Jay Chou and the Bastion OST

I’ve been playing a lot of Bastion lately, the indie game by Supergiant that has popped up on a whole bunch of Best of 2011 year-end lists. One of the music tracks has a lick in it that sounded oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it at first. Then suddenly one day it hit me: Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou 周杰伦.

Regular visitors to my website probably know of my marginally unseemly fixation on Jay Chou; I even wrote an article for Time Out Shanghai in 2010 entitled “Why I Love Jay Chou.” He’s a trans-media pop star (as all the biggest ones seem to be these days), recording albums, starring in movies, hawking toothpaste and motorcycles (at $6 million, a record endorsement for an Asian artist). Western audiences who missed him in foreign fare such as Curse of the Golden Flower 满城尽带黄金甲 might know him best for his Hollywood debut as Kato in Michel Gondry’s Green Hornet last year. Studying the lyrics to his songs was my primary method for learning Mandarin, and I still harbor dreams of releasing a tribute CD one of these days. He was even the subject of my first ever post on this blog.

Check out this video for the second track on his November’s Chopin 十一月的萧邦 album from 2005, “蓝色风暴” (Blue Storm). (Note that Chopin is more commonly rendered 肖邦 in mainland China, but 萧邦 seems to work too, as discussed here.) Pay particular attention to the closing moments, from about 4:36.

Now check out this track from the Bastion soundtrack, by Darren Korb, starting around 0:26.

I don’t think the odds are so slim that I might be the first person to notice this, given the slender overlap between Jay Chou and Bastion’s respective fan bases. Clearly, both artists are using the same loop from some sample library. I have no idea which library, but after conferring with some of my Berklee colleagues, the consensus is that the instrument in question is most likely a bouzouki, a fretted Greek lute.

I’m straining to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever used a canned loop in one of my compositions. (I may have used some stock phrases on King’s Quest back in 1998, but slowed way, way down beyond recognition to create an ominous background texture.) I’m totally down with the idea of creating a meta composition out of several streams of patterns or recorded material, the way that Charles Ives or Luciano Berio or David Shea might weave a larger fabric out of existing sounds; in fact, I think this is pretty much the job description for a video game audio lead. But using a stock loop out of a sample library just takes all the fun out of it. At the very least, if you want to keep it fresh, roll your own loops. Moreover, when creating a composition out of layered loops, it’s too easy to ignore the contrapuntal interactions between the different layers; you can miss the chance to think through all the alternate configurations of notes that might make your musical point more purposefully.

Most critically, there’s a regularity and periodicity that really feels anathema to the subtle irregularities of human performance, and it’s too common to come up with something artificial and rigid, chopped up evenly along the bar lines: every eight beats (or whatever) another layer comes in or out. And when a layer stops, it stops abruptly, with none of the resonance or decay of a natural sound, since it must be truncated precisely on the bar line, in order to seamlessly connect back to the beginning of the phrase. When I was fielding composer demos back at Ubisoft, this characteristic was grounds for immediate rejection.

The same objection applies on a macro scale, too, in game music implementations that simply loop a piece of music indefinitely (Bastion‘s primary mode of musical organization). At best, this kind of repetition can lead gamers to tune out the music, reducing its impact, and at worst, it leads to active irritation. In any event, the power of music to support the emerging drama of a narrative is lost. In fact, the desire to eliminate loops and fades (two of the most common signifiers that you’re listening to a game soundtrack) was a guiding impetus behind the design of the EndWar music system.

At least for Jay, the bouzouki sample is only a minor flourish, in a fairly ridiculous duet with DTMF touch tones, almost a punch line at the end of an eclectic song that started with Gregorian chant.

But anyway, let’s get back to my Jay fetish. Here’s a clip of me sitting in with the house band at Harry’s Bar in Suzhou on a few very loose renditions of Jay tunes towards the end of 2010. (Be patient; you’ve got to breach the Great Firewall for this clip.)

For more, don’t miss my Best of Jay Chou playlist on Spotify!

Meet Yan Jun

I was so pleased to have a good friend from China, the Beijing-based sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻, visiting us in Boston for a few days last week. He had stayed with me before in Shanghai, and I think he’s about the sweetest houseguest I’ve ever had. He’s in the US for a few months doing a residency in New York and a bunch of other shows across the nation, and he had a few days to pop up to Boston to perform with me at Outpost 186 (part of the Living Room Music series organized by saxophonist Michael Dobiel) and Whitehaus Family Record. Some documentation is up on Flickr.

Yan Jun at Outpost 186

You can check out Yan Jun’s busy concert itinerary on his blog. He recently played a bunch of shows in the Bay Area with the likes of Fred Frith (they had previously played together at the Sally Can’t Dance festival at Beijing’s D-22 last year) and Bob Ostertag. Next month he heads to Illinois and Ohio, where he’ll be joined two other veteran experimental Chinese artists on select dates. Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 is the organizer of the 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou, which I played in 2006 (and I am always happy to draw attention to the arduous translation I did of his account of his 2006 Japan tour). Wang Fan 王凡, one of Chinese underground experimental music’s earliest pioneers, was part of the Fuzhou leg of the Mini Midi Festival in which I also participated last May.

Afterall recently published this interview with Yan Jun, describing him as “the invisible glue holding together the Chinese experimental music scene,” and I’d say that’s pretty apt. In addition to his own performing, he’s an active organizer of events (at venues including UCCA, D-22, the long-running Waterland Kwanyin weekly event at 2 Kolegas, and the Mini Midi experimental stage of Beijing’s sprawling annual Midi Festival) and publisher of CD’s (Waterland Kwanyin, Subjam). He’s also an accomplished writer, with several books of poetry and a fair amount of criticism to his credit. He used to write about experimental music for Rolling Stone in China; a long time ago, to help me with my Chinese study, I set myself the task of translating his review of a new Ronez CD, and I developed a firsthand appreciation for his dense and literary style. (My post also includes my brief history of Rolling Stone magazine in China, if you’re curious.)

YanJun & Ben at Outpost 186

These days he often plays with feedback in his live sets, pointing a shotgun mic at small speakers with objects placed on them, running the signal through an array of stompboxes. I’ve also seen him incorporate spoken word, field recordings, and found objects into his performances and recordings. He’s done a bunch of installation work, too, including a piece called Wormhole Trip at The Shop in Beijing about a year ago (discussed in this Wire article), which involved contact micing all the pipes and ventilation in the space, with rich, resonant results. While he was in Boston, he gave me some of his new music, including a beautiful group recording called Big Can 大罐 made in a huge, abandoned cistern in Zhujiajiao (just outside of Shanghai), Deep Listening Band style, featuring Yan Jun, Hong Qile 洪启乐, Otomo Yoshihide 大友良英, Sachiko M, Yang Ge 杨戈, Xiao Qiang 小强 (Yang Ge’s wife), GOGOJ, Zhao Junyuan 照骏园 and others.

For more on Yan Jun, check out his blog and SoundCloud pages.

I think I first met Yan Jun at the 2Pi Festival in 2005, the same time I met Marqido (now of 10), Li Jianhong, and my good pal Yang Ge, among others. I don’t actually remember if Yan Jun performed that year, but I do remember that when we all went out to dinner afterwards, he was the natural leader, ordering food for two tables (note that ordering food for a large group of people is as refined an art form in China as calligraphy), and providing my first opportunity to taste warm Chinese yellow wine with ginger slices. As I recall, the first time we ever performed together was in early 2008, when we were both attending a NOIShanghai show at the now defunct Live Bar in Shanghai. Organizer Junky (of Torturing Nurse) asked if we wanted to do something, so we responded with an impromptu vocal duet, partially documented below. Since then we’ve collaborated on a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival, and Yan Jun invited me to join in the 2010 Mini Midi Festival tour he organized in Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, and around Fujian province.

Both shows last week were musically successful and a lot of fun, with good audience turnouts to boot. At Outpost we set up a 4 channel system so that I could present Lukou 路口 and the concert debut of the audio component of my Self-Portrait installation. To keep people on their toes, I also did two Jay Chou 周杰伦 songs, with Michael Dobiel joining in on saxophone. Yan Jun and I also reprised our vocal improv duet, which has become a staple of ours whenever we do a show together.

Veteran Boston area performer Vic Rawlings (cello and electronics) joined us for the Whitehaus show, and his duo set with Yan Jun was the week’s highlight for me, a perfect combination, subtle, austere, serene. Whitehaus resident Atom opened with four miniatures involving spinning jar lids, harmonica, coins, and bowed metal. I presented Kaleidoscope Music, probably the best rendition I’ve ever done live; wish I had recorded it! The original installation version uses a live microphone feed, but I generally find that problematic in live performance due to the risk of feedback, so here (as at Opensound last month) my solution has been to record some sounds from around the venue prior to the show and use that as the basis for my real-time filtering. In this case I captured some pre-show chatter about Stockhausen’s late work, and my set ended with my voice pronouncing the word “awesome” in sextuplicate.

Yan Jun, Vic, Atom, Ben @ Whitehaus

It was also wonderful spending time with Yan Jun between gigs. I’ve barely been in Somerville four months now, and this was my first chance to play tour guide in my new environs. We checked out the Olafur Eliasson show going up at Harvard GSD (where Jutta’s working on her master’s; I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear in previous posts) and browsed various Harvard Square book and CD shops (I restrained myself from making any purchases, but Yan Jun picked up Ligeti’s string quartets, part of that Sony Classical series). I took him to see John Luther Adams’s Veils and Vesper sound installation at Harvard’s Arts @ Garden 29, the fantastic Stan Vanderbeek show at the MIT Media Lab (he picked up Nic Collins and John Cage books at the MIT Press bookstore), and then we hopped across the river to the ICA (unfortunately the fantastic Mark Bradford show had just closed, but there was enough of their collection on display, plus Gabriel Kuri, to keep our attention, not to mention the fine Diller Scofidio + Renfro building itself, on a fine, cusp of spring day). For our hardcore sonic diversion one evening we checked out one of the fine, free NEC concerts, a program of Britten, Nielsen, and Sibelius. I cooked him burritos and Brussels sprouts and omelets. But mostly it was just good to catch up, to hear what our friends are up to, to kick the tires on my Chinese, and to see a familiar face from my former home of six years. Who knows where, but I hope our paths cross again soon!

I, Too, Became a Dissident

Here it is: the ambient, algorithmic art video the Shanghai Cultural Bureau doesn’t want you to see!

Transportation Is Getting a New Look from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This piece was first exhibited as part of the “Re-Visioning History” show that opened on May 22, 2010, at OV Gallery in Shanghai. Less than a week later, representatives of the Cultural Bureau came in and shut down the show, walking off with a print from my video.

It’s not clear why my work was singled out for confiscation. The show was centered around the work of Zhang Dali 张大力 and Ren Hong 任虹, with several other artists (myself included) invited to present new work based on a collection of historical propaganda posters on loan from Madame Mao’s Dowry. Most analysts agree, and I wouldn’t argue, that my work was probably the least politically oriented in the show. It may simply have come down to my work being most portable and closest to the door. Oddly, they only took one of the two prints I made from the video, ignoring the video itself.

Transportation20100518011250

The principle objection seems to have been to the work of Zhang Dali. His work was drawn from a 7-year project called “A Second History,” in which he used his connections to gain access to the national archives in Beijing. He managed to locate the original, historical photographs that were used as the basis for various propaganda posters, which he then incorporated into work that presented both versions of history side by side, in digital prints, silk screens, and paintings. He had already exhibited this work several times without major incident, most recently at the Guangdong Museum of Art, though the rumor is that after the Guangdong show he was pegged as someone to keep an eye on. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard for the OV Gallery show’s closure is that the powers-that-be didn’t want to come across as enemies of culture by officially censoring the show (especially with heightened foreign attention during the Shanghai Expo), so instead they got the gallery on technicalities like selling catalogues and exhibiting foreign artists without a license. So it in all likelihood had nothing to do with my art (which does not mean I’m not mentioning it in every grant application I write from this point forward).

You can read more about the incident in That’s Shanghai, Shanghaiist, and the Wall Street Journal.

And then suddenly on June 22, one month after the original opening, the gallery was permitted to reopen. They even returned my piece, which is actually a bit disappointing; I kind of liked the idea of it hanging over some Cultural Bureau functionary’s desk somewhere. There was a little reopening party on June 26, and the show’s run has been extended through August 5, to make up for the period that the gallery was closed.

All of the hoopla surrounding my piece’s confiscation and the gallery closure has somewhat deflected attention from the work itself, with which, in fact, I am quite pleased.

Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a real-time, algorithmic collage of snippets from a 1970’s Chinese propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌.” The point of departure was the idea of a city wall covered with posters. Old posters fade and are torn down, new posters cover them up, and a new, unpredictable form emerges from the remnants, an evolving public collage.

Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌

My video employs custom computer software (developed in Jitter) to algorithmically emulate this process. The program excises sections of the original propaganda poster and pastes them onto a new digital canvas in constantly varying configurations. The composition unfolds in six overlapping “phrases” of about one to two minutes, each of which define an area to be statistically filled with snippets of the original image in varying sizes and densities. Sometimes the program focuses on one part of the source image, resulting in a consistent shape or repeated gesture. Sometimes the differences are greater: a small detail may be enlarged, or an image may be reduced to a texture or color. As new images are overlaid, the foreground is constantly receding into the background; the present forms a canvas for the future.

As with Shanghai Traces, I feel this is a particularly good pairing of subject and medium. The theme of the show, and the subject of this video, is the process of the present becoming the past, forming history. The medium of generative video provides an apt opportunity to evoke this process by means of another process. The video explores the unique properties of the digital medium; you couldn’t obtain the same results (the repetition of images in varying sizes, scales, and degrees of fadedness, not to mention the systematic evolution over time) using traditional paper collage or any other medium.

The video explores modes of propaganda. Slogans on posters, plastered in profusion, represent perhaps the most common form of propaganda: persuasion through sheer repetition, with no attempt at a reasoned argument. You see that happening in this piece, as the program tends to pick from roughly the same area of the source image for stretches at a time. But while working on this piece, I was also reviewing the work of the Russian Constructivist and Suprematist artists of the early 20th century, who were using pure, abstract forms to convey ideas about relationships and society: structural propaganda, still very much intended to alter society. The blocks of images that comprise my video at times resemble some sketches of Kasimir Malevich. The fragmentation of images in my work can at times feel violent as figures are chopped in half and hand-holding friends are sundered. On the other hand, one figure from the source poster can be cloned indefinitely to form an anonymous crowd or disintegrate into an abstract texture.

I don’t deny it: this is a long excerpt to post on Vimeo. But I also wanted to showcase the large scale ebb and flow of the piece. The pacing of this work is slower than other works of mine, such as Shanghai Traces, and things can take longer to come into focus. The viewer must constantly reevaluate the evolving, emergent structure of the composition. There’s a constant fluctuation between foreground and background as the images slowly fade out, and the rate of fade itself is constantly varying. Independent elements may suddenly coalesce into a balanced structure, only to be ruptured by some new element, which may seem out of place until it becomes a key component of some new structure, or it may simply get covered up and forgotten. The eyes and brain are constantly popping between phases of meaning and order, continuously addressing what to me is one of the most important and fundamental structural questions (something I grapple with in audio as well as visual pieces): “What makes things the same, and what makes them different?”

This is not to say you have to watch the video for a long time to appreciate it; part of the point of the piece is that its generative nature allows you to make your own beginning and ending as you enter or leave the installation, so feel free to start the video somewhere in the middle and watch for as long as you want. The piece also works in an excerpt as brief as a single frame, as you can see in this Flickr gallery.

Transportation20100517184635

The video was originally exhibited without sound. For this excerpt, I’ve added some ambient light traffic, recorded from my rooftop studio at True Color Museum, Suzhou, China, where I’m doing an artist residency through the end of July 2010.

BTW, if you read Chinese, you’ll spot some odd characters popping in from time to time. These are from the second batch of simplified Chinese characters (known as “二间”) that were announced in 1977 and then rescinded in 1986, which indicates a time frame in which this poster was originally published. 皃 has since been reverted to its original form 貌, 乙+心 is now 意, 尸+一 is now 展, etc. 片 is also now written slightly differently. For an exhaustive accounting of which characters were changed when, check out this site!

A One-week Slice of Hong Kong Art Life

Circumstances conspired to land me in Hong Kong from September 28 through October 5, and I enjoyed a remarkably fun and eventful visit.

The night before I left Shanghai, I had dinner with Junky (from Torturing Nurse), Li Jianhong 李剑鸿, and Zbigniew Karkowski, who had just performed a very loud, very sparsely attended set at the 0093 rehearsal space a block from my apartment. Karkowski commented that in his often outspoken opinion, Hong Kong was overtaking mainland China as a hub for creativity activity, at least in the sonic arts. So it was a good time for me to go and make some assessments of my own.

My friend Nana Seo Eun-A had been encouraging me to come down to visit for a while. She works for Videotage, the 23-year-old Hong Kong-based new media center, but she always seems to be anywhere there’s cool stuff going on in Asian art. I met her in Beijing last April, when my and Chen Hangfeng’s 陈航峰 Kaleidoscope installation was up at the Today Art Museum (coinciding with the China International Gallery Exposition, just up the road), and she stopped by my workspace on a recent visit to Shanghai for the SH Contemporary. When I told her I might be swinging through Hong Kong, she encouraged me to extend my visit long enough to check out the beginning of the October Contemporary festival (October 2-31, 2009). Lots of other events were going on to coincide with the festival, too, so it was a great time to be in town. Nana has her finger on the pulse; she seems to know everyone and everything that’s going on in the arts, the result of a simple, sincere love for art, artists, and creativity that I truly admire.

Among her many welcoming gestures, when I sent an email to Nana asking about budget accommodation in Hong Kong, she wrote back almost immediately saying I had a reservation at ACO Air in Wan Chai (super centrally located on Hong Kong Island). ACO stands for Art and Culture Outreach, and their mission encompasses an affordable, short-term living space for visiting artists on the fourteenth floor of the Foo Tak Building (which also houses a number of arts organizations and artist studios, including those of Samson Young and João Vasco, about whom I will write more shortly), in addition to a wonderful bookstore and reading room on the first floor. As they would like it to be known, the operation of ACO 藝鴶 is largely supported by the Dawei Charitable Foundation Limited 達微慈善基金有限公司, and I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to them, and to their gracious manager Kobe, for supporting my arts investigation in Hong Kong; it was a fantastic place to stay, clean, central, with a nice view, and lots of opportunities to bump into other creative folks..

Monday

This was my second trip to Hong Kong; the first trip was exactly four years earlier, also during China’s national holiday. It felt familiar in a lot of regards. Getting from the airport to ACO was super convenient on the Airport Express and subway. Everywhere I looked, the obsession with cleanliness, especially in the swine flu era, was in full effect. Last time I visited, I was impressed with the orderliness of people queueing up to get on or off the subway; this time that impression was significantly less pronounced. Coming from ultraflat Shanghai, the vistas of mountain and ocean that would sneak up on me between buildings were a continual delight.

After Kobe got me settled in at ACO, I ventured out into the typhoon warning to meet up with Nana and her boyfriend Emmanuele (who goes by his old tagger name, Mine [pronounced Mee-nay]) for a fantastic vegetarian Indian dinner in Kowloon, at a little place called Branlo, I think. As I scribbled furious notes, the two of them gave me a very thorough itinerary of all the shows and galleries and openings and performances I was required to check out while I was in town.

Tuesday

Heading out on Tuesday, an old maxim was again validated; when looking for a restaurant, find the longest line and get in it! Fantastic barbecue pork with rice on Fleming, between Lockhart and Hennessy.

We had made plans for me to swing by Videotage on Tuesday afternoon, so I thought I’d stop by Osage Gallery, whose main branch is also on the Kowloon side, on the way there. When Nana told me about Nipan Oranniwesna’s City of Ghost installation, a sprawling city map rendered in baby powder, it didn’t sound like much, but when I walked into the space and caught sight of the work, I think I gasped audibly at the size, detail, and ephemerality of the undertaking. Also on view were a photo series called Hong Kong Intervenion by mainland artists Sun Yuan 孙原 and Peng Yu 彭禹 on the city’s large Filipino population, and Singaporean artist Cheo Chai-Hiang’s 蒋才雄 Story of Money installation, consisting of luxury suitcases containing Chinese characters in which the “bei 贝” radicals (etymologically indicating “money,” or literally, “cowry”) were replaced by actual cowries, a kind of clever comment on the deep roots of contemporary Chinese consumer culture.

In the elevator on the way down, I chatted with Wilson Kwan, who works for Osage, and handed him a Radiospace CD, which sparked a conversation about the gallery’s upcoming (last) intervention show (Oct 10-Nov 29), part of October Contemporary, featuring the work of Samson Young and Kingsley Ng, “two of Hong Kong’s emerging generation of tech-savvy multi-disciplinarians.” In addition to the gallery show, on the 17th Samson Young will be leading Urban Palimpsest: A Twilight Sound-Walk, a tour through the gallery’s Kwun Tong neighborhood, augmented by portable electronics. Sounds super cool; wish I was in town for that.

From Osage, I proceeded to get hopelessly lost in Kowloon. I thought I’d be able to find my way to Videotage using public transportation, too vain a world traveler to hail a cab. First I went two stops on the subway before I got Nana’s message that the only way to get there was a to take a bus, then it took another 45 minutes to find the right bus stop, then I went the wrong way on the bus (all the way to the terminus), until someone motioned for me to get on another bus, which randomly turned off its engine at another bus stop, at which point I was motioned into another bus with a different number, which never stopped at the stop I was looking for…I eventually got out and hailed a cab anyway. Nana latter laughed when I told her where I’d been, saying I’d managed to completely traverse Kowloon from east to west.

Anyway, I finally found Videotage, nestled into the Cattle Depot Artist Village, alongside 1a Space, On and On Theater, and other arts organizations. They didn’t have an exhibit up at the moment, but I got a presentation on the history of Videotage from Nana and her colleague Hilda Chan. They’re preparing an upcoming show called 20/20, which pairs work by artists currently in their 20’s with artists who were working at Videotage when it was founded over 20 years ago. Nana’s also planning a big event called Night Light Graffiti for the closing of October Contemporary on October 31. And just three days ago, they hosted Zbigniew Karkowski, Dickson Dee, and Sin:Ned on their Staticizer Tour, which I’m sad I had to miss, as I was already back in Shanghai. I was impressed by their clever Videotage business cards, cut at different intervals from those at which they were printed, so each one is unique!

My getting lost put us a bit behind schedule, so Nana and I had to rush off back to Wan Chai for a very tasty Cantonese seafood dinner with Ellen Pau and Alvis Choi, colleagues from Videotage who are also involved in the upcoming Microwave Festival of new media art this November. We had a fascinating discussion comparing the Hong Kong and Shanghai art landscapes, and as we were talking about art apps for iPhones, the topic of granular synthesis came up, which is about as good an invitation as I can think of for me to present some of my work. I happened to have my laptop handy, so I pulled out the EZGranulator app I had developed in Max/MSP a while ago as a demo for colleagues at Ubisoft, and also showed a bunch of my giraffe images, which I think of as a kind of visual granular synthesis.

Wednesday

Wednesday morning I set out for the Hong Kong Arts Center, a quick walk from ACO. Nana had recommended the show at the Goethe Institut on the 14th floor, which documents with photographs, transcribed interviews, and architectural renderings the illegal, temporary shelters that have been built on the roofs of dilapidated buildings in some of Hong Kong’s poorer neighborhoods, one of which happens to be across the street from Videotage. It was an interesting show, and while there I poked my head into their library, a minor treasure trove of German culture. I took the opportunity to get acquainted with Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion (1959) and took in the view of the Victoria Harbor land reclamation project (which I have often used as a metaphor for how I’ve sought to structure my daily schedule). In reading about the composer, I noticed that Stockhausen also had a policy of providing all of his own equipment at shows to ensure quality, further reinforcing a principle I’ve learned from experience.

From there I went downstairs to the Pau Gallery (no relation to Ellen) on the 4th floor. The show Cities of Desire, ostensibly a dialog between artists working in Viennese and Hong Kong, struck me as a bit scruffy and haphazard (Artforum liked it better), but it provided a chance to hear some of Cedric Maridet’s beautiful ambisonic sound work, which folks had been telling me I needed to check out.

It had been raining off and on since my arrival in Hong Kong, but on Tuesday the floodgates were truly loosed. My original plan had been to check out a bunch of galleries Nana had recommended in the afternoon, but I was sopping after a mere dash to the nearest covered walkway from the Hong Kong Art Center. I spent some time watching the rain and traffic (which throughout my trip continuously brought to mind Tarkovsky’s Solaris; only after I got back did research reveal the driving scenes were shot in Tokyo, not Hong Kong), deciding whether to venture to the nearest subway stop or the nearest pub, and eventually decided to head back to the dry Goethe Institut library, where I checked out Wolfgang Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a pretty wacky piece of music theater that is probably not best served by an audio recording, especially without an accompanying translation.

On top of the weather, my phone was out of wack, so I was unable to reach Nana, but I thought we had made plans to hear a performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Center (on the Kowloon side of the harbor) featuring Alok Leung, the sound artist/musician and Lona Records founder who’s long been a Facebook friend, but whom I’d never met in person, as part of a show called Architecture is Discourse with Music (I’m leaving out the gratuitous ellipses). So I made it through the rain to the ferry and caught the show, and only realized later that the plan had actually been to catch the same show the following night. The program featured three artists—KWC, Alok Leung, and Aenon Loo—in audiovisual laptop performances, followed by a Power Point presentation by mainland Chinese architect Liu Jiakun 刘家琨.

In fact, there was no discourse between architecture and music whatsoever. A generous reading of the laptop artists’ performances would suggest a sensitivity to the structural issues of architecture, and the videos contained images of architecture, but the architect himself made no mention of music, and in fact at no point did the musicians and architect even share the stage. Mr. Liu’s presentation was interesting for the most part, until he ended by showing a long, ridiculously self-aggrandizing video documentary of the memorial he designed and financed for Sichuan earthquake victim Hu Huishan 胡慧姗. I’m not interested in anyone who has to show a video of a bereft woman bowing down to him to reinforce his benevolence.

Afterwards I had a chance to chat very briefly with the musicians as they were packing up their stuff, but the talk had gone on quite long, and they understandably seemed to be in a bit of a hurry to leave.

And the Hong Kong Cultural Center has free government wi-fi! Thanks, government!

Thursday

So I thought that on Thursday I would head out early and try to catch some of the galleries that I missed the day before. Of course, I knew it was the Chinese National Holiday, but I figured that for galleries that would be a good day to catch people who were off work and about town (it seems Hong Kong only took the one day off, as opposed to the week or more in mainland China). So I took the subway to Sheung Wan, two stops down from where I was staying (so convenient!) and walked through the stalls of exotic Chinese medicinal ingredients to Art Hub Asia, where I had to present identification and sign in before being allowed up to the 11th floor to discover that they were indeed closed for the holiday. The same was true of Tang Contemporary downstairs and Parasite across the street and Amelia Johnson Contemporary and Art Statements down the road. I gave up before trying Gallery Exit; Aenon Loo had told me the night before he’d be there, but I assumed he had forgotten about the holiday. Turns out he probably was there after all, since he runs the place. Whoops!

At least the Man Mo 文武 Temple was open, just around the corner, so I popped in for a look, although even that felt a bit like a failure, as it is currently undergoing renovation.

So I gave up on galleries and set out for the ferry station, wandering down a stretch of the Mid-Levels escalator, which serves as a gathering point for the city’s Filipina population on holidays, a lively and convivial atmosphere (and the subject of Cedric Maridet’s sound installation Filipina Heterotopia that I had just seen at Pau Gallery the day before).

Once on the Kowloon side, I headed to HMV for a happy hour or two of CD shopping. It’s really hard to get new music in China. Most CD’s that get official release here are pop garbage, and you can only get local underground stuff at shows for the most part. In my flush Ubisoft days, I used to order a lot of CD’s from Amazon, but I can’t really justify the cost of that anymore. And I’m a lousy pirate. So, despite HMV’s abysmal classical/jazz collection (they share a room, along with country and easy listening), I seized the chance to pick up the new Jim O’Rourke CD, La Roux, the Beatles’ remastered Rubber Soul, Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics in 5.1 (since their 5.1 Yoshimi was so excellently mixed) and two old Pet Shop Boys albums (2 for 1 sale, and good reference for my recent synth-pop productions).

I was supposed to meet Nana at a housewarming party for the new Shanghai Street Artspace, but I was a bit early, so I walked from HMV north through Kowloon Park, and actually way farther than I needed to go on Shanghai Street. I stopped at a place called I Love Cake and bought mooncake molds and heart-shaped cookie cutters, then found a bar in a mall celebrating Belgian beer week with Kronenbourg on tap (let’s not quibble), where I could rest my weary feet and start making my way through the liner notes of my recent purchases.

At the appointed time, I headed back down to Shanghai Street Artspace. It wasn’t an exhibition, just an open house. As I understand it, there had been a call for people to submit proposals for the space, and the winners invited all the other applicants over to have a discussion about what they envisioned for the place as a community art hub. Gotta say, I didn’t get much out of it, as the discussion was in Cantonese, but one friendly guy named Jasper pulled me aside and filled me in. Things livened up a bit after Nana arrived, and some of us started playing ping pong. Later I spilled some kind of lychee gelatin on the purse of someone I later identified as Phoebe Wong from Asia Art Archive. Sorry again!

From there Nana took me by Kubrick Bookstore Café, an amazing store for books and DVD’s and film soundtracks, but I only had a quick chance to peek inside (and to inquire whether they had the soundtrack for L’Odeur de la papaya verte, and to strike out yet again), before heading out to dinner with some of Nana’s friends, including the artist Nadim Abbas, who’s in a band with Alok called A Roller Control and was one of the artists included in the recent Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

I actually wasn’t planning on checking out the Architecture Is Discourse with Music show again, since it was the same line up as the night before, but when we left the restaurant, the streets were all cordoned off for the National Day fireworks over the harbor (on my previous trip to Hong Kong I had watched the fireworks from the nearby 28th floor restaurant Hutong, which I’ve just discovered has a super annoying web page), so only be explaining that we were on our way to the show could we get through. I wouldn’t have been able to see the fireworks or even get to the ferry, so I just stuck with the group, which turned out to be a good move, because afterwards folks were more relaxed, and we all repaired to a bar called Phonograph for beer and conversation. I got to chat with Alok at length, and also with Nana and Mine and lots of other folks. (The non-discourse this time was with Beijing architect Zhu Xiaodi 朱小地, who showed an awful lot of pictures of some luxury bar complex he had designed, certainly swank and easy on the eyes, but representative of a kind of lulling, complacency-inducing architectural riff on traditional Chinese forms that I view somewhat suspectly.)

Friday

I scheduled lunch on Friday with Edwin Lo, another Facebook friend whom I’d never met in person, sound artist and recent graduate of the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media. (You can read an interview with French musician Yannick Dauby that he did for the Sound Pocket website, which I stumbled upon rather at random; can’t seem to link to it directly, so happy exploring!) Nana joined us, too. Edwin suggested a beef curry place not far from ACO that was ridiculously tasty, in a kind of Hong Kong food court, but where everything was handmade, on the third floor of a building into which I would otherwise never have ventured. So tasty!

We had a good chat about sound in Hong Kong, and planned an amble over to nearby White Noise Records, a Hong Kong institution I had visited on my list trip through town, still going strong. But we got there too early; on Fridays they only open at two. So we parted ways, and Edwin slipped me a 3 inch CD he’d done called “In The Memory Of…,” released on the Little Sound label, a slow, elegiac montage of field recordings, quite nice.

On my way back to Sheung Wan, amid all the Chinese medicine shops, I stopped at one of these funky little herbal tea stands for some 夏枯草, labeled “Prunella Vulgaris” in English. No idea what that is, but it was sufficiently cool and refreshing. Then, finally on the third attempt, I had some success on my Hong Kong gallery crawl.

I spent over an hour at the Asia Art Archive, and I could have spent much longer. Like the Goethe Institut, it’s a place I could see myself visiting often if I lived in Hong Kong. My friend Amy Wood, who works there, was out of town, but her colleague Clara Cheung gave me a comprehensive tour of the facility. I also bumped into Phoebe , to whom I apologized again for spilling that lychee goop on her bag. Their collection runs a little slim on the sonic art front, but they’re open tp submissions, so feel free to send ‘em stuff! I did a search for Yan Jun 颜峻 and up popped an event called Around from earlier this year, organized by Yang Yeung 楊陽, Sound Pocket founder and another person people had been telling me I should meet; they had a catalog from the show in the collection, so I looked it up and read all about it. I found out I’m also in the database as a collaborator with Yan Jun at last year’s eArts Festival, and before I left I gave them a Radiospace CD, so now I’m in there twice! Do your own search here, there’s lot of fun stuff.

In fact, Parasite, Tang Contemporary, and Art Statements were all closed to prepare new shows, but I got to talk with folks briefly at the first two places. (In fact, the same was true of Parasite four years ago when I tried to visit; strike two!) I had peeked in the window at the Art Statements show earlier to see some of the controversial logo graffiti pieces that caused a furor around the time of the Louis Vuitton show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, but they were closed to set up a new show by Danish artist Troels Wörsel.

Gotta say, I was a bit bored at Amelia Johnson Gallery; I’m really not much for those kind of personal family history unearthed as artistic narrative kinds of series you see a lot, and the title of Dinu Li’s The Mother of All Journeys can only be taken as a bad pun. Some pretty photos, though.

Kwan Sheung Chi’s 關尚智 show No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. at Gallery Exit cracked me up, though. Not all of the pieces were well executed, and the typical problems of presenting video in a gallery context were all manifest, but sometimes there’s a fine line behind between a good conceptual artist and someone who’s just fun to have at a party. One of the pieces documented him and his friends performing a drinking game/endurance test during one of Hong Kong’s annual art walk events, and another piece showed him trying to recreate the performance by drinking the same amount of alcohol in the same time frame alone in his studio. I’ve been arguing for a while that intoxication is an underutilized parameter in performance.

After leaving, I stopped at a nearby crossroads, trying to get my bearings, and Phoebe Wong once again materialized and pointed me towards the Input/Output Gallery, just up the hill from Hong Kong’s notorious Lan Kwai Fong bar street (with an opportunity to grab a schwarma at the same schwarma stand where I grabbed one four years ago, yum!). Nana had emphasized this event, the official kick off of the October Contemporary, and it was probably the best party of the week. (Input/Output is owned by Teddy Leow, who currently has an interesting piece—from a technology perspective, at least—at MOCA Shanghai, a flashing LED panel that creates creepy afterimages in your retina when you look away.) Most notably, I got to meet my newest two best friends, Rachel and Paul, who are so cool, smart, friendly, and funny. Rachel is the manager of Input/Output, and it turns out she had actually seen my performance at Art+Shanghai when my 路口 installation opened. I enjoyed talking with Jessica, who also works at the gallery, since she doesn’t shy from asking very direct and difficult questions about why artists are doing what they’re doing. Then when someone introduced Cedric Marinet, and after hearing his installations and having people tell me all week that I needed to meet him, I was so excited that I greeted him with a big hug, to which he responded, “Who are you?” We talked for a long time about our respective practices and background and the exigencies of sound art, a very sharp and thoughtful fellow. I also spoke at length with Yang Yeung of Sound Pocket (who organized the aforementioned show with Yan Jun); she was interested in my thoughts on what made a good artists’ residency program, and I gave her an earful. Ellen Pau was there, too, and lots of other people…an excellent time.

I talked at length with all three artists in the show: Evan Roth, Desmond Leung, and Cho Yiu Cheng. Desmond had a really beautiful digital animation showing on two panels, abstract, but evoking flowing water, which reminded me a lot of Cindy Ng’s video that’s running next to my sound installation at Art+ Shanghai right now, although his is in color and hers is in black and white (which I think goes better with the theme of the Art+ show, as well as with my piece). Cho Yiu Cheng’s piece was a little more conceptual, images of peoples’ faces with bright lights being flashed in their eyes, blown up to fill a whole wall, and with an accompanying flashbulb soundtrack, should you decide to don headphones. Both pieces loop, but they’re dramatically flat to the point that the loops are pretty inconspicuous; you could still come or go at any point and get a taste of the work, which for me is an important criterion of video installation.

Cho Yiu Cheng

Evan Roth’s work probably had the most resonance for me, as someone working in the digital domain. He’s written a program to digitally sample people’s writing on a glass screen, then store these gestures in a database and visualize them using custom software on a screen in the gallery. He was inspired by watching graffiti artists working, the choreography of their writing styles, and he makes overt connections between this practice and Chinese calligraphy. He’s committed to keeping this an open source project, and I was struck by the countless possibilities contained in his database of digital tags; it’s wide open for all kinds of mapping in the visual and aural domains. I’m also grateful to him for turning me on to the Open Frameworks libraries for C++, which I plan to dive into soon.

Check out Evan’s video of the opening, into which a certain hatted, bearded man features prominently.

When the party started to wind down, a large group of artists, arts organization workers, and hangers on like me ventured out for Thai food. They were selling bunny ears in Lan Kwai Fong, since the Mid-Autumn Festival was nearly upon us, and I bought a pair. After dinner, we went to a homely little joint called Club 71, which was overrun by art folks. Here I made the acquaintance of Adrian Wong (another artist featured in the Louis Vuitton show), and we chatted for a good long while.

Afterwards, Rachel and Paul and I headed out for another schwarma, before finally calling it a night. An awesome evening!

Saturday

I asked Kobe at ACO if she could recommend a nearby place for dim sum, and she came through with the Lung Moon Restaurant 龙门大酒楼 near the Wan Chai subway stop. I arranged to meet a pal from my Ubisoft days, Kevin Lau, who had contracted for Ubisoft on EndWar to do a whole ton video work for marketing and PR purposes, so he had spent quite a bit of time in Shanghai. He brought a friend of his, Simon, and I invited my neighbor from ACO, Matt Gano, a fellow Seattleite, who was in town teaching poetry at the Hong Kong Creative School. Matt’s also an accomplished slam poet and hip hop artist; listen to some of his stuff!

We had a lovely meal, and then Simon suggested heading over to Page One books in Times Square, not far from ACO, where I think I managed to bore them all completely looking for the perfect present to bring back to Jutta in Shanghai. From there, Kevin and Simon had to leave, but Matt and I pressed on to White Noise Records.

Heading up the stairs to White Noise, I noticed that the guy walking in front of us had long hair, rock star pants, and what looked like a silver case for music equipment, so I wondered if there was going to be some kind of in-store performance. When we got in, I started to introduce myself to the proprietor, Gary (with whom I had chatted four years earlier, but who had no reason to remember me), but when I said my name, the musician-looking guy, who had been bending over his case, stood up and said, “Oh, Ben’s a busy guy in Shanghai,” and I recognized him as Christiaan Virant, half of the Beijing-based experimental duo FM3, best known for their wildly successful Buddha Machines. He was in town working on the getting the third Buddha Machine, a collaboration with Throbbing Gristle (dubbed “Gristleism”), produced, and I got to hear the only prototype in existence. He says the original Buddha Machine alone has sold about 80,000 units, pretty impressive.

We chatted for about half an hour about his work, the Buddha Machines, Chinese factories, generative music, iPhone applications (there’s a Buddha Machine for iPhone, if you don’t have it already!) and such.

After he left I chatted with Gary a bit more, and I walked out of there with Christopher WillitsSurf Boundaries (truly excellent), a compilation of Moondog’s years in Germany (alternately mesmerizing and dully noodling, as you’d expect), and Nosaj Thing (quite dull; btw, “Jason” spelled backwards is supposed to be pronounced “no such,” which I don’t think works at all).

I dropped off my loot at ACO, then took the ferry over to the Hong Kong Cultural Center for one last Architecture/Discourse/Music show, this time featuring Portuguese transplant João Vasco (see some of his video stuff here), whom I had met 2 years prior when he performed at Li Jianhong’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou (which is unfortunately not being held again this year, as Li Jianhong confirmed over dinner the night before I left for Hong Kong). João performed a mesmerizing sneak preview of an upcoming audiovisual installation he’s working on, comprised of slow moving videos constructed of time-lapse images of Hong Kong cityscapes, with lush, slow-moving audio generated from the images. I’m really curious to hear those segments in the context of an installation, where the different segments can interact and interpenetrate in a non-linear context. This performance had an increased clarity and focus over what I remember from his 2007 performance; it’s really thrilling to be able to observe an artist’s evolution. On the same bill were Sin:Ned and Pun Tak Shu 潘德恕, who also delivered riveting sets. The architect this time was Zhang Lei 张雷 from Nanjing, who showed some interesting photos, but he had an incredibly annoying tendency to replace the simplest words of his Mandarin lecture with their English equivalents; to give just one example, “gui 贵” is one of the first words most foreigners learn, for its usefulness in bargaining, but I guess he felt “expensive” sounded more luxurious, since it has more syllables, or maybe because it’s foreign and exotic (by contrast, he did not replace “pianyi 便宜” with “cheap”).

After the show, a large group of us went out for a fantastic Indian meal at Chungking Mansions nearby, and then it was realized that in fact there was a party on the roof of the Foo Tak building (where ACO is located, and where João also has his studio), so we all headed over. It wasn’t just an ordinary Saturday night; it was the Mid-Autumn Festival, the second most important traditional festival on the Chinese calendar (hmm, wouldn’t that make a great subject for a song?), which people traditionally celebrate by eating mooncakes and holding moon appreciation sessions. We had a fantastic view of the moon and surrounding buildings, as well as a glimpse of the harbor, and folks had brought lanterns, mooncakes, and beer. Later in the evening, I played my newly finished song “Mid-Autumn Moon” on a small portable sound system someone had brought. There was great conversation with Nana and other new friends late into the night, and João and I had a particularly interesting exchange on the intersection of music and architecture, perhaps the first real discourse of the festival. His perspective (and his original proposal for his performance that night, which the organizers vetoed) was to set up some kind of feedback system to probe the acoustics of the room, for him the truest sonic equivalent of architecture, whereas I was more interested in abstract forms and the non-linear potential suggested by a space, which is only activated when a person actually navigates it.

All week everyone had been telling me that I have to meet Samson Young (the guy with the upcoming Osage show), and on the roof of the Foo Tak building, I finally had my chance, since his studio is also in the building. He’s quite a sharp and accomplished fellow, with an impressive resume of interesting projects and performances (and a PhD from Princeton, where he got to work with Paul Lansky, whose music I’ve long dug). He shared with me about his RPG Triptych to be featured at the upcoming Osage show, which uses an off the shelf RPG game engine (I forget which) to present what sounds like a humorously surreal virtual experience. If I understood correctly, there will be three independent games running in the gallery, non-networked, but if everyone happens to be in the same room at the same time, the music is composed to that the layers will fit together in a harmonious way.

Sunday

After such a late Mid-Autumn Festival celebration, it took a bit of effort, but I made it back to Input/Output for a 1pm panel discussion with the artists (I arrived nearer to 2pm), a fairly open Q&A on new media art. In the lively discussion, I found an improved way to phrase one of my longstanding observations about video installation: if you author a piece to have a beginning, middle, and end, you need to also present it in such a way that the audience walking into the gallery experiences it as beginning, middle, and end. If someone walks in halfway through, your middle just became their beginning, and the dramatic trajectory of the piece is compromised. I’ll pontificate further on this point in the future.

After a lively discussion, I set off with Rachel & Paul to meet Nana at another opening, way up in Kowloon, but first we stopped off for a plein air meal of fresh seafood on Temple St. The opening was at C&G gallery, which several people mentioned has been particularly successful in cultivating a community hub atmosphere. The show was called “No Money for Art vs. No Time for Art,” featuring stop-motion animation. Several artists, including Clara Cheung, whom I had met earlier at Asia Art Archive, had just returned from an artist residency in Puck, Poland, and they were sharing about their experience, and also sharing some fancy Polish vodka and cookies. I chatted at length with a new friend named John from the British Council, and we put a fair dent in the vodka supply.

From there we headed over to see Chopsticks, just around the corner, which is in fact where I was supposed to be the afternoon the typhoon rained me in at the Goethe Institut. Chopsticks is spearheaded by Patricia Choi (who had been at the Foo Tak moon appreciation session and was also present at C&G), and her concept is that the gallery actually has no permanent location, setting up events wherever there happens to be some unused space at the time. The current show was a modest photography exhibit with some nice images; Patricia opened the space just for us and phoned the artists, who popped over to say hello. She also plans to open a hostel somewhere in the neighborhood.

From there we finally made it over to see the new space where Robin Peckham, who joined the party back at C&G, has been working. He and I met last April in Beijing, back when he was working for Boers Li Gallery, and in the intervening months he’s relocated to Hong Kong to set up the Society for Experimental Cultural Production. We’d been trying to find a good time for me to see his new space all week, and we finally made it happen the day before my departure. For now, he shares space with some active musicians, and it’s hard to imagine a better hang out spot, with old tiles and a big balcony evoking some idealized “old Hong Kong” fantasy. Fill that place up with interesting folks and beer, and you’ve got one heck of a party! It’ll be very interesting to see where a man of Robin’s capabilities takes this endeavor in the months ahead.

Monday

On my last day in town, there was just one man left to see: bassist extraordinaire Peter Scherr. Peter’s been based in Hong Kong for a long time, and we’ve met up several times in Shanghai over the years. Perhaps the first time was when he brought his group Headache (including NYC musicians Jim Black, Seattle-transplant Briggan Krauss, and Peter’s brother Tony on guitar) to the now defunct Number Five on the Bund…back in early 2006, I think? Since then I’ve seen him come through town with a number of groups, all top notch, and every time I threaten to come down to Hong Kong to pay him a visit. So after packing up and checking out of ACO, I hopped on the MTR and set out for relatively remote Sai Kung way up north in the New Territories.

Once I got off the bus at the terminus I could see why someone would want to settle down here. The bus stop was right next to a beautiful bay, full of boats and islands and sunshine, verdant mountains all around. Peter picked me up in his car, and we headed back to his house, with a quick stop at another nearby bay to take in the breathtaking view.

I pride myself on my CD collection (I don’t enjoy listening to music on my computer or iPhone), with probably about 600 disks I brought over from the US, and easily another 600 that I’ve accumulated in the five years since, but Peter’s collection puts me to shame. Since so much of this stuff is so hard to find, he let me rip a bunch of it to my computer, some Eyvind Kang, some Marc Ribot, some Stockhausen, some Ornette Coleman, and a bunch of the newly remastered Beatles mono recordings from the new boxed set (the only way to get ‘em). In exchange I offered what I had on me (like Jim O’Rourke and, um, Pet Shop Boys), and a wide swath of my own tunes.

He showed me his amazing studio, as breathtaking as the surrounding scenery. I took some iPhone snaps of his studio, but they don’t do it justice the way his own webpage does. I plunked around on his beautiful Yamaha C3 piano for a bit; he picked up his bass, and we noodled over some simple changes, and once again I wished I spent more time developing my improv chops. It was a lovely afternoon just shooting the musical breeze, talking about music we like and our various projects, before he drove me around the backside of the peninsula, providing another perspective on the beautiful Hong Kong landscape, to the airport, where he happened to be picking up another musician friend that same night.

I stopped at the Heineken Bar in Terminal 2, where they had Murphy’s Irish Stout on tap and, I thought, quite passable jalapeno poppers (one of the rarest foods in Asia). The airport also offered free wi-fi (thanks, government!).

My whirlwind visit left me with a very favorable impression of Hong Kong. There seem to be lots of people doing really interesting, creative things. The food was great, and every morning when I walked out of my building, the glimpses of mountains and ocean exhilarated me. I was there during an eventful week, but there’s much more on the horizon that I would have liked to stick around for: Dickson Dee’s concert with Zbigniew Karkowski at Videotage a few days ago, a performance at Input/Output on October 14th, Samson and Kingsley’s installation at Osage, a concert by friends Yao Dajuin 姚大均 and Xu Cheng 徐程 on October 17-18 (another part of the architecture festival), the rest of the October Contemporary and Nana’s closing Night Light Graffiti event, and the Microwave festival that’s kicking off in November. There seems to be much more institutional support for the arts than on the Chinese mainland, and most of the people I talked to in the arts had a higher level of arts education (perhaps a by-product of the high concentration of universities in Hong Kong); the flip side that was mentioned to me by a couple of artists I spoke to was a kind of superficiality or pretention that kept relationships from going deep and inhibits healthy criticism.

Perhaps there’s a bit of the “grass is always greener” phenomenon at work, but one thing this visit reminded me is that Hong Kong’s not all that far away. I hope to be back soon! Thanks again, Nana!

Mid-Autumn Moon

I’ve posted a new song called (I’m pretty sure) “Mid-Autumn Moon” on my Neocha page my last.fm page and my Douban 豆瓣 page for your listening pleasure. Give it a spin!

This song has been 5 years in the making, and I still don’t quite consider it done, but this will do for a demo. I wanted to get it out before this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, which is China’s second biggest holiday (after the Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year), occurring annually on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar, which in 2009 falls on October 3.

Mid-Autumn Festival was the first major Chinese holiday I experienced after moving to China in 2004, and I was curious about the traditions and legends associated with it. Through some informal internet research, I became acquainted with the Jade Rabbit 玉兔, the woodcutter Wu Gang 吴刚, and the Moon Goddess Chang’e 嫦娥, all of whom live on the moon. The stories struck me as well-suited for recounting in the context of a folk song, and as I was starting to contemplate the idea of doing a collection of songs about Shanghai around that time, I added this idea to the list.

I wrote the first verse about the Jade Rabbit back then, as well as the “beheld/felled” couplet for the woodcutter verse, and I have often sung the first verse and the main pseudo-guitar riff to myself in the years since, but I didn’t seriously resume work on the rest of the lyrics until about a month or two ago. As with most ancient tales, there are many variations, so I had to do some picking and choosing to centonize my own version, and in the course of finishing up the lyrics, I was reminded that one of the reasons these old stories are so resilient is that they provide so many opportunities for new expression in retelling, depending on where you place the emphasis, or even which versions of the old tales you use.

Musically, I’ve always thought the song fell into a 7/4 pulse quite naturally. A lot of folk songs fall into irregular rhythms, since they are often built around the declamation of text. I’ve noticed this in field recordings of folk singing, as well as in some of Bob Dylan’s early recordings. It seems to me that it’s only a half-applied classical artifice that forces music into an even meter (for a more rigorously applied classical approach, see Zoltán Kodály or Harry Partch). Of course, there’s still a steady pulse, but the groupings are irregular; I’m basically providing an extra beat for breath (actually, I remember Ned Rorem arguing the opposite point in his diaries, that Shakespearean iambic pentameter is not really in an uneven quintuple meter, but in an even sextuple, since you have to add a beat for breath). It’s pretty much the same rhythm Peter Gabriel uses in “Solsbury Hill,” and I was always annoyed that Erasure added an extra beat to even it out in their cover version, so I also intend this as a demonstration to them that you can indeed have a dance groove in seven.

While recording the vocal track, I was a bit surprised to realize that the melody is pentatonic. The melody’s five years old, and I honestly can’t remember if that was intentional or not. Of course, the pentatonic scale is the traditional Chinese scale to which, for example, a gu zheng is tuned. It’s also an incredibly trite and clichéd way of expressing “Chineseness,” and if I were writing the melody today, I think it would strike me as a bit cheesy to overtly employ it, but what I have written, I have written. Interesting to see how my perspective has evolved after living here for five years.

I’d been hoping to finish up my whole Shanghai Travelogue album by the end of the year (which now seems unlikely), so I really wanted to have this track done by this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival. That’s part of the reason the production feels a little rushed. At some point I need to go back and clean up some of the keyboard parts, probably redo some of the percussion with some more interesting sounds (perhaps adding more acoustic stuff), even out some of the orchestration, reconcile the slightly different “picking” patterns in the first and second verses, and add a proper beginning and ending. So if you didn’t already dislike the song, here are some reasons to reconsider. But actually all of the songs I’ve posted for the forthcoming album are demos; once the shape and scope of the album is clearer, I’ve got a lot of stuff to revisit.

Another reason the song feels a bit rushed is that in the past month I’ve faced every technological impediment known to humankind. I was planning to debut this song, along with synth-pop versions of the songs on 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, at my show last night with Resist! Resist! at Not Me, which should have been a simple task for the two and a half weeks I had allotted for it since the opening of my sound installation 路口 at Art+ on September 8. In the end I made it, but, Lord, was it an arduous path.

I just got a new laptop (a snazzy new Sony Vaio Z, which is incredibly light, although not as powerful in the end as I had been hoping, and really stingy with the USB ports) about 3 months ago, and my trusty, five-year-old HP started flaking out almost immediately, as if out of jealousy. It would suddenly just decide to shut itself off, and often wouldn’t even boot up. In trying to set up my new laptop for my show at Not Me on August 27, I tried to install an archaic program called GigaPiano, so that I could do the quasi-acoustic portion of the set, but it installed some super low level audio thing that caused my computer to blue screen every other time I booted up, and in the end I had to completely reinstall the operating system. The newer MOTU sound card I bought to run Breaking New Ground and this new installation for a brief period could not be turned on, but then miraculously healed itself. Then of the 4 speakers I ordered for my 路口 installation, 2 had problems and had to be send back two days before I was supposed to install the piece. In the meantime, I thought I had solved my other laptop’s problem by swapping out the power supply, and I considered myself set to have one laptop/sound card rig to run the installation in the gallery, and another to keep at home for work. But within 24 hours of the 无为 opening at Art+, the old laptop, my old sound card, and my iPhone all stopped working. So for the first week and a half that the installation was up, I had to bring my home laptop in to the gallery everyday to run the piece, and then take it home at night to do my own work while the gallery was closed, until we could finally find a replacement laptop. I got my old laptop repaired for about 500 kuai, but it still would occasionally shut itself off (though never when the repairmen were looking); I took it back to them, but they said it must be a software/system problem, and said they couldn’t do anything else. Then I wanted to get back to some MIDI production to prepare for last night’s Not Me show and to finish this song, and I discovered that there are no 64-bit Vista drivers for my MIDISport MIDI interface, so I had to work on the old laptop, which was still arbitrarily shutting itself down. And when I powered up all my MIDI gear, my trusty Yamaha FS1R synth module displayed the “Low Battery” warning and replaced all of my user presets with garbage, so I’ll have to ship that off to have its internal lithium battery replaced. (And my Roland JP-8000 synthesizer is still not working properly after having been in and out of the shop for three years, since the company Ubisoft hired to run sound at their company party in 2006, at which I performed, fried my synth with their wonky equipment.) Since my old sound card had been shipped to Beijing for repairs, and my new sound card was running the installation at Art+, I resorted to using my new Zoom H4 portable recorder as an audio interface, which was ok for inputs, but the only output is a 1/8” headphone jack, which was ridiculously prone to interference, so the tracks I made for the show last night had a ton of digital noise on them that I had to try to minimize with a noise reduction plug-in. Then at the last minute my old computer, which had lately been staying on for hours at a time, decided not to boot up, and I spent an anxious afternoon trying to get it to stay on long enough for me to copy the last 2 weeks’ work off so that I’d have something to play at last night’s show. Things got to the point that to record vocals for this new song, I was reduced to making a MIDI mix, copying it to my iPhone (now working again, 900 kuai later), listening to the backing tracks on headphones while recording into my laptop, then later trying to sync everything up in Sound Forge, since I currently don’t even have a multitrack audio editor on my new computer, having seemingly lost the serial number for Cubase (and being utterly talentless at using pirated versions of anything). I had to go to the gallery last night to grab my sound card from the installation, so that I’d be able to use it for the show, and, in a final coup, today when I was hooking it back up at the gallery, the borrowed laptop seemed to have its keyboard frozen in Function mode, so I couldn’t even create a simple Max patch to test the speaker configuration. I have been in technology hell, and it’s made me an irritable wreck of a man.

Anyway, now that you exactly what I went through to bring you this song, I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival! Go eat a mooncake!

口口口口口口口口

Hey, check out my new song, “口口口口口口口口.”

Perhaps some explanation is in order, especially for those readers living outside China (such as the Russian spambots that frequent my blog—hi, fellas!). The Chinese character 口 is written “kou” in Chinese pinyin, and it’s pronounced like “comb” without the “mb.” It’s pronounced with a falling-rising tone, classified as the third of Mandarin’s four tones. Especially when first learning Chinese, I would sometimes involuntarily bob my head while speaking to help me reproduce the proper inflection.

I’m no professional etymologist, but basically 口 represents a kind of archetype mouth. It’s not used to refer to the mouth of a person (that would be 嘴, or zui, also third tone), but it’s used for doors (门口), entrances and exits (进口 and 入口, respectively), mouths of rivers, and such. It also functions as a component (or “radical”) of more complicated characters, usually indicating that the character has something to do with the mouth (as in the aforementioned 嘴), or that it’s an interjection of some kind.

Most foreigners living China will be familiar with the phenomenon of receiving a Chinese text message on a phone that doesn’t recognize Chinese characters. The text is therefore displayed as a series of boxes, which, as the astute reader will have noted, closely resembles the character 口. So I used to make a little joke of feigning ignorance on the subject, delighting myself and friends with the apparent ability to read a text message comprised entirely of 口’s. And that, pretty much, is the idea behind this song.

That’s Torturing Nurse’s Xu Cheng 徐程 on guitar. I wanted to do a noise solo, thinking about garbled communications and such, and while pondering how to accomplish this, I decided, well, why not just turn to the pros? I had gone to Xu Cheng’s house for a Torturing Nurse rehearsal in 2006 (Torturing Nurse being Shanghai’s seminal noise band, who just celebrated their 5th birthday 2 weeks ago) and recorded some of his guitar playing for the piece Mobile 3 that I performed at that year’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou. I asked Xu Cheng if I could reappropriate some of this material for this song, and he graciously agreed. I think it fits the song super well (in fact, I think the end result is probably more successful than Mobile 3).

I had a bit of an agenda for harmony in this song. A lot of pop music I hear seems to rely on volume, distortion, and aggressive delivery to convey, you know, angst or tension or whatever. But to me, harmony is the real source of angst in, for example, Nirvana’s best songs, distinguishing them from, you know, Warrant, or so many punk bands that posture angst on top of common practice era chord progressions that could have been lifted right from the pages of Mozart. So especially given that my sound palette mostly revolves around shiny synthesizer tones, I wanted to try to get the frustration and uncertainty of the song across harmonically.

The song is basically built around a whole tone scale, though I switch whole tone scales a few times. This shifting between whole tone scales (there are only two) happens with increasing frequency in the longer, louder second verse section, trying to settle into something that won’t be pinned down, but at the very end approximating enough of a major scale to suggest a half cadence. There’s usually a constant drone in the background, and tension derives from these two musical ideas trying to fit together somehow, to forge some meaningful relationship. I think this is the neat thing about harmony; it’s not just a metaphor for something not fitting in; it is literally the same thing.

At the same time there’s only one chord type in the whole song, a major triad, and it’s always presented in root position. I did something similar in “Hack Coo!” from Stranger Personals, a setting of personal ads from The Stranger for voice and piano, where almost defiantly optimistic major chords are lost in a cascade of other notes, depriving them of their tonal moorings. Since the roots of the chords conform to alternating whole tone scales, but the chord type is major, the hegemony of the whole-tone scale is constantly being thwarted by the fifth of the chord. At the same time, the constant transposition of this immutable voicing causes harmony to move towards the realm of timbre (like a pipe organ, or Ravel’s doubling of horn with piccolos on the upper partials in Bolero), so that the chord starts to fuse into a single musical entity.

The bridge breakdown is the only part of the song that exists entirely in a whole tone scale, with no perfect fifths to get in the way. While this keeps it from resolving in a traditional tonal way, the fact that it belongs all to one scale provides a kind of respite from the conflicts of the rest of the song, creating this brief cocoon of tentative intimacy before exploding again.

Around the time of his death earlier this year, I was rereading George Perle’s The Listening Composer, in which he points out the prominent role that symmetrical structures play in the music of Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other giants of the early 20th century (an aspect that unifies these rather diverse composers). [A symmetrical structure is basically an interval sequence that eventually gets you back where you started. If you move by half-steps or fourths or fifths, you get the whole 12-tone chromatic scale; but if you move by whole steps, you get the 6-tone whole tone scale; a half-step plus a whole-step will get you the octatonic scale, etc.] So I still had these ideas on the brain, although I’m sure this song wouldn’t have earned much more than an eye roll from Mr. Perle. While the verses are mostly wandering adrift in whole tone land, the chorus and breakdown shout-out sections are working through different cyclical structures; for example the breakdown repeats the same material at (negative) minor third transpositions until arriving back on the initial pitch. The chorus pattern basically short-circuits a circle of fifths progression by the introduction of a minor third, so that the figure leads straight to the tritone transposition and back again. (For another, prime example of symmetrical partitioning in a pop lick, check out Prince’s “P Control” from 1995’s The Gold Experience.)

My original concept for the vocal delivery of the song was to have it kind of shouted, kinda rap or sprechtstimme, to keep things floating and unresolved, and at several points during production, I fought the urge to turn it into a conventional melody. There kind of is a bit of a hidden melody, a simple, slow-moving ascending figure in the fuzzy drone part during the verses, but I only vaguely follow the contour of it, not matching any pitches. As is probably quite apparent, I was thinking very much of Elvis Costello, in particular “Pump It Up” and “Playboy to a Man.” That squawking sound is something I’d heard Prince do (and Elvis, on rare occasion), but never figured out how to do it (by inhaling) until going back to the source, some old James Brown recordings. Of course the shout-out stuff is very Prince inspired.

Can we have that 800 number again?

口口口口口口口口

Excellent.

[Addendum 9/22/2010: I forgot to mention there’s also an oblique reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors.” Extra points if you can find it!]

Turning Heads vs. Rolling Eyes

Three weekends ago, I checked out the Intrude: Art & Life 366 exhibit at the Zendai Museum in Pudong. I was always a little fuzzy about the exact parameters of this project, but it seems to have been a yearlong initiative in which different artists would do pieces to take art beyond the museum walls, and this show collects some of the highlights.

My pal Chen Hangfeng 陈航峰, with whom I’m currently collaborating on an installation for the Today Art Museum in Beijing for next April, was one of the participating artists. His piece involved chronicling the year by taking a picture of himself every day with a sign counting down the number of days remaining. Only about forty of the resultant photos were on display at the museum, though I thought there was room for a lot more, especially the one I’m in, an egregious curatorial oversight.

Most of the pieces were public performances of some kind, so they were represented in the museum by their documentary evidence, mostly videos and photographs. Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of the Sugar Jar shop in Beijing’s 798 complex (the best place in the country to pick up experimental and underground Chinese music) had a piece on display, which involved riding around on a bike carrying one of those looping bullhorns; Lu Chen 陆晨 and Mei Er 梅二 of Shanghai punk band Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团 could be seen in the background recording. Hangfeng’s friend Zeng Yu 曾郁, who we bumped into at the show, did a piece that involved walking around town wearing a blank white mask, handing out manifestos about the metaphorical masks we all wear in the public sphere. Yan Jun 颜峻 was represented by a piece that unfortunately looked suspiciously like an empty Windows XP desktop when we encountered it. One of the most entertaining pieces was by Australian Michael Yuen, who paid 40 people to follow him around People’s Square for a day without knowing why; it was fun to see how other people started to follow along and take pictures out of curiosity, goaded, I assume, by the prospect of a celebrity sighting.

Watching these videos, I couldn’t help thinking about how the act of documentation alters the performance itself. Without a documentary crew, I think some of these pieces could really shake people up and cause them to re-evaluate their surroundings, their habits, their assumptions, maybe even their safety. But when the videotape’s rolling, I expect people automatically prepare themselves for some kind of stunt or prank, if not an artwork, especially in a country where every Bi Feng Tang restaurant and intercity bus rolls those endless candid camera videos for cheap distraction. As I Twittered at the time, “A guy on a bus in a mask turns heads, but a guy on a bus in a mask being videotaped just rolls eyes.”

The only piece of these that I experienced live, other than Hangfeng’s, was a performance by German sound artist Daniel Wessolek on a rainy spring day last year up at Lu Xun park, way up in Hongkou district. He was doing a bit of circuit bending with cheap electronic toys and loudspeakers, controlled by a simple hardware sequencer he had built. Only about five people showed up for the show, but curious park-goers kept popping into our little pavilion to see what was going on. Eventually we were booted, so folks could play cards, and Daniel gave a brief encore on a boat in the lake under an umbrella. One reason I found the performance so beautiful was its ephemerality, the faint electronic sounds blending in with all the other Sunday morning noise, like drizzle on water.

But of course, if they hadn’t been videotaped, Hangfeng and I would have missed out on a fun afternoon of exploring and discussing these pieces. Documentation expands the audience for these works and gives the museum a greater roll in their promotion, analysis, and dissemination. Nonetheless, I had a strong sense that videotaping a performance does justice to neither medium. You don’t have the full sensory bandwidth, the intrusion into daily life, of a live performance, but neither, in the vast majority of cases, is the full communicative power of the video medium being exploited.

Guo Li Jun 郭立军’s “Ouch 岂不痛哉” was represented not by a video, but by an artifact. His piece involved setting up punching bags labeled “Trust me I can prove your existence 请相信我能证明你的存在” in public places, with a sign indicating that the bag may be used for hitting, kicking, hugging, kissing, or any other purpose. The same invitation held in the museum as well, so I went two rounds with one of his bags. To me it seemed the only piece in the show that even in its museum context still held the power to intrude.

My Vertical Vacation

I’ve often stated that I prefer new experiences to new stuff, so last October, along with the new Jay Chou 周杰伦 CD, foam backing for some African batiks (so that I can use them as acoustical treatment), basil and rosemary plants, and a fresh-baked apfelkuchen, Jutta told me there was one more present coming, but that I would have to wait for a free and sunny afternoon to enjoy it.

So about three weeks ago, when I was planning an excursion to Pudong to pick up a new Xbox 360 (my old one, a first generation Japanese model, finally bit the dust, continuing to display the three red lights after having been repaired several times) and have dinner with my first Chinese teacher Shi Linna 施琳娜 (she’s also Jutta’s latest, last year’s Christmas present), Jutta suggested we might want to leave a little early.

When we emerged from the Dongchang Lu subway stop, she revealed my birthday destination, already dominating our field of view: the Shanghai World Financial Center 上海环球金融中心, by some measures the tallest building in the world, designed by New York’s Kohn Pederson Fox and built by the Japanese firm Mori Building.

The Shanghai World Financial Center at Dusk
The Shanghai World Financial Center at Dusk

Superlatives can be tricky, depending on your yardstick, but Shanghai sure loves its superlatives. The spire of the Taipei 101 building in Taipei reaches 509 meters, which is why it’s generally considered the world’s tallest building. (Antennae don’t count, which is why the Sears Tower’s 527.3 m antenna in Chicago doesn’t place). But the SWFC has the world’s highest roof, at 492 meters, and the highest occupied floor, the Observation Deck, at 474 meters. It’s also got the tallest hotel, surpassing the Grand Hyatt at the Jin Mao Tower just next door (though presumably the Jin Mao retains title to the world’s highest post office). (Of course when the Burj Dubai is completed, at over 800 meters, it will dwarf everything on the planet; it’s already the world’s tallest free-standing structure, though it won’t be done for another year or so. I checked in on progress last April, and it’s crazy; ooh, look at my Facebook pictures!)

For me, the jury was out on the SWFC for a long time. I’ve always been a fan of the Jin Mao Tower 金茂大厦 (designed by Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings and Merrill), striking, bold, yet tasteful, mindful of its geographical, cultural, and historical environment. At first it struck me as goofy to see an even taller building going up right across the street, instead of spreading out to create a better balanced skyline. And of course, it’s impossible to ignore the SWFC’s remarkable resemblance to a gargantuan bottle opener. The form of it seemed a bit too simple to occupy so much real estate.

Other Shanghai residents have also voiced their skepticism; I got an earful from a taxi driver the other day about how the SWFC resembled a menacing Japanese tanto, the traditional samurai short sword, an association no doubt exacerbated by the construction company’s Japanese provenance. The tale is often told about how the opening towards the top of the building was originally designed to be a circle, but that it too closely resembled the rising sun of the Japanese flag (the building already being located on Shanghai’s east side), met with protests, and was traded for a trapezoid.

But as we examined the building more carefully, I found it surprisingly slippery to get a handle on such a simple form. I had already noticed how its actual height could be hard to gauge; even though it’s located right next to the Jin Mao tower, the relationship between the two buildings, and to other buildings in the Pudong skyline, changes constantly based on one’s perspective, and there are many vantage points from which the Jin Mao building still appears taller.

Two Views of the SWFC
Two Views of the SWFC

Even from up close, the shape and scale of the building remain elusive. Two of its edges taper as they recede into the sky, playing with your sense of perspective, so that you’re not sure if the building is narrowing, or if it’s merely receding into the distance. At times it looks flat, at other times curved, sometimes symmetrical, sometimes asymmetrical. Its form remains ambiguous, requiring you to continuously engage and evaluate it, which strikes me as a good quality for one of Shanghai’s largest objects to possess, positioned, as it is, for millions of people to see and contemplate each day.

So after I finally surrendered a hard won thumbs-up on the building’s exterior, we ventured inwards. The SWFC’s basement courtyard houses some retail stores (including a Starbucks and, I believe, a Stone Cold Creamery), underneath lots and lots of office space; the upper floors contain the new Park Hyatt, and the building is crowned with an observation deck.

Although the day on which we went was sunny, it wasn’t super clear, and we were racing to catch the sunset. There’s quite a ways to go from the point of entry until you actually reach the optimal vantage point, so if you go, you should probably plan to take more time than we did. We didn’t have to wait in line on a Tuesday afternoon, but I’ve heard of long lines on weekends, since the place just opened on August 30. (It was a long time coming, too; I read that construction started in 1997 but was halted for 5 years due to financing issues before resuming in 2003.)

I was almost disappointed there wasn’t a line, in fact, since there were round screens on the ceiling that seemed to be emitting some kind of dripping sounds in the area where we would have had to wait. You could do a really fun sound-installation with such a set-up, but since we didn’t have a chance to linger and listen, I can only assume they seized the opportunity to do something amazing.

From here we were ushered into the “pre-show room,” where we beheld the baffling “pre-show.” I cannot fathom what inspired the designing of this dark vestibule, with a model of the SWFC encased in a clear cylinder in the middle of the room. When the door closed, the lights dimmed, and the model started to spin, as some electronic minimalist music began to play. Lights began to flash in time with the model’s rotation, producing little animations of strange fruit helicopters along the sides of the cylinder, a cartoon version of one of Gregory Barsamian’s kinetic sculptures (one of which was on display this year, I believe, at either the SH Contemporary Fair or the Biennale, I forget which, and at the Zendai Museum back in 2006). After maybe 2 or 3 minutes, the rotation slowed, the lights came on, and we were permitted to leave. I have no idea why we were forced to watch this garish little spectacle before being permitted into the elevator; it conveyed absolutely no information, was of limited entertainment value, and as an aesthetic experience seemed meaningless in the extreme. I nonetheless smiled upon exiting, bemused to live in a world where such a goofy, high tech bauble could exist.

The elevators presented us with more space-age kitsch, white walls with abstract video projected from a portal on the ceiling. The whole experience bore more than a passing resemblance to a Disneyland ride (something in Tomorrowland, like Star Tours, or Captain EO) with uniformed personnel to complete the scene.

Come Live with Us among the Stars!
Come Live with Us among the Stars!

In the end, we didn’t quite make it to the top observation deck before Shanghai’s soupy smog swallowed the orange sun, but the view was nonetheless spectacular. The three observation decks actually line the top and bottom of the big hole in the top of the building (which I realize is not visible in any of my pictures; my apologies), and the top deck has glass panels in the floor to prove it, providing a sickeningly vertiginous vantage on traffic far, far below. I think there are different price points for the different observation decks, but I don’t know why you wouldn’t head all the way to the top, if you had already come so far.

Careful!
Sickeningly Vertiginous
My Old Office in Times Square is Down There Somewhere
My Old Office in Times Square is Down There Somewhere
Friendly Denizen of the Observation Deck
Friendly Denizen of the Observation Deck

The space age décor and lighting continue to permeate the observation decks, especially the sci-fi escalators that carry passengers the last bit of the way to the top, but upon arrival, at least at this most wonderful time of the year, the synthetic new age music jarringly gives way to an anachronistic mix of pop Christmas tunes: Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” (#2 on my list of John Lennon songs I never want to hear again), and charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (This has got to be one of the dumbest songs ever penned; “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas,” as though that was a pre-requisite for anything. Some of my happiest Christmases have been spent in Africa, and I didn’t miss the snow one bit. It’s not like there was snow in Bethlehem, ya know.)

Feed the World!
"Feed the World!"

Having missed the sunset, we lingered for a while, waiting in vain for the lights to come on along the Bund. Shortly after ascertaining that 5:30 pm was not the magic hour of illumination, we decided to head downstairs and compare this view with one from the Park Hyatt. This entailed going all the way back down to the bottom (via a rather bland gift shop, with a tiny coffee bar in the corner, where you can actually buy SWFC bottle openers) and walking around the base of the building to the entrance of the hotel.

The Bund Lights Do Not Come On at 5:30
The Bund Lights Do Not Come On at 5:30
SWFC and Jin Mao Tower at Night
A Very Strange Perspective, To Be Looking Down on the Jin Mao

Everything about the Hyatt oozed class, every texture, lighting, decoration, wall hanging, and sculpture. I’d be tempted to call it a Japanese minimalist aesthetic, and Jutta noticed some of the same concrete-treated wall panels that first caught her eye when we visited the Mori Art Museum at the top of the Mori Tower in the Roppongi district of Tokyo last February (also built, as you may have surmised, by Mori Building).

We headed up to the 100 Century Bar, which boasts a fantastic booze selection, zillions of single malt scotches, and a handful of small batch Kentucky bourbons. (Just hearing the wine list described to me was intimidating enough; I didn’t venture a peek.) No Knob Creek, but I enjoyed a tasty double Maker’s Mark, neat, for 120 RMB. Not exactly within my sabbatical budget, but it was my birthday (kinda) and Jutta was treating. The bar is connected to a classy-looking restaurant of the same name, and we’d love to come back for dinner. We had a peek at the chefs in passing; the whole restaurant is very open, with all manner of wonderful smells wafting by. Maybe next year.

SWFC at Night
SWFC at Night

In all, an awesome gift. Thanks to my girl for this journey into adventure!

Nice Hat!
Nice Hat!
SWFC and Jin Mao Tower by Night
SWFC and Jin Mao Tower by Night

Oh, Yoko…

Let me say first that I’m coming at you as a Yoko Ono 小野洋子 fan. Back in Seattle, the composers collective of which I was a member, Seattle School, did a tribute show to her and other Fluxus artists, named for her 1964 book Grapefruits. One of my pal Korby’s prized possessions is the letter from Yoko Ono’s people authorizing us to use her image in promotion of the show. Check out this article that ran in the Seattle Weekly.

Going Yoko

I think a lot of the poetic little text pieces that comprise Grapefruits, notwithstanding a strand of dark deadpan humor, evince a certain optimism, the idea that by simply unhinging your brain a bit, you can see the world with fresh wonder. So I headed out to the Ke Center to catch her Fly show opening last weekend with this mindset, in a spirit of goodwill and hope—hope that was mercilessly dashed almost upon arrival.

As we entered the compound, we were engulfed by a huge sea of people waiting to enter. Evidently we had missed a formal welcoming address from Ms. Ono, delivered to the throng from on high in a makeshift podium erected on the gallery’s third floor balcony. But the gist was reiterated in a video that played repeatedly on the side of the building as we waited to be granted admission. The concept was simple: “I love you, Shanghai.”

To transmit this simple phrase, Ms. Ono employed an algorithm of her own devising to encode her message of love into an abstract sequence of flashing lights. She adroitly counted the number of words in the expression “I love you” (there are three), and assigned each word a number corresponding to its position in the sequence of words that comprise this short phrase. Using this system, “I love you,” can be rendered on a flashlight as, “flash,” “flash flash,” “flash flash flash.” In case you didn’t bring a flashlight with you, small souvenir “Onochord” keychain flashlights were distributed to certain lucky attendees.

It’s hard to explain why this is so dumb, but let me try. First of all, the act of encoding this message in lights does nothing to increase its potency or tweak its meaning, so there’s really no reason to do it in the first place. I mean, you could imagine using flashing lights to suggest some kind of emergency message or beacon or whatever, but she didn’t do anything to develop the idea along those lines; she was just flashing lights at people she could just as easily have been talking to. An even bigger problem is that there’s no coherence (let alone elegance or robustness) in the method of encoding she employed; it’s simply a blunt, arbitrary assignation. If you want a binary, human intelligible, time-based encoding system, either do the work to develop a complete and meaningful system yourself (and accept the fact that no one will take the time to learn it), or adopt an existing system, such as Morse code, so you’re at least deferring to other on matters in which you yourself lack competence.

This system belies a fundamental lack of understanding about how language works. Further, it actually erects an artificial barrier between people, because who, outside of the small subset of humanity who crammed into this show, will recognize a sequence of 1-2-3 as meaning “I love you?” (By contrast, you would touch a significantly larger percentage of humanity by simply speaking the words in English, or Mandarin or Spanish or Hindi, for that matter.) It serves only to obfuscate what is apparently intended to be a very sincere and meaningful message. And on top of that, what is the need for this kind of communication in today’s environment of high speed digital communications, when a voice can be relayed vast distances on a laser?

I suppose that what Ms. Ono was trying to achieve with her light code is related to a story she recounted in the video being screened to the impatient masses outside the museum. She talked of how John Lennon once invited her back to his home in rural England and requested a piece she had listed among her works in “Ono’s Sales List,” a catalogue raisonné from 1965 that was appended to the 1970 expanded edition of Grapefruits. In category E, “Architectural Works (priced according to contractors’ arrangements and cost of property),” type A is listed as,

LIGHT HOUSE-a house constructed of light from prisms, which exists in accordance with the changes of the day.

A footnote informs readers that, “Patents applied for, machines, and models for Architectural Works, may be viewed by appointment, only written requests accepted.” Of course, there were no plans, and when John Lennon asked her to build one in his backyard, she responded, as she said in the video, that she had no idea how to build a lighthouse.

The video then flashed us forward to the 21st century, and the LIGHT HOUSE has finally been constructed on Viðey Island, Reykjavik, Iceland. (I don’t know the details of construction, but at a certain point it strikes me as goofy to claim authorship for a work in which all you said was “build a lighthouse,” and someone builds one for you.) It’s clear from the video that Ms. Ono views this as a way of finally granting Mr. Lennon his request. Throughout the video, “Imagine” played over archival footage of the doting couple (raising the uncomfortable suggestion that Ms. Ono’s work couldn’t stand on its own without invoking the music and likeness of the great rock star), suffusing the whole endeavor in a nostalgic and completely backwards-looking sentimentality. Here she was in Iceland, 2006, flashing her coded “I love you” into the sky, hoping that the man who wrote “Imagine there’s no heaven” will hear and smile down on us.

(And let me say for the record that I wouldn’t mind if I never hear that stupid song again. Give me “Glass Onion” any day.)

It’s clearly a very lopsided kind of love that Ms. Ono is promulgating. Nothing about the show suggested equality between lovers; instead the very architecture of the show enforced power relationships, as when Ms. Ono delivered her opening speech from a pedestal high above the crowd, or when the selective bouncers in the third floor lounge limited entry to her performance to VIP’s only. But most egregious was the 1-2-3 encoding that was also the crux of the show. Instead of promoting free love for all, Ms. Ono was saying that we could only love her on her own terms by adopting her goofy and arbitrary code, and she even had the audacity, as an artist in a position of privilege and power, to suggest that we should use this same meaningless code to express our love to each other, as if the love of others required her mediation in any way.

In any event, the message of love was clearly lost on the crowd gathered at the entrance, where the scene was less like a 60’s love-in and more like the frenzied mob scene that erupted when Comme des Garçons launched their fashion line at H&M a week or so prior. There were flashes of anger, name-calling, and pushing as the guards attempted to regulate the flow of people into the gallery. And when she made her hurried exit later on, a crowd pressed upon her all the way from the elevator to the waiting car outside.

(And let me pause to ask at this juncture, What is up with you fickle people? Prior to her arrival in Shanghai, I didn’t know a single person who would voluntarily go on the record, as I did above, as a Yoko Ono fan. I, for one, think the Beatles ruined Yoko as much as the opposite may have been true. But in general conversation, if her name comes up, it’s usually with a mocking grin and a rolled eye; she’s blamed for the Beatles’s demise, decried as the queen of caterwaulers, and made to embody the disconnected capriciousness of “avant-garde art.” Yet on the night of her opening, the place was thronged with people. I can only attribute this to Shanghai’s insatiable obsession with celebrity in all its guises.)

And once the antsy crowd was inside, what spectacle greeted them? A sparse and cursory retrospective show. Photographs of women’s breasts with the caption “My Mommy Is Beautiful.” A wall on which people could write about how much they love their mommies. A tree on which people could hang their wishes. Selected works from Grapefruits enshrined in frames on the wall (which strikes me as somewhat contrary to the spirit in which they were meant to be experienced, but maybe that’s just me). As for her performance, I didn’t make it into the third floor VIP area to see it for myself, but Jutta did, and what she demonstrated to me later was a kind of half-hearted Chicken Dance.

Just inside the door was a new instruction piece entitled “Mend Piece for Shanghai,” which looked disappointingly as though it could have been torn right from the pages of Grapefruits. I really can’t be bothered to go back to the gallery to copy it down verbatim, but it was something along the lines of

Mend piece for Shanghai
Mend.
While mending, think of all the people in the world.
Think of how much you love them.
Mend the world.

Or some such fluff.

And the fact that this piece sounds fresh plucked from Grapefruits illustrates the biggest problem with Yoko Ono’s work. There’s none of the depth or maturity that you would expect from a renowned 60-year-old artist. It seems she’s been living in a bubble since the 60’s. Since her catapult to celebrity, her youthful efforts have been alternately enshrined and reviled, and she never grew beyond them. As often happens with celebrities, the very fact of fame costs them the frisson of interaction with peers that can hone great ideas, for who dares to argue with an established star? But the price is great, for it is this contact with people (as equals), the experience of the quotidian, where real love (I’m tempted to add, “the John Lennon kind,” in reference to that song from the Beatles Anthology, but that would probably come off as a bit hokey) truly springs.

Diary of a Madman

Last weekend I attended Lu Xun 2008 鲁迅二零零八 at the new, still under construction home of DDM Warehouse. They have moved from Dong Da Ming Lu, now nestling in at that sculpture park complex on the west end of Huai Hai Lu, whatever it’s called. This traveling theatrical performance commemorates the 90 year anniversary of the publication of Lu Xun’s short story A Madman’s Diary 狂人日记, in which the narrator becomes convinced that he is surrounded by cannibals. The production was a joint venture between Shanghai’s Grass Stage Theater Group 草台班, led by Zhao Chuan 赵川, and companies from Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo.

At first I was irritated at arriving about half an hour late, but as the performance continued, I started not to mind so much, as the piece was very loose and very long. For something that moved so slowly, I would have expected a higher degree of polish, perhaps nudging the action in the direction of ritual or choreography. In the absence of this, the piece would have benefited from greater density; nothing seemed to need to take as long as it did, and the transitions weren’t very tight. There were some recurring elements (laughter, a single character walking back and forth along one wall), and some fun ways of playing with the space (banging metal on concrete in the dark behind the audience, actors wandering about and speaking different languages), but the overall structure didn’t seem to hold these ideas together very successfully. The full dorsal male nudity and fire breathing felt completely gratuitous. But as I’m unfamiliar with the original Lu Xun work, it’s possible that some of the subtleties of the performance were lost on me.

I also caught Torturing Nurse’s gig the week prior, quite an usual set for them. At this, their 20th NOIShanghai concert, sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻 (who was down from Beijing to play with me and Bruce Gremo in a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play, part of the Shanghai eArts Festival 2008 in Xujiahui Park) decided he was going to turn the tables by torturing Torturing Nurse (in his pajamas). Xu Cheng 徐程 was tied up in a bag with a microphone, Junky was tied to a table in a raincoat with a contact mic taped to his throat, and Jia Die 蛱蝶 was taped up to a microphone and chair. (And that’s all she was wearing; as an unintended encore, we got to hear her improvised offstage vocalizations as the tape was removed from her more sensitive regions.)

It was a fun set and a departure from their usual routine, but since Yan Jun led each member onstage to get gamely tied up in full view of the audience, any illusion that we were hearing the sounds of an actual struggle was punctured, robbing the piece of some potential punch, and the sound generated didn’t really live up to the spectacle’s promise.

Also on the bill were Justice Yeldham, the Australian whose instrument is a contact miced shard of glass, Japanese artist Noiseconcrete, and the live debut of Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of Beijing’s venerable Sugar Jar shop, the best place in China to pick up underground or experimental music. Check out Gregory Perez’s pics (he’s also got some great ones from the Halloween show at Yu Yin Tang)!

After taking in these shows, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about “experimental” art. I’m all for experimental art; in fact, I tend to think it’s the most interesting kind. But I always keep in mind something Richard Karpen said when I was studying with him, which is that you must consider the scope of the experiment you’re undertaking. Is it an experiment whose results might impact a broader section of the populace, or is it more of a junior high science experiment, which is done primarily for your own education and development? (He could be harsh.) Labeling a work “experimental” in no way absolves it of the need for logic and cohesion of some kind. Personally, I know I tend to sometimes be more lenient in evaluating experimental work, just because I’m happy to see this kind of inquiry going on, but ultimately experimental work requires the thoughtful criticism of artists and audiences to develop and grow, to help gauge the success of these experiments.

This leads to another issue. A lesson I learned from my pal Korby Sears back in Seattle, to which I return again and again, is the idea of sympathy; from an artist’s perspective, you’ve got to give people a reason to want to take the time to engage your artwork. Of course audiences should ideally be open-minded and receptive enough to meet you halfway, but you’ve also got to convince them it’s going to be worth their while and help them fill in the gaps to understand the context of your work. The people behind both of these performances, Junky of NOIShanghai and Zhao Chuan of Grass Stage, are doing exactly that, working to foster a scene in which new pieces and new ideas can be tried out, providing a regular forum in which people can experience new works, and that’s great to see. Putting these two ideas together, experimental exploration with sympathetic attention and criticism, would seem to be a template for a healthy scene.

BTW, Yan Jun and Torturting Nurse were just profiled in Time Magazine, along with Sulumi, B6 (whose new album comes out on the 15th, looking forward to it!), and Shenggy. Check it out!