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V.A.: "An anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992-2008"

img  Tobias

Even several years into its evolution, you will have to dig deep to get to the heart of the Chinese underground. Luckily, „An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music“ is digging deeper than some considered possible: Four brimful CDs and two extensive booklets are promising a status quo of what's stirring underneath the mainstream's cloak. Partially involving some of the same names featured on the first enticing glance into this terra incognita („China – The Sonic Avantgarde“ on the Post Concrete imprint) this box set has the additional benefit of directly continuing and expanding upon a documentary effort initiated shortly after the beginning of the new millennium, when tentative patterns where appearing like rippling waves on the surface of a pond of seemingly infinite possibilities.

Those tendencies were mainly sparked and supported by a string of biblical explosions: The „Sounding Beijing Festival“, the „2pi Festival“ as well as the founding of several labels all around the country. Since then, there have been notably less large-scale spectaculars but a plethora of micro-developments all around the country. Specialised camps have formed and the catalogue has compartmentalised. Ironically, there may now be more questions than ever before.

China's intimidating geographical size, distance and the language barrier facing visitors have not made things easier for those with in an interest in the subject in the West. But they has curiously increased its status as a promised land of mythical proportions. Without actually being able to listen to much of the music, every article and every essay must convey an incorrect impression of the status of its electronic music scene. Journalists are free to choose whatever superlative they deem fit to sell a story, because hardly anyone will be able to check back upon its validity. As a reader, one is automatically tempted to project all one's secret fantasies into this wonderful world of „pure“  and „proprietary“ sound culture. It should seem anything but exaggerated, then, that Zbigniew Karkowksi and Yan Jun's introductory article „The Sound of the Underground“ claims that „anybody working in the culture and art field anywhere in the world has a reason to visit Beijing as it is one of the hottest cities in the world“.

In comparison, reality is always bound to disappoint. Even in the capital, venues are scarce and the circle of artists performing there is still comparatively small. The music performed is neither revolutionary, nor uncontaminated nor purely experimental. Happenings are mainly restricted to regular events and unless you're lucky enough to catch one, it is not easy to buy experimental albums: Sugar Jar, the city's famous and frequently-refered-to underground record store, for example, is about the size of most people's living room and can by default only carry a limited amount of CDs.  Right now, if you want to play safe, a ticket to Tokyo would be a better way to spend your money.

Then again, for anyone with an adventurous spirit, China does have a lot on offer. If experimental music is still small, then that is the natural consequence of its origins as a true counter-culture. The situation can well be compared to the earliest moments of Krautrock, when something completely different began stirring in unexpected places, tiny bars and novelty locations. As Karkowski and Yan Jun point out, what sets the scene apart from any other community on the planet is its bipolar source of inspiration. On the one hand, discarded music from the West ended up being dumped in China. Originally intended as recyclable waste („dakou“), these albums were sometimes sold on the streets and offered hungry music fans a glimpse of the world outside. On the other, free copying of experimental movies introduced the nation to a cornucopian cosmos of alternative arts – highly noncommercial, weary of triviality and often characterised by a raucous experimental spirit. The conclusion of the two authors is therefore fascinating to say the least: „The Chinese underground rock and punk movements were in large part built and influenced by what was considered un-salable (trash) in the West and easy access to movies that were hard to find (considered very arty and elite) in the West.“

This may explain to some degree the sometimes confusing eclecticism and almost naive eccentricity typical not just of the scene as a whole but of some artistic visions in particular. „An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music“ congenially expresses this both bewildering and beguiling paradox through 48 different works by 48 different acts. Disc one is mainly dedicated to the freshly emerging refined Sound Art branch of the community. Pieces here are all fairly recent, with the exception of the dense glitch-textures of curator Li Chin Sung's „Somewhere“ and show the rapid movement towards harmonious forms and discreet sounds. Disc two, meanwhile, documents rhythmical approaches, ranging from the polypercussive ethno-grooves of Sun Dawei's „Crawing State“ and the tender Casiotone-fantasy „Dream a little Dream“ by Nara to the microtonal Raster-Noton-like technoid abstractions of Dennis Wong's „para_dot“. Even CD number three opens with a colossally crushing Noise mantra („Fugitive“ by leading project Torturing Nurse) and a floating Drone piece, it is foremost dedicated to an area which is increasingly gaining in importance: The melding of traditional Folk-idoms and electronic manipulations, which is yielding equally haunting and humurous results. The fourth disc, finally, has been composed as a compendium of sorts, picking up themes from the previous installments and demonstrating how these have been part of the community's vocabulary for more than a decade.

Pieces based on harsh, grainy and brutally contorted sounds are loosely strewn across all four discs, the underlying thought being that – against general opinion – noise is still an accompanying thought on the scene. But they are no longer the sole Leitmotif. New inspirations are showing up and they are further solidifying the thesis proposed in the opening essay: China is feeling its way forward to a voice of its own by making use of approved Western influences in an occasionally highly original way. Layered choir samples allude to „2001“, both inventively and playfully rearranged birdsong references the electroacoustic excursions of the French Avantgarde and the howling thunder of digital distortion has given way to a fertile moss-scape of clicking, crackling and scratching tones hidden underneath. A duo for zigzagging lines of Flute and Voice (Dancing Stone's „Two“) is even closer to concert halls and contemporary composition than a night at your local indie-club. The scope and stylistic breadth of this compilation is dazzling, the techniques on are display daringly diverse and development since the „Sonic Avantgarde“-sampler has been dramatic.

Not all of it is going to feel revelatory. A lot of the material collected here can be regarded as experiments with uncertain outcome, tests defying tradition, rabid outbursts, random eruptions and inquiries into seemingly irrelevant subjects. „Artists in China are still behaving like a child that is discovering a new world everyday“, the liner notes read, or, as Will Long of Celer, who runs the Floor Sugar specialised mailorder for Asian Sound Art, aptly put it: „The Chinese scene has a very incredible sense of raw creativity to it“. But at the same time, it has gained a lot of self-confidence and is presenting its themes  with an urgency and sense of relevance that has all but disappeared from Western stages. In all of its imperfections, this release is an almost perfect representation of this tendency: Its second booklet of artist biographies was simply copied from the net and includes spelling- and grammar mistakes, while leaving out some of the most interesting CVs. Nowhere can the curious find out where these tracks were actually taken from  (Albums? Compilations?). Some intriguing queues in the booklet are also never followed up upon.

All of that ultimately doesn't matter, however. Or it might even help to understand why these scattered local scenes have yet to turn into a connected movement. Yan Jun and Zbigniew Karkowski are right in claiming that what is most urgently needed right now is a collective consensus about what kind of change is good and necessary. If you want to participate in the debate, there will, possibly for years, not be a single alternative to this compilation.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Sub Rosa Records

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