The Wire

In Writing

Yan Jun: I Was Stupid In The Year Of The Snake

March 2014

Musician and Sub Jam label boss Yan Jun on beer in Singapore, venues in Beijing and bloody Russians

Recently I was asked by a website to list my five favourite music moments of 2013. This was when I was in Singapore for a concert, surrounded by beer, shrimps, green plants and friends. I had nothing in my mind. It was empty – as if I was finally immunised from the effects of music. I answered the email with “sorry”.

But once I was back in Beijing, in my room surrounded by tons of books and CDs, I realised that this was not the case. Perhaps I was immunised from music, but music was not immunised from me. And I felt stupid. I actually did want to write about recent music: Winds Measure Recordings from New York, Senufo Editions and School Map Records from Italy, 1000füssler from Hamburg, Leif Elggren’s performance at LUFF festival, Miji Festival in Beijing and Shanghai. Ah, tons of memories.

Now it’s really too late to talk about 2013, but maybe it’s still fine to talk about the year of the Snake?

But why do I want to talk about these things? It’s because I have a desire to exist. That’s a big issue. The most stupid thing was not that I simply wanted to exist, but that I had not existed at the many beautiful moments and events of 2013. This feeling was brought about mostly by the XP Club, a small and poor venue with one of the worst sound systems in Beijing. It’s not even a real space but a temporary construction between two houses. Everything in it is second hand except the electricity (which, dangerously, has no grounding electrode). It’s also very cold: winds come from all directions when you play on stage. And the organiser only speaks four or five sentences during the whole night. That’s what was in my memory until one day last year a friend asked me to visit again for his concert.

XP+Club%2C+Beijing%2C+taken+by+Yan+Jun Shabby chic: Beijing's XP Club. Photo by Yan Jun

It had changed. They had removed the dirty booth to the right of the entrance door and painted the wall red. They added some old sofas, and so now this space had become a warm living room. Also, now there are some tall partition boards on wheels that can be used to divide the space, especially to stop the view directly from through the front door to the stage. The friend said: “With this we changed the Feng Shui as well as, you know, having passersby looking in from the door is not good…” Who is “we”? They are a group of young musicians, including the shy organiser who is the only one who has written about my music in the whole country (‘Yan Jun’s music is always boring but tonight was nice…’ he wrote online) and a sound technician who, when I told him that live recording is best done in stereo, walked quickly through the audience, between his mixer and the stage, again and again, adjusting the sound for the performance. All of them are shy, slow and spend half their time playing rock ’n’ roll.

Musically, the concert was bad. But, because I was immunised from the music, I was touched by the atmosphere. The audience was gentle and concentrated. And warm. They stayed and talked after the concert. I met more friends and nobody seemed critical. I felt stupid, thinking that I must have missed much more warmth before.

The technician, Deng Chenglong, is actually a guitarist. He started to perform maybe a year and half ago. At the end of the year of the Snake he played with Japanese jazz drummer Sabu Toyozumi and others at Beijing’s School Bar. That was another touching night. His playing was not skillful but he was high, looking like a warrior who’s ready to die. One of the School Bar owners destroyed the stage barrier along with the screaming audience. The School Bar sound technician cried.

I’ve also done something stupid at School Bar before.

This is not a warm venue but a hot one. The owners are from the rock scene. All of the staff are heavily tattooed. Once, when a large Russian man was harassing girls there, the School Bar manager attacked him until the Russian started to bleed. I organised an improvised music concert there last June. All the musicians stood in different corners of the space. We were surrounded by the tattooed boys and girls. We played cold and loose. They looked at us with strange expressions. And then we lost the vibration.

This experience made me wonder about improvised music, specifically: how it can work with its immediate environment, as an active part of it? Do we really need professional environments to make music in – black box, white box, stage or audience?

About the first owner of School Bar (the barrier destroyer): he is one of my best friends. But he doesn’t like my writing or my music. Once I invited him to join Basque musician Mattin’s workshop at Zajia Lab, a venue occupying a part of an old Daoist temple. That was a month before our concert at School Bar. Mattin asked participators to do anything that they thought was stupid.

After 10 minutes the room was upside down. 15 people were jumping, spinning, dragging chairs, holding shoes, touching each other’s faces… but my friend was not there. He didn’t appear at Mattin’s concert on another day either. “I was at someone’s place for dinner. Before you guys started I hesitated a bit if I should come to the gig, but now I know I made the right decision. The food at my friend's place was nice.” He said, with the smile of a man immunised from conceptual art, after I told him what happened during the concert.

It was one of the best experiences I’ve had at a concert. Mattin and the participants sat on the stage listening to sounds from speakers placed within the audience. The environmental sounds from outside, of chatting and latecomers who were stopped on the door, were amplified through the speakers. There was a tacit balance between performers and audience, with some tensions as well – some beautiful moments of togetherness by listening to a common object.

Mattin (left) and Yan Jun at the Doufu Impro Committee 11, setting up for a workshop at Beijing's Zajia Lab 30 April, 2013. Photo by Zajia

I don’t know much about the Chinese calendar, solar terms or any of those sorts of things. But I feel that the year of the snake was cold. I played too much cold music, so now I need to stay warm.

I have a very thin and weak friend. I think that she took on too much coldness from her little pet snake. I saw it once when I visited her place. It’s lovely but cold. That was an afternoon with nothing to do or to think. She played some Japanese Gagaku music which was as cold as the wind off of a bullet train. I was frozen by that music, I floated, freed and fascinated: ffff, a powerful cold.

When my friend’s father entered the room, I was sitting on couch and had no interest to stand up and say hello. I just gave him a nod of my head. My friend was also the owner of a music club, but not any more. No more stupid friends. I guess her father feels better now.


oh yeah more bullshit about nothing by master waterseller Yan Jun, Wire's always on the spot I see

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