China’s art beat: a research into the history of Chinese contemporary sound art (2000-2019)

China is China. many words have been spent in highlighting the peculiarities and differences of the Chinese art movements as opposed to the rest of the world, often ending up in the cul-de-sac of essentialising the artistic expression of Chinese-born creatives by branding them with “Chineseness” or to read their whole artistic practice uniquely from the perspective of political repression.

notwithstanding the issues aroused by this projection of western stereotypes and presumption over foreign artistic productions, the artists in China thrive, sometimes exploiting these stereotypes in their favour.

a clear example of this was the boom of Chinese sound art production in the first decade of the 2000s, a niche of the wider art boom following the economic flourishing of the country.

find below a summary of my contribution to House of China‘s research on contemporary sound art in China. click HERE for the open source complete research.

▲Yao Dajuin, Chinese sound art expert and forefather

Under today’s ‘we-have-everything’ surface of experimental sound in China, the energy and diversity of which have been much appreciated recently in the West by critics, magazine editors, and audiences, something is a bit anachronistic, or out of context, with the global progress.
“在当下「我们拥有一切」的中国实验声音的表面下,其能量和多样性最近在西方得到了评论家、杂志编辑和观众的高度赞赏,但随着全球的进步,有些东西有点不合时宜,或断章取义。”

Yao Dajuin

▌Introduction 介绍

culture is not a segmented and compartmentalized system. it is composed of flows and backflows, as well as influences and inspirations across different disciplines. they often overlap and are virtually indistinguishable from each other. therefore, it is valuable to observe disciplines bordering with Chinese electronic music. sound art will be a good form to present “neighboring” disciplines, which further influences electronic music in China. and, in many underground manifestations,  it even overlaps with it.

consequently, the influence of sound art on electronic music development is significant. for instance, in the 2019 Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE), a globally recognized music conference and festival, various sound artists applied multi-fields practice between art and electronic music. such artists include Shelly Knotts, and Timo Hoogland, who performed an Algorave, a rave which human DJs code in real-time and “embrace the alien sounds of raves from the past, and introduce alien, futuristic rhythms and beats made through strange, algorithm-aided processes“ in the event.

▲Shelly Knotts – Algosix Live Stream Performance

the full article focuses on the definition of sound art, its industry forefathers, some early development in China, presenting a selection of Chinese sound artists based on the main Chinese trends, and finally highlighting some leading Chinese platforms and labels which support the industry. 

sound art is an artistic practice which treats sound as its primary medium, and, in most cases, is only part of a larger interdisciplinary and multimedia artwork. the loose definition of sound art is, in fact, symptomatic that it is both contemporary art and music, written words and sound vibration.

▲John Cage @ Newyorker

▌ HISTORY 历史

the first modern manifestations of sound art did not include electronic noises. for instance, some scholars attribute the first sound artwork to the Futurist artist, Luigi Russolo. His work, the Intonarumori (1913), or “noise intoner,” is a recording of urban sounds of the city undergoing industrial mechanization. later, this innovative art practice was picked up by Dadaist, Fluxus, postmodern artists and poets during the following decades, such as Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Halim El-Dabh, Max Neuhaus, Robert Morris, Alvin Lucier, Marianne Amacher. the first recorded artwork using electronic sounds in art installations was in the 70s, by artists, such as La Monte Young, Tania Mouraud, Keith Sonnier and Nicolas Collins. in the 1990s the term “sound art” was coined to define such artistic production. outside this fertile cultural ground, the electro-acoustic music genre emerged since the 80s, among other new fields of artistic research such as phonography or field recording, sound walking, sound politics, and sound cinema. These developments gradually blurred the lines between art and music

▲Luigi Russolo – Intonarumori (1913)

▌ CHINA 中国 

the Chinese scene developed into one of the most fertile and dynamic grounds for sound art, which is witnessed by the wide range of sound art genres: extreme noise, musique concrete, electroacoustic, field recording, mixer feedback, circuit-bending, interactive controller, live audio-visual, glitch, minimal electro, gallery-based sound art, free improvisation, etc.. however, China had a very long sound art history preceding what Westerners define as such: ancient texts such as Ji Kang’s (260 C.E.) and the Yue Ji (10 B.C.E.), alongside with refined architectural acoustic techniques are witnesses to a very mature Chinese sound aesthetic. sadly, the true content of these traditions is only starting to be tapped now by researchers, given it was mostly lost during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

 Yue Ji 乐记
Yan Jun – Music for Listening to the Earth (excerpt)

▌ PHONOGRAPHY 音系学

phonography or field recording, occupies a very predominant position in Chinese sound art, almost taking over the role of documentary films. however, it does not focus on the rendition of reality, but the interest is purely about the fascination with the sounds of modern China themselves in an emotional and intellectual sense. because of this, it has sometimes been defined as “Confucian”, given its emphasis on humanism and the interest in linguistic diversity, given the richness of diverse Chinese dialects and accents.

Zhong Minjie and Li Zhiying are part of a phonographic collective, PlayBack Unit from Guangzhou, whose mission is to extensively document the city’s acoustic environment. in their artistic practice, they tend to violate personal privacy by shamelessly listening to private phone calls and
recording in private spaces, granting their audience “voyeuristic” audio access to otherwise socially forbidden spaces.

a clear case of focus on modern China is Yan Jun, first Chinese artist to win the honorary mention Ars Electronica prize for media arts in 2011, with his Music for Listening on the Earth (2008-2009) piece: the artwork consists of “micro-sounds” from the building where Yan Jun’s previous work, Wormhole (2008), was installed, such as human movement, gurgling of the water pipes, air flow, and other noises that were recorded by contact microphones strategically placed. by modulating them in order to make them otherworldly, the artist also aroused in the audience a sense of alienation from everyday sounds.

Sun Wei, Chengdu local, is renown for his Song for 100 Children (2006), a performance/installation. the work consists of two Chinese printing machines, which are fed a text of the lyrics of the homonymous Sichuan folk song. the printing sound is digitally recorded, modulated, and amplified. The outcome is a spectacular, psychedelic music, despite its “traditional” source input. the artist was able to translate the Sichuanese traditional song into a modern, electronic sound, due to the printing process, which indeed is unique to that specific song’s document.

Sun Wei – Song for 100 Children (excerpt)

Hwang Dawang and Zhang You-Sheng – Minkoku Hyakunen (excerpt)

▌ POLITICAL 政治

some see sound art as a potentially highly critical form of sound art. however, as Yao Dajuin puts it:

“The political element is rarely found in sound art in China. And the reading of the Chinese harsh noise scene as critical protest would prove to be too simplistic and naive. The artists in general are not overly interested in politics, and even for those who are, sound art would not be their channel of expression. It’s not so much the overall climate of censorship as a shared sense of futility and apathy in the post-1989 era.”

Yao Dajuin

indeed, some artists claim their artworks are political but are often more theoretical than critical, addressing the era or society rather than a specific target. therefore, especially if devoid of lyrics, sound art is rarely censored.

the Torturing Nurse band from Shanghai is the most typical example of extreme noise act: extreme performances including explicit and sexual clothing and even hot wax dripping on their bodies while on stage, such as in their 2007 performance.

Hwang Dawang and Zhang You-Sheng‘s Minkoku Hyakunen – “100 Years of the Republic of China” (2011) is the most obvious case of political criticism in sound art. it is a political satire on the Taiwan nationalist government, which was then celebrating its 100th birthday, using invasive field recording, where the artists comment and “act” on the various scenes.

the Hong Kong-based Samson Young, is also one explicitly political sound artists: In Pastoral Music (2015), he reviewed six hours of footage of US bombings in the Middle East on mute, recreating the war sounds with a set of unlikely instruments. his artworks all clearly indicate an art practice focusing on the sounds of violence and sounds as violence.

▲Samson Young – Pastoral Music (2015)

▌ DIGITAL 数字化

in China, there has been special attention to the internet and smartphones as a source of noise, with specific interest to social media platforms, the medium, and once again the social elements behind them. most recently the focus shifted to User Generated Content platforms, highlighting a change of roles from the audience as such to the audience as collective producers of sounds.

Jiang Zhuyun performed a phone-based work Start with Wei – “start with hello” (2005) in which he had two cellphones set up so that one’s mouthpiece would be next to the earpiece and vice versa. he then dialed two random numbers and recorded the spontaneous, yet dysfunctional, dialogues which took place. he thus enabled two strangers to connect and unknowingly engage in a conversation with an equally confused counterpart, causing the two to doubt, for a second,

Zhang Liming is an artist that worked with social media scapes, and set up the Harbin Sound Map (2008) an open web sound project that allows users to post and share their own recordings based on their geographical location. therefore, the artist combines space and sound to visually and sonically map the city, thus creating a unique spatial archive of phonographies that develops independently from its creator.

Wei Wei’s performance iPhone Improvisation (2012), consists in an experiment in which she attaches various transducers to an iPhone. then, she performs various physical actions as well as digital actions on the smartphone, thus recording a stream of physical and digital noises. the artist thus is proposing to use a smartphone as an actual instrument, by both physically and digitally playing it, but also allowing it to autonomously “improvise” given the unforeseeable combination of sounds the phone’s components would produce.

▲ Torturing Nurse act

▌ OTHER 另外

the sheer number of sound artists in China makes it impossible to effectively categorize all of the past and current trends of Chinese sound music. however, find listed below some specific noteworthy mentions of artists with different takes on sound art.

the Buddha Machine (2005) was created by electronica duo FM3 (Christian Virant and Zhang Jian) using cheap, mass-produced, Buddhist prayer machines. the artists replaced the buddhist chanting with FM3’s own electronic ambient tracks. not only the concept was successful, but the
marketability of the artwork for mass consumption, positions it as a jokingly critical look at Chinese mass production culture and superficial religiousness.

Wang Changcun’s Antechre (2007) live performance in Shanghai and its subsequent release in Post-Concrete’s “Archival Vinyl” series is an interesting take on Chinese copy culture as related to sound. the name and content both hint at the British electronica duo Autechre, specifically their
Untilted CD. Wang’s performance was intentionally presented as one of the many widely popular bootlegs of the real band Autechre’s performance. the similarity was painstakingly accurate, down to the perfect copy of made-up bootleg lineage listing, the pauses of the recording, and the audience applause. he thus “tricked” consumers into listening to his performance while looking for the almost homonymous band’s performance. the artist is then creating a humorous paradox in which users looking for free illegal music, end up downloading free legal artworks.

FM3 – Buddha Machine

▌ PLATFORMS 平台 

an indispensable element for the development of this scene is the presence of established sound art labels and platforms in China. below is listed a selection of them.

Nojiji/Raying Temple: is one of China’s DIY experimental music labels. Focuses on harsh noise, free jazz and warped post rock. the label was created by a small community of self-selected outcasts. the group runs Raying Temple, a DIY performance space/recording studio/bar in Tongzhou, an industrial suburb of Beijing.

Zoomin’ Night Live Recordings: is a now-defunct weekly experimental music showcase located at D-22, in Beijing’s university district. Zoomin’ used to attract a scene of university students and recent graduates every week. the artists performing there mixed post-punk, No Wave, early Krautrock, Modernist Minimalism and other forms.

Subjam: subjam.org is the source of many projects of Yan Jun, a pioneer of Chinese sound art. subjam and its sub-labels Kwanyin Records, Yaji, and Mini-Kwanyin, published a vast catalogue of sound art, including field recordings, concrete poetry, sound art, collections of music writing, independent films, and design books. Subjam has also organized hundreds of live performances and music festivals such as MIJI concerts.

Post-Concrete: is one of the largest sources of recordings and articles on Chinese sound art and experimental music. Yao Dajun is its founder and custodian, who has extensive connections to mainland artists and can be considered one of the forefathers of the Chinese scene.

Beijing Sounds: is a website (sinoglot.com) archiving field recordings from Beijing. its primary focus is linguistic, cataloguing different dialects with detailed explanations of regional variations in pronunciation and vocabulary.

Pangbianr: pangbianr.com is an online source for discovering avant garde/emerging music from Beijing and elsewhere in China. the archives include audio and video streaming, reviews, interviews, and articles about independent Chinese art, music, and film. the platform also organizes performances, screenings and various events in Beijing.

Li Zhenhua, sound art curator @ocula

▌ CONCLUSION 总结 

it appears that the golden age of Chinese sound art has by now passed and gone, peaking in the mid-2000s and having a short revival in the early 2010s. however, it is undeniable that China has what Yao Dajuin defines as an “inexplicable acoustic energy” which one can only hope will be able to evolve into an innovative force for the field of sound art within and outside China. however, some argue that this potential will only be valuable when the Chinese artists will be producing content “out of sync” with the sound art abroad, fostering real innovation.

click HERE to download the full research