On a warm weeknight in early-June, a kid set aside his guitar, dropped to his knees and began to moan -- pulling at strings and twirling knobs -- before losing himself in the squalls of ringing feedback, shifts in modulation and ambient noise that his band, Carpet of Let, concocted behind him. "I'm nervous and shy," the kid later said. "I like to make noise like a zombie." Zuo Wei, a mild-mannered 20-year-old chemistry student at Tianjin Normal University, is one of the most active figures working to nurture a new offshoot of Beijing's music scene, one that is embracing a more DIY, community-based ethic as the independent music industry enters a new phase of commodification.
Since Fat City, Hot & Cold and Sister Oriented kicked off the first session in early-August of last year, Zhu "Rainbog" Wenbo's weekly Zoomin' Night series at live music venue D-22 has given birth to a thriving new creative community where musicians, artists and photographers are facilitating a culture of experimentation and seeking to upturn conventional sonic boundaries by using the night as a springboard for collaborative performances and creative departures from their usual projects.
It's just a normal day, said Li Weisi. "The difference is that the bands playing on that day are more weird and unconventional. It is a very cold night sometimes -- even in summer."
The definition of "experimental music" differs as much between the community as the sounds constructed within its parameters.
Li explained that experiments are operated through hypothesis, application, verification and conclusion. "Experimental music is just an experiment on music. I can`t say it is a good or bad music, but there are many successful or failing experiments."
Zoomin' Night Art Director Lin Yanzhu sees it as the exploration of sound and a clash of the unknown: a mercurial process of cancellation and reformation that expands the boundaries and perception of music itself.
"Noise, sound and melody are all equal," he said. "While you can never be sure of the end result, it's always fresh, vital and ultimately defines itself."
Zuo likes to think of it as strange and seductive, a form that isn't restrained by the chains of the classical structure found in rock and blues.
He studied the accordion for 11 years before eventually realizing that he didn't like music with so much constraint. "When you study the instrument, you don't study how to really perform it -- you just learn how to play it."
Experimental music is creative, not rigid, he said.
His bandmate in Carpet of Let, Mao Shizhou, feels that each member of a live unit has different ideas while playing the same song during an improvised performance.
"You can feel the change in each performance while your emotion and mood is changing," said Mao, who also performs with Ice Seller, another band from Tianjin. "And this is something that you can't feel while playing at any other rock and roll bar."
Tianjin, by the way, doesn't even have a platform that facilitates collaboration, said Zuo. The closing of NIC Club earlier this year left the city's musicians bereft of venues conducive to experimentation.
Spectator V, a multi-instrumentalist and producer who performs with the Offset: Spectacles, argues that new language needs to be articulated to describe the current paradigm.
"Ninety percent of the music we hear [at Zoomin' Night] has roots in well-developed aesthetic lineages," he said. "If we were living in the 1980s, then you could probably still call it [experimental]. But being 2010, I think it is time for us to articulate a new set of language to describe all the new music pumping out from these bands."
V said that he'd like to see more accurate naming conventions taking shape as musicians continue to develop new sonic blueprints.
"I have been thinking about how to describe Soviet Pop, and the only thing I could come up with was Oscilla-folk," he said. "And that sounds kind of lame."
Semantics aside, the music pumping out from these myriad projects are varied.
It spans a wide spectrum, ranging from more traditional post punk and noise rock (Wanderlust, Golden Driver, Birdstriking), dancehall (WHITE +) free improvisation jazz (Li Tieqiao, Jackson Garland) to the surreal oscillator phase noise emitted by Soviet Pop.
While performances are open to the public, the weekly sessions aren't so much traditional shows as they are the epicenter of a new community coalescing around common interests and doing what they love, explained Nevin Domer, D-22's Booking Manager and a creative team member of the club's associated record label, Maybe Mars.
Some nights, he said, people take the role of the audience. On other nights, they are the performers. "In the end, the focus is on the community and an exchange of ideas -- not the number of tickets sold."
"It's typically a small crowd made up of mostly die-hard listeners and musicians," said Spectator V, adding that the two aren't mutually-exclusive. "It's outliers playing dubious post-apocalyptic genres, some being more exciting than others. And a great soundtrack in between sets."
Zhang Shouwang (WHITE+, Carsick Cars) sees Zoomin' Night as the natural predecessor of Waterland Kwanyin -- the now-defunct Tuesday night series curated by Subjam Records and music critic Yan Jun that ran from June 2005 to Oct 2008 at 2 Kolegas -- and the No Beijing movement, a group of affiliated bands and musicians who, drawing inspiration from the proto-punk and avant-garde minimalism that oozed from New York in the mid-1970s, gave birth to the bands that eventually became Snapline, Carsick Cars, WHITE and the Gar.
A new DIY cassette label and zine, Rose Mansion Analog, has also sprouted from this freshly-tilled soil.
The project was launched out of necessity, said founder Spectator V. Analog recording fell by the wayside about a decade ago due to advances in technology and recording studios slowly phased out the technology, resulting in a near-total absence of analog studios here in China.
"We set up a mobile studio, like how Alan Lomax did it back in the day," he said, referring to the legendary preservationist of world music. "But instead of recording country bluesmen, we record sound-based oscillator duo, keyboard rock and loud folk music."
The lo-fi aspect isn't something intentional, said Spectator V , but more due to technical and financial limitation of doing it on their own.
He likens the analog versus digital debate to making rice: "You can choose to use a rice cooker, or you can use a microwave. No matter what, you'll get fluffy, steamy rice at the end -- but the latter method basically nuked all the nutrients out of the rice."
Rose Mansion Analog's first round of releases -- lavishly-illustrated cassettes by the Offset: Spectacles, Hot & Cold and Canadian lo-fi outfit Dirty Beaches -- were released on Tues, June 15.
“We don’t really go for titles here,” said Charles Saliba as he explained the many roles he plays at D-22 — the epicenter of Beijing’s indie music scene — including manager and accountant. “I get stuff done — I even get behind the bar and serve drinks when I have to.”
Saliba likes to tell people that D-22 is “the only true Communist organization left in the country,” explaining that the club’s mission is to support the music scene here in every way possible — not to make money. “We want to help bands make a living with their music.”
Amid the relentlessly changing cityscapes of Beijing and Shanghai, a new kind of music is being made. In terms of its discordance and abstraction, it compares to Dada, or the New York City and Berlin avant-garde movements of the 1970s. Yet something about it — a certain urgency and iconoclasm — could only have been spawned amid the wild experiment that is modern China itself. The country's punk and alternative-rock scenes have been gushed over by excited commentators, eager to cite them as evidence of China's changing mores. But they are staid in comparison to that created by a new breed of artists, who eschew conventional guitar-based music in favor of baffling electronica, extreme noise and found sound.
"Many experimental musicians started with rock, before slowly abandoning it for the freedom and creative space that is experimental music," says Lao Yang, the owner of Sugar Jar, a tiny record shop in Beijing that serves as the epicenter of this burgeoning avant-garde. Michael Ohlsson, a Shanghai-based music promoter, speculates that musicians are being drawn to the experimental scene because the music being produced is a purist's form and often has no lyrics. As such, it is far less likely to offend officialdom than, say, punk, which tends to be much more verbose, socially engaged and populist.
There is not even the slightest pretense that the music being made by the avant-garde is commercially viable in its present form. The work is difficult at the best of times. But perhaps that is its point. "I guess the reason noise art is so poignant in China," says Ohlsson, "is that it's dramatically anticommercial in a place where everything is very commercial."
Here are five artists to check out.
A musician, promoter and label boss, the tireless Sulumi is the Beijing underground's man to know
Considered a linchpin of the avant-garde, Sulumi — the working name of 26-year-old Sun Dawei — cites Yellow Magic Orchestra and Aphex Twin as his influences, and his music correspondingly moves between the genres of 8-bit (electronic music that mimics the sounds of outdated computers and gaming consoles) and IDM ("intelligent dance music"). Live shows can be geeky affairs, with Sulumi hunched over a laptop, a hooded sweatshirt obscuring his chiseled cheekbones.
She's winning international plaudits for music she describes as "cosmic industrial"
An ambassador for the chinese avant-garde, Cosmic Shenggy tours around Europe when not studying philosophy and sound engineering at university in London. She counts among her performance highlights a 2007 appearance at Barcelona's music and multimedia festival, Sonar, as well as a tour with German ensemble Einstürzende Neubauten, demigods of the sonic-art world.
This Shanghai three-piece make a sound so brutal, unforgiving and formless, other underground bands sound effete by comparison
Comprising Junky Cao, 31, Youki, 28, and Jiadie, 20, Shanghai's Torturing Nurse make noise. Pure, harsh, uncompromising noise. And front man Cao couldn't be any prouder of the fact. "I hate melody and rhythm, and I hate rock bands. Not just in China, but all over the world," he says. "They're always repeating themselves and have no flavor at all. Noise is free; noise bands have freedom."
The number of times Cao uses the word noise with reference to the trio is impressive — they play "harsh noise" and host monthly noise gigs for "noiseheads." His list of influences reads like a Who's Who of noise acts — Osaka performance-art group Hijokaidan and its spin-off Incapacitants, Tokyo ambient-rock act the Gerogerigegege, U.S. conceptual-art group the Haters, Canadian noise combo the Rita and several others. "I turned to making this sort of music because rock is boring," says Cao with wholly unnecessary emphasis.
Much of the Chinese capital's avant-garde scene has been shaped by a musician and promoter from provincial Lanzhou
"i don't know instruments and i'm not good with computers," says Yan Jun. It's not a very promising introduction, but in fact Yan, who moved to Beijing from Lanzhou city in Gansu province nine years ago, makes compelling, hypnotic music. Think of spacey sound effects, found sounds (like recordings made in the middle of a field) and the occasional punctuation of delicate piano notes.
At 35, Yan is very much the godfather of the Beijing avant-garde. Besides performing, he runs the seminal labels Kwanyin Records and Subjam, and is an influential critic and promoter — his weekly experimental nights attract a dedicated following and showcase left-field international and local artists of consistently high quality. Not that Yan is looking for attention. "Obviously I'd like to be able to share my music," he says. "But most important is that I enjoy it myself. If more people listen to me, great. If not, that's O.K., too." Perhaps it's enough that he's having the time of his life. "Beijing's attitude to the arts scene is carefree," he says. "It's very China, very earthy and not capitalistic at all. It's beautiful."
Even as the noise-art scene coalesces, some, like Shanghai's B6, are seeking ways to graduate from it when they tire of white noise or barked vocals, aficionados of Shanghai's avant-garde chill out with local DJ and musician Lou Nanli, otherwise known as B6. Although he continues to keep one foot in noise art, and still cites U.K. art-punk group Throbbing Gristle as an influence, the 26-year-old makes a clean, minimal techno sound these days. His set is remarkably poised, with only a few leitmotifs — like samples of signal interference from mobile phones — revealing a past in sonic experimentation.
"I do still sometimes make noise music, but mostly for art projects," says B6. "Weird noises are no longer the top secret they were in, say, the 1980s. I'd say that the experiment has succeeded. Well done, but let's take the results to the next level."