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The rise of Beijing experimental music scene

yx001On 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."

Li, who performs with Soviet Pop, Snapline and Carsick Cars, explained that while nights are hit and miss, just about everyone knows each other. The most important feature, he feels, is that it showcases the many possible ways of creating music.


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."

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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.

Zuo himself is a musical polymath.

In addition to his accordion training ("My mother chose it for me when I was two-and-a-half because she thought that it would make me more clever"), he plays guitar, bass, harmonica, theremin, melodica, drums, keyboards and manipulates effects pedals and oscillation devices during his solo sets.

Next up: the alto-saxophone, to feed his growing fascination with free jazz.

"I think when the door of perception of music is open, you can study and play any instruments you want," he said while ticking off an encyclopedic list of genres that his two bands tackle:

Krautrock, psychedelic improvisation, acid rock and human voice experimentation (Carpet of Let) and post-punk, experimental noise rock, noise pop, industrial and New Wave with "free-jazz-and-noise-post-punk-guitar" (Wanderlust).

"The very young and often very aggressive musicians and other artists who show up every week are in the process of defining their music and will inevitably play a very important role in creating determining the most important Chinese music of the next decades," said D-22 founder Michael Pettis.

He sees Zoomin' Night as the most interesting and exciting of the venue's regular event series.

"Zuo Wei is one of the most thoughtful musicians in that scene, and he will not only play a role as a musicians but also as an organizer."


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.

"It was a smaller scene: we were playing new kind of rock stuff for new audiences," said Zhang. "We would try different things, work together and have some side projects. That's what the Beijing scene is supposed to be -- creative and fresh."

Johnny Leijonhufvud, drummer for highly-influential local band P.K. 14, said that bands are really pushing themselves to do something different, not only for themselves, but also for the audience.

Leijonhufvud demonstrated that reciprocal ethos by participating in a very special performance earlier this month where, under a bruise-colored sky and unseasonably cool temperatures, P.K. 14 blasted though the entirety of their seminal debut record Whoever, Whoever and Whoever (2004, Modern Sky).

Three-hundred plus fans sang along, held transfixed for an hour by five musicians at peak form (Spectator V lent an extra pair of hands on the guitar) as they performed those cathartic anthems, ten songs that have been seared into the collective consciousness many times over.


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.

Other participants in the project include Spectators O and K -- Spectator V's collaborators in the Offset: Spectacles, tackling art direction and engineering, respectively; Joshua and Simon Frank, the two Canadian brothers who perform both as Hot & Cold and as solo artists; Li Weisi (dubbing and spiritual guidance), Li Qing (graphic design and dubbing), Yang Fan (engineering) and Zhu "Raindog" Wenbo, taking care of all things web-related.

"We stayed up one World Cup night and did all 120 cassette sleeves in one go," said V. "It was really fun and emotional."

More will follow in the future.

In addition, Maybe Noise, a branch of Maybe Mars Records, are readying the release of a Zoomin' Night compilation record.

P.K. 14 frontman Yang Haisong recorded 57 songs by about a dozen bands in mid-January and spent six weeks narrowing the selection down to nine cuts from performers who make up the backbone of the scene, including Carpet of Let, Fat City, Wanderlust, Ice Seller (pictured below), Cardiac Murmur, Sister Oriented, Lu Xinpei, A4 Destroyer and Zhang Shouwang.
"It was really hard to leave all these beautiful songs behind," said Yang on the tracks left on the cutting room floor. He envisions releasing the complete sessions in the future.

Plans are underway to support the compilation record with some gigs in southern China later this year.

However, Zuo's parents -- a military surgeon and chemical engineer -- remain unaware that he shuttles back and forth between Beijing and Tianjin to indulge in his sonic tinkering.

"I don't know how to tell them," he said. "If they find out, they may confiscate my instruments and start keeping a lookout."

Zuo ultimately envisions working as a scientist by day and playing music at night. He sees the two as perfectly compatible, citing the white collar careers of Lei Weisi and Snapline's Chen Xi as examples.

"Maybe they will think I am crazy. But when I tell them this after I graduate, they will know that I am right."

......................................... By Pete DeMola



The D-22 club - The sound & the fury

“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.”

All revenues from the club — a dark, scarlet-draped locale with a capacity of about 200 — are injected back into the independent music community. Bands receive a hearty 80-90 percent of the total take from their shows. (Most clubs in the capital city offer bands 30-40 percent.)

Saliba himself holds down a day job as an English teacher to make ends meet.

“On the world music scene, Beijing doesn’t have the recognition that it deserves. Bands need a confidence boost,” a nurturing element, he said.

D-22, whose name remains a mystery (the club produced a self-deprecating video acknowledging their enigmatic name that is often aired between bands), scouts out local talent and gives them a platform to make a name for both themselves and for the city’s explosive music scene overall.

“The Beijing sound is dirty, gritty — it’s not a California beach sound with twanging guitars. It’s got that Beijing bad traffic and bad pollution kind of vibe,” Saliba said.

Saliba, 30, who grew up in the U.K. and Spain and went to school at Columbia University, initially arrived in Beijing in February 2004.

“I was always fascinated with what was happening in China,” he remarked. He was family friends with Mike Pettis, his D-22 co-founder and former Wall Street guru, who urged him to come to the Middle Kingdom and check it out.

Saliba’s first show was Hang on the Box, a highly influential all-girl punk band in the winter of 2004.

“I was very impressed. I didn’t expect the music here to be that good,” he remembered.

Saliba and Pettis felt like there was a lot of talent, but the places were all lacking something.

They opened D-22 together, in Haidian District’s Wudaokou neighborhood — home to Tsinghua and Peking Universities, China’s most prestigious schools — on May 1, 2006, or International Labor Day.

In little less than two years, the club has racked up a slew of awards — including Bar of the Year by notoriously fickle expatriate magazine That’s Beijing — and has become not only a mecca for future indie rock star hopefuls, but a space for experimental and performance art and cinema screenings as well. (In December, the club co-hosted the Beijing International Film Festival.)

In four years since he’s been in the country, Saliba has seen considerable ideological changes among young Beijingers: “The younger they are, the more willing to question things and take risks.” Kids now — the post-80s generation, the first to be raised as only children — are more open-minded, and they have more of an appetite for knowledge, he said.

Saliba cites their increased access to information — primarily through the Internet — as one of the triggers.

And of course the music — heavily reminiscent of such late-1970s post-punk luminaries Television, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees — has gone through a radical transformation as well.

Previously, it was easier to pick out bands’ influences. Many of the bands here simply emulated their idols as a result of beginning to listen to 40 years of music at the same time, said Saliba.

But the newer crop of bands is less derivative than their late-1990s predecessors.

This new cohort of bands — Hedgehog, The K and Ourselves Beside Me, to name a few — produce increasingly unique music, ranging from electro pop to shoegaze, and there are more of them than in days past.

“There’s about 10 to 15 quality, solid bands that will go places. China’s getting put on the map now,” Saliba said, mentioning that some bands — like PK-14 and Carsick Cars — have recently returned from European tours where they played to surprisingly receptive crowds. Carsick Cars played with rock legends Sonic Youth.

Pettis and PK-14’s lead singer Yang Haisong recently launched a record label, Maybe Mars, last September, releasing albums for Carsick Cars, Joyside and Snapline. More are sure to follow.

But there are still significant challenges that may prevent Beijing from becoming the capital of Asia’s music scene, like the shaky truce with the authorities.

“You have to stay positive and avoid thinking about these kinds of things,” said Saliba, discussing the potential for the club to be shuttered if the authorities perceive the underground music scene as a threat to the status quo and to the Party’s lock on ideological discourse.

“And we’re hoping that more people will come out and drop the perception that bars are bad places to be,” he said, citing the commonly held perception in this country that entertainment venues are magnets for vice and organized crime.

But the guy who gets stuff done said he’s excited that future generations of bands will be influenced by today’s dynamos: “I’m looking forward to that day,” he said, “when a kid picks up a guitar after hearing a Joyside record and decides to start a band.”

That’s when the scene will come full circle.

.................... By Pete DeMola



Come On Feel the Noise

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.

He is also a promoter and the founder of Beijing electronica label Shanshui Records. "The great thing about the experimental scene in Beijing," he says, "is that it's easy for musicians to get a foot in the door." But it's not that easy to make a living — in fact, Sulumi is one of the few to pull it off. "I do commercial performances sometimes, which is where I get my income," he shrugs. "But making music is my life — I don't need any other motivation."

Cosmic Shenggy

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.

The 26-year-old Beijing native, whose real name is Shen Jing, fashions music from the seemingly random meldings of traditional Chinese instruments, bleeps and bloops worthy of a sci-fi B movie, and an ethereal, at times unnerving, operatic voice. "I have a strong interest in the cosmos, so a lot of my music tends to describe those feelings," she says.

Shenggy also performs in an electronica duo, White, alongside vocalist Zhang Shouwang from Beijing alternative rockers Carsick Cars. It was with White that she caught the ear of Einstürzende Neubauten's singer-writer-multi-instrumentalist Blixa Bargeld. The duo plans to release a debut album later this year, under Bargeld's aegis. "Everything is coming very fast, young people are very open-minded and, in some ways, the scene lacks direction," she says. "Avant-garde music here needs time, but in a couple of years, things are going to be good."

Torturing Nurse

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.

In live appearances, Torturing Nurse is aural mayhem — instruments are trashed, vocals are screamed, microphones and mixing boards are dismembered and feedback allowed to build to almost unbearable levels, while Cao and the others don masks, flail around and occasionally assault each other. "I just want our live shows to be weird and something extremely different," Cao says. They certainly are that. Even among the avant-garde, Torturing Nurse retain the power to shock.
Torturing Nurse - “Tape” .......... free download

Yan Jun

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.
ab003At 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."

For B6, that doesn't preclude intelligent synth pop. In 2007, he teamed with Shanghai singer-songwriter Jay Wu to release Synth Love, an album of songs sung in English. A solo album of danceable techno, Post Haze, is due out this month on China's Modern Sky label. "The whole independent music scene is growing slowly in China," he says. Some of its hottest acts, incidentally, can be seen at Antidote, a club night co-founded by B6 and dedicated to new electronica. "Local kids are getting used to parties that are outside of traditional Chinese culture, and most of my audiences are young people who look for fresh, new music." In China these days, there's no shortage of that.

................................ By  Natasha Stokes








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