus which could be a discussion for another day. Last but not least Li Song - a contributor to the compilation - is my connection here, he's from Xi'an and London based, a familiar face at improv events (in fact he lives just down the road from me)! Ok is there really no music from China?? That can't be true. Let's get to the bottom of this.

AC: I am terrible at introducing people, I'm sure the descriptions above haven't done anyone justice! I wonder if you could each tell us briefly about your background and how it is that you know each other.

Zhu Wenbo: Thank you for the introduction above. It is good, although we don't call ourselves "sound artists". In China, sound artists normally are those people who play ambient music, mixing multi-media or big screen visual works... I don't know why, but in Chinese, if we talk about a "sound artist" it would be that. And I really hate that! Normally I just call myself a "musician".

AC: Yeah, it's not necessarily a language thing with this term 'sound art' - it's a confusing one here as well, which I don't really care for either since it can mean almost anything! I don't know why I thought I saw that in a bio of yours somewhere..

Zhu Wenbo: No problem... well, back to the topic. I formed my first band in 2008. It was a two-person band. We got some inspiration from Suicide but it didn't really sound like that... After this I formed many other rock bands, and started to play clarinet in 2013. Everything was self-taught. I started organising Zoomin' Night concerts in 2009. I think because of that I have some links with musicians in China, mainly rock musicians and experimental musicians. Before I made my own music I already knew Yan Jun. I used to read his articles back in 1999, in my high school days. I think at that time he was more active than he is now in China's underground rock scene.

Because of Zoomin' Night, I also have some contacts with other cities' similar scenes. In Xi'an, there was a small group System Error, who were mostly university students at that time. One of them was Li Song. After graduating he moved to Beijing, and we worked in the same company, later the same department. Then he moved to my neighboourhood. So we spent a lot of time talking, eating food, hanging out... in 2015 we formed a duo project No Performance.

AC: How about you Yan Jun?

Yan Jun: Yes, I was a rock critic and underground music promoter during the mid 90s and early 2000s. I can't read sheet music and I play no instrument in a "musical" way. So I started my own music with field recording and voice in 2003 when the underground rock scene disappeared. I think it was around then or earlier that I knew Wenbo from an online forum. I was there as a forum moderator of the poetry section and Wenbo was active on the music one.

Anyway, there is a group of young low-profile rockers in Beijing. I'd known some of them since 2005 but it's in around 2011 that we really started to make music together. They are still rockers but they do radical stuff on the other hand. That was the beginning of the Miji concert series.

I've also been in another scene since I started. Mainly people older than Wenbo and Li Song and it's more expressionism, anarchy and in most cases loud! Here is an archive of that period. When this scene broke up, I joined my new friends and colleagues. I hope this scene will continue, haha.

AC: Wow, the Sub Jam archive is just enormous. So much to listen to! ...and Li Song?

Li Song: I started making music with computers around 2013. I was a computer science student in Xi'an at that time. I got to know SuperCollider after a short sound design course online, and I was quite fascinated by the fact that I could just use a text editor to make music. Then I was involved in the local group/label System Error through their events, starting to perform more audiovisual stuff around that time.

I moved to Beijing in 2014 right after Uni. As Zhu Wenbo said we worked for the same company, we were hanging out quite often and talked a lot of music and non-music things during lunch breaks over the years. I feel very lucky to have experienced the last year of the Zoomin' Night concerts at the XP club. I started to play more improvised music in the events organized by Zhu, getting to know more musicians and collaborating with them, including Yan Jun. I was a regular in the audience at Yan Jun's Miji concerts and living room tour... I believe many of the "No Performance" performances happened in Miji.

AC: No Performance performances, what a paradox... nice! Ok so this compilation, 'There Is No Music From China', the title just got my attention right away. You might well have called it 'There Is No Experimental Music From China' and that would be thought-provoking in itself. But what this made me realise is that although I'm a voracious music listener and I have travelled to China many times, I could not name a single musical artist from China, in any genre! It seems the only Asian music which has seriously penetrated the Western psyche is from India, Japan, some from Indonesia and the odd pop song from Korea. For experimental music it always seems to be Japan only. So is there a lot more of this kind of music in China than we imagine?

Zhu Wenbo: Ok well... for "this kind of music" let's say, all kinds of experimental music, I think there is really not too much when you compare it to the Japanese scene, or consider the Chinese population. Beijing's experimental scene is always revolving - people come, then leave. There are always some new musicians, mostly rock/punk musicians in their 20s, who have some interest in "this kind of music", mainly guitar pedal noise, or weird DJ stuff. But not all of them will continue. Actually I don't think I saw many continue throughout these years. But there are still some new faces, people who became our friends after that compilation in 2017. Around 10 more artists maybe, of all different backgrounds.

AC: As Li Song would know, because the UK is relatively small the experimental scene revolves overwhelmingly around London. In China, does it revolve around Beijing?

Li Song: I don't know that you could really say it revolves only around Beijing. There's always been various this-kind-of-music happening in other major cities for sure, maybe just smaller in terms of size.

AC: That sounds more like the USA perhaps. And how about this compilation, is this focused on artists in Beijing?

Zhu Wenbo: This compilation did not solely focus on Beijing's musicians. Maybe half of them are in Beijing, but also Shanghai (Maimai, Junky, Jun-Y Ciao, Gao Jiafeng), Chengdu (Sun Wei), Guangdong (Zhong Minjie), and Yao Qingmei lives in France!

AC: The track from Yao Qingmei certainly stood out with the French singing!

Yan Jun: Yao Qingmei is actually not a musician. She is an artist I discovered by chance while searching for something else. To expand ourselves we also work with writers, dancers and artists, not in collaboration but in letting them do "music".

AC: Your last comment about non-musicians is of particular interest to me, Yan Jun. I'n thinking of it in terms of the different factions you were describing earlier - on the one hand there are the younger artists who come from underground rock, it's easy to imagine how this progression works and it's probably pretty similar in a number of places around the world. But then there is the other crowd - the older, 'expressionist' bunch, this is a little more mysterious to me. What kind of background do these folks have? Do any of them cross over from other art forms or disciplines such as writing or academia? Can we trace it back to anything in the Chinese culture, or to external influences?

Yan Jun: Actually, the older ones were also rockers, or at least from that background. The difference is that the younger ones play 'non-expressionist' or non-masculine rock.

In the mid-90's, underground rockers started searching for a new sound. Some moving on to noise, drone, minimal music etc. - that's my background. When Wenbo and Li Song stepped onto the scene they created this colder wave of rock and its side projects. Since 2000 there have been some people who have never played in a band, and started with laptops and hacked software. They play live less often, and are more of an online community. That's another story about electroacoustic music.. of course now everything is mixed up.

There is almost nothing from the academy. These non-musicians I mentioned at our events are in their later years. Mostly we invite artists to do "anything under the guise of music".. we are trying to swallow more from outside of music. Musicians sometimes are quite conservative!

AC: Your description of the "cold wave" ushered in by artists like Wenbo and Li Song reminds me that I wanted to ask about Ice - what sounds are we hearing here Wenbo? - and all three of your own contributions to this collection. Tell me about 'Ice', A Practice, and Nib...? after that, there are a couple of the other tracks I'll want to ask about as well.

Zhu Wenbo: There's a description I originally wrote for the compilation here. As for the title, this is the "reality" of ice. To me it has some similarities with the music: it has a progression, and it has a strong sort of "body"-feeling in the same way a performance does. And I like the sound. So to me this is like a kind of music. Later I uploaded the whole recording on my own Bandcamp.

Yan Jun: My piece is a practice where I am playing with mics. I have placed 3 mics in different locations of my studio (in Berlin at that time)... at the end of the room for my voice, and on the door for the sound from outside.. In some parts of the recording you hear a mixture of both. At some points, I mute one or two of them, then you hear the different spaces. But the timeline keeps to real time.

Li Song: My piece "Nib" is playing around with multiple sine wave oscillators. Each one of them has a different position in a stereo setup and a very close frequency to the others, and occasionally I just fade them to different frequencies. There are beats and binaural beats sometimes, based on the positions. I quite like that state where you feel you're hearing something extra, but not entirely sure where it's coming from.

AC: There are so many other interesting inclusions here too - the piece from Jun-Y-Ciao with the crickets chirping, the extremely high pitches on Liu Xinyu's Dancing, the final track from Gao Jiafeng (this is very confusing and funny if you don't speak Chinese!), and the abrasive sounds from Torturing Nurse, whose music seems to be pretty well-documented elsewhere. However the one track I find really, really strange that I have to ask about is AlmostNearlyProbablyVeryClose from Zhong Minjie. It's got this song that keeps looping, and the voices of people talking.. I did click through to the individual track on this one for more informaiton, there's a long explanation but this only deepens the mystery! What is going on with this piece?

Yan Jun: There are certainly no details about the situation in the text. It must be in a small restaurant, I guess the player was malfunctioning but nobody cares in the restaurant. Zhong Minjie has done a lot of field recordings 'about' music. He often records people playing, using or listening to music. I don't ask more as I want to keep it mysterious as well.

Gao Jiafeng has made a parody of a commercial clip. He announced some artist names from this compilation, then: "there is no music from China!"

Torturing Nurse's track is also mysterious to me. There is only one second of harsh noise, then something happens in a large space, with Junky's mouth noises, and some drum beating in the distance... I always love to work with him/them on acoustic projects.

AC: As you guys know the focus here on Navel-Gazers is sound recording, which I invite our readers to consider as a distinct medium of expression, newer than music in general, still emerging... Compilations are great for this. In Western music we can look back at an early era of intense experimentation with sound recording, mostly mediated by studio engineers and record companies (see compilations like Ohm and Rubble). Nowadays anyone with a laptop or even a phone can make a multitrack recording, so it seems to be happening everywhere! So now we have labels like Unexplained Sounds, Syrphe, and indeed Zoomin' Night, collecting experimental recordings from all over the world.

However out West we had this 'in-between' period - roughly 70s thru 90s - where you could start to make home recordings but you had to grapple with the older home recording devices. This produced a lot of experimentation. Long question but I'm wondering was there ever music like this in China? Can we find many home recordings of navel-gazers tinkering with reel-to-reel or 4-track tape recorders, back in the 80s or 90s before Logic and Protools?

Zhu Wenbo: Well, I don't know in too much detail, but I think in the late 90s, there were some Chinese musicians who started to use 4-track cassette or 8-track machines for some home recordings. Some of them were avant-garde rockers at that time, and some of the recordings got released... such as Wang Lei, I think he owned an 8-track home studio in Guangzhou making some lo-fi folk albums, and also Pan Gu (Punk God)'s debut album. Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou's second and third albums were also recorded on an 8-track machine. And also Hu Mage's first two albums, maybe also Wang Fan? I think all of them belong to an "underground/DIY scene" from the late 90s all around China. They are famous names for rock fans (such as me, a high school student). Ah, I remember that at that time my wishlist was to own a 4-track recorder, though I can't play guitar well...!

And now, some musicians still have an interest in this vintage stuff. Such as Li Weisi, who was also on this compilation and contributed a text work, he has a 4-track cassette recorder and a single track reel to reel, but mainly uses them as instruments more than recording gear.

Yan Jun: In terms of media and tools, the turntable wasn't popular in China. Even today it's only a toy for a small group of fans. Very few people have touched reel to reel recorders. By the time Chinese people heard the synthesiser it had already turned into a pre-set keyboard and was mass-produced.

Remember the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976 and the reformation and opening was from 1979... the 4-track recorder was introduced to rockers in the early 90s, but it was not really a home recording culture. It belonged to some serious musicians who might have had to work at home... and, most electronic musicians were not familiar with the hardware when they were kids.

I remember in the late 90s Dickson Dee from Hong Kong sold Macs, Protools, multi-track recorders, samplers, and drum machines to some successful musicians such as Wang Yong and Zhang Chu, during the first wave of home brew. Of course the young poor ones soon found cracked software.

AC: I'm looking these artists up! Sounds like there was not much, but some. Maybe someday we'll see "There Was No Music From China", a retrospective on such rarities!

Quick spotlight on Li Song before we wrap up: how are you finding the London scene? I too am a stranger in a strange land (I am from New York) - to me London is like the Mecca for experimental music.

Li Song: It's certainly an exciting city to be in as an audience, things are still new to me. I enjoyed it a lot when I played at The Horse with Sue Lynch/Livia Garcia, and at Arch1 with Stephan Barrett/Laura Cioffi last year. Looking forward to more collaboration when things get better here.

I do miss that sort of feedback sound from Yan Jun a lot here.

AC: We will have to get Yan Jun to fly over along with Wenbo!

What's next for everybody? Are gigs happening again in Beijing? Has the big Corona produced any interesting music, or just a lot of difficulty?

Zhu Wenbo: Yes, gigs are slowly re-starting in China. Yan Jun and I organised Musiklos 4 on Sept 12th and 13th. Some musicians had workshops with the audience, using some pieces they prepared that could "easily be played by anyone". Then the performance was played by the audience.

Actually I don't have any performance plans in future, though I hope to play some. Zoomin' Night has many release plans. If I release one album per month, now the plan could last until next June... I hope I can finish them on time.

AC: Sounds similar to publishing interviews! Yan Jun?

Yan Jun: Gigs in China are fine but I'm not so keen to travel with a mask and the health code. Maybe a few more in Beijing, and still some online stuff... there will be one realtime online performance at my home in which I'll work as mise-en-scene with a filmmaker. I have a video of a performance in a lift for the Tusk Festival in the UK as well.

Let's see. There are hundreds of writing, recording and publishing plans anyway. Plus I have a new hobby of discovering black metal!

AC: Wicked! And Li Song?

Li Song: I've actually been recording and editing some of Wenbo's compositions for the last couple of weeks, we wrote some music for each other back in July. And now there's one online performance from me and a performance maker Mengting Zhuo in November, we'll see how this goes...

AC: Well I'm sure that will go great and I'd certainly like to thank you Li Song, for putting us all in contact. Thanks to everyone for what has been one of the most enlightening and unusual discussions here on Navel-Gazers... it's great to know that yes, there is music in China - lots of it - and there are some brilliant people over there keeping it alive. I hope someday we will all meet in London or Beijing or who-knows-where, who-knows-when!

Zhu Wenbo can be found at Zoomin' Night on Bandcamp.
Yan Jun can be found at Yan Jun on Bandcamp.
Li Song can be found at notimportant.

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