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CD Feature/ V.A.: "China - The Sonic Avantgarde"

img  Tobias
As we know, all eyes are on China. It doesn’t take a degree in science to figure out what is it they are hoping to see. Potentially, a country of one and a half billion inhabitants could yield a plethora of potential Mozarts, Goulds and other so-called geniusses and the temptation to expect sonic sensations from a culture imbued with a unique melange of tradition and modernity is more than understandable. If only to dispell these lustful hopes and replace them with a more balanced picture, a compilation like “The Sonic Avantgarde” is a seminal step towards mutual understanding.

On two discs, one of China’s leading labels for experimental sounds has compiled an essential compendium of the more wilfull acts from the scene. Without claiming completeness, the artist roster on display here provides listeners with an astoundingly consistent overview of recent trends. Three things become apparent as soon as one has skipped through a couple of tracks: Firstly, that fixed genre definitions are considered irrelevant: The Avantgarde, here, encompasses various substyles like Noise, Industrial, Field Recordings, Drones, Musique Concrete, Electro-Acoustic Music, lofi Muzak, Sound Art and Experimental Microtonality.

Secondly, that quite a lot of this music seems to orientate itself along the lines of existing blueprints instead of radically starting from scratch. Regardless of whether snippeted vocal samples are playfully combined into contageously upbeat rhythms (“Firewood, Rice, Oil, Salt, Soy, Vinegar & Sugar” by HU Mage), experiments with spoken word recordings yield hillariously funny results even non-Chinese-speakers can relate to (“Leili Fengxing” by the Shanghai Sound Unit), technical equipment is being manipulated in a kind of surreal inversion of Jazz aesthetics (ZHOU Pei’s “Mixer Solos”) or naive keyboard melodies sublimated into miniature pop symphonies, tracks at least outwardly seem to follow in Western footsteps.

Thirdly, however, it is becoming clear that the local specialties are already lending indiosyncratic timbres to these experiments. Language plays an essential role, as does the contrast between mechanical repetition and minute variation. Slamming doors can suddenly turn into percussive elements, while background elements are skillfully promoted to the status of fully-fledged themes. The observations of quotidian scenes by the various Sound Units documented on this release, also lends a spicey regional flavour to the otherwhise recognisable mixture of well-known building blocks.

Returning to the big question from the opening paragraph, those expecting miracles will be disappointed: Despite the intense and inspiring sound art at work here, listening to this sampler without knowledge of where it was compiled will not lead to mass frenzy and artistic revolutions. Instead, “The Sonic Avant Garde” excells in presenting a selection of China’s experimental artists with all of their inner contradictions and colourfully eclectic compositions: Fu Yü’s “fish cooking” cycle combines crackling textures with subtle industrial ambient, Ismu’s contributions range from humurous sound work to glistening electronica, while Jiang Yühui bridges the divide between heavenly silence and almost primitive techno-pastiches.

The more time you spend with “The Sonic Avant Garde”, the more you will discover similar lines of development and a shared sense of aesthetics between different groups of artists represented here. On a general scale, however, individuality reigns supreme: There are no schools, there are no dogmas and doing exactly what others are not expecting of you seems to be the strongest cohesive power. For a country the outside world has often stigmatised with the brand of uniformity, that is quite a remarkable message for a seemingly simple compilation album.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Post Concrete Records

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