Amid the relentlessly changing cityscapes of Beijing and Shanghai, a new kind of music is being made. In terms of its discordance and abstraction, it compares to Dada, or the New York City and Berlin avant-garde movements of the 1970s. Yet something about it — a certain urgency and iconoclasm — could only have been spawned amid the wild experiment that is modern China itself. The country's punk and alternative-rock scenes have been gushed over by excited commentators, eager to cite them as evidence of China's changing mores. But they are staid in comparison to that created by a new breed of artists, who eschew conventional guitar-based music in favor of baffling electronica, extreme noise and found sound.
"Many experimental musicians started with rock, before slowly abandoning it for the freedom and creative space that is experimental music," says Lao Yang, the owner of Sugar Jar, a tiny record shop in Beijing that serves as the epicenter of this burgeoning avant-garde. Michael Ohlsson, a Shanghai-based music promoter, speculates that musicians are being drawn to the experimental scene because the music being produced is a purist's form and often has no lyrics. As such, it is far less likely to offend officialdom than, say, punk, which tends to be much more verbose, socially engaged and populist.
There is not even the slightest pretense that the music being made by the avant-garde is commercially viable in its present form. The work is difficult at the best of times. But perhaps that is its point. "I guess the reason noise art is so poignant in China," says Ohlsson, "is that it's dramatically anticommercial in a place where everything is very commercial."
Here are five artists to check out.
A musician, promoter and label boss, the tireless Sulumi is the Beijing underground's man to know
Considered a linchpin of the avant-garde, Sulumi — the working name of 26-year-old Sun Dawei — cites Yellow Magic Orchestra and Aphex Twin as his influences, and his music correspondingly moves between the genres of 8-bit (electronic music that mimics the sounds of outdated computers and gaming consoles) and IDM ("intelligent dance music"). Live shows can be geeky affairs, with Sulumi hunched over a laptop, a hooded sweatshirt obscuring his chiseled cheekbones.
He is also a promoter and the founder of Beijing electronica label Shanshui Records. "The great thing about the experimental scene in Beijing," he says, "is that it's easy for musicians to get a foot in the door." But it's not that easy to make a living — in fact, Sulumi is one of the few to pull it off. "I do commercial performances sometimes, which is where I get my income," he shrugs. "But making music is my life — I don't need any other motivation."
She's winning international plaudits for music she describes as "cosmic industrial"
An ambassador for the chinese avant-garde, Cosmic Shenggy tours around Europe when not studying philosophy and sound engineering at university in London. She counts among her performance highlights a 2007 appearance at Barcelona's music and multimedia festival, Sonar, as well as a tour with German ensemble Einstürzende Neubauten, demigods of the sonic-art world.
The 26-year-old Beijing native, whose real name is Shen Jing, fashions music from the seemingly random meldings of traditional Chinese instruments, bleeps and bloops worthy of a sci-fi B movie, and an ethereal, at times unnerving, operatic voice. "I have a strong interest in the cosmos, so a lot of my music tends to describe those feelings," she says.
Shenggy also performs in an electronica duo, White, alongside vocalist Zhang Shouwang from Beijing alternative rockers Carsick Cars. It was with White that she caught the ear of Einstürzende Neubauten's singer-writer-multi-instrumentalist Blixa Bargeld. The duo plans to release a debut album later this year, under Bargeld's aegis. "Everything is coming very fast, young people are very open-minded and, in some ways, the scene lacks direction," she says. "Avant-garde music here needs time, but in a couple of years, things are going to be good."
This Shanghai three-piece make a sound so brutal, unforgiving and formless, other underground bands sound effete by comparison
Comprising Junky Cao, 31, Youki, 28, and Jiadie, 20, Shanghai's Torturing Nurse make noise. Pure, harsh, uncompromising noise. And front man Cao couldn't be any prouder of the fact. "I hate melody and rhythm, and I hate rock bands. Not just in China, but all over the world," he says. "They're always repeating themselves and have no flavor at all. Noise is free; noise bands have freedom."
The number of times Cao uses the word noise with reference to the trio is impressive — they play "harsh noise" and host monthly noise gigs for "noiseheads." His list of influences reads like a Who's Who of noise acts — Osaka performance-art group Hijokaidan and its spin-off Incapacitants, Tokyo ambient-rock act the Gerogerigegege, U.S. conceptual-art group the Haters, Canadian noise combo the Rita and several others. "I turned to making this sort of music because rock is boring," says Cao with wholly unnecessary emphasis.
In live appearances, Torturing Nurse is aural mayhem — instruments are trashed, vocals are screamed, microphones and mixing boards are dismembered and feedback allowed to build to almost unbearable levels, while Cao and the others don masks, flail around and occasionally assault each other. "I just want our live shows to be weird and something extremely different," Cao says. They certainly are that. Even among the avant-garde, Torturing Nurse retain the power to shock.
Much of the Chinese capital's avant-garde scene has been shaped by a musician and promoter from provincial Lanzhou
"i don't know instruments and i'm not good with computers," says Yan Jun. It's not a very promising introduction, but in fact Yan, who moved to Beijing from Lanzhou city in Gansu province nine years ago, makes compelling, hypnotic music. Think of spacey sound effects, found sounds (like recordings made in the middle of a field) and the occasional punctuation of delicate piano notes.
At 35, Yan is very much the godfather of the Beijing avant-garde. Besides performing, he runs the seminal labels Kwanyin Records and Subjam, and is an influential critic and promoter — his weekly experimental nights attract a dedicated following and showcase left-field international and local artists of consistently high quality. Not that Yan is looking for attention. "Obviously I'd like to be able to share my music," he says. "But most important is that I enjoy it myself. If more people listen to me, great. If not, that's O.K., too." Perhaps it's enough that he's having the time of his life. "Beijing's attitude to the arts scene is carefree," he says. "It's very China, very earthy and not capitalistic at all. It's beautiful."
Even as the noise-art scene coalesces, some, like Shanghai's B6, are seeking ways to graduate from it
when they tire of white noise or barked vocals, aficionados of Shanghai's avant-garde chill out with local DJ and musician Lou Nanli, otherwise known as B6. Although he continues to keep one foot in noise art, and still cites U.K. art-punk group Throbbing Gristle as an influence, the 26-year-old makes a clean, minimal techno sound these days. His set is remarkably poised, with only a few leitmotifs — like samples of signal interference from mobile phones — revealing a past in sonic experimentation.
"I do still sometimes make noise music, but mostly for art projects," says B6. "Weird noises are no longer the top secret they were in, say, the 1980s. I'd say that the experiment has succeeded. Well done, but let's take the results to the next level."
For B6, that doesn't preclude intelligent synth pop. In 2007, he teamed with Shanghai singer-songwriter Jay Wu to release Synth Love, an album of songs sung in English. A solo album of danceable techno, Post Haze, is due out this month on China's Modern Sky label. "The whole independent music scene is growing slowly in China," he says. Some of its hottest acts, incidentally, can be seen at Antidote, a club night co-founded by B6 and dedicated to new electronica. "Local kids are getting used to parties that are outside of traditional Chinese culture, and most of my audiences are young people who look for fresh, new music." In China these days, there's no shortage of that.
6 months ago