• Reviews

    Torturing Nurse – In Ruins

    In RuinsTorturing Nurse
    In Ruins
    3” CDr, Shasha Records, 2006

    I’ve been in and out of Shanghai since 2006, and each time I return to the city I can’t help considering how much Shanghai has changed, and how this impression isn’t simply a consequence of less than a decade of intermittent visits and stays. “What do I think of Shanghai?” – a local friend, born and raised there, takes her time to reply to a question by a first-time city visitor: “It’s always changing. The buildings, the landscape. It changes. A lot.” In the crevices between stylized narratives (from the Whore of the Orient to the Paris of the East to the blueprint of China’s urban future) and aestheticized contrasts (Puxi versus Pudong, tradition versus hypermodernity, the hot hell of Beijing versus the cold hell of Shanghai) lie the corrugated histories of everyday lives traversed by the shifting configurations of urban change. In terms of sound ecologies, the place occupied by the auditory presence of construction work in the living matrix of the city is perhaps a good example of these everyday rugosities of change: in contrast to other Chinese metropolitan areas undergoing more recent and more reckless waves of development and renovation, unfolding on the massive scales of peripheral conurbations or engulfing entire districts, the relatively long history of Shanghai’s multilayered urbanism has by now trapped the concrete sounds of demolition (拆迁, chāiqiān) in the walled pockets of construction/destruction sites popping up around the city overnight, remodeling housing blocks piecemeal, and weaving a cyclical patchwork quilt of noises which stands as a contrappunto to the routines of urban living. In a conversation with Bivouac Recording‘s own Terence Lloren about the label’s long-standing series of soundwalks Growing Up With Shanghai, graphic designer Ericson Corpuz reflects on this peculiarity:

    It is the never-ending construction in Shanghai that stands out. The raw sound of concrete scraping, being torn down and being rebuilt stands out from the everyday cackle of the City. [It is] the stains on the road, the concrete walls that are witnesses to the sounds that make the Shanghai experience rich and memorable.

    It is precisely the sounds witnessed by the concrete walls of Shanghai’s construction sites that Torturing Nurse engage with in this EP. In Ruins is perhaps my favourite release from the outfit: as a minor work from their early years, and perhaps their most conceptual record (so to say) it is also the one that better situates Torturing Nurse as a noise act emerging from the Shanghai of the mid-2000s. Ethnomusicologically speaking, In Ruins documents how a trio of locals, in their early efforts of forging a distinctive sound in an aesthetic community largely obsessed with Japanoise, turned their ears and hands towards their daily experience and the closest noise at hand – the tools and rubble available in each construction site and abandoned semi-demolished unit – and broke in one of them with the sole purpose of sounding the ruins of Shanghai. Despite the faux-glitch transparencies and cut&paste photos of the recording activity that characterize the artwork, In Ruins isn’t yet the solipsistic post-harsh noise meditations of 不活了’s Xin Fu, picking up the sounds of the chattering city with cheap digital devices and bitcrushing distortions. What Junky, Youki & Miriam mapped, quite physically, in this EP is the raw sound of the materials of urban change hidden behind the temporary whitewashed walls and metal fences of construction sites: short, metallic echoes; things, smashed one against the other; ruined structures, collapsing; screams, bored parodies of repetitive physical labor. In In Ruins there is no order nor thought nor composition, but not even disorder, frenzy or excitement. There is rather randomness, dejected constance, casual bursts of violence and animalesque grunts, which at times make the EP sound like a disturbing audio veritè of a mental institution.

    The 17-minute recording starts with a thump, echoing in a tail of backdrop ambience – passing engines and car honks which pulsate with the presence of saturated audio; the trio screams, bangs rocks on concrete, shatters glass and ceramics, crashes pieces of metal, breaks wooden planks. The urgency of the first minutes has nothing of the naturalistic intent of extracting the sound of specific matter – it’s just a mess, a senseless outburst of caged insanity, a romp. Vocalizations get weirder, gusts of wind rumble in the condenser microphones of the portable recorder – one more object among objects – as the thuds of discard and junk punctuate the space in uncertain regularities. Some droning sounds hint at the possibility of one of them tinkering with a portable device, maybe a small amplifier. Basslines and beats from a pop hit filter through the walls, at some point, as a car with a loud sound system passes by. Things are dragged, scraped on the pavement, thrown around, smashed in different combinations without any climax to aim for or any progression orienting the process. The praxis of sounding is not experimental: there is no trial and error because there is no goal. There are instead instinctive rhythmic figures, repeated sketched crescendos, ending with the mistreated object shattering or being thrown away in pseudo-ritual screams. Listening to In Ruins in its entirety is unexpectedly cathartic: a few minutes into the record the sounds lose their specificities, and a sense of primal immediacy sets in. As the anger subsides, Torturing Nurse quickly lose their fascination for full-on destruction, and settle for an annoyed tinkering with sonorous tools: they crumple sheets of paper, knock on wood, pour rubble on the ground, and slowly drift back into the regular hum of muffled traffic around them.


  • Critique,  Reviews

    陈维 (Ed.) – CSA: 中国声音前线

    CSA陈维 (Ed.)
    CSA – 中国声音前线
    Webzine, ChineseNewEar, 2005/2006

    This post hopefully inaugurates a line of parallel (and, given the medium, necessarily self-reflexive) inquiry on textual materials – magazines, fanzines, webzines, blogs and so on – related to experimental music in China. As a first foray into the textual construction of scenes and genres, I decided to start from the unexpected encounter with CSA: 中国声音前线 (Zhōngguó Shēngyīn Qiánxiàn, ‘China: The Sonic Avantgarde’), likely to be the first webzine dedicated exclusively to Chinese experimental music. Without delving too much on the contents of the two existing issues of CSA, in themselves documents of great archival interest to be scoured through for information about specific musicians and to crosscheck who was doing what (and writing about what others were doing) around 2005, I’d like to take the chance of reading through the webzine and jot down a couple of points regarding the role of writing and publishing in scene-making, and to hint at how the rapid changes of online platforms and services have impacted on this construction efforts in terms of format, dissemination and preservation.

    Published solely in .pdf format and originally hosted as a free download on 姚大钧 (Yáo Dàjūn)’s Chinese New Ear website (now unavailable), CSA wraps dense text and blurry digital photos in the bold colors and slightly retro-minimalist design choices of Torturing Nurse’s 徐程 (Xú Chéng), member of the editorial board of the webzine together with artists 陈维 (Chén Wéi) and 張立明 (Zhāng Lìmíng). Its title clearly resonating the China: The Sonic Avant-Garde compilation put together by Yao Dajun in 2003 for his own Post-Concrete label, the webzine does clearly bear the authorial imprint of the man, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that the first person to be featured in the thirteen-page “People” section of the first issue is actually Yao Dajun himself, introduced as “sound artist / music-maker / art history researcher / organizer / music critic / freelance journalist / radio host” – quite a curriculum already. Complete with academic achievements, current and past positions, performances and publications, the dense and monologic interview ranges from his musical influences to his early days in music-making, and includes discussions of the term ‘avant-garde’. This word, already appearing in the title of the webzine itself (as 前线 qiánxiàn, literally ‘frontline’), pops up several times in Yao Dajun’s answers, albeit in different translations: “…it was all 前卫 (qiánwèi, ‘avant-garde’), pure in disposition, aesthetic,” he recalls of his early contacts with art, “I knew very early that I wanted to throw myself into avant-garde art.” It’s pretty evident how at that time Yao Dajun was pushing the term avant-garde, in its broader lexical domain, as a fil rouge capable of holding together a dispersed and motley crew of very different artists and musicians: “in China 先锋 (xiānfēng, ‘avant-garde’) music or sound art has had enthusiastic developments” and this has to be understood in a local context, he claims, since

    avant-garde art in China has its own peculiar context and linguistic domain. Abroad, this word has not been used after the sixties, and today is probably seen as referring to a specific period in time (in particular, as an art movement of the early 20th century). But in China it’s not so, in China the avant-garde tradition has continued to the present day

    Besides the curious mention of a 前卫传统 (qiánwèi chuántǒng, ‘avant-garde tradition’), which seems a quite contradictory construct, another concern apparent in most of Yao Dajun’s interviews, talks and curatorial choices is the stubborn pursuit of an alphabet of Chineseness capable of articulating coherently the local experimental music scene. Nationalizing the avant-garde, though, is a slippery exercise in mirror-climbing: when asked about the motivations behind the creation of the 中国声音小组 (Zhōngguó Shēngyīn Xiǎozǔ, ‘China Sound Group’), Yao Dajun replies that he felt the need to put the group together “because the sound of Chinese people is too amusing, totally different from the foreign world.” Pressed by the interviewer asking him how does he defines this Chinese sound, he repeats: “the sound emitted by Chinese people.” Yet this choice of emphasizing locality, difference and cultural nationalism is not left unsubstantiated: “I love and I am passionate about researching my own nationality and cultural traditions; and my cultural tradition happens to be Chinese tradition, so that’s it.” Yao Dajun’s passionate research on one’s own cultural tradition, moreover, rests on an inescapable national identity:

    what I mean here is not nationality as in your documents, but the culture of a nation […] Even if the domain of avant-garde art (especially the high-skilled artistic fields) can easily seem a globalized, ‘post-national’ phenomenon or a collective subconscious of stateless art, in fact what works of art represent or reflect behind this appearance is precisely the contemporary traditions of each national culture

    Yao Dajun is also featured in the “Dialogue” section, where he long-windedly explains his own experience with recording equipment, contrasted by a short and unassuming paragraph on the same topic written by Wang Changcun. In the following pages, an interview to Autechre originally published in the Japanese music magazine Fader translated by Xie Zhongqi precedes some pictures from recent performances: a long-haired Xu Cheng, early Torturing Nurse, and Yan Jun, Li Jianhong and C-drik sharing a table during a Beijing show. In a short piece, Yan Jun discusses the Dashanzi Art festival, the book 北京新声 (Běijīng Xīnshēng, ‘Beijing New Sound’) co-written with Ou Ning, and describes his shift from rock music criticism to experimental music and sound art: “in two years’ time, Chinese experimental music and sound art have finally become a network,” he proclaims. The last pages of the first issue of CSA are dedicated to a nostalgic ad of the Sugar Jar shop, a short presentation of the Drama Script CD written by Li Jianhong himself, a careful track-by-track in which Ronez explains his own Feedback CDr, and PNF’s Li Chinsung introducing the PNF/Torturing Nurse Splittail, recollecting how “Torturing Nurse are now in China a bit like what PNF was in Hong Kong back in the day.”

    The second issue already shows signs of shrinkage: out of the same 38 pages, one third are dedicated to a mammoth interview of Li Jianhong in which he discusses pretty much everything, from his early listening experiences and Eastern philosophies to his band projects and recording techniques. And while his quietist attitudes towards high-volume distortions verge on mysticism (“What does noise mean to you?” – “Just a calm heart”), more elaborate statements see him distancing himself from the avant-garde framework set up by Yao Dajun in the preceding issue:

    I think myself as a noisemaker. Even if sometimes I also do some works of sound art, or some audio installations, most of what I’m interested in really is noise music […] at the moment in China there is basically two kind of people making this stuff, one privileges ‘yīn’, another privileges ‘yuè’. I’m more interested in ‘yuè’ – emotion. So there’s no way I’m an avant-garde sound artist

    The rest of the issue is made of a collection of full-page photos of the 2pi festival organized by Li Jianhong in 2005 – featuring Torturing Nurse, Yan Jun, Ronez, Wang Changcun, Audrey Chen, Tatsuya Nakatani, Xu Cheng and Marqido – and a translation of an essay by sound artist Andra McCartney. In the last pages, another essay by Yan Jun explains the etymology of the name chosen for his fortunate series of shows in Beijing, Waterland Kwanyin: “I want back home and I wanted to give it a name, I decided that the artificial lake would be ‘water’, the grass patch would be ‘land’, and Guanyin is from Guanyin Records: “guān” from guānchá [observe], and “yīn” from shēngyīn [sound].”

    In occasion of the two issues of CSA being uploaded on Monoskop, Yao Dajun has recently posted on Weibo a recollection of his involvement:

    In 2006 I started making ChineseNewEar.com, which at the time was the only portal dedicated to popularize the developments of Chinese Sound Art in the world, and which included artist archives, the Chinese Sonic Avantgarde magazine edited by Chen Wei, my Zhongguo Shengyin online radio, and the Global Noise Online blog founded by Li Ruyi (the only blog reporting on Chinese experimental music). Now the domain name has been taken, but parts of the contents can be found through archive.org

    Little remains online of this massive project in centralizing and gatekeeping the construction of a local avant-garde sound art scene: the domain ChineseNewEar.com has been bought by someone else, its archives and online radio gone with the rest of the website, while Lawrence RY Li’s blog, fittingly renamed Global Noise Offline, remains stuck at its last update, date January 2006. What was supposed to be a cohesive, communal effort in building a genre – China’s sonic avant-garde – ended up in a scarce collection of different concerns and artistic statements, put to an end after only two issues and eventually disappearing along with expired Internet domains, fading interest and lack of manpower. As the editors summarize in their farewell to the readership, hoping for someone to get in touch and help out with the next issues:

    This publication is aimed at going one step further in disseminating our country’s developing sound art, and also hopes to become a memorandum of this developments. But reality usually pays no attention to artistic ideals. Having painstakingly reached the second issue of this magazine, and as it is fairly evident from its contents, this editorial department is definitely lacking in personnel. We hope that good friends interested in working on this publication will get in touch with us soon: 1980217@gmail.com

    Download (Issue 1)

    Download (Issue 2)

  • Critique,  Reviews

    鐵觀音二重奏 – 殺不死的牛

    CD, Sub Jam – KwanYin Records, 2006

    Let us discuss commerce. It is almost the year two thousand fourteen, and I still take pride of extracting all the .mp3s offered on this blog from the original copies (which is in itself an ironic contradiction in terms, the laughing remnant of the work of art reinstated, instead of exploded, through the mass reproduction of auras) that I have been collecting since 2006 from trades with friends, musicians and stores around China. So, what about the stores, the often neglected sites of exchange around which entire scenes develop and thrive through stockpiling and suggestion? Where are they, how do they look, which market do they serve, who is selling and who’s buying, and most importantly, where should you go to squander your wads of RMB on limited editions of Chinese experimental music? I have no idea. Speaking of this specific record, I acquired it in either Beijing or Shanghai, if memory doesn’t fail me: it might have been at Sugar Jar in 2006, right after it moved to the 798 art district, or at 2046 in Shanghai, the following year.

    I ended up in Sugar Jar without any actual plan or interest in finding a record store in Beijing – I was there for school, and 798 seemed like an hip spot to visit at the time, although it ended up being fairly disappointing: wannabe-edgy artworks and political pop for sale in dusty gallery displays and young urbanites with large DSLRs hanging from their necks. I remember the store clerk suggesting me a couple of local releases because I said that I was into post-rock. Among them was a band called 戈多 (Gēduō, Godot) and an enigmatic release by 武權 (Wǔ Quán) that at the time seemed a refreshing effort in digital ambient sketches. Sound art, and the stuffy vocabulary with which it quickly fills the air, were not around yet. I was the only customer in the store. One year later, I ended up in 2046 by pure chance – I was living two blocks away from it, a little and unassuming shop on the strip of cheap restaurants closest to the university I was studying in. When one day I walked inside to get some pirate DVDs, I was quite amazed to find a nice selection of Torturing Nurse records lined up in the first shelf right after the entrance, along with releases by the major (that is, the only three or four) underground labels in China at the time: ShaSha, 2pi, Shanshui, Sub Jam. I still don’t know what the shop-owners thought of me and my cousin systematically raiding it to buy almost all the limited, handmade, DIY releases we could find, along with scores of Japanese idols’ dakou CDs. 2046 closed, moved and re-opened several times during the following years – its shelf of experimental records appearing and disappearing depending on mysterious circumstances. Sugar Jar in 798 closed as well, and I don’t know what happened to its other branches or to my clerk friend; the only thing I heard about it is that the owner, 杨立才 (Yáng Lìcái), is the 老杨 (Lǎo Yáng) behind the conceptual record made out of circular saw blade recently released by Sub Jam. I personally prefer records made out of circular saw blades that also contain amazing music, such as Isis’ Sawblade EP from 1999, but anyway: at some point, somewhere, I bought a record called Viva la Vaches by Tie Guan Yin Duo, which Sub Jam’s website describes as:

    two year-of-ox-born improvisors use this title to say hello to fm3’s Staalplaat album Mort Aux Vaches (kill all ox). a powerful studio improvisation which was lead by unknow force

    The two improvisers in question, playing under the name of 鐵觀音二重奏(Tiěguānyīn érchóngzòu, Tie Guan Yin Duo), are 王凡 (Wáng Fán), the reclusive pioneer of experimental music in China, and 颜峻 (Yán Jùn), the main scene-mover of the early 2000s now turned sound artist. The record title, oscillating between the Franco-Spanish coinage Viva la Vaches (long live the cows) and the Chinese 殺不死的牛 (shābùsǐ de niú, the un-killable cows), is supposed to ironically hail the release of a FM3 record on the Dutch label Staalplaat’s series Mort aux Vaches (death to cows). In his recently published book Japanoise, David Novak argues that noise music functions as a vector of circulation of cultural practices and artistic tropes between fringes of national communities of musicians and listeners. Seven years ago, this record seemed to me a very good example of how a scene could resonate with the excitement of circulation, as the freshly minted cogs of collaboration and exchange set up by Chinese experimental musicians started engaging with international partners.

    殺不死的牛 is a 30-minute piece of minimal electronics hiding a sincere cheapness and bricolaic attitude under a thin veneer of digital asepsis. Its uncertain development stumbles forward relying on samples, interferences, contact microphones, laptop bleeps fed into mixer feedback loops and delay pedals, resulting in textures and gentle droning hums swelling up and down, grainy atmospheres and pulsating tones building up layer upon layer. The amateurish feel of a direct line-in home recording and the accidental drops of volume dampen the general sense of ominousness created by the accumulation of loops sounding like the anxious cycling routines of old hardware. Sparse instrumental punctuations avoid the accretion of boredom: a single guitar note plucked over a syncopated delay, sparse gongs and timpani, until the obnoxious tremolo through which the main electronic tracks are fed  generates a syncopated rhythm that propels the track into the middle section, more bubbling synths and enveloped buzz leads hover over it, and eventually everything coalesces into a tamed white noise pattern. At some point a moaning didjeridoo emerges from a feedbacked reverb, the plucked guitar returns with a trail of echoes, and some high-pitched tones reeking of stale microhouse follow without much consequentiality. When the piece seems to be over, a roaring reversed percussion sample is deployed to show some muscle along with KaossPad-like manipulations, sampled pads, more drones, little tinkering metal percussions, bubbling noises and delays on the brink of self-feedbacking.

    Despite a general lack of feeling, the simplicity of the sound design and the inconsequentiality of the composition, with its abrupt volume changes and deliberate shifts from one pattern to the other, 殺不死的牛 sounds like a playful exploration of the possibilities of home-studio recording with cheap pieces of electronics, sampled instruments and digital production. In an historical perspective though, this record might epitomize a missed chance: while most of the pioneer labels active seven years ago have halted their operations or have changed names and shifted to other directions, while the record stores where I bought this and other records have moved and closed and changed, while youngest musicians have carved their own path across international and local alliances, Sub Jam is still around, being even recently featured on The Wire along with Yan Jun’s vacuous statements peddling his latest book (“Please snatch one if you can”) and a hit-and-miss catalogue (“I need money. I made 500 copies of this album in 2003. There are still 250 left to sell!”) topped by an obtuse circular saw blade in a cheap jewel box that seems to give rise to revelatory questions: “Why do we make or listen to music if it has no weight?” Again, I have no answer to this kind of question, but my impression is that this specific edge of circulation has been spinning in a dangerous and boring void for a while.


  • Reviews,  Theory

    李剑鸿, 黄锦, 积木, 李铁桥 – 南京现场

    南京现场李剑鸿, 黄锦, 积木, 李铁桥
    CD, 2pi Records, 2006

    In 2006 李剑鸿 (Lǐ Jiànhóng)’s 2pi Records released 南京现场 Live in Nanjing, one of the best noise albums ever to come out of China until today. Why do I dare to say this? Because despite the recent circle jerk, Weibo-fueled attitude of “fuck yeah, China is the new Japan!”, “noise is life!!” “Chinese extreme music forever~”, the names in the scene are pretty much the same of eight years ago (Torturing Nurse, 徐程 Xú Chéng & related projects, Nojiji’s crew) with some relatively new entries (梅志勇 Méi Zhìyǒng, AIDS Leader), nothing big seems to really happen and, what matters most, new records just don’t come out. Apart from the admirable Nojiji and Fuzztape, there seems to be no other active noise label in China at the moment: ShaSha Records has been asleep since ever, 2pi recently refurbished as the lofty and artsy CFI (China Free Improvisation), Doufu Records’ last release came out in 2009 and SubJam… oh yeah right, I am talking about noise. No labels means no records, and no records (sadly?) means no scene, no dialectic, no development and nothing to talk about. If the new generation of noise enthusiasts like Notrouble Records and Two Dog Temple & Chaos Student Union don’t man the fuck up and start releasing, promoting and distributing CDs and tapes, I doubt being able to say anywhere soon that something better than Live in Nanjing came out of China before the Third Impact.

    So, why is the album I am talking about such a great record? Because it’s well mixed, raw and dirty, saturated by a healthy dosage of of high-volume distortion that pumps it up just enough not to sound like pretentious impro-fiddling, but not that much to transform it into a unintelligible mass of clipped noise. Live in Nanjing is quite straightforward: it is live (for real), it happened in Nanjing, and who was present at the venue must have been literally blown away – just listen to the first track 现场记录1, a deconstructed four-minute noise rock blast somewhere between MoHa! and Aufgehoben. The cover clearly states who played in this one-off live jam – no weird project names, no frills, no concepts: it was Li Jianhong, Ji Mu, Huang Jin and Li Tieqiao. Now, everybody knows Li Jianhong as the Chinese response to Keiji Haino (a total misnomer, as the only link between the two would be guitars and sporadic hairstyle coincidences), but before perfecting his image as the Adi-daoist guitar master of China, Li Jianhong was actually one of the most interesting experimenters in the Chinese noise scene, fiddling with TVs, radios, junk objects and effects in a rather concrete and direct fashion. In this record he manipulates guitar, effects and voice – yes, he sings – topping the spastic violence of the first track with a jaw-dropping noisecore growling that seems to come out of my collection of crust delicacies from BRIC countries. To throw the ball, I would say that Live in Nanjing is actually the best record Li Jianhong ever released. But who is 黄锦 Huáng Jǐn? Huang Jin is the other half of both D!O!D!O!D! and Acidzen, and his frantic drumming explains why Live in Nanjing sounds so good: the record is built upon the interaction of two musicians already familiar with this kind of bursting noisecore-inspired improvisation, and the bassy, murky electronic flourishes by 积木 Jī Mù (nom the plume of 蒋竹韵 Jiǎng Zhúyùn, an early 2pi family member and Hangzhou-based sound artist) find easily their way, enriching the empty frequency ranges and complementing Li Jiahong’s guitar, or warbling gently in the rare moments of relaxation and throwing pointy stabs in arrhythmic percussive patterns. This strength is particularly evident in the second track 现场记录2, where a slow accumulation of ominous grumbles and ruptured alto sax lines paves the way for cascading drum blasts that propel the interaction towards a gritty noise rock territory – think of Sightings at their rawest, or Phantomsmasher in a rehearsal room after some beers. 李铁桥 Lǐ Tiěqiáo’s alto sax plays an important part in the mix throughout the record, providing a flexible and stereotyped Zornesque lead when the action needs to kick in, but I like it more when he just counterpoints the guitar with monotonic, geometric, almost math patterns, as in the massive 现场记录4, the thirty-minute free-form, at times even playful behemoth that occupies more than half of the record, sporting a number of interesting moments embedded in a self-indulgent improvisation lacking the exciting immediacy of the first three tracks. Considering that two of the musicians involved have disappeared off the grid and the other two have donned their cultivated (Adidas?) impro-jazz suits and drink cocktails around art venues in Beijing, I can just enjoy the fact that at some point in time, in 2006, these guys had the chance to play together, made some good noise and decided to make a record out of it.