Beyond the wall: new music from China
May 21, 2009
Yan Jun with Wu Na & David Coulter/ White/ FM3/ Xiao He
Barbican St Luke’s London. 26-04-2009
‘Beyond the wall’ is a rare chance to glimpse the musical innovation that is taking place in China right now. Modern Chinese music is usually ‘state approved’, uncontroversial and sanitised i.e. the ubiquitous Mando/Canto Pop which almost exclusively dominates the airwaves and record stores. Despite and maybe because of this commercialism an experimental counter-culture has developed over the last decade under the radar of official or unofficial state control. Characterised by a noisy and experimental approach and championed by a loose pan-Chinese coalition of oddballs, new middle class youth and eccentric musicians; this music is the direct polar opposite of the banalities of Chinese Pop:
Providing the introductory piece for the night is FM3 a Sino-European collaboration of Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian who perform with their now well known Buddha machines. The Buddha Machine is basically a self contained, mass produced, made-in-china loop player with nine built in tunable loops, creating – if you buy more than one player – phased loops of meditative music. The performance consisted of what appeared to be an elaborate game of mah-jong using multiple Buddha Machines projected live on to a video screen. The overall effect was a soporific art performance with a minimalist, repetitive soundtrack in the style of Brian Eno or Steve Reich.
After a short interval Xiao He ambles onstage (face obscured by an eccentric conical felt hat) plugs in his acoustic guitar and starts to sing…
Xiao He is an assured yet unpretentious presence, well known in China for his surrealist group ‘Glamorous Pharmacy’ tonight he delivers a polished and quirky live performance – entirely solo and improvised – no backing tracks or support musicians. Xiao He’s music is a rich idiomatic, messy collision of Looney Tunes and a bus full of Mongolian shepherds. Xiao He takes inspiration from Chinese comic opera archetypes; a bewildering array of vocal characters are simultaneously layered, looped and mixed over each other complemented by simple guitar rhythms, and spontaneous acoustic percussion. Despite it’s improvisational nature, the music is perfectly timed with precise edits and split-second changes; a refreshing and welcome change from the usual unstructured loop-and-layer ‘experimental’ approach.
In direct contrast to Xiao He’s light-hearted surrealist comedy, Yan Jun’s Beckettian trio take their playing very seriously. Yan Jun is another veteran (if that term applies to such a recent occurrence) performer well know for his sound-art, poetry, audio architecture, sub-culture organisation and music criticism. Tonight Yan Jun focuses on a blend of poetics, theatre and minimal almost incidental music. The trio comprise of Yan Jun hunched over a small mixing desk building up quiet feedback loops and spoken word vocals, Wu Na playing the Gu Jin (which immediately gives any piece an air of seriousness and poetical profundity) and David Coulter, sometime Tom Waits collaborator, on squeaky toys and that most venerable of Chinese instruments, the hand saw. The musical theatre they produce has a gentle intensity, punctuated by long gaps of silence and almost inaudible sounds – it has the studied timing of Noh theatre yet avoids the common trap of melodramatic pretension…
White are particularly trendy in Beijing right now and consist of of guitarist Shou Wang (carsick cars) and drummer/synth player/spaceman’s daughter ‘Shenggy’. The music they produce is a series of slow-to-take-off, cosmic experiments; synth drones, arpeggios and warped guitars layered over distorted drum machines running on preset beats. White’s specie of electronic rock reminds me of Atonal Berlin period industria circa 1984 and of all tonight’s performances are the only group who are clearly influenced by western genres – in this case; velvet underground, throbbing gristle, kraftwerk and so-on. I guess if you didn’t experience this kind of thing the first time around it may be interesting but for me the interest was curious only as an interpretation of a foreign idiom.