The Wire

In Writing

Yan Jun
: Speakers Have A Right To Die

November 2014

Yan Jun blows up knock-off speakers, bids Mother Nature farewell and embraces life and death in The Machine era

Three weeks ago I had dinner with some musician friends at a hot pot restaurant. I was a bit drunk. I think it was my friend D who told me that someone told him the following secret during another, separate drunken situation: “Did you know that the NEXO PS15 speakers above the stage at the School Bar are fakes and only cost ¥800 each (that’s less than five percent of the price for real ones)?” 
“Really?!” I replied. “That explains why I’ve never felt satisfied with my performances there.”

Once I played at School Bar in a tribute concert to the late Zbigniew Karkowski. The whole system suddenly shut down seven minutes after I started. The audience applauded the disruption as it seemed to be in the spirit of Karkowski’s style. Later I was told that the system shut itself down because of an overload protection function. At the time this explanation sounded highly suspicious to me.

D and I were discussing speakers because he knows of my desire to blow up the ones at the club where he works. The brand is Cat King. Which is Elvis Presley's Chinese nickname. This sounds very strange. In my mind’s eye I can see housewives sitting around their dinner table, assembling these speakers while feeding their kids. And the speakers themselves perhaps cost less than their transportation fee. If you test them with a signal generator, they emit no sound higher than 12kHz and nothing lower than 50kHz. I have discussed with D many times how to blow them up so as to force his boss to upgrade to a better system.

I know how to blow up speakers and I've done so several times before. Once in Nanjing, under a lovely, bright 13kHz pitch, an audience member politely alerted me: “Hi, sorry to disturb you, but there is smoke coming from the speaker.” Another time was in Shenzhen when I joined a small group led by an acquaintance, DD, to a space deep inside a mountain where DD's friend had built an art centre (which he sold to the government who then hired him to manage it). One of their brand new speakers spewed white smoke during my soundcheck. If I recall it right, the speaker in the Nanjing club cost about ¥300 (£30), the one in Shenzhen a princely ¥400 (£41), as it was double sized.

The biggest speaker I tried and failed to kill was at an experimental music event in Xi'an, where I had been invited to perform alongside Audrey Chen and Phil Minton. If we had to perform acoustic sets, we talked about relocating the concert to a smaller space with fewer listeners. But eventually the organiser collaborated with a rock festival so as to bring in a bigger audience (which, anyways, disappeared five minutes into each set). The speakers there were huge – maybe costing ¥800 (£82) each. Frustrated by my failure to destroy them, I decided never to return to Xi'an.

Fred Frith told me that he and his touring group once arrived at a gig without their instruments after the car carrying them broke down en route. So they performed a voice concert instead.
 His anecdote reminded me that there’s the option of going acoustic – which I always forget when I'm playing a venue with speakers, even if they're ugly sounding and fake.

In China it feels that there are very few real speakers, only fake, ugly sounding copies. Even so, I always hold out the hope for real speakers; or, failing that, a passionate audience who can put their hearts into filling the black hole of lost sound detail opened up by a venue’s cost-cutting fakes. The situation makes me feel like I’m an angry donkey jumping at a carrot dangled in front of me. If I were an American punk rocker I would go on the road with my own 4x20 speaker set-up. But I have no car. So far my best solution to the Chinese live circuit’s speaker problems is to perform instead at the home of an audience member. In this intimate setting, even a cheap ¥30 (£3) speaker can stimulate acousmatic listening.

The speaker set-up locks into the world-wide system of The Machine that has gradually displaced Mother Nature’s perfect sound environment. Unfortunately I was born in The Machine era. But I'm against amplifying pre-Machine Age traditional instruments such as the guqin. The guqin needs no speakers. It wasn't designed to reach out to huge audiences. If the guqin will die without speakers, then just let it die. Everything has a right to die. Having said that, I like playing with the guqin through speakers: there must be some way to transform the old bodies of such instruments into machines. Transform them with machines? Kill them with electricity so they can be reborn? Being a user of the world, not a programmer, I have no answer.

That people who play ugly noise require high quality speakers is a tricky paradox. The problem with speakers is that over time their users become addicted to hi-fi sound. Hi-fi speakers purge all reality from the noises dispersed through them. Once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back.

But speakers also have a right to die, right? It's important that musicians blow up speakers now and then to remind us that nothing is perfect. Neither Mother Nature nor The Machine. If audiences surrender their bodies to amplified sound, they should know the act doesn’t win them a place in paradise. And for performers and listeners both, any such sacrifice comes at a price. I once had to pay a venue ¥3300 (£340) for blowing up a fake NEXO PS15. Life (and death) hurts.

A week ago when I told my friend H from School Bar about the secret, he didn't believe it. The story challenged his reputation as a good listener since he plays music through Genelecs at home and believes he would notice the sound of the fakes. The person who arranged the speakers, L, was also there drinking with me. L explained: "Look, it's absolutely not ¥800, but ¥1500! They are not really fake, but fake with a heart."

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