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Musical Cities of the World: Beijing

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Generally speaking, what kind of music are people listening to?
Popular music of course. In this case it almost exclusively boils down to: Chinese love songs. Some of them date back to the 1980s and 1990s, since people like familiar melodies. Melodious Muzak is also popular. Some instruments are especially popular, such as the Saxophone (Kenny G forever!) and Gu Zheng or Di Zi, especially when they are used to play love song cover versions.


What about Jazz?
Things started in the late 1980s. Now the small scene is very colonial, classical, commercial and offers nothing beyond Bop and Cool. Only a very small amount of people listen to it. There're also a select group of people which one could describe as Free Jazz and Impro fans (but they never visit any concerts).


People need to dance. What about dance music?
The first commercial club wave took place in the early and mid 1990s. The music was batch-produced Hong Kong / Philippine style Disco. After 1996 and 1997, promoters and DJs from the scene started organizing parties and bringing Techno and House to Beijing. The scene fell into a decline after 2002 but commercial clubs have never disappeared.

Cheap Techno (sometimes with dirty lyrics) is popular with young workers from the country side. International Standard dance was popular in the 1950s and 1980s. Now, old- and mid age people dance on the street as part of their social life and to exercise.


How would you describe the scene for electronic music and electro-acoustic music?

Only few listeners are familiar with the term electro-acoustic. Even though it has been used and tought at conservatory since the early 1990s, it seems as though nobody uses it except for academical scholars. After 2000, a few young outsiders studied electro-acoustics, algorithms, MAX/msp or SuperCollider on their own.

By the way, the academical scene is all about Western / Soviet Classic music and Chinese traditional music under Western system. Electro-acoustic music is the one exception from the rule that there's almost nothing to be found about the 20th century.

Electronic music was established by some rockers in the late 1990s as a kind of radical new music. Now, IDM and 8-bit / chip tune are popular with a small group of young people. Shanshui Records is the main indie label for it. You can also find German Glitch, Japanese Folk-electronica, Dark Ambient (with its roots in metal / industrial / dark music - these musicians are only active in this particular scene), Ambient and other genres. Lounge is, of course, popular in bars and fusion restaurants.

A must-know term is MIDI music i.e. Chinese synth pop / new age music built with pre-stored tones. It aim is to simulate all kinds of real instruments. Most people regard it as electronic music.


Hip-Hop, Punk and Metal, International Sounds?

Fans of these styles all wear the same clothes as Westerners - but drink local beer.


Isn't Rock enjoying mass consumption?
No. Chinese Rock was born in the mid 1980s in Beijing. It was not only a music style, but also a cultural phenomenon, which shocked society. In the 1990s, it was still one of the "Avant-Garde" things. Maybe now a young generation will rise, therefore the Rock age may actually just have started. Young rockers such as Car-Sick Cars are still struggling in a kind of underground situation because they don't look sexy.

There was an underground Rock movement in the 1990s. It came to a halt in the early 21st century. Most established experimental musicians such as Wang Fan, Li Jianhong and FM3 come from this scene as it's a cultural source of experimentation, invention and exploration.


So experimental music is following the development of the underground? Is there a Beijing style?

Yes, there is. But younger musicians are more into new music as an open principal, not necessarily into experimental- or underground styles. They started in the dawn of the internet age around the year 2000. Some of them have no band experience whatsoever.

In Beijing, many musicians are working on different genres or mix them. Zafka (Zhang Anding) is one of them. He plays with both Post-Rock and Field Recording based electro-acoustic soundscapes, and he’s also involved in Sound Art. FM3 was an experimental ambient music duo but now they have returned to (or started re-defining) their rock roots, combining them with abstract drones. Their success in the Western world is mostly down to the Buddha Machine, the music box, toy, instrument and portable sound art installation.

In Beijing, it's difficult to separate genres such as Experimental, Avant-garde, Impro, Noise / Drone, Electro-Acoustic music and other concepts. Generally speaking, people are not aware of these styles so much and they don't care about the differences between them. Take, for instance, Folk (Min Yao) singer, film music composer and improviser Xiao He plays a kind of non-western style impro-music with instrumental loops, humour, lyrics and other un-definable elements.


Chinese contemporary Visual Art is so hot right now. Is the same true for media art and Sound Art?
It's all about Visual Art. Media art was introduced by visual artists in the 1990s. Now its technological level is higher. Curator Li Zhenhua has established a research center for Chinese new media art. Most Sound artists are also experimental musicians. Visual artists rarely deal with sound and there's almost no opportunity to perform or include Sound Art in museums and galleries. 8GG and Gogo J are the only media artists (groups) who are also active in the music scene.


After all these "Western Music" terms, are there traditional music roots? What can you tell us about Folk music?
These roots exist, if you regard the preserved typical Chinese music and opera as. But to less and less people, this music is part of their everyday life. Education about it mostly takes place in academic circles and rarely in a traditional way, e.g. in the family or through a personal master.

A few musicians are trying to develop a new musical language using traditional instruments. Wu Na who has played widely with Rock-, Jazz-, Noise- and Impro-musicians is one of them.Folk music was played by minorities only and sometimes, they will still perform on formal stages in Beijing. Actually, "Folk" can also be translated as "Min Yao" which is a Dylan-esque Singer-Songwriter style featuring songs accompanied on Acoustic Guitar. It has to be mentioned, though that young singers from the countryside and within minorities are trying to find their own roots.


Can you recommend some venues in Beijing?
D22 and MAO for young Rock, Punk and indie bands. What? for even younger Rock and Punk and sometimes Experimental. 2Kolegas for Rock, Folk (Min Yao) and Experimental (Waterland Kwanyin series on Tuesday). Jiang Jin Jiu for Folk (Min Yao, special minority folk). Star Live is the largest place, its program is a mix of Rock, Dance, Pop and sometimes something new. Yugong Yishan for Rock, Electro, Jazz, Indie Pop, Punk, Hip-Hop and everything else. There’s are variety of places to enjoy traditional music, please check your tourist guide for these.


Can you recommend some music stores in Beijing?

Blue Line for top taste import CDs and quality Chinese songs. Sugar Jar is the expert for Chinese Experimental / Avant-Garde music. You can find all Chinese Rock and Indie at Fusheng.

By Yan Jun.

Yan Jun is one of the pivotal figureheads of the experimental scene in Beijing. He is a prolific recording- and live-artist, head of the Subjam label and organises the Waterland Kwanyin series for improvisational music at the 2Kolegas Bar.

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