Yan Jun gets more questions than answers when he asks himself what happened in 2014
I look out through my window: cold wind blows the last few leaves off the trees, the sound is like string whipping broken cymbals in a shabby club. It’s time to stay at home with tea, schnapps and friends. No more ambitions. No more creating. Not even thinking back to what I have done this past year. Just go gently into the peaceful winter, as the ancient masters said, follow the rhythm of nature.
But I have to follow my own nature, a nature that’s no longer anything like the ones the ancient masters knew. My nature is polluted, amplified; digitised and recycled; copied and occupied; confused and sometimes sponsored by the Confucius Institute, then capitalised on. Perhaps those masters only really lived in their own imaginations; a perfect nature without any irritations like mosquitoes, or emails from editors to remind me of a deadline for writing my end of year top music list?
I have no idea. I’d rather share with you my list of questions and confusions of the year. It’s ten years since I started to make my own music. As a relative newcomer without a master’s lead, I have more questions than I do experiences.
So, the first one is: why don’t I like John Cage’s smile?
I just don’t like it. I like Cage’s music and I know that he is one of my fathers. Or uncles. Or someone who’s relatively important to me. The photos of Cage’s smiling face are not his fault, and they have nothing to do with his music or philosophy. I just don’t like the wise face that I see portrayed – an image possibly shaped by his consumers. It looks so nice, as if the US government had paid for it. It’s a look that says, “Everything can be accepted, just like I accepted noise as music.” I’m sure this public image will outlive my criticism of it, as the US government has already purged this debate of all its negative elements. I would like to directly ask Cage about this, but it’s too late.
The second big question is: Why did I buy Roman Signer’s vinyl?
This one-sided vinyl record cost me 35 Swiss Francs. It was released last year by Tochnit Aleph. After buying it at Plattfon Records in Basel and carrying it back to Beijing, I carefully listened to it twice. The composition basically consists of a rough recording from the inside of a bucket drifting down a small river. I have seen that river and it’s much more interesting than this recording. I love Signer’s works – most of them short films of the artist’s simple and funny anarchic actions. These are also much more interesting than this recording. That said, I’m trying to make people listen to the kind of ‘valueless sounds’ in Signer’s bucket recording because I do actually enjoy them. When I listen to ‘music’ I can’t help but judge it. But do I really need to pay 35 Swiss Francs to get rid of the violence of aesthetics? Am I conducting a listening ritual or a consuming ritual?
A question of money: how much would you like to pay for a CD of music from China?
I run a label here in Beijing. Every year I receive emails from Gary of White Noise Records in Hong Kong. “Can you make your CDs the same price as they are in mainland China?” (Normally £5). But I want to make them the same price as they are in other stores. People can download the music from my Bandcamp pages for free but CDs are more symbolic. It’s not about the extra labour costs involved in getting permission to press CDs, or struggling with the stone cold lady in my post office, who always asks for certification to prove nobody is inciting subversion of state power by shipping these CDs. I just want the audiences to pay the same psychological price. If you think I’m wrong, please do tell me.
In August I read an article written by Zhang Yousheng of Kandala Records in Taipei. He asked me another question: "Are fewer people buying CDs because they prefer one-off experiences like a concert rather than the deeper, active and focused experience of listening to CDs?"
This phenomenon is parallel to the way in which capitalism is now converting physical products into services. Given this situation, should we change the meaning of a concert, or the value of a CD? Is it possible to transform a concert into an active action for audiences? If the once-carnivalesque open concert is now consumed as just another experiential service, should we stop simply servicing audiences with our music and let them take on the role of creator too? Can the role of creator emerge through ‘active listening’, facilitated by performers who directly challenge their audiences to take part? Is such a state more likely to come about by throwing more after-parties instead of all these artists’ talks?
Or should we produce more vinyl than CDs?
All the hipsters from Williamsburg and Gulou are buying vinyl. Junky of Torturing Nurse told me that some collectors buy every vinyl title Torturing Nurse release. He has now stopped releasing CDs because he likes the physical nature of vinyl and cassettes. Personally, I love the sharp sound of CDs. I have turned down several opportunities of releasing my feedback works on cassette, because only very expensive tapes can preserve frequencies higher than 15 kiloherz. And vinyl may not be perfect for lowercase music. But my question is not about a trend. I wonder if another kind of perception is emerging? Like when, back in the 1990s, laptop noise and lowercase music arrived, it ushered in a new materialism? Can we draw a line from Francisco Lopez and Steve Roden to Seijiro Murayama and Sachiko M, and then see why Zbigniew Karkowski claimed that everything is vibration?
Back to the question of concerts:
There are basically two kinds of atmospheres: option a) everybody concentrates as if in a concert hall; option b) beer, food, good friends, kids and accidental pleasures in an anarchic social setting. One of my friends once criticised me because I criticised an audience for making noise during a concert. How ironic: I have to ‘denoise’ my audiences before making them listen to my noise. I love this contradiction. I have organised hundreds of concerts and parties, and I have been in many home-like venues with lovely people feeding me endless beer. Sometimes these anarchic venues are quiet when the musicians play. But I feel sad when lovely people treat music like a bowl of peanuts accompanying their beer. And I think it’s stupid to encourage audiences to walk around or “do what you want as a way to participate in our music”. Maybe I’m not that open after all? Maybe I’m actually anti-democratic: If the music is strong enough it doesn’t matter if audiences are noisy. What if we make music that’s weak, poor, normal and useless? Should we force others to leave it alone, or should we just hang around with like-minded people? Can we really ask people to love boring music and non-talented musicians?
This year, the Shanghai venue 696 Live closed. For the past five years it hosted the NOIShanghai event. However, there are now more and more concerts hosted by art spaces in both Beijing and Shanghai. I even got involved with a metal concert, which was part of my friend Zhang Ding’s art work at ShangArt gallery in Beijing. My question is how and why something is called music in a club, only to be called sound art if it’s heard in an art space? Are they still the same?
The American death metal group Devourment’s Beijing concert was cancelled the day before it was supposed to happen. The official news said it was cancelled by the authorities. Was this true? If so, why don’t the authorities ever ban experimental music concerts? If they did, would they ban them because they had become too experimental? Or because they weren’t experimental enough?
A question of opinion:
Recently, two musician acquaintances were unfriended by some of their friends on Facebook because they had expressed attitudes about the Occupy Movement in Hong Kong that diverged from said friends’ opinions. When I heard this I was with a curator friend who had recently alienated another musician friend after he had cancelled the latter’s show at a concert for being too noisy as an audience member during another musician’s set. I told him that this small case compares well to when another friend of mine took a book and CD I had made to a secondhand store because he was offended by my writing style – something that is as uncertain and skeptical as my music.
In the end, the good thing here is that we all have something to insist upon–whether unfriending each other for our opinions, cancelling noisy friends’ performances or selling on their work because we don’t like it.
So then, the real question is:
How can we live together in the midst of all this insisting from all sides? Can we play music for people we don’t like? For instance, how can we happily perform for our corrupt officials?